Due to the different styles of Frank Zappa Albums, it will probably be easier for the average listener to get into his work with albums that contain a high percentage of pop / rock songs with a recognizable form i.e. verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, outro etc… At least this is what I’ve found when introducing a newbie to Zappa. Since he left us with quite a vast musical puzzle I can guarantee that if you become a fan, you’ll be occupied for many years piecing it altogether. FZ was a master editor and musical synthesist that defied classification. He’d say it was all just entertainment. Part of his “Project/Object” and nothing else. Again, this is not a review or a ratings of what I think are Frank Zappa’s best to worst albums. In fact, many of his more inaccessible works are loaded with treasures for the experienced listener.
For the most part Zappa’s sharp, satirical, sophomoric, observational, bizarre lyrics will probably be the clincher as to whether you want to listen or not. Musically there are plenty of wonderful compositions to marvel over. So here goes.
My accessible rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (based on years of experience trying to recruit listeners) is as follows:
1= Proceed with caution. Listen with an open mind.
10 = A great place to start lyrically and musically for the average listener.
Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar / Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar Some More /
The Return of The Son of Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar
Frank Zappa had an idiosyncratic style when it came to playing electric guitar. You can usually tell it’s him soloing just by the fierce tone of his axe and the type of odd, “fly-pecked” irrational rhythms he plays, usually over a two chord vamp. He’s constantly going out on a limb, executing many grumbly low notes, arching melodic intervals and unexpected, altered modal scales.
He was also a master at using feedback and an early looping pioneer. He considered himself first a composer who’s instrument of choice was the guitar. Many of his records contain excellent solos from various players and himself but this collection just features guitar solos (“air sculptures” as he would call them) interspersed with off the wall dialog mainly from band members Terry Bozzio and Patrick O’Hearn. (Drummers take note: otherworldly performances by Vinnie Colaiuta throughout.)
(Editors Note: The Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar releases were also double and triple album original issues containing a massive amount of improvisational outings featuring Zappa’s guitar mastery backed by his many bands from the 1979 – 1984)
Lumpy Gravy /Jazz From Hell/ 200 Motels /
Boulez Conducts “The Perfect Stranger” /
Civilization Phase III / Yellow Shark
Lumpy Gravy, released in 1967, is an early Zappa orchestral ballet stitched together with philosophical dialog recorded from inside a grand piano. The basic musical theme of this curious ballet raises its melodic head up in latter Zappa works, such as 1970s “Oh No.” The album foreshadows his final recording, Civilization Phase III, released in 1993. It’s a massive two-hour work whose themes are about the pathetic mess we call Western society as observed by a small group of bizarre malcontents that live inside a giant piano. The dense compositions that surround the dialog were realized and executed on the Synclavier (an early, extremely expensive computer-based sequencer/sampler keyboard). This is music you need to sit down and concentrate on. There are no mainstream songs here with lyrics.
200 Motels, released in 1971, is the mostly orchestral score to Zappa’s bizarre “life on the road movie” featuring Flo & Eddie on vocals (contains some sexually explicit language). The album features some sexy pre-heavy metal songs, a twisted cowboy rhapsody, some commercial r&b and twentieth century classical music akin to what one might hear in a 1950’s Sci-Fi movie. A re-working of some of the main musical themes explored on this disc show up more refined and condensed on the Orchestral Favorites album. Most notably in the brilliant thirteen minute work, “Bogus Pomp”.
Jazz From Hell was Frank Zappa’s first Grammy winning record, released in 1986. It is entirely made up of music composed on the Synclavier with one live guitar instrumental thrown in. Some of the complex pieces here i.e. “G-Spot Tornado” and “Night School” have been transcribed and performed by orchestras in tandem with dance around the world. There are no lyrics to make you think here, but it’s a work that you might not want to clean the dishes to. But then on the other hand…
The Perfect Stranger, (the title track of this album) was commissioned and conducted with precision by the recently deceased French composer Pierre Boulez. This collection contains thickly crocheted twentieth century music throughout. It is not as tonal or melodically driven as the music found on Orchestral Favorites, though a re-working of Zappa’s jazz piece “Dupree’s Paradise” has some accessible moments the uninitiated will be able recognize. A few early Synclavier pieces (minimally orchestrated) are scattered throughout. No lyrics.
