What does it sound like?:
“Hot Rats” is probably the most well-known and accessible album in Frank Zappa’s oeuvre. Mostly instrumental, he keeps the snorks and annoying gimmicks/ satirical cool outsidedom to the minimum, and instead highlights his interesting way with music, melody, and bring out the most creative chops in his fellow musicians. “Hot Rats” (dedicated to Dweezil, who was performing this in full (not the 6 hour box set) in the UK this week) was recorded in 1969 (2 days after man landed on the moon, fact fans). In that year Zappa also released “Uncle Meat”, produced “Trout Mask Replica”, the GTOs, and Jeff Simmons, toured the USA and Europe, jammed with “Pink Floyd”, edited a Lord Buckley album, and more. What was that Lou Reed said about “my week beats your year”? In 1969, FZ had ideas and music flowing out of him, and it didn’t stop.
The Hot Rats Sessions were over 6 weeks (doubtless with lots of other stuff being done) and used the then-fancy 16-track recording desk, and various new musicians, here including Lowell George, Jean-Luc Ponty, Don “SugarCane” Harris, and Shuggie Otis, along with various trusted Mothers, such as Ian Underwood. The 6 CDs here show the extended jams and evolution of the famous tracks that make up “Hot Rats” such that a number of different, equally valid “Hot Rats” albums could exist. There is over an hour of “Willie the Pimp” variants, which, by virtue of it being probably the most conventional blues rock-structured piece here, will be 50 minutes too much, but the new shadings and variations on “Peaches …”, “Little Umbrellas”, “”Son of Mr Green Genes”, and the endlessly interesting “It must be a Camel” keep this release of interest for anyone who likes Frank Zappa’s music.
There are a number of lengthy jams, (“of course there are”, as FZ would say), and occasional isolated basslines (“NOBODY likes bass solos, even bass guitarists don’t like bass solos”, as he also once said), but this all works, as there is so much music happening, and quite a bit of joy in the people making it. There are drafts of other tracks which would subsequently emerge, for example “Directly from my Heart to You”, which would end up on “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”, and the highly groovy “Dame Margaret’s Son to be a Bride” would end up as “Let me take you to the Beach” on 1978’s “Studio Tan”. “Big Legs” is a 32-minute jam that became a good part of “The Gumbo Variations”, and has a proper greasy, soulful, raucous sax lead for a good part of the track.
This is Frank Zappa in the studio – it all sounds clear, and many a tiny detail or bodacious reverb can be heard. Whether casual listeners will want 6 hours of this is moot, but Zapparians and those who like his jazzier, more conventionally musical side certainly will. The package also comes with a nice book full of unseen photos and essays, as it jolly well should at $125 (£99) for a physical copy. Not with the reviewer’s download is a rather nice sounding additional feature – a “help Zappa get to the studio” board game with many themed bits, pieces, cards, dice, etc. I’d like to see that!
What does it all *mean*?
I continue to regard with awe Frank Zappa’s prolific output, and the points when he was producing so much music and deriving such performances from tremendous musicians. There were the tunes, the comments, the annoying bits, the experiments, the failed experiments, the pissing around, the “payin’ the rent” gigs, and this was when he was 29, and ostensibly married and with a new baby. He continued to have a magnificent run from 1971 to 1976, with again shedloads of music, endless tours, umpteen shifts of musical direction, some quality trolling of the serious minded in his groupie documentation and the chaotic shitstorm that was “200 Motels” (my view: every Zappa fan has something they find annoying or sub-par in his work, and that’s mine, the later knob jokes and provocative stage raps I love, though well I know they are perhaps a little “off-message” for the current times). When faced with these troubled times, I often ask myself, “What would Frank Zappa do and say?” I find this provides me with consolation and a sense of how to move forward. I hope he does the same for some of you, too.
Goes well with…
For me, reading court papers and drinking tea, but anything, really.
20th December 2019
Might suit people who like…
Frank Zappa, jazz, noodling, fusion, extended instrumental soloing with gratuitous displays of technique.