Recording of May 2020: The Hot Rats Sessions

Frank Zappa: The Hot Rats Sessions
Zappa Records/UMe ZR20032 (6 CDs). 1969–2019. Frank Zappa, prod.; Joe Travers, Craig Parker Adams, Jack Hunt, others, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Frank Zappa's first real solo album (he conducted but did not play on Lumpy Gravy) is probably his greatest recording and perhaps his most uncharacteristic in that his singing voice is nowhere to be heard. The one vocal, "Willie the Pimp," is sung by Captain Beefheart, whose Zappa-produced pinnacle Trout Mask Replica was released the same year (1969). All of the social satire and low comedy for which Zappa was notorious is absent here. What we have instead is groundbreaking music—a heady mix of rock, jazz, electronic, and classical elements that achieves the musical synthesis Zappa had been striving for with the Mothers of Invention and that takes full advantage of the then-new 16-track recording technology.

The 16-track masters from these recording sessions are an invaluable resource that Zappa archivist Joe Travers mined for this 6-CD celebration of the album's 50th anniversary, beautifully mixed for this release by Craig Parker Adams.

There's more to dig into here than on any of the previous Zappa reissues: In addition to alternate takes and studio banter, we hear multiple tracks of individual parts and band sections developing the songs. You can hear how foundation pieces like "Peaches en Regalia" and "Willie the Pimp" were layered, piece by piece, as Zappa tweaked them in the studio, instructing band members to try different ideas.

The first thing we hear is a gorgeous, openhearted piano solo from Ian Underwood: Beginning at this point in his career, Zappa would surround himself with the best musicians available, and Underwood, the star multi-instrumentalist from the Mothers, points the way forward. The track is from the first Hot Rats session, 7-18-69. It's labeled "Piano Music (Section 1)" and would eventually become "Piano Intro to Little House I Used To Live In" from the Mothers' Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

Another Underwood solo, "Piano Music (Section 3)," marks the first appearance of the "Peaches en Regalia" fanfare and later shows up as "Aybe Sea" on . . . Sandwich.

The "Peaches en Regalia" prototype follows during the session of 7-28-69, with Underwood playing the intro on B3 organ. The band sections begin with the rhythm track as Underwood switches to piano. There's a lot of starting and stopping as Zappa works to get the tempo, arrangement, and dynamics exactly the way he wants them. At one point, Zappa tells bassist Shuggie Otis: "Instead of doing those rolls at the beginning, why don't you do a pass on the last two beats of the bar, like this," then sings the part. The intro is problematic until, after numerous takes, Frank instructs drummer Ron Selico to begin the song with the majestic drum roll that pulls it all together. "Marvelous!" Zappa exclaims. Two "Peaches" jam sessions follow, one with extended solos from Selico, Otis, and Zappa, the second a blues jam showcasing Zappa, Don "Sugarcane" Harris on violin, and Johnny Otis on tack piano.

That session also contains a track called "Arabesque," which later became "Toads of the Short Forest" from the Mothers' Weasels Ripped My Flesh, and "Dame Margret's Son To Be a Bride," eventually released as "Lemme Take You to the Beach" on Zappa's 1978 album Studio Tan.

Disc 2, from 7-29-69, opens with four tracks that would become, in Zappa's words, "Top 30 in Saudi Arabia," the four-part "It Must Be a Camel." At one point, Zappa instructs drummer John Guerin to "destroy the note completely."

"Natasha" would later become "Little Umbrellas" on Hot Rats, while "Bognor Regis," a longtime work in progress, was eventually cannibalized and used for "Conehead." The basic tracks for "Willie the Pimp" offer a good look at how Zappa took advantage of the 16 tracks, including his two guitar overdubs.

One of my favorite sections on the set is Captain Beefheart's isolated vocal on "Willie the Pimp," which is clearly the star turn on the album, its defining image. The multitracked vocal reveals things I'd never heard before, like the sonic details of his vocalese rapture near the end of his delivery, a series of whoops, guttural woofs, and low grunts followed by a supercharged final "chorus," which Beefheart punctuates with a self-satisfied "Whooo!" This skillfully multitracked performance offers proof that when Beefheart spoke in tongues, anything was possible.

Zappa kicked off his solo career with a musical statement that left the social commentary of the Mothers behind and identified him as a virtuoso soloist, a reputation he would build on. His use of backing tracks and discarded parts as building blocks for future compositions was a daring step that would come to define his philosophy of "conceptual continuity" as well as his studio method of "xenocrony," or strange organization. It's a fascinating ride that Zappaphiles will not want to miss.—John Swenson

jeffhenning's picture

I'd love to hear this stuff in hi-res digital. Surround would be even nicer. I have a few Zappa DVD-audio discs and they do sound pretty wonderful.