50 Years Ago In 1972, Frank Zappa Released Three Brilliant Albums

Frank Zappa 1972 Albums

Feature Photo: Fotopersbureau De Boer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fifty years ago Zappa fans were treated to three releases from the maestro. The first one in March of 1972, Just Another Band From L.A., followed by Waka Jawaka-Hot Rats in July and The Grand Wazoo in November. While Just Another Band From L.A. was a completely live recording featuring the vocal pyrotechnics of Flo & Eddie, the other two albums contained Zappa’s foray into the world of big band music.

Just Another Band From L.A. was recorded just before Frank Zappa was sent plummeting 15 feet down onto the concrete floor off the stage at the Rainbow Theatre in London in 1971. Consequently, Frank Zappa spent the rest of the year in a hospital bed and in a wheelchair. Unable to tour, he edited together Just Another Band From L.A. ( a follow-up to the Live at The Fillmore, June 1971 record) and it featured a mini rock musical called “Billy The Mountain.” 

Filling up an entire album side, this twenty four minute work about an imaginary famous mountain who receives his draft papers and refuses to go is pretty hilarious. If you lived in L.A. you would immediately pick up on all the town and business references.  Living on Long Island and fourteen years old at the time, I had no idea what these “Mothers” were talking about but I got the gist of the libretto.

The music here is mostly based on top of a repeating twelve-beat ostinato pattern interspersed with various snippets of themes and famous artists’ names recognized in the pop culture at the time, i.e The Johnny Carson Theme, Crosby Stills Nash And Young’s “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” “Godless America,” Neil Sedaka, Joni Mitchell, Zubin Mehta, Howard Johnsons etc… The highlight for me is the very melodic section dealing with Studebaker Hoch, a superhero who tries to convince Billy The Mountain to give himself up to the arm services. Studebaker is unsuccessful in his attempt and ends up falling into the “rubble below” ultimately needing a human truss (very prophetic when you think about what happens to Frank Zappa a few months after this recording).  The moral of the musical:  A mountain is something you don’t want to mess with!  Thus, ends side one.  

Side two gives us a bloated but fun, rocked-out version of the old Mothers Of Invention song “Call Any Vegetable.” It’s in this piece where Frank Zappa confidently tells the audience that if you don’t think it’s f**king great to be alive, then you should not be at this concert.  It’s a very life-affirming moment and his voice is energetic and young sounding. Unfortunately, after the aforementioned accident, his voice dropped about a third in pitch and stayed that way through the rest of his recording career. Not such a bad thing but nonetheless…  

“Vegetables” segues into the bouncy “Eddie Are You Kidding?”, a bluesy, 50’s rock song based around a commercial for a men’s clothing store! The song is fairly commercial probably due to the fact that Frank Zappa wrote it with “popsters” Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, and John Seiter.  The Mothers have fun with this concept and it becomes a vehicle for many laughs on future Flo & Eddie tours. They actually release their own version of it on their 1974 album Illegal, Immoral and Fattening. 

Next comes the album’s most controversial track, “Magdalena”. A song co-written by Howard Kaylan and Frank Zappa. The lyrics are about a father who is sexually attracted to his daughter Magdalena and forces himself on her. This is the kind of topic that would not fly in today’s politically correct climate but back in the 70’s “sexual revolution” no one batted an eye. Though the song is sure to offend, it’s musical merits are worthy of a listen. The song shifts from fast polka sections to swinging rock sections effortlessly with an arching melody. 

The band is tight and Howard Kaylan, if nothing else gives us a spontaneous, spirited, maniacal vocal performance. At the heightened craziness of this piece, it immediately segues into a delightful rocking version of the Frank Zappa classic from the Uncle Meat record: “Dog Breath.” Flo & Eddie sing it with exuberance and it is highlighted by one of Zappa’s best guitar solos up to this time in his catalog. Though the album did not garner many great reviews it is nonetheless a very entertaining one and not to be missed if you’re filling out your Zappa collection. 

