The Zappa Reviews #7 – Hot Rats

Everyone who hates Frank Zappa’s favourite Frank Zappa album came out in 1969. Unintentional double entendres (is that even possible?) aside, it’s true that most people who can’t stand Zappa love Hot Rats despite the mustachioed gentleman who brought it to them. But why? Comedy. That’s right, you heard right, people just hate Zappa when he’s cracking jokes and being bawdy, so when there comes a straight instrumental album with no funny asides and generally serious if light-hearted demeanour from the stable of this much maligned musician, there is rejoicing among people who simply cannot bear the idea of laughing when listening to music. It’s gotta be serious, it’s gotta speak to my soul, it’s gotta be a little unusual but inoffensively so, that way I can say I have good taste while being totally unchallenged by the music and by my friends, because it’s not the normal stuff the plebes are gobbling up, but it’s also not so weird that people can’t get the appeal right away. Right man, I am cool. Yeah, just me and my socially acceptable Frank Zappa record, bopping along, no danger. Let’s suck each others’ dicks because we only like this one Frank Zappa record, oh yeah, we’re awesome. Oh but I am being cruel today, aren’t I? Yes.

Hot Rats comes in three distinct flavours. The first is the straight instrumental composition, exemplified by Peaches en Regalia, Little Umbrellas, and It Must Be a Camel. The second is the jam track, here represented by Willie the Pimp, and The Gumbo Variations. The third is Zappa’s admixture of the two in the form of Son of Mr Green Genes. These flavours are dispersed throughout the album, and no two alike tracks touch each other in the sequence. There isn’t so much a thematic progression as a formal continuity at play here, which in some ways puts it more in line with Zappa’s previous solo effort Lumpy Gravy than any of the Mothers albums, even Uncle Meat, of the same year, and the upcoming Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Although Zappa’s opinion of what was and what was not a Mothers album over the next six or seven years would appear to make little to no sense, for the time being his solo releases were markedly different in style, tone, and form, Zappa eschewing social commentary entirely, taking a purely musical approach to the composition.

Having said that, Hot Rats and Lumpy Gravy differ sharply in terms of composition vs. improvisation. Where Lumpy Gravy is totally composed, a studio construction of material weighed and balanced through careful decision making, Hot Rats is much freer, looser, with Zappa frequently taking centre stage on guitar. This is perhaps the album’s major flaw. Zappa in 1969 was, unfortunately, not at the top of his game as a guitarist, he was competent and his musical ideas were very much his own, yet the flair and mastery he was to exhibit just a few years down the line with the last official Mothers band are nowhere to be seen among his offerings here. That’s not to say the guitar playing on Hot Rats is bad, not at all, rather that for the album to effectively hinge upon it is perhaps not the route Zappa should have taken at this stage in his career. This also could have been aided perhaps by a little whackiness in the manner of Uncle Meat. Consider how great Nine Types of Industrial Pollution sounds, then compare it to the solo on Son of Mr Green Genes, the latter certainly isn’t bad, but the former not only has a lot more going on, it also manages to be just as cohesive as the latter. Now, I know what you’re saying: “that technique just wouldn’t work on this album,” but actually, just take a look at Peaches en Regalia, that technique is in evidence right there on the very first track, instruments speeded up and slowed down, fitting together in all kinds of wild, mechanically cartoonish ways. You’re going to tell me the rest of the album couldn’t have done with a shot of that to help it along?

The entire Zappa back-catalogue was remastered in the late ’80s and early ’90s, some as late as ’93, when Zappa would have been in very ill health. These are the masters put out by Ryko, which you’re probably familiar with if you were listening to Zappa on CD any time before 2012. While most of the albums received little more than a basic ─ some would say detrimental ─ rejigging, the differences between the CD version of Hot Rats and the original LP are staggering. Due to the constraints of the two-side LP format, Zappa ended up cutting down The Gumbo Variations significantly and chopping a few bars off the intro of Willie the Pimp, so the CD remaster on Ryko was not just a re-release with a different mix, it was a restoration of a classic, like the long lost footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, discovered on a reel that was, for some reason, in Buenos Aires of all places. So here’s one of Zappa’s most popular records, and it’s now got five minutes of stuff probably no one but the lucky few involved in the original studio sessions has ever heard before. Best of all, it isn’t an hour’s worth of audio excerpts from a fucking movie sandwiched between the original sides!

