Great Googly Moogly: Five Great Tracks from Frank Zappa’s Most Popular Album

Even if one doesn’t care for his public persona, it’s a long-settled point of fact that Frank Zappa is among the most significant composers of the 20th century. Zappa’s iconoclastic approach to music established him as both an outsider and cultural commentator; his wit and intellect made him one of the most groundbreaking artists on the popular music landscape. Taking aim at culture’s sacred cows (religion, politics, sex and more), his skewering satire and often prurient lyrical matter guaranteed that he’d never achieve widespread popularity.

But on more than one occasion, Zappa came close. His mid-’70s work found its way onto progressive FM radio (at least when his lyrics adhered to FCC guidelines), and Zappa did some of his most accessible work in that period. A commercial high point (and one of several critical pinnacles) in Zappa’s body of work came with the release of 1974’s Apostrophe(’). Released in March 1974, Frank Zappa’s 18th album reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s album charts, and gave him his first-ever charting single. On the occasion of that album’s 50th anniversary, here are five fascinating (and safe for airplay!) tunes from Zappa’s Apostrophe(’).

“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”
Among Zappa’s most well-known tunes, the leadoff track on Apostrophe(’) is a characteristically wacky and humorous number. It makes use of the 7/4 time signature, a tricky meter that appears rarely in pop music (Pink Floyd’s “Money” and King Crimson’s “Frame by Frame” are among the few other well-known examples). The brief tune was actually released as a single, incorporating two other tracks from the LP, “Nanook Rubs It” and the tour-de-force “St. Alfonso’s Pancake Breakfast.”

“Cosmik Debris”
A story song, this tune tells the fictional story of Zappa meeting a mystical guru. In typical Zappa fashion, it’s equal parts whimsy and musical adventure. Of particular interest are Zappa’s searing guitar solo and the bravura work on vibraphone by percussionist Ruth Underwood, a key member of Zappa’s mid ‘70s band. And while she’s not credited on the sleeve, it’s likely that Tina Turner is among the backing vocalists for this bluesy track. Cut during sessions that yielded many of the songs on another Zappa LP, Over-nite Sensation, “Cosmik Debris” was also released as the b-side of the “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” single in 1974.

One group configuration that Zappa rarely made use of was the rock “power trio.” Popularized by Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Who, the power trio utilized one guitarist, a bassist and drummer. Most of Zappa’s arrangements were too complex for such a format. A notable exception, then, is the title track from Apostrophe(’), a recording featuring famed session drummer Jim Gordon and (on bass) Cream’s Jack Bruce. This instrumental number is among the hardest-rocking tunes in Zappa’s body of work; it’s also one of his most accessible pieces. Bruce’s “lead bass” is the highlight of what is essentially a one-off studio jam.

“Uncle Remus”
Gospel music isn’t a genre one would readily associate with Frank Zappa. But keyboard virtuoso George Duke was an on-and-off member of his group for several years, and his jazz, blues and gospel inclinations find expression on this song. A Zappa/Duke co-write, the gospel-flavored “Uncle Remus” is a pointed bit of social commentary about racism. In customary Zappa fashion, the tune’s lyrics deal with the subject in a sarcastic manner, but his points are well made. In addition to Duke’s lyrical piano work, the track also features a sizzling guitar break from Zappa.

“Excentrifugal Forz”
While much of Apostrophe(’) was recorded in 1972-74, parts of some track have their origin in sessions from as much as five years earlier. Zappa’s cut-and-paste method to recording – something that would characterize the lion’s share of his work in the 1980s – found one of its earliest expressions on this track. The drum parts by John Guerin were recorded in 1969 during sessions for Zappa’s first solo album, Hot Rats. With its knotty, jazz-leaning arrangement, “Excentrifugal Forz” hints at later Zappa works like “Night School” from his final studio release, the Grammy-winning 1986 LP Jazz from Hell.