March Through Time: Frank Zappa

Even before his untimely death in the 1990s, Frank Zappa’s body of work was staggeringly large. And it was certainly intimidating to the novitiate: Where to start, especially in light of the fact that Zappa’s music changed wildly throughout his career? Rather than attempt the unwieldy task of discussing all of his releases up through The Yellow Shark, I’m going to single out seven of them that I find of special note. Other than the annoyingly execrable The Man from Utopia (and possibly Bongo Fury if you’re not a Captain Beefheart fan) there’s something special on all of the 40-plus albums Zappa released during his lifetime.

  • Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (1968) – Casual listeners might not even be aware of Zappa’s deep and abiding love of doo-wop. This 1968 LP features The Mothers of Invention, and while there are bits of snark here and there, it’s really a heartfelt expression of the form, albeit through the use of original material. Beware of the CD-era remix which replaces some of the original instrumentation.
  • Mothermania (1969) Zappa’s primary artistic medium was always the album, so the idea of a best-of or greatest-hits compilation would have been anathema. Still, this collection of eleven songs from the Mothers’ early period is a tidy sampler of what that group was all about. It’s a good entry point into that period of Zappa’s work.
  • Fillmore East – June 1971 (1971) – For the Flo and Eddie-era Mothers, this is their finest hour. Less intimidating than 200 Motels and more tuneful than Just Another Band from L.A., it’s also a lot of fun.
  • The Grand Wazoo (1972) – Zappa had already been exploring progressive, jazz and fusion textures. But with The Grand Wazoo he made a “big band” album. And it’s an impressive work.
  • Orchestral Favorites (1979) – Zappa likely won’t have considered this part of his official catalog, as it was released against his wishes. But as the strongest piece of a trilogy that also included Studio Tan and Sleep Dirt, it’s perhaps an even better big band/orchestral work. It’s among his most accessible offerings, too.
  • You Are What You Is (1981) – A personal favorite, not least because I first saw him live onstage on this tour. Smutty, puerile and featuring strictly non-P.C. lyrics, it’s a guilty pleasure. The music is superb, and the lyrics are often quite funny and on-the-nose.
  • Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981) – Sort of a live corollary to YAWYI, with no overlap in material. Includes the third reading of the classic “Peaces en Regalia,” possibly his finest composition.

Note: If you find that you enjoy any of the above, there’s much more to discover. If your tastes run toward live recordings, Any of the six-volume You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series is worthwhile – as are live albums released in the late ‘80s, but note that Zappa was notorious for chopping, editing and overdubbing his live recordings, so they may not meet strict definitions of “live” albums.

And with reaching the letter Z, this month-long rundown of the bodies of work of some of my favorite artists has reached its conclusion. Regularly-scheduled programming will return tomorrow.