However, the reality of listening to LP and CD cuts side by side is not one of “oh, that’s cool, I never guessed there was an edit there” but one of “oh, why did they change the mix to cover up half the instruments?” Certainly, the Ryko release sounds a whole lot cleaner, but it also loses vibrancy as a result, and gains in its place a sort of clinical, sterile environment for its musical operations. It’s not terrible ─ and I feel like I’m saying that in one way or another quite frequently in this review ─ it’s actually quite a punchy mix that is perfectly enjoyable in its own right, but as a matter of comparisons, simply too much of the original is lost. I guess somewhere in there lies a compelling analogy for analogue vs. digital in general, and sure, vinyl is fun, there’s something tactile about the whole process of handling the disc, operating the turntable, and the warm crackle is a nostalgic sound that somehow adds value to the listening experience rather than distorting the music; CDs are cleaner, more efficient, they hold more music, they’re easily portable, and the cases are made of solid plastic rather than flimsy sheets of card stuck together with adhesive. This used to be the argument, way back before peer-to-peer and BitTorrent were things, people used to say of CDs: “they’ll never catch on,” and in some ways they were right, as they’ve probably had the shortest lifespan at the top of the audio media chain of any since wax cylinders or shellac. CDs are totally outdated now, there is no real point in having them any more except to have a visible collection with which to amaze visitors to your home, a testament to your amazing taste, except people would rather check out your Last.fm, your iPod library, whatever, no one gives a fuck about CDs. Vinyl, on the other hand, somehow, has come back, it’s cool to own things on vinyl, it’s cool to listen to things on vinyl, and, for certain roguish types on the internet, vinyl rips of older albums, and even newer albums which were mastered digitally and therefore have no reason to be on vinyl, are where it’s at, not just for fidelity but for cultural cachet. Retro’s the new new, baby, uh… Well, at least with Hot Rats you are getting the better version by adhering to idiotic trends.

“But why aren’t you talking about the music, man?” Well, what do you want me to say, the band is tight? This is one of the reasons I can’t talk about jazz. Describing improvisations, analysing them, seems to me to take all the value out of actually listening to them, because you’re going into the listening process then with someone else’s words in your head, you’ve built up a preconception based on the interpretation of someone who is not you; and I, having to think about it so hard as to even come close to transcribing it into words that amount to more than a mere technical description of technique and theory, I’m even ruining it for myself. Every ounce of spontaneity, invention, surprise, and ─ dare I say it ─ soul is gone, because I boiled the broth so much that I cooked all the flavour out of the ingredients. They were delicious when they went into the pan, now they’re bland and mushy, and it’s my fault for going too far, for not giving due respect to the materials I was working with. Is this a cop out? Yeah, probably, but that’s just how I feel. What one gains from analysis of a composition, one loses in overthinking an improvisation, because the intent is different, the mood, the mode, the technique, the method of exploration, it’s all different, bound up in the immediacy of the act, the spirit of the moment. Even here, with Zappa showcasing his style in what would later be shown to be fledgling, perhaps even embryonic form, that remains true.

Hot Rats, while it is for all the world another unique Zappa album to add to the pile that has so far accumulated, feels like not so much a bold statement in its own right as it does a return to Freak Out! Now hold on, what the fuck? This album is nothing like Freak Out!! (ha ha) You’re right, they are entirely dissimilar, and yet Zappa here seems, like the Mothers on their debut outing, to be showing us potential, proof of concept rather than the real deal. So we have a kind of return to zero, marking the end of one era and the start of another, a watershed record in every sense, and yet this great cleansing of the palate would prove to be half-hearted, as from now until 1976 there comes a weird episode in Zappa’s career in which he can’t quite decide if the Mothers are still a thing or not, and has even more trouble deciding if it’s his name, theirs, or any number of combinations of the two that deserve to be credited for each new release.

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