The Man From Utopia/Baby Snakes/Jazz From Hell/The Lost Episodes

Frank Zappa

It bit of a diversion from our normal reviews, but one we were asked to do. The music of Frank Zappa is now back in the hands of the Zappa Family Trust. This is a good thing, as it means that a very extensive back catalogue of music was re-issued last year, meaning that a new generation will be able to discover the truly unique talent of the late Frank Zappa. Of course, that is very extensive back catalogue that will cost you lot in shelf space!

“The artist and composer, Frank Zappa, is one of the most important and influential artists in music history with his prolific body of work, including his breakthrough rock ‘n roll concept albums. We are honored that Gail Zappa and the Zappa Family Trust have entrusted us with his legacy. We intend to honor him and bring high quality releases, digital and physical, for his new and longtime fans”, said Bruce Resnikoff, President/CEO, Universal Music Enterprises (UMe).

The UME deal encompasses the entire Zappa catalogue, as it appeared on Frank Zappa’s own independent label, Barking Pumpkin Records and many of the original analogue masters have been re-mastered.

If you have not heard of Frank Zappa, and in some areas he is not a household name which is a shame, he has been hailed as one of the greatest guitarists ever, and possibly one of the most prolific, with just over 60 albums released, plus more posthumously, not to mention the extensive unreleased material in the family vaults. All of this has led to his work being hugely influential.

Frank Zappa

But his music is not all or obviously guitar orientated, his first album “Freak Out!” showed Franks perception of American pop-culture of the time (1966), and over the years has encompassed a lot of genres, as well as poking fun at politics, religions, and just about anything else that could generate controversy. All the time building a loyal and ever growing fan-base. Yet never trying to get a chart hit, and getting virtually zero air-play. Whilst justifying this in one interview with, possibly one of my favourite quotes;

Reporter: This is a personal thing, I think that if you wanted to make top ten hits and sell millions of records, you could.
Frank Zappa: Yeah, but who wants to go through life with a tiny nose and one glove on?

One of my biggest regret was never to him live, yet hearing the stories or seeing the videos, where he has no support act, asks the audience to sit down as the show is going to be about 4 hours long, always left me envious.

Frank Zappa

The Man From Utopia
Comes from an era of his back catalog that is a little colder in sound with heavy use of synths (“You Are What You Is”, “Sheik Yerbouti”, “Them or Us”), as well as some intricate guitar, all inter-woven providing textures and harmonies, that some artists only dream of, and for some listeners are just plain alien! But it is more than just synth work, the tracks on the album range from studio work, comprising of the intricate layers, almost avant grade lyrics, and instrumentals, as well as heavily remixed live work.

Opening with “Cocaine Decisions”, it is an obvious example of Zappa writing about issues and cultural observations. The only drawback to this is that a lot of his material is pertinent to the time it was written (to quote, “I am an anachronism, that makes the ugliest music on the planet”), which when listened to out of time still makes for interesting (not to mention humorous) listening, even if some of that social commentary is lost. This is followed by “Sex”, which has an annoyingly catchy chorus which off sets the almost darker sounding verse, and it’s rhythm led verse structure. Although this seems to be a typical device used on a number of tracks, smoothly flipping between styles.

There are a couple of tracks that hark back to the “Freak” era, which live between the weird and avant-garde, those being “The Radio Is Broken” and “The Dangerous Kitchen”, yet both having that obtuse Zappa Humour, and intricate musical compositions.

As an aside, the cover is almost a direct copy an Italian comic book anti-hero Rank Xerox (I am sure I have an English translation round here somewhere), which is no doubt intentional, as the rest of the cover hints at an infamous Italian tour that suffered from riots and mosquitos.

Track Listing
Cocaine Decisions
Tink Walks Amok
The Radio Is Broken
We Are Not Alone
The Dangerous Kitchen
The Man from Utopia Meets Mary Lou (Medley)
Stick Together
The Jazz Discharge Party Hats
Luigi and The Wise Guys

Frank Zappa

Baby Snakes
Is a live album from 1983, but recorded from his halloween show in 1977. With the exception of the track “Baby Snakes” which is a slight reworking of the studio version which appears on “Sheik Yerbouti”, a predominantly live album.

The album contains fairly short tracks, although the closing track “Punky Whips” weighs in at about 11 minutes. The album opens with a dressing room discussion between Frank and Warren Cuccurullo a long time fan who then became a guitarist for Frank, who later went on to describe Frank “the mad-scientist of music”. The album, at times might seem a little lack lustre, but during this period he was involved in legal issues with Warner. Despite the Warner Brothers issues, check out the brief rant in “Titties and Beer”, and that live performances can be reduced in complexity for the sake of performance, this album still maintains its layers, and signature Zappa sounds and compositions.