The Yellow Shark, released a month before his death in November of 1993, was FZ’s last orchestral outing. The music, expertly performed by the Ensemble Moderne, features a few early Zappa classics reimagined for orchestra i.e. Dog Breath Variations, Uncle Meat, Pound For A Brown etc… and premiere recordings of string quintets, piano duets, concertos, improvisation etc… If you are open-minded enough, the compositions will challenge and stretch your musical tastes. The enthusiastic response from the live audience is contagious. Jazz From Hell, Civilization Phase III, The Perfect Stranger and The Yellow Shark are all exceptional audiophile recordings of Frank Zappa Albums.
Thing-Fish / Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention
Zappa’s outrageous, sexually explicit Broadway musical is a brutal parody of this musical genre. Hilarious but sure to offend those with conservative moral dogma, or alternative sexual orientation. Vocalist Ike Willis plays the main role of Thing-Fish, a mutated criminal with a head like a potato, lips like a duck, wearing “mammy nun clothing”. An off-the-wall description of the musical is told by Zappa himself on the David Letterman show in 1983.(see below) Much of the music is drawn from previously released material with new drums and vocals added to existing tracks along with highly altered lyrics. Serious conceptual continuity abounds. There have been actual performances of this musical in the U.K. but I doubt it will ever see the light of day on Broadway fascinating as it is.
Then again if the Book Of Mormon was staged back then in 1985 I doubt that would have had any legs, so who knows? Zappa was always ahead of his time. The Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention album was released in November of 1985 and sports the sarcastic montage “Porn Wars” featuring dialog from Al Gore and various senators debating censorship labeling on records. A callous song about dead rock stars and one about cookie cutter jingle musicians round out the album along with three early synclavier instrumentals and two stellar progressive rock instrumentals.
Zappa’s first musical love: Twentieth-century classical composition. Tight musicianship, clear forms with a dose of musical humor thrown in. No lyrics to ruffle your feathers. There is even some mean electric guitar soloing over the Royce Hall orchestra as they tear through “Duke Of Orchestral Prunes”. Absolutely brilliant compositions here. This thirty five minute collection, recorded in 1975 – released in 1979, was followed up seven years later by two well recorded orchestral Frank Zappa albums performed by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Vol. I & II). Both albums feature some mega structure Zappa compositions most notably, “Mo and Herb’s Vacation” but which in Zappa’s opinion, lacked the proper rehearsal time necessary to pull off this complex music. I tend to agree. Worth checking out for Zappa completist.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich/Uncle Meat/ Weasel’s Ripped My Flesh / Ahead of Their Time
The best of what the original Mothers Of Invention had to offer FZ in terms of improvisation. A reasonable amount of catchy, humorous, rock-blues / avant-garde jazz numbers throughout, many of which became standards in Zappa’s live repertoire. The Uncle Meat album was issued in 1969 features a few quirky songs, jazzy improvisation over the classic Zappa work “King Kong” along side concise baroque-sounding pieces orchestrated with harpsichord, mallet instruments, sped up woodwinds and acoustic guitar. Burnt Weeny Sandwich, released in 1970 continues in the same vein as Uncle Meat but with longer improvisations over classic Zappa themes. Weasel’s Ripped My Flesh is a compilation of mostly live performances from 1968-69. It was released in 1970 after Zappa disbanded the Mothers Of Invention. Included is the studio version of the almost mainstream rocker “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama”. Ahead of their Time, recorded in 1968 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, England, is a live concert of the Mothers Of Invention, featuring members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was officially released on CD in 1993.
Them Or Us
A mixed bag of complex live instrumentals with mainstream, comedic rock songs about oral sex, France, MTV formula videos, dead consumer goods and frogs with dirty little lips. The Them or Us album was issued in 1984 and contains an energetic re-working of the Allman Brothers “Whipping Post.” Once again Zappa’s editing skills come to the forefront here and the pace is always moving and unexpected. The mix on this album is very clear and precise but lacks the warmth found on tracks from the 60’s and 70’s. This is probably due to the fact that digital recording was still in it’s infancy at the time.
