The Zappa Reviews #8 – Burnt Weeny Sandwich

Burnt Weeny Sandwich is the first posthumous release of Frank Zappa’s career. The Mothers had been disbanded, they were done, finished, ended, through, so through were they that it was thought that their throughness was thorough and final. It turns out not to be the case, since Zappa had apparently made the decision in haste and would then bring the name back all of a sudden just months later. Who knows why, but one might speculate that the Mothers, despite Hot Rats, despite a (shall we say) healthy dose of self-promotion the past few years, still had a higher profile than Zappa himself. You can say that he was the band in the public view, and that’s at least partly true, but what are you without what you are? (…I can resist jokes once in a while, folks…)

“Burt Weenysandwich? What the heck kind of a name is that? Oh, oh, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, I… well, I still don’t get it.” That’s okay, pard, sit a spell and let me spin you a tale to set your back hairs a-twitchin’. Where I was going with that I don’t know, but I’ve got to fill space somehow, and I sure as hell ain’t talkin’ about no music in this here music review. Yes, that’s a Hot Rats callback, and yes, I will redo that one eventually.

The album is a fork in the road. The path not taken was the continuation of the Mothers, an outfit which, you might think it easy to see in hindsight, had possibly done all it could do. I take the view that the Mothers, assuming the banner could continue to absorb more people and change formations as it went on, as Zappa’s later touring bands would do, had many more years ahead of it, eventually arriving at the amorphous absurdity suggested by the name “United Mutations”. Without taking up half the review with pointless speculation as to what would and would not happen in this alternate timeline, let’s just say that things would have been very different.

Under the circumstances, and while it would be absolutely hideous to conflate biographical details with musical output (a musicological crime we are thankfully not often incited to commit when talking about Zappa), it’s easy to see the upbeat, melodic, “optimistic” sounds that make up the music throughout as being incredibly sad, tinged with nostalgia and a sense of loss. But that’s what a combination of hindsight and alcohol will do for your writings on music, folks. At the time Zappa had already given up on sociopolitical commentary, not wishing to be associated with the burgeoning political rock scene, and the mainstay in 1969 was definitely (and perhaps defiantly, too) instrumental music, or songs with lyrics too absurd for anyone to find much of anything in them without looking like a fool, which is a certain kind of serendipity for my purposes in that I can maintain my sappy maudlin approach without a trace of irony and say “what, you see some other way of dancing about this architecture?”

The structure of the album is symmetrical—single track>suite>side break>suite>single track—and in practice almost symmetrical, almost only by virtue of a few minutes’ difference in duration between sides. In this way Zappa returns to Absolutely Free, acknowledging the LP format as a reasonable constraint to be built around rather than an annoyance to be defied. Both albums use suites as their major units of organisation, but where Absolutely Free is all singing, all dancing, Burnt Weeny Sandwich shoves singing to the outermost extremities, in the form of two cover versions of popular doo-wop songs by Four Deuces (WPLJ) and Jackie & the Starlites (Valarie). These two covers, which could be Ruben and the Jets off-cuts (and I don’t mean that negatively), bookend the album, a greeting and a farewell which mark out more of that bittersweet Territory of the End with pleasant cliché.

Both tracks showcase the Mothers as singers. Common throughout Zappa’s line-ups is the expectation that all or most members of the band will have some vocal parts, the ’60s incarnations of the Mothers have some of the finest examples of the group as doublers of voice and instrument. Here more than anywhere in the post-Ray Collins era is his absence felt, this material is exactly his kind of territory, and while Zappa, who was admittedly not much for singing, does a fine enough job, bringing just enough sincerity to his delivery of WPLJ‘s fluffy lyrics, you can’t help but wonder how Collins’s presence might have influenced things. By all accounts it doesn’t seem like Collins himself had much influence so far as exercising his will over the musical direction of the band goes, but his voice lent itself well to particular instrumentations, which Zappa had well prepared to be one of the all-too-often unsung highlights of Freak Out! The difference in instrumentation here, compared even to Ruben, let alone the debut, and discounting the obvious changes of personnel over just a few short years, speaks volumes on Collins’s subtle but central importance to the music making of the Mothers.

