Frank Zappa made easy
Zappa covered every genre of music and released a head-spinning 50-plus albums in his nearly 30-year career, many of them too out-there for even the most devoted fan. For those curious or ambitious enough to seek a taste of the man, any of these more accessible (and we use that word loosely) albums would be a good place to start.
FREAK OUT (1966) The first Mothers of Invention album is equal parts send-up and homage, chewing through everything from doo-wop to fractured Stones and Animals riffs. Free-form numbers like ”The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet Medley” predate Jimi Hendrix’s tone poems by a year. Though now unavoidably quaint, Freak Out‘s jeering anarchy was astonishing back in ’66.
WE’RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY (1967) A quasi rock opera and Zappa’s wake-up call to a peace-and-love movement he saw as empty-headed and spiritually corrupt. Songs like ”Concentration Moon” (which envisioned government- controlled concentration camps for hippies) are blatant kicks in the Love generation’s butt. Though thematically dated, Money is crucial Zappa iconoclasm.
HOT RATS (1970) ”Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells bad,” Zappa once remarked. This album, Zappa’s first without the Mothers, is his attempt to make jazz appealing to nonfans. Lush instrumentals (”Peaches en Regalia,” a staple of Zappa’s live shows, and the totally cookin’ ”The Gumbo Variations”) still sound up-to-the-minute. Rats also includes Captain Beefheart singing the epic ”Willie the Pimp.”
WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH (1970) A hodgepodge of live and studio recordings representing the original Mothers’ last gasp, Weasels contains some of Zappa’s looniest work in a free-jazz vein: ”At this moment on stage we have Drummer A playing in 7/8, Drummer B playing in 3/4, the bass playing in 3/4 and the alto sax blowing his nose” is how he described the cacophony of ”Toads of the Short Forest.”
APOSTROPHE (1974) A jazz-rock-fusion album with lyrics? Sounds like a terrible idea, but this is one of Zappa’s most consistently enjoyable works. Includes ”Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” a surprise hit for Zappa, and ”Cosmik Debris,” a cynical slap in the face to incipient New Age types.
SHEIK YERBOUTI (1979) Zappa’s weakness for silly scatology reaches a nadir here, and the pallid disco parody ”Dancin’ Fool” and jokey ”Jewish Princess” very nearly overwhelm the instrumental pearls ”Rat Tomago” and ”Sheik Yerbouti Tango.” But his impeccable taste in sidemen is underscored by the presence of drummer Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons) and guitar ace Adrian Belew (Talking Heads).