Chunga’s Revenge / Fillmore East – June 1971 /
Just Another Band From L.A. / Playground Psychotics
Zappa’s vaudeville band Flo and Eddie add their elastic vocals to Zappa’s wide-ranging melodies and tease us with groupie observational humor. Esoteric at this point but funny as hell. Chunga’s Revenge (mostly a studio album of comedic rock songs, released on October 23, 1970 is a preview of 200 Motels. There are also two classic instrumentals to be found here; the guitar-driven title track and the beautiful waltz “Twenty Small Cigars”. The live recordings: Fillmore East – June 1971, appropriately released in 1971 tells the rock and roll tale of the “Mudshark” at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle Washington and Just Another Band From L.A. issued on March 26th 1972 features the hilarious twenty-minute mini rock opera “Billy The Mountain”. The zenith of this version of the Mothers can be found on Playground Psychotics. This CD features live performances from the early 70’s edited between “on the road” conversations recorded on a hand held tape recorder by Zappa. It was compiled and released in 1992.
Hot Rats / The Grand Wazoo / Waka Jawaka
Zappa’s take on early jazz/rock fusion and big band ensemble writing is presented here in clear forms, with melodic/chaotic phrases, performed by some of L.A.’s finest studio cats. The album Hot Rats, released on October 10th, 1969, is his biggest seller in the U.K. It features what many feels is his most commercial instrumental recording, “Peaches En Regalia”, a work that would later earn his son Dweezil and his band a Grammy in 2007. The Waka Jawaka album not only features fusiony, big band material but also contains the one-off bizarre countrified song “It Just Might Be A One Shot Deal. It was issued in July of 1972. The excellent Grand Wazoo, a big band continuation of “Waka” was preceded three months later in November. Both critically acclaimed albums were conceived while Zappa was recovering from his near-fatal stage accident in the U.K in 1971.
Studio Tan / Sleep Dirt (non vocal version)
The Studio Tan album was issued on September 15th, 1978, though mostly recorded in 1975. It features two jazz/rock instrumental pieces and showcases the legendary keyboard player George Duke. Also included, is the twisted cartoon musical “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary”, considered by Zappa as his masterpiece. It is a twenty-minute work about a peccary who invents the calendar and is eventually sold a bogus bill of advice from a philosopher. It’s a musical roller coaster ride of epic proportions. Conceptual continuity abounds. Zappa’s genius for fusing twentieth-century classical, jazz, rock, pop, musique concrete and montage is at it’s apex here.
It’s companion record, Sleep Dirt features a number of tracks from his unfinished Sci-Fi musical “Hunchentoot”. Two versions of this album were released. The first one is completely instrumental and the second has Thana Harris taking on the duties of soprano. Though Thana sings the material like a pro, in my opinion the music stands on it’s own. The vocals detract from the beauty of the compositions. The latest 2012 re-master contains no vocals. The title track of “Sleep Dirt” is a rare instrumental that finds Zappa soloing in an acoustic setting. Intimate and chilling. FZ covers a myriad of musical styles here and this is a good thing. Never boring. Sleep Dirt was released on January 19, 1979 but recorded circa 1974-1976.
The Mothers of Invention: Freak Out
The first debut double album was released on June 27, 1966. Zappa’s musical foundation is presented here: 50’s doo-wop, avant garde, parody rock / pop, social commentary, blues, and improvisation. A record for music historians. It’s of a certain time and place, although some of the songs like “More Trouble Coming Everyday”, “Hungry Freaks Daddy” and “Who Are The Brain Police”, contain lyrics that are still applicable today. Groovy, uncomplicated and very 60’s. However, the longest work on the disc, “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”, is an improvisational piece that is not for the casual listener.
