Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The best of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention have been my favorite musical act for most of my adult life. There's just something about the complexity of the music, the intricacy of the composition, the irreverence of his lyrics and the complete disregard for popular music trends that I've always found appealing. I could (and often do) listen to Zappa and the Mothers for hours on end, as you can always notice something different with each listening, and you can virtually listen for a week without repeating an album. Frank was very prolific in life, and his family trust keeps pushing out new compilations out of his tape vaults with regularity.

I'm not going to say Frank Zappa was some god of some sort. I've yet to see any modern performer that can be called that (sorry Clapton fans). The title track of Weasels Ripped My Flesh is the single most grating and maddening piece of noise that was only rivaled by Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Zappa had lots of idiosyncrasies that a lot of people found annoying and didn't seem to deal with people on a personal level with much alacrity, and tossed a lot of people to the side of the road without a lot of conscience. I've read quite a few books on the man, his relationships with his musicians and his work, and the best that can really be said that Frank Zappa was indeed a man like any other. But as a musician and particularly as a composer, he was one of the best that the 20th Century had to offer (to paraphrase one of his lyrics).

Here are the five albums (sort of) that I think are his very best, and are most representative of what Frank Zappa and the Mothers were about.

Uncle Meat (1969)
It is so very hard to decide on whether or not Uncle Meat or We're Only In It For the Money is the better album, but I have to give the former the upper hand in the contest. Uncle Meat is 90% instrumental and features some truly classic cuts ("Dog Breath", "King Kong", "Cruisin' for Burgers"), as well as the final vinyl appearance of the iconic Suzy Creamcheese. It has a near-symphonic range of sound, from Paducho-inspired garage rock to the orchestral arrangements of the various parts of "King Kong". And a few bars of "Louie, Louie" played on the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ don't hurt the production.

We're Only In It For the Money (1968)
Some folks, along with Frank Zappa himself, have said that this album was the final coffin nail in the Flower Power movement. That's debatable; I personally consider the travesty that was Altamont to be the end of the "Peace and Love" era. This album definitely heralded the end the Los Angeles Freak Movement, though a lot of people apparently didn't listen. This album, with the often-banned Sgt. Pepper-inspired cover, has some of the most poignant and powerful lyrics that Zappa ever wrote.  Much like many of the topically-inspired songs on Freak Out, many of these songs sill have the same relevance today, particularly "Mom and Dad" and "Flower Punk" (which many folks think was about Kent State, but is instead about an earlier tragedy).

Joe's Garage Acts I, II & III (1979)
While a lot of people may have become aware of Frank Zappa's work through the drive-time novelty hit "Valley Girl", the first song that ever caught my ear was the radio single of "Joe's Garage", a simple tale of a neighborhood rock band that practiced in a garage. Little would one expect that buying the full album (and the double album of Acts II & III), one would be delving into a world of Catholic girls, crew sluts, Scientology, 1984, German sex toys and eventually prison and prison sex. This is surreal humor for the ear ... the musical equivalent of listening to Bob and Ray, but with adult language. And there is some of the best guitar work ever heard on a Zappa album (or any album for that matter). "Watermelon in Easter Hay" quickly became my second favorite piece of music of all time.

Electric Aunt Jemima (1968; released in 1992's Beat the Boots II Boxed Set)
First off, this is a bootleg album, and Frank Zappa had little to do with it, other than reissuing it under his own label in the Beat the Boots series to get a measure of vengeance against the pirates. The recording quality is not up to Zappa's usual standards, but the performance is one of the best ever recorded, at least in my opinion. This live album is almost totally instrumental, and really shows the versatility of the Mothers of Invention.

London Symphony Orchestra Vols. I & II (1983, 1987)
The two LSO albums really showcase Frank Zappa as a true modern composer, and while they were released five years apart, I'm considering them as one double-album. While he was never happy with the performances he got out of any orchestra he paid to perform his music, you wouldn't know by the quality of the recordings on these two albums. Several of the tunes (notably "Bogus Pump" and "Strictly Genteel") have been heard in other forms on other albums and in other Zappa projects (the two mentioned were the opening and closing numbers of Zappa's motion picture, 200 Motels) and really come to life in the hands of a properly conducted orchestra.

Honorable Mention:
Bongo Fury (1975) 
This is one of my single favorite albums of all time, and features a collaboration between Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. The two recording legends were often at odds with each other, but when they got together, it was audio magic. Zappa produced Beefheart's (whose real name is Don Van Vliet) iconic Trout Mask Replica, and both have worked together on each other's projects over the years. This particular concert tour and album was spawned because Beefheart was having legal disputes with his former record label and wasn't legally able to record anywhere. He sings several songs and recites two poems. The album was also notable for what having I think was the first song to mention the U.S. Bicentennial being used as a marketing ploy, the first appearance with Zappa by drummer Terry Bozzio, and being the last album to feature a proper line-up of the Mothers of Invention.

I highly recommend anyone check out any of these albums.

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