By: Cameron Piko
Excluding voluminous posthumous releases, Frank Zappa released over 60 albums between 1966 and 1993. Composer, conductor, guitarist satirist with an obscene and juvenile bent – how does one even approach such an intimidating and potentially impenetrable discography? Over the past few months, I have asked musicians (and in the case of The Residents, their manager) how they got into Frank Zappa and what they would recommend as a starting record. Many thanks to Bryan Beller, Simone Cavina, Charlie Cawood, Homer Flynn, Mike Keneally, Matt Stevens, Thighpaulsandra, Nick Trajanovski and Joff Winks for their words, particularly as most were replying during the Christmas break.
The Mothers of Invention
We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)
My first was We’re Only In It For The Money and I think it’s also the one that I would recommend, because it’s a good compromise between Zappa’s craziness and accessibility for a virgin ear.
Simone Cavina (The Blessed Beat, Otto Pesante)
My first was Freak Out!, when I was 9, and the first song I actually heard was ‘Help I’m A Rock’, when the kid across the street said I needed to hear this song because it was weird like me. I subsequently acquired the album from him in a trade (I can’t remember what I traded for it, but whatever it was was worth it). I loved it, but the next album I heard a few months later (I guess I was 10 by then) was We’re Only In It For The Money and that well and truly blew my mind. I guess I would recommend the original analog mix of that album for a first-time listener – if you can get behind what Frank did with that record, you should be ready for all the rest of it I think!
Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani)
Frank’s third album, We’re Only In It For The Money, is a concept album that satirizes both left-wing hippies (“I will love everyone. I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street.”) and right-wing conservatives, who are typically the parents of those very hippies (“All your children are poor unfortunate victims of systems beyond their control”).
This is all done through songs that sound deceptively simple and in the vein of other late 60s pop, but there is much more going on. Despite the rather traditional rock/pop instrumentation for Zappa (from 1969’s Uncle Meat onwards, marimba and percussion will carry far greater musical importance), these ‘pop’ tunes are full of tricky odd-time signatures and sound collages. This comes to a head during the parody of Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’, WOIIFTM’s ‘Flower Punk’, which alternates bars of 7/8 and 5/8 before devolving into a cacophony of overdubbed voices and clipping keyboards. There’s also the final track, ‘The Chrome Megaphone of Destiny’, which in the liner notes Zappa suggests should be used as the soundtrack to Franz Kafka’s In The Penal Colony and itself is an exploration of musique concrète.
The album also comes across as one of Zappa’s most consistent works. Later on in his career, the juxtaposition of simplicity with complexity and ‘seriousness’ with silliness would mean there will commonly be sharp turns in genre and feel. WOIIFTM maintains coherence, in no small part due to the frankly masterful production and all-encompassing satirical concept. As such, it ranks not just as one of his most realised albums but also one of the most accessible.
If you enjoyed this: Zappa believed all his oeuvre was connected by a ‘conceptual continuity’, and there are many self-referential connections to be made throughout albums across the years. WOIIFTM is considered ‘conceptually continuous’ with 1967’s Lumpy Gravy and 1993’s Civilization: Phaze III. Whilst the latter album is best left to listeners already well versed in Zappa’s catalogue, Lumpy Gravy along with subsequent Mothers of Invention albums like 1969’s Uncle Meat and 1970’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh are in the vein of this album. As these albums get progressively weirder (Weasels ends with two minutes of feedback worthy of any noise band), a chronological approach is best.
Hot Rats (1969)
Hot Rats! … If I was going to give somebody what I felt was a solid entry point, I’d say check this out. I think it manages to be accessible without really dumbing down the essence of Zappa.
Homer Flynn (manager for The Residents)
Hot Rats is my favourite Zappa album, we played ‘Peaches En Regalia’ at our wedding. I really love that it feels like really posh and really raw all at once, especially with Beefheart’s vocals on ‘Willie The Pimp’. Brilliant arrangements and truly inspired guitar playing. Zappa sounds like he’s truly in “instant composition” mode for the solos, these are good noodles! It just sounds really exciting.
Matt Stevens (The Fierce and the Dead)
If this album was just the three minute opener ‘Peaches en Regalia’ – practically a standard in jazz rock fusion circles – most people would still hail it a classic. Zappa’s second album without The Mothers of Invention, the mainly instrumental Hot Rats is also one of the very first explorations into jazz fusion. In contrast to the loose improvised quality of Miles Davis’ late 60s/early 70s fusion records, Zappa’s fusion features tightly structured compositions (‘Peaches’, ‘Little Umbrellas’, ‘It Must Be a Camel’) alongside lengthy rocking jams (‘The Gumbo Variations’, ‘Willie the Pimp’ – featuring occasional Zappa sideman Captain Beefheart on vocals).