A few months later a “big change” in Frank Zappa’s music occurs – musically and sonically. I suspect having been bedridden for a while after a jealous boyfriend of a fan pushed him off stage, Frank Zappa had some time to reassess the music he had been doing over the last eight years and figure out what the next logical step in his “project-object” conceptual continuity was going to be. Well, the results were quite spectacular and pick up where the 1970’s release Hot Rats left off.

Thus, we have the album Waka Jawaka-Hot Rats, a mostly jazzy offering with two brilliantly bizarre songs thrown in the mix.  Side one kicks off with the now classic “Big Swifty”.  A seventeen minute composition that begins with a very memorable but complex theme and veers off into a cool, spacey, improvisational section featuring George Duke on keyboards, Ansley Dunbar on drums, and Frank Zappa on guitar. The latter part of the composition is an augmentation/variation of the intro. It closes out side one with some guitar burping leaving us to wonder what side two has in store.

Quite unexpectedly we are treated to a semi comedic track called “Your Mouth.”  Though clearly based in the blues it features Zappa’s odd rhythmic touches throughout. The lyrics parody a typical situation where a woman has been cheating on her man and he’s not going to stand for it. The bizarre vocals by trumpeter Sal Marquez and Kris Peterson are intriguing and lend to the quirkiness of the song. Macy Gray of all people actually did a faithful cover of this number on a 2010 release called The Frank Zappa AAAFNRAAAA Birthday Bundle. Clearly one of the more accessible numbers in Frank Zappa’s catalog. 

The next track is unlike any Frank Zappa song before or after. It’s called “One Shot Deal” and it starts off with a slinky kind of cowboy feel with sexy vocals by 200 Motels groupie, Janet Ferguson. She is soon accompanied by Sal Marquez as he sings the esoteric lyrics in a faux Scottish accent.  Then a straight ahead, legitimate country and western section follows featuring a tasty slide guitar solo by Sneaky Pete Kleinow (composer of the 1967 theme for Gumby).

This section is then juxtaposed into a typical Frank Zappa odd-time signature change with electric bedsprings dressing up the orchestration. It’s one of Zappa’s oddest mash ups. The song ends with a little obscure Zappa dialog quickly edited into the majestic title track “Waka /Jawaka”, a big band preview of what would be released that following November. This composition is packed with many melodic twists and turns and is excellently performed by an array of trumpets overdubbed by Sal Marquez. Legend has it that Zappa would play his ideas on guitar and Marquez would transpose them for trumpet – quite the challenge. One wonders if this is Zappa’s take on Miles Davis, who had released in 1970, the ground breaking Bitches Brew.

Since Frank Zappa drew from everybody, who knows? At any rate, the amazing Don Preston (one of my favorite keyboardists of all time) improvises a melodically, quirky Moog solo that perfectly blends into a twisted Frank Zappa guitar solo that is at times doubled by trumpet. The two instruments climax at one point and we are relieved by a wonderfully polyrhythmic drum solo by Ansley Dunbar. Out of the drum solo, trumpets and saxes reiterate the intro melody over a very pronounced processional that gallops us off into the sunset with chimes coloring the brassy orchestration. The work fades out (not a typical Zappa trait found in his recordings) and ends side two. What follows next is a Zappa masterwork: The Grand Wazoo.  

The Grand Wazoo takes over where “Big Swifty” and “Waka Jawaka” left off. More big band music but this time with a bigger band called the “Petit Wazoo.” Featured here are trombones, trumpets, saxes, bassoon, clarinet, sarrusophone, keyboards, percussion, rhythm and lead guitar played by a host of well known L.A. studio musicians. The album opens up with “For Calvin And His Two Hitchhikers”, a complex big band piece that starts off with sexy female vocals akin to “One Shot Deal” again sung by Janet-Neville Ferguson and later joined again by Sal Marquez. After this minute and forty opening vocal sections accompanied by electric guitar and horns, the composition begins to open up over a slow shuffle vamp.

