After spending years acclimating his audience to his jump-cut, anything-can-be-music style, what does Frank Zappa do? Chuck all that out the window for his second solo album, Hot Rats, the most linear and, frankly, beautiful album he had yet made.
Hot Rats, released in October of 1969, is often called the Zappa album for those who don’t like Zappa. It is certainly one of his most accessible, despite being almost entirely instrumental. Where Zappa’s previous albums could be brittle and off-putting, Hot Rats is just a joy to listen to. Every song practically overflows with Zappa’s pure love of music.
Earlier in 1968, Zappa had disbanded the original Mothers of Invention, eager to explore other musical avenues. It was reportedly a rather unceremonious dumping – the only one Zappa retained was multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood. Though he would resurrect the Mothers name in 1971, he would never play with most of the original band again.
Underwood became Zappa’s musical partner on Hot Rats, joined by several studio musicians. (Max Bennett, John Guerin, Paul Humphrey, Shuggie Otis, Ron Selico – it’s odd how many of these guys never played with Zappa again after this.) For the first time, the present-day composer had a 16-track recording studio at his disposal, and Underwood would be Zappa’s one-man chamber orchestra, overdubbing complex piano, organ, saxophone, clarinet and flute parts.
Three of the album’s songs are intricately composed pieces, while the other three are free-flowing jam sessions. Zappa was equally fascinated by precision and improvisation, and on Hot Rats, he shows off his skills in both areas. And they are considerable.
The album opens with one of his most enduring pieces, “Peaches en Regalia.” The melody is warm and inviting, and every few seconds Zappa mixes another color into the palette. Every time you think it can’t get more interesting, or more hummable, he surprises you. The song is a compact 3:39, and in that short span, Zappa makes all the case he would ever need to for his rock and roll orchestra concept. Even if he’d never written another song in this style, “Peaches en Regalia” would be immortal.
And it will not prepare you for the dirty grind of “Willie the Pimp,” the following track. Filthy guitars, thick violin lines by Sugar Cane Harris, and the inimitable vocals of Captain Beefheart, here making his Zappa album debut, grease up this bluesy, one-riff piece. Zappa and Beefheart (nee Don Van Vliet) were childhood friends, and Zappa would go on to produce some of Beefheart’s best-known work, and collaborate with him on the 1975 album Bongo Fury. Here, Beefheart’s unchained voice brings out the sleaze in “Willie,” the tale of a khaki-wearing, greasy-haired pimp selling women at the Lido Hotel.
But it isn’t Beefheart you’ll remember from this song. This is the point where we have to start talking about Frank Zappa the guitar player, since in many ways he makes his grand entrance here.
There have been hints of Zappa’s prowess with the guitar before this – his extended solos on “Call Any Vegetable” and “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution” were inventive – but his seven-plus-minute jam on “Willie the Pimp” is something else entirely. It is liquid mercury, never sticking to typical patterns, always seeking the next note in unlikely places. Every second of it moves, tossing off new melodic ideas, but it’s never flashy. Zappa likened soloing to sculpting music from the air, and on this flowing piece – edited down from a longer improv – it’s easy to see what he means.
Zappa lets the jams flow twice more on Hot Rats. “Son of Mr. Green Genes” is a new, jazzy arrangement of the Uncle Meat song, trading off dense horn charts with wild solos, and the 13-minute “The Gumbo Variations” is pure jazz rock, with a hummable saxophone head (over a throbbing bass line by Bennett) and long solos from Underwood, Harris and Zappa. It’s freeform, but it’s consistently interesting, and Humphrey’s drumming keeps everything moving forward.
As for the more tightly composed pieces, “Little Umbrellas” uses a jazz bass and drum foundation to build a strikingly complicated piano and organ structure, with occasional flute flourishes from Underwood, and closer “It Must Be a Camel” lurches from one strange harmonic moment to another, sometimes awkwardly and sometimes wonderfully, before making room for another great guitar solo. In the liner notes, Zappa referred to Hot Rats as “a movie for your ears,” and the three more orchestral pieces – “Peaches,” “Umbrellas” and “Camel” – earn that distinction.
If you’re listening to the Zappa catalog in sequence, Hot Rats will come as a surprise. Gone is the cynicism and tape-splice fastidiousness of prior albums, and in its place is an unmistakable joy. This dichotomy will continue throughout his work – as a lyricist, Zappa is dark, satirical, grumpy and even nasty, and the music accompanying his words cannot help but follow suit.
But when he works instrumentally, his genuine excitement at the infinite possibilities of music comes through. You can hear it in his solos, in his arrangements for his more jazz-oriented bands, and in his glorious orchestral scores. His vocal work asks why you would want to live in such a terrible and ridiculous world, and his instrumental work provides the answer.
Which version to buy: When Hot Rats was originally released on CD, Zappa digitally remixed it, sonically boxing it in and removing a lot of its charm. He did add four minutes of unreleased solos to “The Gumbo Variations,” but that seemed a harsh tradeoff. However, the 2012 Zappa/Universal release corrects this problem, using the original 1969 vinyl master as a starting point, and the results are marvelous. Hot Rats has never sounded this good. It practically bursts from your speakers. This version does revert to the shorter “Gumbo Variations,” but that’s fine. Get both the new and old CDs if you’re a completist, but the best version of Hot Rats out there is the sparkling new one.
Next week: Burnt Weeny Sandwich.