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Frank Zappa: The Early Years

I promised a couple of weeks ago to investigate Frank Zappa. Being the completist I am, I started at the beginning, and holy crap. Freak Out! and Absolutely Free are both complete masterpieces, and everything else so far is at least super interesting. Here, very briefly, are my initial impressions of Zappa’s early oeuvre.

Freak Out! (1966): I can’t believe this came out two months before Revolver. It completely deconstructs rock music at a time that most people were still trying to construct it. It’s a 2-LP set (one CD). The first two sides are filled with mostly conventional (but still twisted) pop songs. Then things start falling apart. Side 3 starts with “Trouble Every Day”, a 6-minute electric-Dylan-ish rant, then eventually devolves completely into an assemblage of noise that makes “Revolution 9” look tame. I don’t know if I’d enjoy the end of the album by itself much, but as the culmination of the whole record it’s stunning.

Absolutely Free (1967) has already shot into my short list of best albums of all time. Two suites full of complex yet gloriously sloppy music that ping-pongs back and forth between hard rock, faux-Broadway, faux-Pierrot Lunaire, faux-Vaudeville, you name it. There’s a giddy energy to the whole thing, as if they can hardly believe they’re getting away with recording it, that’s totally infectious. Amazing.

We’re Only In It for the Money (1968) is often recommended as the place to start with Zappa, and that seems reasonable. The cut-and-paste tactics of the previous album continue, made into a coherent whole by the album’s theme of contempt for hippies and fake counterculture in general. I’ve had this album for a long time, as opposed to the others, so maybe I’m too used to it by now, but it certainly is another masterpiece.

Lumpy Gravy (1968) is a total mess that is only really worth procuring if you are interested in Zappa’s history. It’s a bunch of orchestral pieces, largely atonal, that have been cut up and interspersed with old pop recordings and excerpts of seemingly high people rambling about random topics. Save it until you know you’re hooked.

Cruising With Ruben and the Jets (1968) is an album of nothing but doo-wop, including reworks of songs from earlier albums, which I have not gotten yet because apparently Zappa totally ruined it 20 years later during its CD release by overdubbing new bass and drum parts, and I’m holding out hope for a remaster of the old version.

Uncle Meat (1969) starts a new phase with lots of composed instrumental pieces in a modern classical vein mixed with jams, live outtakes, and random conversations. There are some really nice pieces here but you are pretty much guaranteed not to like all of it equally.

Hot Rats (1969) was Zappa’s first solo record (not with the Mothers of Invention) and stands apart from the rest of these; it’s mostly jazz-rock fusion (and one of the first examples of it). I can take or leave the long jams, but the shorter fully composed pieces on it are great.

Zappa then disbanded the Mothers of Invention and released a couple of archival recordings mixing lots of old studio and live performances, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (both 1970). I need to let these soak in a little more. There’s some great stuff but also some jams and live improv wackiness that don’t grab me yet. Still, the high points are really high.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten. So far I am mostly enthralled; a lot of this music completely surpasses my expectations after hearing a smattering of Zappa’s work. The guy was obviously a total genius, which helps me give him the benefit of the doubt when something doesn’t appeal to me at first. It seems I am about to enter a period of his career (the Flo and Eddie years) that is largely regarded as a relative low point, so it will be interesting to see if I agree.

If any of this sounds interesting, check out We’re Only In It for the Money or Freak Out! first. Absolutely Free is actually my favorite of all of these records, but I have a feeling the other two early records are better for dipping a toe in the water.

One recommendation I do have in general is to listen to these albums one side at a time. They were written to be listened to that way, of course, and they’re dense enough that listening to more than 20 minutes at a time is a good way to tire out your ears and your brain.