Various percussion busily tick away in the orchestration as low trombone and woodwinds exchange fragmented melodies (a major musical quote from Zappa’s masterpiece cartoon extravaganza Greggery Peccary can be heard here for the first time). Don Preston plays a wildly elastic Moog solo that entices the players to eventually build into a cacophony frenzy and coalesce into a more structured clearly written out section that closes the composition.  

“The Grand Wazoo” is up next. This is a thirteen minute composition with through composed sections that sound like something Neil Hefty would write (composer of the The Odd Couple Theme) but of course, teaming with Zappa’s unique sense of humor and polymetric rhythms. The basic shuffle vamp is over a minor 9 chord played by rhythm guitarist Tony Duran and there is a lot of memorable soloing in between these scored sections. Trombone and trumpet exchange conversations and the whole ensemble weave in and out building to a climax as the basic theme is eventually recapitulated. Don Preston performs a quick moog solo during the last two minutes and the scored outro ends with much of the band playing a definitive, staccato unison figure.

Though this and the previous work at first may seem too dense and chaotic for the casual listener, the payoff after a few spins can really be musically rewarding. There is logic and structure to these compositions and they will take you on a journey that expands your musical pallet. That is not a bad thing in my book.

Side two begins with the most popular track (at least as FM radio goes back then), “Cleetus Awreetus Awrightus.”  This is a jovial, tight three-minute work with an easily recognizable structure à la Frank Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia” very accessible and melodic. It features George Duke blues-ing it up on tack piano and the late great Ernie Watts squeezing out a humorous be-bop-ish C melody saxophone solo. The instrumental ends with Zappa, Duke and female vocalist Lauren Wood (Chunky) singing the main melody with gusto as a conductor might have done while teaching his band a new piece. As serious as these proceedings are, Frank Zappa is always there to deflate them and remind the listener that humor does indeed belong in music.

The next composition “Eat That Question” starts off with George Duke playing a semi-improvised whole tone phrase on electric piano. He expands on it for a while and then jumps into the basic vamp the song is built on. The rhythm section picks up on the vamp and a more frantic piano solo evolves leading to Zappa jamming on electric guitar in his own verbal inflected style. The improvisation between the two players is reminiscent of the piece previously mentioned – “Big Swifty.” The composition ends with the entire big band playing the repetitive motif in unison. In essence, it is a march that builds up in volume and slowly fades out like “Waka Jawaka.”  

After all the energetic craziness that has preceded, the album closes with one of Zappa’s jazziest, laid-back pieces he’s ever composed. The peaceful “Blessed Relief.” This relaxing waltz (smooth jazz before smooth jazz was a thing) features in it’s opening a lilting melody played on trumpet by Sal Marquez. Marquez eventually takes a solo followed by tasty, chordal keyboard work from George Duke and then we are treated to an atypical acoustic guitar solo by Zappa. FZ’s playing here is fluid, playful and tender; not his usual aggressive style. The main melody is brought back discreetly after the soloing but this time with trumpet and woodwinds (flute). The musical fabric is delicate and fizzles out like fireflies moving away in the distance. It’s all very beautiful and void of any of Zappa’s satire. Just a straight-ahead lovely composition that has now become a Fake Book standard.

I suspect Frank Zappa working alongside his new engineer at the time, Kerry McNabb is what makes these two albums sound clearly different than anything Zappa produced previously with or without the Mothers of Invention. They are refined/polished recordings with a mixed placement that is well-defined on the soundstage. Duly, Zappa’s avant-garde edge still stays intact. Unfortunately, he would never venture back into this style of music again (with a few exceptions) much less make an album’s worth. But he proved that if he put his mind to it he could be comfortable producing in the big band genre and make it his own even if he was in a wheelchair for most of the sessions.  

Note: All three discs mentioned here feature some intricate, humorous album artwork by Cal Schenkel who created many of Zappa’s legendary album covers in the 70s. He was the perfect match for Zappa’s twisted, visual music. Conceptual continuity abounds.

John Tabacco

www.johntabacco.bandcamp.com

www.johntabacco.net

50 Years Ago In 1972, Frank Zappa Released Three Brilliant Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022

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