Whenever a brilliant artist makes a screaming left turn into a new sound or style, fans and critics start hunting for clues. They search the back catalog, looking for the roots of this transformation, so it doesn’t seem quite as jarring. The best of these mid-stream course-changes seem to arrive out of nowhere, fully formed, with no obvious hints in the artist’s previous work.
Frank Zappa performed that particular magic trick a dozen times during his career, with a confidence bordering on arrogance. (Only in his Synclavier work in the 1980s can you hear Zappa struggling to become comfortable with a new musical form.) 1973’s Over-Nite Sensation is one of the most striking changes of direction Zappa would pull off, and it arrived whole – there is no sense of evolution here, no sound in progress. It’s a complete work that sounds like nothing that came before it.
That’s fascinating, given how fully Over-Nite Sensation sets the template for all of Zappa’s subsequent rock records. When people say a song is “Zappa-esque,” they usually mean it sounds like Over-Nite Sensation, or its three successors. Those four mid-‘70s albums contain much of Zappa’s most popular material, and their mix of jazz, rock, sleaze and silliness is the overriding impression the general public has of the composer’s work.
This isn’t a case for pity, though. Yes, most of Zappa’s more serious material has gone unappreciated by the public at large, but the fact that Over-Nite Sensation has overshadowed it is not accidental. Zappa’s mid-‘70s output is a case of selling out with style, of crafting music specifically to draw a crowd and move units, and yet retaining an individualism that cannot be faked. Zappa certainly intended the music on this album to explode in popularity, and he designed it for that purpose. But even though this sounds nothing like Zappa’s previous music, it still somehow sounds like Zappa.
Still, fans of Zappa’s more complex and dense work will be stunned by the slick, shimmying, funk-fueled rock that makes up all of Over-Nite Sensation. The songs are relatively short – the longest is “Montana” at 6:37 – and the production is glossy and ready for the radio. Zappa’s thick and dirty guitar playing is the star of this show, musically speaking, along with his dazzling horn arrangements. Eleven musicians are credited, but the core of this album is Zappa, drummer Ralph Humphrey, bassist Tom Fowler and keyboardist George Duke. Together, they make for a surprisingly effective funk machine, even if Zappa spends just as much time sending up the genre as he does celebrating it.
Zappa sings most of these tunes himself, debuting his lower vocal register, a side effect of the shattered larynx he suffered when he was pushed off stage in 1971. This new tone makes Zappa sound even more sarcastic and detached than before, which he puts to great effect on “I’m the Slime” and “Dinah-Moe Humm.” Zappa enlisted cartoon voice artist Ricky Lancelotti to strain your speakers with his overblown vocals on “Fifty-Fifty” and “Zomby Woof,” and brought in Tina Turner and the Ikettes for some (uncredited) backing vocals on five songs.
Despite the multitude of musicians, Over-Nite Sensation is the closest Zappa had yet come to a superstar solo album, one in which the spotlight was firmly on him. It’s a concentrated attempt to forge a public identity beyond the Mothers of Invention, and it’s remarkably successful. Over-Nite Sensation establishes Zappa as a sex-obsessed, guitar-slinging rock star with a sneer and a love of the absurd. These qualities are as much a part of his trademark from this point forward as his distinctive facial hair.
Let’s start with “sex-obsessed.” While Zappa has certainly sung about sex before, he’s never celebrated it the way he does on Over-Nite Sensation. “Camarillo Brillo” uses clever wordplay (he rhymes “she stripped away her rancid poncho” with “we did it ‘till we were unconcho”) to tell the story of a hook-up with a tarot reader. “Dirty Love” begins vaguely enough, Zappa declaring, “I don’t need no consolation, I don’t want your reservation, I only got one destination and that’s your dirty love” before the song brings in another character who enjoys making poodles arouse her with their mouths. “Poodle bites, poodle chews it,” Zappa sings as the song fades. (From this point forward, poodle references would be a recurring part of the “conceptual continuity” tying Zappa’s records together. There’s no purpose to this continuity, other than, in Zappa’s words, to “unify the collection.”)