Cruising with Ruben & the Jets / Greasy Love Songs
Zappa’s homage to his 50’s roots. Fairly commercial writing but in a lovingly demented “doo-wop” way. The album was released on December 2, 1968. The album title and the labeling of the artist as Reuben and the Jets confused some radio DJ’s that were unfamiliar with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. Some thought the record was an actual album by a band named Reuben and the Jets. Consequently the album actually got U.S airplay. In the late 80’s due to the poor condition of the master tapes FZ had drummer Chad Wackerman and bassist Arthur Barrow re-cut the rhythm tracks on most of the songs. The results while interesting and up to date sounding, seemed a bit disconcerting and took away from the charm found on the original disc. Fortunately, in 2010 the Zappa Family Trust found an excellent version of the album in it’s original form and released that under the title “Greasy Love Songs’. That is the version I recommend purchasing.
Absolutely Free / We’re Only in it for the Money
Absolutely Free was the second Mother of Invention album released after the iconic 1996 Freak Out album. Absolutely Free was released on May 26, 1967. Looking back at the Frank Zappa albums catalog, one can see that it was on Absolutely Free in which the Frank Zappa cynicism really started to take shape. One must absolutely check out, “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” It’s his first montage masterpiece with the early Mothers of Invention who had a unique, sleazy flavor all their own. Ray Collins, who was one of the original Mothers of Inventions has been quoted as saying that Absolutely Free was his favorite Mothers of Invention album. Some of the greatest rock and jazz musicians of all time have collaborated and performed in Frank Zappa’s bands. The album Absolutely Free also featured the legendary jazz trumpet player Don Ellis.
We’re Only In It For The Money, released March 4, 1968 considered by “serious music critics” as Zappa’s finest hour contains many short, scathing, catchy tunes blending into one another with humorous swipes about the superficiality of flower power, and the increasing control Madison Avenue has over our politics and daily social life. The album covered parodied the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles album was viewed as an International treasure of unprecedented artistic glory and one of the greatest rock albums ever made. But it made no difference to Frank Zappa. The man had balls. With Zappa nothing was sacred!
Roxy & Elsewhere / Bongo Fury / Zappa in New York/ Baby Snakes / Tinseltown Rebellion
Live recordings featuring some of Zappa’s most inventive instrumental work alongside humorous rock songs with an earthy blues avatar over it. Standouts: Roxy’s “Cheepnis” about monster movies. “Village of the Sun” a sentimental number with some Steely Dan flavorings. The mostly live Bongo Fury, released in October 1975, houses the hooky, rocking “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy” (an FM staple in the 70’s) and two off the wall Captain Beefheart poems set to music.
Zappa In New York, recorded live in 1976 at NY’s Palladium, boasts the classic Zappa tale of the devil, “Titties And Beer”and “The Black Page”, a rhythmically complex yet melodic percussion piece (now a standard in classical repertoire) featuring the gifted Ruth Underwood on tuned percussion. Also, some excellent soloing from the Brecker Brothers on “The Purple Lagoon”.
Baby Snakes features the definitive version of “Punky’s Whips” the lyrics of which were intended as an inside joke regarding drummer Terry Bozzio’s purported infatuation with Punky Meadows, lead guitarist of the band Angel and some high powered versions of Zappa classics like “Dinah Moe Hum”.
Tinseltown Rebellion, released in 1980, features high octane versions of some older songs from the Freak Out period as well as newer pieces like the sarcastic “The Blue Light” and the title track. These particular pieces feature FZ executing his version of the early 20th century musical technique, sprechstimme. It’s a vocal style that combines elements of song and speech. Like a conventional vocal melody, sprechstimme uses musical notation that indicates rhythm and pitch. But instead of singing the pitches, the performer recites them.
Editors note: Tinseltown Rebellion was originally called Crush All Boxes. If you look closely at Cal Shenkel’s detailed cover art, you can read that title under the black magic marker. For reasons I do not know, Crush All Boxes was never officially released. It contained eight songs from the You Are What You Is album and two pieces from the aforementioned Tinseltown Rebellion. An excellent acetate (test pressing) is available on youtube and I highly recommend searching it out. The mixes are different, fatter and less compressed than what appears on both these albums and it’s a more concise outing. If released officially it would have ranked as one of Zappa’s most accessible works. (9.7)
Does Humor Belong in Music? / The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life / Make a Jazz Noise Here
Energetic recordings made in 1984 (Does Humor Belong In Music?) and 1988 (The Best Band You Never Heard and Make A Jazz Noise Here). All three Frank Zappa Albums contain a mix of Zappa song standards done up at breakneck pace, and some instrumentals with virtuoso ensemble improvisation. He also throws in some interesting covers: a reggae /rock version of Ravel’s “Bolero”, a very Zappaesque version of “Stairway to Heaven” with the horn section coping the actual guitar solo, and a “Purple Haze / Sunshine of Your Love” mash up to name a few. Lyrically he throws in some humorous swipes at democrats and republicans as well as the cookie cutter music business.
