Monday, August 16, 2010

Father and Son: The Zappa Legacy

In the mid-nineties, when American composer Frank Zappa's full catalogue finally became available on CD, it was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was fulfilling to finally see his vast body of work - at that time including over fifty albums that spanned his rock, jazz and classical material from 1959 to 1994 - available in a digital format. But it was also deeply disappointing that, in his preparation for these releases, he felt compelled to remix and recut albums (Freak Out! Hot Rats), or poorly remaster them (Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Chunga's Revenge, You Are What You Is, Tinsel Town Rebellion). In the case of We're Only in it For the Money (1967) and Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968), he even went so far as to erase the original rhythm section and re-record the backing tracks with contemporary musicians. The justified outcry of fans concerning We're Only in it For the Money had some impact in causing Zappa, before his tragic death from prostate cancer in 1993, to re-release the CD from an original vinyl recording. Since apparently there weren't as many fans of Crusing, his marvellous R&B doo-wop hybrid, that album didn't get the same treatment - until now. Thanks to the Zappa family, who have been springing surprises from Frank's vault of tapes for the last number of years, the original recording of Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (along with alternate takes and mixes) is finally available under the new title Greasy Love Songs (just order from

On Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, Frank Zappa with The Mothers of Invention set out to mirror what Igor Stravinsky did during his neo-classical period when he took the clichés and musical forms of the classical period and recast them. Zappa applied a similar technique, with satirical intent, to the complex vocal harmonies of fifties doo-wop, the formative music of his adolescent years. It was a bold move. For one thing, very few music listeners in 1968 were even aware of fifties rock beyond Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Secondly, there was nothing more "uncool" at that point in time than oldies rock. When it did raise its greasy head (as Sha Na Na did at Woodstock in 1969), it was considered nothing more than a circus act for the hippies to laugh at. Even before Woodstock, Zappa anticipated that hostility, correctly perceiving that the music he loved was considered horribly retrograde to the very hip counter-culture. So while the late sixties audience was looking for psychedelic morsels to feed their head, Zappa provided a dish nobody was waiting to consume.

By the seventies, because of movies like American Graffiti (1973) and television shows like Happy Days, people pined for the fifties, mistaking it for a simpler time. When Zappa and The Mothers recorded Cruising with Ruben & the Jets in 1968, they weren't presenting the past as a refuge for those wishing to escape the present.

The album features a number of re-arranged Zappa compositions from the early sixties ("Fountain of Love," "Deseri"), plus wildly different arrangements of songs first heard on Freak Out!, his 1966 debut album ("I'm Not Satisfied," Any Way the Wind Blows," "How Could I Be Such a Fool" and "You Didn't Try to Call Me"). Though the melodies on Cruising were consistent with fifties doo-wop, including the timbre of the vocal style, the chord progressions were radically different. All through the record, blocks of percussive sound echoes like finger snaps while piano triplets roll on redundantly. The singers, Ray Collins (with supporting harmonies by Roy Estrada and Zappa), sound authentic one moment, and the next like a resurrection of Alvin & the Chipmunks. Cruising with Ruben & the Jets is an irreverent tribute to doo-wop, a fascinating study in contrast between the norms of the past and the clichés of the present.

For instance, the opening track, "Cheap Thrills," alludes to doo-wop norms - even beginning with a typical fifties plea for love that deliberately borrows from Vernon Green & the Medallions' hit "The Letter," but the chord changes (and the speeded up vocals) are totally The Mothers at their most sardonic. Later in the same song, while reminding us of a "story untold," "Cheap Thrills" invokes the famous song from The Nutmegs ("Story Untold"). If you listen carefully to "Love of My Life," the album's second track, you can hear the backing vocals quoting The Penguins' "Earth Angel." The ridiculously sublime "Jelly Roll Gum Drop" (just use your imagination) draws on the dance - the Pachuko Hop - inspired by Chuck Higgins' early fifties hit. The song overtly illustrates how popular dance forms originated out of the pursuit for sex. Zappa's direct nod to Stravinsky comes in the out-chorus of the consciously insipid "Fountain of Love" where, heard within a Charles Ives sandwich, he provides the opening notes to The Rite of Spring alongside "Sincerely" by The Moonglows. The record concludes with "Stuff Up the Cracks" (where the singer contemplates suicide if his girl leaves him). On this track, Zappa lets loose with one of his most beautifully stated guitar solos, but the solo features a sixties era wah-wah pedal. This concluding touch of virtuosity yanks us right out of the decade in which we've been immersed. It's as if, when the singer sticks his head in that oven, we feel the fifties dying with him. Greasy Love Songs includes the full stereo mix of the original 1968 vinyl as well as various other treats like the alternate mono mix of "Jelly Roll Gum Drop" (plus the original single), a recording of Jackie & the Starlites' "Valerie" that's earlier than the one featured on Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970) and a longer version of the infectious "No. No. No."