The album is also quite diverse (perhaps not by Zappas standards though), “Jones Rocker” is more of a funky rocking track, that follows from the preceding instrumental, but goes to show how easily he made varying styles flow. But then the album also features two popular tracks, “Disco Boy” which pokes fun at the disco genre, any the ever popular live favourite “Dinah No-Hum”. It also goes to show the perfectionism and detail that Frank went to, at times you forget this is mainly a live album, perhaps in part reflected by the 6 year gap between the recording and the release.

Intro Rap
Baby Snakes
Titties and Beer
Black Page, No. 2
Jones Crusher
Disco Boy
Dinah-Moe Humm
Punky’s Whips

Frank Zappa

Jazz from Hell
For me this album did not grab me as much as his other material, yet what do I know? It was a Grammy award winning instrumental album (1987,”Best Rock Intrsumental” I believe). It shows off his skill not just as a composer, but his ability to control every aspect of what you, the listener, hears. From the layers of sounds, to the intricate harmonies, the beats and rhythms – check out the frenetic pace to “G-Spot Tornado” to the slightly more laid back intricacies of “While You Were Art II”. With this being one of his instrumental albums it gave him a brief respite from the battling of the PMRC, as there was no lyrical controversy, not too mention he got to fully utilize the Synclavier. As such, this is primarily a synth based body of work, with “St. Etienne” being the exception, as it was recorded at a live performance of “Drowning Witch” in 1982. Aside form this track, he composed, and programmed everything you heard, it was all emulated – this is no mean feat. But remains a little cold with out the talents of his previous co-conspirators.

Night School
The Beltway Bandits
While You Were Art II
Jazz from Hell
G-Spot Tornado
Damp Ankles
St. Etienne
Massaggio Galore

Frank Zappa

The Lost Episodes
I am not really going to review this one. It is one I would only really recommend to those who have just about everything, or just want to hear more of thebackground about the history or the background relationships and happenings. This album is 30 tracks varying between music, interviews, and captured conversations, and anecdotes. Originally released in 1996, but features recordings from the late 50’s onwards – with running times from 11 seconds upwards, to full tracks (the original mix of “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted”, but was re-recorded entirely for release on “You Are What You Is”).

For me the most interesting aspect was the hefty sleeve notes, with it’s dates and notes which accompany the tracks, and the details about “The Lost Episodes” project.

It is a very interesting album of historic pieces from the archives chosen by Frank for (re)release. For some reason, I particularly like the violin work on Sharleena as the album closes.

Frank Zappa

Blackouts, The
Lost in a Whirlpool
Ronnie Sings?
Kenny’s Booger Story
Ronnie’s Booger Story
Mount St. Mary’s Concert Excerpt
Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance
Tiger Roach
Run Home Slow Theme
Fountain of Love
Run Home Cues #2
Any Way the Wind Blows
Run Home Cues #3
Dick Kunc Story, The
Wedding Dress Song
Handsome Cabin Boy
Cops & Buns
Big Squeeze, The
I’m a Band Leader
Alley Cat
Grand Wazoo, The
Wonderful Wino
Kung Fu
Basement Music, No. 1
Inca Roads
Lil’ Clanton Shuffle
I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted

Trying to review 4 albums in one hit is not easy, especially when there is fan-base that will never agree with any one review[er], and provide 101 insights, that are esoteric, unproven, or just simply well documented. Not to mention the volume of reviews all ready available. What is of note here is that these albums are now being handled by people who care. Not just for the fans, but for how the music was meant to be. If anything I hope this helps to introduce some people to his work. Some might argue there is a lot of duplication in his releases, he was always working on some tracks, keeping them alive, and re-working them. This was not a lack of creativity, but a desire to give the fans what they want, and some tracks just wanted to stay alive. Some will like his work, some won’t, especially as a large portion of his back catalogue is experimental, and I have met folks who vehemently hate is work.

Frank Zappa

The thing to remember is that there is a lot of Zappa material to listen to, and you might have to be picky over where you start, and it might not be for some people. But his [musical] genius, originality, skill not just with a guitar but as a composer, and the fact that he did what he wanted to, not what he was told to, makes him a musical legend. Personally, I would recommend anyone looking into starting with Zappa to start with “Over-Nite Sensation” and “Apostrophe” (1973, and 1974), however my first introduction to Zappa was “You Are What You Is” and that got me hooked many years ago. Of course if you want love songs and rock and roll, and a smatteringy of do-wop then check out “Cruising With Ruben And The Jets”.

One final quote; “to me absurdity is the only reality”.

Words by Jon.
Pictures belong to their respective copyright owners (I nicked them off the internet).

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