It’s during these lengthier tracks that Zappa flexes his guitar chops far more prominently than he has previously. Throughout the five minute guitar solo (fusion is rarely lacking in self-indulgence) in ‘Willie The Pimp’, Zappa showcases his unique tone. He plays his guitar through a wah pedal, but leaves the pedal in a set position. This gives Zappa’s tone an interesting texture, and by not moving the wah position he avoids sounding like the soundtrack to a 70s car chase. Given a five minute guitar solo is most likely going to act as a litmus test for new listeners, having a fleshed-out sound is helpful.
While Hot Rats is not a very good indication of Zappa’s music as a whole, it does reveal how much humour and playfulness are central to the man’s work. ‘Peaches en Regalia’ manages to be infectiously cheerful, silly and soulful all at once, despite there never being a single word uttered.
If you enjoyed this: Zappa continued exploring jazz fusion with 1972’s Waka/Jawaka (named after the sound of the aforementioned wah pedal guitar tone) and again in the same year with The Grand Wazoo. While Waka/Jawaka is enjoyable, The Grand Wazoo is a masterpiece. The jazz elements are brought further to the front via a large horn section and the album is a lot more experimental. The title track, ‘Eat That Question’ and ‘Blessed Relief’ are all outstanding pieces of music. Zappa would again return briefly to fusion territory for 1979’s Sleep Dirt, which had a working title of Hot Rats III.
And for those that enjoyed the small taste they got of Captain Beefheart on ‘Willie the Pimp’, 1975’s Bongo Fury will go down a treat!
One Size Fits All (1975)
I would just say One Size Fits All is a good FZ starting point, because I think it’s got an element of soul that not all of the other records have, and it takes the “edge” off somehow. That’s just me!
Bryan Beller (The Aristocrats, Joe Satriani)
If I wanted to recommend a starting point, I’d go for One Size Fits All in tandem with Roxy and Elsewhere. Largely because between those two records, there’s a perfect cross-section of what made Zappa extraordinary as a musician – great songs, incredible instrumental compositions and avant-garde improvisation. They also feature arguably his best touring ensemble, at least the one that was best equipped for the diversity of material. The juvenile humour that puts off some people is largely absent, which is a relief.
Charlie Cawood (Knifeworld)
One Size Fits All is the last album with the final line-up of The Mothers of Invention: George Duke on keys and vocals, Chester Thompson on drums, Ruth Underwood on marimba and percussion, Tom Fowler on bass and Napoleon Murphy Brock on sax and vocals. As Charlie Cawood mentions above, this line-up is simply astonishing. Apparently driven to write more challenging music after playing shows alongside fusion heavyweights Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank starts throwing everything he’s got at these musicians. The reason the band sound so slick is because they simply have to be. The album opener ‘Inca Roads’ is an instant classic, acting simultaneously as a parody of fantastical prog rock lyrics and itself a great and challenging prog/fusion piece. Not only are we introduced to a jaw-droppingly beautiful guitar solo by Zappa (which only gets better when it segues into a choir of vocals), we also hear increasingly difficult flurries of notes and George Duke singing stupid things impossibly fast. “Guacamole Queen”?
It is very hard to over-emphasise how tight this band sounds, but the album is not just made up of difficult passages. One Size Fits All also features a surprisingly large number of blues numbers – ‘Can’t Afford No Shoes’, ‘Po-jama People’ and ‘San Ber’dino’ – which break up the pace with their focus on vocals (the production of which cannot be praised enough) and, in the case of ‘Po-jama People’, another stellar guitar solo from Zappa.
As a whole, One Size Fits All gives listeners a good sense of what to expect from Zappa in general. Although missing aspects of his music overall – there is no musique concrete as we got with WOIIFTM, nor classical or computer music – the music here shows one of the best rock line-ups around both having fun and playing challenging, interesting music. It’s hard to give higher praise!
If you enjoyed this: 1974’s Roxy & Elsewhere. The same band going crazier in all directions. There’s a rare glimpse of Zappa being sentimental with ‘Village of the Sun’, followed by two of his best instrumental compositions ‘Echnida’s Arf (Of You)’ and ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’ The album also features my personal favourite Zappa guitar solo during ‘Son of Orange County’. The downside? The double-album length and improvised non-musical craziness of ‘Dummy Up’ and ‘Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzman’s Church)’ could make this a harder listen for first time listeners.
You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Volume 2 is a recording of a 1974 concert with the same band. Again, incredible playing.
