Some artists like to keep their audiences on their toes. Frank Zappa liked to keep his in a state of perpetual bewilderment.
There’s no other way to explain Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, Zappa’s third album of 1968. After mercilessly lampooning straight-ahead rock and R&B for years, suddenly here is an album on which Zappa and his Mothers lovingly perform tunes that could be 1950s standards, without a trace of irony. Even songs that were played as parody on Freak Out appear here, completely straight.
It was released under the Ruben and the Jets moniker, with only a word balloon on the front cover to give the game away: “Is this the Mothers of Invention recording under a different name in a last-ditch attempt to get their cruddy music on the radio?” The original Mothers, of course, were a mainstream R&B band before Zappa took the reins, so in an odd way, this feels like a prequel rather than the next chapter of the MOI story.
Zappa plays the farce to the hilt, inventing a backstory for Ruben Sano and his band – one that has more to do with cars and girls and greasy hairdos than music. The packaging may lead you to expect some sarcasm here, some acknowledgement that this music is somehow beneath the band that created We’re Only In It for the Money. But besides Zappa’s description of the proceedings as “an album of cretin simplicity,” there’s nothing here to suggest that this is not a labor of love.
In fact, the only logical conclusion is that Zappa truly adores this type of music. He would return to it again and again, dropping R&B covers like “Valerie” and “The Closer You Are” onto his albums, and recording and releasing a ditty called “Sharleena” more times than just about any other song of his. The Mothers sound comfortable with this greasy, repetitive material, and singers Ray Collins and Roy Estrada give it their all, bringing real heart to the performances.
Cruising With Ruben and the Jets includes five songs from Freak Out, here remade as rhythm and blues tunes. “I’m Not Satisfied,” a burst of energetic rock on Freak Out, is smoothed out into a 6/8 ballad with “da-da-da” backing vocals. “Any Way the Wind Blows” is similarly slowed down and prettied up. Even “You Didn’t Try to Call Me,” a savage parody in its original incarnation, is here transformed into the very thing it was parodying.
Zappa’s new songs continue in the same vein. The lyrics, of course, are darker than one would expect from ‘50s R&B – “Cheap Thrills” is about exactly what you’d expect, its three-chord rhythm an endless bit of juvenile giddiness. Closer “Stuff Up the Cracks” finds our lovelorn protagonist giving up and committing suicide, turning on the car in his garage and listening to the radio as he dies.
But others, like the silly “Jelly Roll Gum Drop,” are as innocent as they sound. And with “Anything,” Zappa proved that he could write a truly lovely song, without any of his signature contempt. The Mothers’ willingness to dive straight into this sound and craft this record with such love makes Ruben and the Jets a delightful little listen.
Too bad you can’t buy that version of the album anymore, at least not under its original name. In 1984, Zappa decided to re-record very ‘80s-sounding bass and drums onto all but the closing track, and that’s the only version available in stores. The disconnect between the rhythm section and the rest of the performances here cannot be overstated – the heavily reverbed drums and bass essentially turn this into the parody that it worked so hard not to be. It’s disastrous.
And it’s a shame, because Zappa would never make another record like Cruising With Ruben and the Jets. It’s a simple, let-your-hair-down kind of record, created with genuine affection, and celebrating an era that, despite Zappa’s commitment to complexity and boundary-pushing, would continue to inspire him. It’s nothing essential, and your Zappa collection would be complete without it, but taken for what it is, Ruben and the Jets is a lot of fun.
Which version to buy: Unless you track down the original vinyl, it doesn’t matter. Every CD version of Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, including the 2012 re-release, is the 1984 train wreck. Zappa’s alterations ruin the entire feel of the album, and while the ‘80s version is a curiosity, it’s not much fun to listen to. If you want to hear the original 1968 mix of the album, you have to buy the Greasy Love Songs Project/Object from the Zappa website.
Next week: Uncle Meat.