And then there is “Dinah-Moe Humm,” one of Zappa’s most famous songs. This one tells the long and sordid tale of a woman who bets Zappa a “$40 bill” that he cannot bring her to orgasm. After trying and failing, he ends up getting it on with Dinah-Moe’s sister, which of course arouses Dinah-Moe herself, and they all have sex together. Yes, that’s the entire song, and most of the lyrics are sung-spoken over a pulsing, relentless funk beat. It’s a riotous sendup and a genuinely sleazy tune at the same time.
If you can deal with that, you’ll have a great time listening to Over-Nite Sensation. “I’m the Slime” is a horn-drenched moment of social consciousness, Zappa railing against the all-pervasiveness of television: “Your mind is totally controlled, it has been stuffed into my mold, and you will do as you are told until the rights to you are sold…” Zappa speaks most of this song in a frightening low rumble, and punctuates it with the first of many filthy-sounding guitar solos.
“Zomby Woof” is one of Zappa’s most celebrated pieces from this period, and justifiably so. The trumpets-and-vibes riff (showcasing the amazing Ruth Underwood on mallet percussion) is constantly shifting, giving way occasionally to a thumping guitar line. Zappa and Lancelotti trade off on vocals, the latter adding ferocity to this werewolf tale. And the guitar solo is a monster, if you’ll pardon the pun. The album concludes with another favorite, “Montana,” a loping fantasia about giving it all up to go raise dental floss in the titular state. (Yes, it makes no sense. Go with it.) While the Ikettes sing the last refrain (“Moving to Montana soon…”), Kin Vassey provides the crowning touch with his impassioned “yippie-aye-o-ti-ay.”
Over-Nite Sensation also marks the debut of the “Zappa dialect,” a bizarre mix of puns, portmanteaus and misplaced verb tenses that will mark the remainder of his vocal work. “Did it till we were unconcho” is a good example, but much of “Fifty-Fifty,” hollered by Lancelotti, fits the bill: “My dandruff is loose and my breath is chartreuse, I know I ain’t cute and my voice is ka-poot…” The dialect would grow and change over time, but it has its roots here.
Yes, this album was specifically designed to shift units, and help fund some of Zappa’s more complex musical projects. But it stands as a tremendous slice of dirty funk-rock all the same, an enduring ball of fun. Songs from Over-Nite Sensation would make it into Zappa’s set lists for the next 15 years – he once remarked that he funded a home studio by singing “Dinah-Moe Humm” over and over again. It’s not just a sellout album, it’s a remarkable shift for Zappa from oddball composer to full-on rock star, as even the title indicates.
From this point on, Zappa’s denser compositions would sit side-by-side with this more gut-level, prurient rock. It’s this very dichotomy that prevents him from being taken seriously as a composer, despite his work with the London Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Modern, and even the Synclavier. But in many ways, it’s also this dichotomy that provided many rock fans with their first taste of orchestral music – it’s a short hop from “Dinah-Moe Humm” to the orchestral take of “Duke of Prunes” to “Mo and Herb’s Vacation,” and Zappa provided that pathway. Heck, the Lather box set is almost a complete musical education in itself.
As a gateway drug, Over-Nite Sensation is exactly what it should be. Zappa would mine this particular style for years, edging into more complex arrangements and then pulling back, allowing his audience to catch up. It’s perhaps the most musically generous era of his career, the most immediately likeable. Over-Nite Sensation (and its twin, 1974’s Apostrophe) set the template for Zappa’s more accessible music, but it’s a fun document all on its own. It’s a major turning point in Zappa’s career, for better and for worse. But mostly for better.
Which version to buy: Yes, again, it’s the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster, which uses the original 1973 analog master as its source. The sound is crisp and slick, as it should be, while the 1990s Ryko version sounds muted in comparison. The two-fer edition that pairs this album with Apostrophe is similarly muffled.
Next week: Apostrophe.