Joe’s Garage: Acts I-III (1979-1980)
Joe’s Garage was the first Zappa record that I heard and the first Zappa record that I owned. It’s hilarious from start to finish…I mean “these executives have pluked the F**k out of me” from ‘Outside Now’ just had me in stitches. ‘Outside Now’ is also one of my favourite Zappa songs, with its brilliant 11/8 electric sitar line that just fits so snug under the fingers. The album is filled with Vinnie [Colaiuta]’s super human drum performances and also has, in my humble opinion, one of Zappa’s finest guitar solos…the gorgeously melodic ‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’. A truly mind altering experience for my then, oh so young brain…Music can get you pretty F**ked Up!
Joff Winks (Sanguine Hum)
I love concept albums. Flawless ones however are so hard to come by. Joe’s Garage easily falls under that umbrella. My first introduction to Zappa, it shows his extreme creativity in a three part theatrical story telling of a protagonist’s (Joe) journey through a musical career, wet t-shirt contests, unpronounceable diseases and a religion based around sexually active kitchen appliances (that’s right, you heard right). Believe it or not, I find this album, almost 40 years later, to be more current today than ever, especially in Melbourne, with the shutting down of music venues and a lot of bands calling it a day. Every time something like this happens, I feel we are inching closer to “imaginary guitar solos” and Joe’s words voiced through Ike Willis : “but there are no musicians any more…they’re all gone.” I liked this album so much, I got a quote from ‘Packard Goose’ tattooed on my arm. Music is the best!
Nick Trajanovski (Dead City Ruins)
Zappa’s juvenile obsession with all things scatological and sexual is something listeners are going to have to confront at some point when delving into his music. The man satirised and ridiculed so much that it’s borderline impossible to determine how tongue in cheek his caricatures are (see: Tinseltown Rebellion’s ‘Fine Girl’, Sheik Yerbouti’s ‘Bobby Brown Goes Down’, You Are What You Is’s ‘Jumbo Go Away’). If you are going to listen to Frank Zappa, you’ll either find this side of him funny, find a way to appreciate its potential satirical bent, or just be able to just ignore it completely.
Depending on your feelings on the above, you’ll either love or hate Joe’s Garage. A massive and incredibly silly concept album set in a world where music is made illegal. Nick Trajanovski’s plot synopsis above provides some idea of what’s going on, but the overall story is admittedly threadbare – Zappa even breaks character a few times during the album to laugh at just how ridiculous his words are.
It’s the music, of course, that holds everything together and makes the album worth returning to. There’s yet another line-up change, and although they may not reach the heights of the One Size Fits All band, this group is nothing to sneer at. While too big a list of players to go through one by one, it’s worth noting that this album marks the first appearance of vocalist Ike Willis (who will dominate future Zappa releases) along with the brilliant rhythm section of bassist Arthur Barrow and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Colaiuta’s touch, particularly on Acts II and III, is simply immaculate and it’s hardly surprising that Zappa felt he was the best drummer he ever played with.
‘Catholic Girls’, itself a response to the flak Zappa received for Sheik Yerbouti’s ‘Jewish Princess’ (even going so far as to quote the tune at the end of the song), has Willis crooning and quoting Sinatra amidst odd timed electric sitar and slapping bass. ‘Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt’ is a funky, almost-disco number that morphs into a maze of jazz fusion trickery. These two tracks and the (surprisingly beautiful, thanks to Willis) reggae jam ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up’ aside, Act I is relatively straightforward by Zappa standards. It’s well played rock, if a tad coldly produced, and sits in the tradition of accessible pop/rock albums that Zappa would release typically in order to fund more avant-garde or classical projects. The lyrics obviously differentiate it a little, but it’s the later acts where things start to get truly interesting.
Doo-wop, German marital-aid pig sex robots, an even longer reggae jam (‘Sy Borg’ certainly could use some trimming) and extended soloing, with Acts II and III one gets the feeling Zappa is throwing any and all ideas into the mix. This makes Acts II and III more inconsistent than Act I, but the highs are way higher. ‘Keep It Greasey’, Zappa’s ode to anal sex, is a display of adept musicianship (Colaiuta is on fire) and features a truly insane guitar solo. This solo was recorded entirely separately and overdubbed onto an unrelated rhythm track in 19/16, in a technique Zappa called xenochrony and appears throughout later songs. Elsewhere, ‘Outside Now’ is another astonishing showcase for Willis. By the end, a choir of his vocals ring out round-robin style around the central 11/8 riff.
