Eat Your Vegetables: Zappa for Beginners
[Eat Your Vegetables is a new Rocks Off column exploring experimental, improvised and other generally odd music.]
Express disinterest in Frank Zappa to one of his fans, and they're likely to insist you hear Hot Rats - or at least, so I read somewhere once; Zappa devotees becoming steadily less numerous as his career recedes into the past, opportunities to interact with them these days are few. Why Hot Rats, Zappa's first solo album, would be the selection of choice for initiating newcomers is easy to understand for about three and a half minutes
That's the length of the first track, "Peaches En Regalia," a rigorous neo-classical rock composition, complete with theme, variations, secondary theme, tertiary theme, counterpoint and modulation, that one might describe as Mozartian if one were given to ridiculous hyperbole. In my admittedly ignorant judgment, "Peaches En Regalia" is one of the best songs Zappa ever wrote: an elegant, concise and fascinating work.
As for the rest of Hot Rats... well, maybe you haven't heard, but Ol' Uncle Frank enjoys a good guitar solo from time to time. Don Van Vliet's turn on "Willie the Pimp" is fun, of course, but it's the only vocal on the entire album. The discouragingly dense balance - 40-plus minutes - is given over to instrumental jazz-rock, much of which consists of guitar solos.
"Peaches en Regalia," directed by Frank Zappa
Much like Pete Townshend, Zappa is kept from true wankery by his lack of natural ability and training - and surplus of cool - and really, his solos are pretty enjoyable in the moment. Furthermore, close listening to songs like "Son of Mr. Green Genes" (sic) reveals subtle and intricate compositional structure, adding value to Zappa's improvisations. But jeez-o-pete, there are a lot of notes here, to make another Mozart comparison. And for the love of crap, enough with the chinese cymbal already!
Protein (How influential is this record?): 85%. Hot Rats is the gold standard for coffee-torqued nerds who want to jam but prefer thumbscrews to weed. Hippies tend to like Zappa too.
Fiber (How musically educational is this record?): 65%. Pay close enough attention and there's quite a bit to be learned here about structure, harmony and counterpoint, and how they can be managed with respect to improvisation.
Sugars (How much fun is it?): "Peaches en Regalia:" 80%. Rest of album: 30%. The length of the songs, lack of vocals, and virtually static tempo will make this a tough slog for casual listeners. The overuse of chinese cymbal doesn't help. That shit is annoying.
Fat (How self-indulgent is it?): 85%. This is Frank Zappa we're talking about here - self-indulgence is more or less the point.
Part of a balanced breakfast? Hot Rats is a landmark, but for the uninitiated, the Mothers of Invention albums are a better starting point. If you hate Zappa now, Hot Rats ain't gonna change your mind.