Cruising With Ruben & the Jets shows how Zappa set out to reinvent the music of the fifties for the time in which he lived. The rejection of the album and fifties R&B by the sixties counter-culture audience illustrates how their form of cultural snobbery would inadvertently plant the seeds for the nostalgia wave in the seventies - when the counter-culture itself truly died. Don't make the same mistake.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

Recorded in concert during the Zappa Plays Zappa tour between 2006 and 2008, The Return of the Son of..., a 2-CD set, features some of the best songs in Frank Zappa’s catalogue. I've never thought it appropriate, or even fair, to compare the son of a great musician/composer to his famous father. In the case of Dweezil Zappa, whose father Frank Zappa composed and performed some of the most interesting and exhilarating music of the last century, one becomes hard-pressed not to compare the son with the father. After all, he's been on the road with a band called Zappa Plays Zappa performing the bulk of Frank Zappa's music almost note-for-note. After witnessing the band in two concerts in Toronto (with Critics at Large's Kevin Courrier), it became clear that Dweezil has developed a deep appreciation for the music and the audience who loves it. Out of this love of the work, Dweezil has been able to put his own individual stamp on the songs because he's a great guitar player with his own sound and technique. He's been able to successfully prepare and present the music of his father on his own terms. Consequently, the guitar solos are interesting and full of the improvisational freedom Zappa the elder always required his band to play.

“King Kong” is a great example of improvisation; both from Dweezil on guitar and the multi-talented Scheila Gonzales on alto saxophone. These young players, who are well-rehearsed and seasoned on the road, bring a renewed energy to the music in ways that even Frank Zappa would be proud. The inclusion of Zappa alumni Ray White as lead vocalist has inspired the band as well. The Zappa standards “Inca Roads,” “Zomby Woof” and “Montana” are played with a zany gusto on this set. But the big surprise is “Billy The Mountain,” a rarely heard suite of music and storytelling with a lot of inside jokes about the people of Southern California. Originally performed in 1971 on Just Another Band from L.A., this version is remarkable for its crisp delivery and cross-genre musical references. The band loves this piece and they play it up for all its satiric value.

The outstanding tracks for me, though, are “The Torture Never Stops,” “Magic Fingers” and the instrumental, “The Deathless Horsie,” the latter originally transcribed for guitar by former Zappa alumni, Steve Vai. What makes these versions appealing is Dweezil’s conscious attempt to blend his own musical ideas into the style of his father. Dweezil doesn't provide a replication of Frank Zappa on The Return of the Son of... so much as an interpretive blend of his father's style and sound. And he brings it into his own so that the original music comes across with an invigorating freshness. Dweezil is so conscious of what the fans expect that he offers a short explanation in the CD liner notes, “Each time I play a solo I try to imbue my own playing with some of my Dad’s idiosyncrasies, both technically and sonically.” For me, that explanation is unnecessary but it does speak to Dweezil’s awareness and respect for the music and the devoted audience who continue to support it.

Recorded for the most part in the Chicago Theater, The Return of the Son of... celebrates the work of Frank Zappa in ways that only a generation removed could enjoy it because the music has already proven itself. Dweezil Zappa is not interested in imitating the work of his father, but rather, playing the music as well as Frank did - and with as much improvisational feel as possible. The son has truly returned…

-- John Corcelli is a musician, writer, actor and theatre director.

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