WPLJ, despite being musically alien to the rest of the album, sets up a vibe of fun that will be carried on through the first suite and over the side break. First off, sharp material contrast is in the offing with Igor’s Boogie, Phase One, which, along with its respective Phase Two, is just one of many Stravinsky references and tributes Zappa would make throughout his career. Rather than quoting, as he had done previously, melodies of Stravinsky, this time Zappa writes original music in homage to the Russian ex-pat. The music in both Phases points towards L’histoire du soldat (1916), a jaunty ensemble piece with percussion. They are similar in structure to one another, hitting equivalent gestures at equivalent times (handy for light analysis such as this because they’re both the exact same length), such that it is almost accurate to call Phase Two a double (in the sense of the Baroque dance suite, e.g.: Allemande et double) or more properly a variation of Phase One. In keeping with the theme of the End, Stravinsky was coming to the end of his life, and indeed had ceased to compose after around 1968. It doesn’t particularly matter, in fact doesn’t matter at all that this was the case, or if Stravinsky had the chance to hear these brief movements, which are essentially glue for larger works which he might well have found much more interesting, but it is interesting to think what Zappa could have made here had he produced a full suite of this music.

The major pairing on side one is that of the two Holiday in Berlin pieces, which contain music that would later appear in the soundtrack for 200 Motels. The first of the two tracks, the Overture, presents a sequence of three linked melodies which are quite fluffy and pleasant, this is offset by a wilfully vulgar encroachment of dissonance by having certain of the instruments, most notably the double bass on the final melody, shade the melodies in colours borne of playing slightly outside of 12TET. The double bass in particular achieves the remarkable feat of sitting between two chairs without contradiction, lending the whole affair a shimmering, spectral quality.

Holiday in Berlin, Full-Blown, the longest track of the Side One suite, elaborates on the basic sequence shown previously in the Overture, with yet more material that would develop into 200 Motels. The arrangement is much softer, avoids the grand dissonances of its predecessor, and is more given over to the pillowy largesse of Strictly Genteel, which was originally conceived as the finale to 200 Motels. Zappa’s clear desire here, which is another perspective on the same landscapes he painted with Lumpy Gravy, and which he would paint again with 200 Motels, is the total amalgamation of popular and classical music. It’s a theme that dominated Zappa’s early career and one to which he would return—though it’s fair to say he never entirely left—with yet another perspective in his final years.

Full-Blown gives us the second of two guitar solos in the Side One suite, and it is, in my estimation, the better of the two. The first, which is featured on the potentially interesting Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, begins with sharp percussion and baleful bells and other metal percussions which, when I was younger, made me think of a bombed out church lost to some war, and someone shovelling through the rubble, looking for something. The guitar solo slowly fades in over the top of this and the whole thing decidedly becomes sub-Nine Types of Industrial Pollution, a less interesting cousin one is forced to meet and talk with at the Mothers’ Farewell Party. It isn’t bad, but didn’t we have enough of this from not only Nine Types but the guitar-heavy Hot Rats, which had already done more and better than is on offer here? The saving grace is in the final percussion section, which sets up for a smooth transition into Igor’s Boogie, Phase Two. Why couldn’t the rest of the track have been like that?

The finale of the Side One suite is Aybe Sea (easy as one-two-three! C’mon guys, lets sue some motherfuckers!), which is the suite’s summation, with its Stravinskian rhythms, and its tonality, which begins in the same mode as Holiday in Berlin. The piece ends on a cryptic note which builds expectation for Side Two. The use of harpsichord is perhaps at its most striking in this piece, where it is paired and contrasted with the piano, its own future replacement, which, if I was going to take my shamelessly emotionalist reading of the album way back on the fourth paragraph entirely too far, I could say is a microcosm of the entire album: the presentation of past and future in simultaneity. Aybe Sea is, in my estimation, among Zappa’s most beautiful work, in part for its contrasting of past and present in different ways, for example the way in which its harmonies progress towards jazz, while maintaining a neo-Baroque sensibility which underpins the whole thing. Furthermore, the piece offers a real insight to Zappa’s level of control and assuredness as a composer and as an arranger, both of which can be difficult to grasp in some of his best and most esoteric work.