You Are What You Is / Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch / The Man From Utopia / Broadway the Hard Way
80’s social, religious and political commentary spewed over fairly commercial, catchy, rhapsodic, quirky songs. Perhaps this is why Zappa chose to perform most of You Are What You Is, live on MTV. It was their first televised live concert to air, on Halloween no less. Observations on Frank Zappa Albums are sadly just as relevant today as back then. Only the names have changed. You Are What You Is also covers a lot of musical ground. 80’s Jefferson Starship pop, R&B funk, a straight ahead country love song, progressive rock, rap, gospel, Christian rock and blues. Honestly, if Frank Zappa stayed away from the observational lyrics and just plopped down some typical pop prose this album would have been a big crossover hit. As it were, the title track had a video which depicted Ronald Reagan being sentenced to an electric chair and the song “Dumb All Over” questions Christian religious doctrine in a way that is too brutal for most God fearing listeners.
Amazingly, he would reach a much wider audience with his next release, 1982’s Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch. This Frank Zappa album contained “Valley Girl” his biggest radio hit in American. He apologized for that. But it did ignite his daughter, Moon Unit’s acting career and spiked interest in his music from a younger audience. The song’s famous line “Gag me with a spoon,” was a reference to Zappa’s daughters friends in high school. The line became symbolic of Californian teen culture in the early 1980’s. The albums cover art was designed by Roger Price. It was in the artistic style of a Droodle, which Price described as a drawing that made no sense until you were informed of the name of the drawing.
The Man From Utopia released in 1983 is a hodgepodge, like “Witch” of different mainstream styles, with a few sprechstimme pieces thrown in. There are a couple of fine progressive jazz/rock instrumentals to be found here and a young Steve Vai plays “stunt guitar”throughout. This was the second of many Frank Zappa albums to feature Steve Vai on guitar who was credited as performing “impossible guitar parts” The album cover featured a drawing of Frank Zappa trying to kill mosquitoes which was in reference to a 1982 outdoor concert in Italy in which the band was attacked on stage by swarms of mosquitoes.
Broadway The Hard Way, released in 1988, was strictly a live Frank Zappa Album performed in the USA and Europe. This was Zappa’s last and biggest band featuring a five piece horn section along with the synclavier. They put on one hell of show (segued like a Broadway event). The lyrics, mostly well deserved swipes at Madison Avenue, specific corrupt politicians and TV evangelists, are of course dated. However, they are wrapped around some of Zappa’s most memorable, accessible songwriting. Police front man, Sting makes a guest appearance singing “Murder By Numbers”.
Zoot Allures / Sheik Yerbouti / Joe’s Garage
Biting mid to late 70’s satirical, social observations, sexual commentary with funky, catchy, mainstream melodies. Many of the performances were recorded live with many studio overdubs. Xenochrony abounds. This is a process developed and coined by FZ. Xenochrony is executed by extracting a guitar solo or other musical part from its original context and placing it into a completely different song, in order to create an unexpected but hopefully pleasing effect. Zoot Allures, released on October 20, 1976 with it’s stripped down production (mostly guitar, bass and drums) contains his first disco parody, the catchy “Disco Boy” as well as the sadistic Halloween classic “The Torture Never Stops”. The title track hosts one of Frank Zappa Albums most beautiful guitar instrumentals boasting his mastery of feedback to build luscious tonal structures. It’s an oddly, alluring and intimate record.