If it’s not evident already, the rhythmic complexity is taken up several notches upon entering the second and third acts. It also ups the obscene factor. As Joff mentioned above, Zappa seems to get a perverse pleasure having Willis sing stupid sexual lyrics in an infectiously melodic way. You aren’t really going to find many artists where the earworms are “Gimme dat, gimme dat blow-ow-ow-job” or “Don’t get no jizz up on that sofa” and again, your personal feelings on this are really going to dictate how far you delve into Zappa’s catalogue.
But then there’s ‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’, a completely instrumental piece featuring some of Zappa’s most emotive playing. It’s utterly beautiful and at odds with all that came before it, and that’s precisely what makes this album so very Zappa. Whilst the other albums focused on a sole aspect of Zappa’s psyche, Joe’s Garage attempts to capture as much of him as possible. It falls flat (again, there are no orchestral pieces here), but the grandiose scope, the wonderful musicianship, the offensiveness and the beauty are all important marks of the man’s music. Joe’s Garage might be a more difficult entry point than the other albums listed here due to its length, but it highlights Zappa’s offensive character in a way few of the other albums do. Given listeners are going to have to deal with this at some point when tackling the man’s catalogue, there’s something to be said about ripping the band-aid off quickly.
If you enjoyed this: Sheik Yerbouti (also from 1979) and You Are What You Is (1981) are in a similar vein of the accessible pop/rock vein of Act I.
In terms of an album that covers all aspects of Frank Zappa, the posthumous 3-CD Läther would be the way to go. Zappa was unable to release this album when he was alive, and the subsequent tracks were split over multiple albums released during 1978 and 1979. It’s a big time commitment, but it has jazz fusion, instrumental rock, classical pieces, straight-ahead rock and general silliness.
London Symphony Orchestra and Boulez conducts Zappa – … because they’re amazing.
The Yellow Shark – again great songs and fond memories of the shows.
Thighpaulsandra (Coil, Spiritualised)
The Yellow Shark (1993)
The last album Frank Zappa released before his death due to prostate cancer, The Yellow Shark is entirely made up of orchestral pieces – some new and others rearrangements of earlier material – played by the Ensemble Modern. Zappa typically felt cheated by orchestras in the past due to the sheer cost of such an enterprise and the lack of respect given to his music; there’s an entire section of his autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book dedicated to his feelings on the matter. With the Ensemble Modern, however, Zappa was happy. And you can hear why.
What can easily be forgotten is that Zappa was first and foremost a composer. The music here – falling under the broad umbrella of ‘modern classical’ and ranging from piano duets to string quartets to a full ensemble– is challenging, unique and unto itself. Whilst the album begins with a familiar, cheery fanfare of Uncle Meat’s ‘Dog Breath Variations’ and ‘Uncle Meat’, quieter pieces like ‘The Girl in the Magnesium Dress’ (originally composed for Synclavier on 1984’s Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger) and ‘Ruth is Sleeping’ rely on silence as much as overwhelmingly complex runs to convey their point. ‘Outrage at Valdez’ (about the Valdez oil spill) reveals a sombre side of Zappa rarely revealed through by his perpetually sardonic voice, and the song’s profoundly affecting three minute duration is one of the highlights of the album. This isn’t to say Zappa’s penchant for ridicule is lost on The Yellow Shark. Both ‘Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America, 1992’ and ‘Welcome to the United States’ feature “dramatic readings” by some of the performers, the latter piece mocking the US visa process and finding Zappa in fine satirical form.
After a phenomenal performance, concluding with a rearrangement of another Synclavier piece (Jazz From Hell’s ‘G-Spot Tornado’), we’re left with a thundering applause – in fact, Zappa received a 20-minute standing ovation after the first performance of these shows. The sound is crisp and immaculate (during those quieter pieces you can practically hear audience members holding their breath) and his classical pieces have never been so impassioned and moving. A stellar achievement, and after 63 albums it’s astonishing the man was able to leave on such a high note.
If you enjoyed this: Orchestral Favorites (1979) along with Thighpaulsandra’s suggestions of Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (1984) and the two volumes of London Symphony Orchestra (1983 and 1987) all showcase Zappa’s classical side.
Civilization: Phaze III (1994) is one of the works that Zappa completed before his death. It’s composed on the Synclavier, but by using samples of the Ensemble Modern it sounds a lot more organic. By no means should the album be recommended to someone just starting out with Zappa’s music, but it’s a treat worth examining down the line.
If there’s one thing you can take away from this article, it’s that there’s no real consensus on what the best Frank Zappa album is, nor where to start. That can be a little challenging for first time listeners, but hopefully there’s enough variety in these albums to provide a few potential entry points. If you’re still struggling for ideas, there are plenty of albums not listed here, and both Charlie Cawood and Thighpaulsandra offered a few alternatives.