Graded on a Curve:
Frank Zappa,
Hot Rats

Frank Zappa and I have a complicated relationship. During my formative years spent smoking pot with pig farmers I was besotted by the fellow. I thought he was smart, and figured that listening to him made me smart too.

But we agreed to a temporary separation around the time of the 1979 release of Sheik Yerbouti, and split for good after that same year’s Joe’s Garage Act I. I could no longer ignore the derisive sneer of perceived intellectual and moral superiority audible in every one of his songs. That and it finally occurred to me that the mildly scatological humor I found so clever was just as clever to 12-year-olds.

There are other bands I liked then but no longer listen to now. But Zappa is the only artist I have ever wished to airbrush, Soviet-style, from my musical past. Liking him as much as I did then actually embarrasses me. And that’s a step too far, I think. There is no denying that Zappa expanded the limitations of rock’n’roll. So I have made a few tentative steps towards a rapprochement over the past several years. Why, I even went so far as to borrow my brother’s copy of 1969’s Hot Rats—an LP I must have listened to a thousand times when I was stoned—then actually played the damn thing.

And? Well, upon first listen, I was inclined to agree with Robert Christgau, whose review of Hot Rats went, “Doo-doo to you, Frank–when I want movie music I’ll listen to ‘Wonderwall.’” This was a rejoinder to Mr. Zappa’s description of his second solo LP following the breakup of the Mothers of Invention as “a movie for your ears.” But I think that’s overly harsh. Some of Hot Rats can be written off as overly formal forays into jazz-rock fusion. Violinist and jazz fusion hero Jean Luc-Ponty doesn’t play on LP closer “It Must Be a Camel”— a brave if rather plodding foray into Eric Dolphy country—for nothing. And the horn arrangements are, for the most part, both prissy and as tight-assed as the fella what came up with them. But Hot Rats contains some very exciting moments and two songs for the ages in “Willie the Pimp” and the lengthy “The Gumbo Variations.”

Let’s look at the downside first. LP opener “Peaches and Regalia” would make nice theme music for a cable channel documentary on penguins. And the more I listen to it the more it sounds like, and this is not a good thing, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. “Little Umbrellas” is a quite decent if too polite by far stab at jazz—the whole tune is far too tightly wound for its own good—but is distinguished by the masterful bass work of Max Bennett and Ian Underwood’s cobra dance horn.

To its credit the aforementioned “It Must Be a Camel” is more jazz than fusion, and is noteworthy for the great performances of Bennett and Guerin on bass and drums respectively. And Zappa plays some excellent guitar as well. “Son of Mr. Green Genes” comes on like an uninspired high school jazz band composition—I can literally visualize pimply teens earnestly studying Zappa’s rather pedestrian horn charts—but is redeemed by the man’s impeccably tasteful guitar solos and some actual blowing by the wonderful Mr. Ian Underwood, whose horns are responsible for many of the LP’s finest moments.

Cranky comments aside, Hot Rats is worth owning for “Willie the Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations” alone. The former features vocals by Captain Beefheart, some wonderfully rough-edged violin work by the great Don “Sugarcane” Harris, and lots of excellent guitar wank by Zappa. It’s the only pure rocker on the LP—no prissy horn arrangements or jazz slumming on this one—and rock it does, all 9 minutes and 23 seconds of it. Say what you will about Zappa, the man could sure play the guitar, and he’s in top form here.

As for the almost 13-minute long “The Gumbo Variations,” it’s a downright funky kick out the jams session and opens with some bona fide raunchy jazz skronk by Underwood, who does everything with his saxophone but make it froth at the mouth. At around the 4-minute mark Harris comes in, and plays some of the most frenetic and in-your-face rock violin you’ll ever hear. Zappa’s guitar takes over briefly at around the 9-minute mark and is followed by some wonderfully clamorous playing by all participants, including Bennett and Paul Humphrey on drums.

One of the chief advantages of Hot Rats is that Frank Zappa never opens his mouth. It contains zero percent jejune social commentary by an obviously intelligent guy who, when all is said and done, never lost his taste for 8th grade bathroom humor. Don’t eat the yellow snow indeed. Another of its advantages is that, at least on several cuts, Zappa chooses to dispense with his avant-garde pretentions in favor of indulging his rock’n’roll self. A third and final advantage is… wait, did I already say Frank Zappa never opens his mouth?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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