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Frank Zappa – Lumpy Gravy and Zoot Allures

Wednesday 23rd November 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Well, you have to call them something, so why not call them something amusing?”

Frank Zappa, 1993

Frank Zappa is a musician with one of the most daunting discographies in rock music: sixty-two albums during his lifetime by this count, plus a steady stream of posthumous releases.

I haven’t yet made much headway through that list. So far I’ve only heard: Hot Rats (excellent – “the Frank Zappa album for people who don’t like Frank Zappa!”), his 1966 debut double-album Freak Out! (very good), Apostrophe(‘) (okay), and Joe’s Garage Acts I-III (the title track and “Watermelon in Easter Hay” are great, but I’m less keen on the rest); plus the compilation albums The Best of Frank Zappa and Cheap Thrills. Recently I added another two to that tally.

Lumpy Gravy (1968)

2 out of 5

A mixture of musical snippets, conversation fragments and sound effects loops: a little bit like a highly extended, slower-paced, less dense, less unsettling “Revolution 9”.

There are some interesting and pleasant pieces of music, but you can be certain that just as you’re getting into one, it’ll be interrupted by a contextless, not very funny spoken-word bit.

Zoot Allures (1976)

4 out of 5

I’m in two minds about this one. On the one hand, the playing throughout the album is fantastic, and so is the production (love that guitar tone). “Black Napkins” shows how you do a four minute piece of virtuoso fret-wanker-noodle-ry and keep it interesting.

I also really like the other two instrumentals, and the solo on opening track “Wind Up Workin’ in A Gas Station” (although the rest of that song is rather spoilt by irritating chipmunk vocals).

But unfortunately, the album features some of the most tedious, toilet-humour-heavy lyrics of any Zappa album I’ve heard so far, and that’s saying something. The opening words on the album are “This here song might offend you some/If it does, it’s because you’re dumb”, which gives you adequate warning of how it’s going to proceed.

Now, Zappa could be funny: as the quote at the start of this post illustrates, I very much agree with his approach to song-entitling; his delivery of “dried muffin remnants” in the intro to “Muffin Man” is hilarious; and there’s something irresistibly silly about “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (especially the cry of “Great googly moogly!”). The toilet humour shouldn’t be a problem either – even songs like “Bobby Brown Goes Down” and “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” are fun due to the sheer audacity of how OTT they go (and it helps that they’re set to good tunes).

So yes, humour does belong in music. The problem is that the dick jokes on this album are mostly lazy and not very funny:

Ms. Pinky“:

Her eyes is all shut in an ecstasy face
You can cram it down her throat, people, any old place
Throw the little switch on her battery pack
You can poot it, you can shoot it till your wife gets back

I got a girl with a little rubber head
Rinse her out every night just before I go to bed
She never talk back like a lady might do
An’ she looks like she loves it every time I get through

Wonderful Wino“:

I went to the country
And while I was gone
I lost control of my body functions
On a roller-headed lady’s front lawn
I’m so ashamed, but I’m a wino man
I can’t help myself

Disco Boy“:

“You never go doody!” (That’s what you think)
“You never go doody!” (That’s what you think)
“You never go doody!” (That’s what you think)

Ah, go doody
You never go doody

But thank THE LORD
That you still got hands
To help you do that jerkin’ that’ll
Blot out yer Disco Sorrow!

Etc, etc…

As far as wank jokes go, it’s not exactly the surprising, character-based £20 note scene from Peep Show, is it?

But as I said, the musicianship is pretty consistently excellent throughout; it’s just a shame it’s in service of such unfortunate songs. For the most part, though, I think the playing makes up for the words – hence my four-star rating.

I really like Frank’s sleazy vocals on “The Torture Never Stops“, but the female shrieks mean I wouldn’t want to play it loud! I prefer the live version on the Cheap Thrills compilation, which has Captain Beefheart singing, a different guitar riff throughout, and lacks the screams. Not sure either version really deserves to be nine minutes, though.

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