Sheik Yerbouti – Released March 3 1979 is Zappa’s biggest seller. FZ’s inventive editing skills move the album along at breakneck pace. Many classic, commercial orientated Zappa tunes like “Dancin’ Fool”, “Baby Snakes” and “Jewish Princess” are featured here. One such piece, “Bobby Brown Goes Down” is a somewhat 50’s sounding commercial ditty with lyrics that would never be played on terrestrial radio here in the states. However, in Norway and Sweden, the song made its way to number one! It’s a dynamic record album and the vocals are mixed very upfront. They are guaranteed to grab your attention. There is no misunderstanding the satirical lyrics.
Joe’s Garage album was released in September and November of 1979. Presented on this Frank Zappa Album, is a slick, cheesy rock opera in three acts that deals with how the government is going to do away with music. Zappa ingeniously concocted the whole thing by sewing together a myriad of material perfected by his 1978-79 band. The lyrics feature scathing commentary on American society, politics and religion. It addresses themes of free will, individualism, censorship, the music industry and human sexuality. While some may find this content off putting or a little to close to home, the memorable music is very satisfying and the performances so funky, sexy and polished, it will grab your attention. The title track, one of Zappa’s most sing-songy, commercial numbers was again, a top ten record in Norway and Sweden. Unlike Act I, Acts II and III contain longer pieces showcasing Zappa’s use of guitar xenochrony.
Over-Nite Sensation / Apostrophe (‘)
The Frank Zappa albums Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (‘) were recorded at the same time. They are among his best selling albums. Both works house fairly commercial, humorous, playfully risqué rock songs. This is pure, classic Zappa. Many of the songs were staples on 70’s FM radio and in his live concerts. On these collections you will find “Montana” where FZ raises up his dental floss and rides a pygmy pony. The rhapsodic story of a young Eskimo boy and his unfortunate encounter with a fur trapper, and some dog-do snow cones, “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow / Nanook Rubs It”. The bluesy guru bashing “Cosmik Debris” as well as Zappa’s rapping diatribe on the evils of TV in “I’m The Slime”. You’ll also find a number of killer solos from FZ, keyboardist extraordinaire George Duke and electric violinist Jean Luc-Ponty. Tina Turner and The Ikettes contribute funky background vocals. Highly recommended if you want to test out the Zappa waters.
One Size Fits All
Most people have that one sofa everyone likes to lounge out on. That’s kind of like this record (note the flying sofa on the cover). One Size Fits All, released in June of 1975 is a watershed Zappa album. From the music to the performances to the stereo placement, to the lyrics to the cover art, it’s a remarkable work. What makes this FZ’s most accessible outing are the lyrics. They are humorous without the blunt use of “blue” words, thought provoking “Did a vehicle come from somewhere out there? Just to land in the Andes?”, playfully satirical, “Have you heard the news? Can’t afford no shoes.” or just downright interesting, “Evelyn a modified dog viewed the quivering fringe of a special doily.”
The music is challenging while at the same time their clear cut forms, and catchy melodies are inviting. It also features some of Frank’s most inventive guitar soloing on “Inca Roads” and “Po-Jama People”. Some of the performances, from an insanely skilled bunch of musicians, were captured live at TV station KCET or recorded and overdubbed at the famed Caribou Studios. This is Zappa with his musical peers functioning as a well oiled machine and they are having fun. Just listen to Johnny Guitar Watson’s spirited rap and vocal interjections on the outro of the tracks “San Berdino” or “Andy”. The energy and rhythms are contagious. All of this brought together by the active, intricate stereo mixing by Kerry McNabb. It’s forty minutes of non stop brilliance. Not a wasted second. And the Cal Shenkel art work will keep you occupied for quite some time.
This list excludes Zappa’s massive 12 CD set You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 1-6. They feature a myriad of wonderful live performances that stretch from the early Mothers in 1966 to his last band in 1988. Also, excluded from this list are all the Zappa Family Trust releases that came out after FZ’s death including the live performance videos i.e. Roxy, The Movie, The Torture Never Stops, Does Humor Belong In Music? and Baby Snakes. All worth checking out if not just for the Frank Zappa Albums completest, but for the music fan who digs watching amazing musicianship. To see these folks execute his challenging compositions so effortlessly is a wonder to behold.
Written by John Tabacco
article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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