Side Two is dominated by Little House I Used to Live In, a giant edifice which is by turns dazzling and exasperating. Zappa continues from the end of Aybe Sea with a great opening for solo piano which takes the jazz harmonies and removes them from the neo-Baroque context, essentially freeing them up to become somehow unstuck in time. This is followed by the full ensemble playing music from Return of the Son of the Hunchback Duke (possibly the Duke of Prunes following an unfortunate accident in his magic go-kart), a piece the Mothers would play in their concerts around 1969, which is also the source of the main melody of Aybe Sea, though not the rest of that piece. The original Hunchback Duke contrasts the Aybe Sea melody with a march in the diminished scale, which lends a certain Eastern European or even Middle Eastern sensibility to the proceedings, in concert it often transitioned from this into Help, I’m a Rock!, which has a similar tonality. Zappa was keen on folk and traditional music from all over the world, and the musics of East Europe and the Middle East in particular found their way into a fair amount of his music throughout his career. The journey to the east in Little House, however, heads farther on towards India, with a predilection for certain scales and drones which have a quasi-raga quality.

The Duke section ends with a guitar solo, one of the better ones on the album, and moves into a violin solo by Sugarcane Harris, who had previously jammed with Zappa on The Gumbo Variations. Harris’s improvisational style, which is much better in my view than that of Jean Luc Ponty or Jerry Goodman (of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame), mainly because of its being steeped in the blues and not merely in the smug excitation of pentatonic noodling, is not substantial enough to go on for as long as it does here. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the jam session itself is a makeweight, out of place and coming at the expense of the through-composed music that makes up the rest of the suite, which it would have pretend to the throne of King Kong rather than let it continue as it is. Zappa’s delight in editing leads him to slip up in a few places throughout Little House, and this insert is one of the worst of his career. At this point, no matter how good the rest of the side is (and it is mostly very good), the piece is given up to sitting between two chairs, this time with contradiction, and while it might make an interesting mirror to what I said earlier, it’s a shame for the album itself. If you’re curious, try taking a scalpel to the audio and taking out the jam session; it actually flows rather well, but still you would hope for something more.

A brief interlude for winds, vibraphone, guitar, and just a little harpsichord, which sounds like it could be from a film soundtrack, follows the jam session. It is a return, in some ways, to the aesthetics of the first half, but again unstuck in time, the notes seeming to float in the space suggested by the slow, delicate pacing. This leads into a jubilant finale—mostly of drums and a ludicrous synth lead, but also some We’re Only In It for the Money-style sped-up guitar repeating music from earlier portions of the piece—which is perhaps a little too far over to the jam session side of things to really seem like a fitting conclusion. And that is why I said Little House is “by turns dazzling and exasperating”: Zappa seemed to have contrived to undermine the beauty and character and indeed the structural certainty of his composition by attacking it with something wilder, freer, more crude, more vulgar. It is a gesture to be respected for its daring, without which Zappa would not have been Zappa, but I feel that it is also what ultimately renders the piece a collection of great bits rather than a cohesive, self-sufficient work that moves from a beginning to a logical end point. At the same time, Little House concludes with applause, yet another look back to the past in the form of an offer to perform Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, and Zappa’s well known quote “everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don’t kid yourself.” The move from studio to live points towards Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which was to be the live-music-oriented companion piece to this album, and would also be the last official Mothers release until Ahead of Their Time in 1993—though it is worth noting that the superb and slightly earlier You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 5‘s first disc is compiled from Mothers concert tapes.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich is a crucial album in the discography. It not only marks the end of an era, but sees the Mothers doing some of their very best work, even if Zappa’s overzealousness at the editing desk serves to undermine it just a little. These flaws, which are concentrated really only in Little House I Used to Live In, do highlight the tense relationship between Zappa and the Mothers, and the way they could sometimes work to each other’s detriment despite their intentions being to do the best work they could. The contradictions and the ironies thus on display are part of what give the album its unique character among a catalogue of uniquely characterful albums, one that we might wish had gone on just a little longer than it had, but no less diminished in stature by its premature end.

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