The failure mode of clever is “asshole.” — John Scalzi
I have a complicated relationship with the music of Frank Zappa, as does, I suspect, everyone who’s ever heard it. I first heard his work in junior high, initially from a slightly older kid across the street whom my mother would have preferred I didn’t hang out with and later when I saved up some money and bought his three-LP Joe’s Garage box, which had come back into print, or something. A few years later, in the late ’80s, he signed a deal with Rykodisc to put a lot of his older work out on CD, and I snapped up copies of Freak Out!, Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, and a few other titles that weren’t part of the Rykodisc reissue program like Them Or Us, You Are What You Is and The Man From Utopia. His 1986 album Jazz From Hell was the first thing I ever bought on CD. I wanted something that I was sure would sound appreciably different in this new high-tech digital format than on cassette or LP. That album sucked.
I even got to see Zappa live, on his final tour; he played on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in March 1988. My mom drove me to that show. I owe her more than I can ever repay. The show was good; the things that stick out about it to this day were: what appeared to be a series of clotheslines criss-crossing the stage, draped with women’s underwear; the fact that after each of his guitar solos, Zappa handed the instrument to a roadie who took it backstage to be re-tuned; and the version of Led Zeppelin‘s “Stairway to Heaven” on which the horn section played Jimmy Page‘s guitar solo like it was a big-band chart.
Anyway, thirty-two years later, I still like some of Zappa’s music, but the vast majority of that is instrumental. The quote at the top of this page sums it up perfectly: he thought he was very clever, but if his lyrics are any indication, he was actually a giant, gaping asshole. So if you want to avoid the sneering and puerile misogyny, homophobia, and racism, the albums you want are 1969’s Hot Rats, 1972’s Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, and a few later releases like the Shut Up ‘n’ Play Yer Guitar trilogy and the live Make a Jazz Noise Here (recorded on the aforementioned 1988 tour), and…that’s about it. Of these, Hot Rats is by far the best, and the Zappa estate is now celebrating the album by expanding it into a six-CD box (get it from Amazon) that comes packaged with a hardcover book full of memories and photos, and (for some reason) a board game. The music is the point, though.
Zappa only used one member of his band the Mothers, multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, on the sessions, which took place in July and August 1969. Other players included bassists Max Bennett and Shuggie Otis; drummers John Guerin, Paul Humphrey, and Ron Selico; and violinists Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty. “Willie the Pimp,” the only track with vocals, features Captain Beefheart. The rhythm players were all jazz and blues session pros, able to give the music a gutbucket groove and forceful swing but also inject gracefulness where needed.
Boxes designed to showcase the “complete sessions” for a legendary album rarely actually do that. There are four Miles Davis sets — The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, The Complete On The Corner Sessions — that are nothing of the kind. They’re compilations of everything (or close to it) that Davis and various collaborators recorded in this or that 18-month or two- to three-year span, and they contain some raw fragments that producer Teo Macero would later assemble into the albums fans know and love, but Davis’s methods at the time meant there was almost never anything like a finished front-to-back track at the end of a day’s work.
On the other hand, there’s the Stooges box 1970: The Fun House Sessions, which is exactly what it says on the label. Every take of every song, in order. I own it, and I keep it around because sometimes the only way you can really express the depths of your hatred for your neighbors is to subject them to two dozen takes of “Loose” in a row.
The Hot Rats Sessions falls somewhere in between these two poles. There are radically extended versions of pieces that would be edited down, and have elements added later, like the 15-minute unedited master take of “Willie the Pimp,” which is missing Captain Beefheart‘s vocals but has even more grotesque guitar mangling from Zappa, and some really nice violin from Don “Sugarcane” Harris. There’s also a nearly 33-minute unedited master take of a piece called “Big Legs,” which would be retitled “The Gumbo Variations” on the final album and chopped down to just under 13 minutes, later expanded to 17 on the 1987 Rykodisc CD (the 1987 mixes are included in this box). Since that’s easily the best track on the album, a raucous R&B stomp featuring wild, nearly free jazz saxophone from Underwood and more Harris violin, it’s great to have a half hour of it.
On the other hand, the set also includes short nuggets of sound that aren’t really of interest to anyone but obsessives, like 1:48 of just the percussion tracks from “It Must Be a Camel,” which are subjected to reverb and other effects so they sound like a piece of modern composition by Iannis Xenakis or Pierre Henry or Zappa’s favorite, Edgard Varèse. There are non-Hot Rats tracks, too, like “Dame Margret’s Son to Be a Bride,” “Transition,” “Bognor Regis,” “Arabesque” and “Lil’ Clanton Shuffle,” as well as the unedited master of the cover of Little Richard‘s “Directly From My Heart to You,” sung by Harris, that was edited down for 1970’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh. Some of those are quite good. But there are about eight tracks here that are just rehearsals, alternate takes, and partial mixes of “Peaches En Regalia,” and that’s frankly unnecessary. Same with the radio ads, the minute-long interview snippet that explains the album’s title (it’s a mental picture Zappa formed while listening to an Archie Shepp saxophone solo), etc., etc.
Ultimately, this box is like rummaging through a file cabinet of notes for a favorite novel. You may find a few interesting drafts and sketches, but nothing here will make anyone say, “Man, why wasn’t that released before?” And given its exorbitant price tag, the average listener is probably gonna want to just shuffle through it on their streaming platform of choice.