Monday, July 26, 2010

My Podcast



Tuesday, June 29, 2010

R.I.P. Peter Quaife (1943-2010)

I don't have good luck in being around to catch bad news. This past Thursday, Peter Quaife, the original bassist for The Kinks (1963-1969), passed away of kidney failure.

Even if I'm out and about all day, I always come home and check email and, as perverse as this may sound, I also check Wikipedia's page for recent deaths, sadly, as many of my musical heroes are approaching senescence. Funny enough, knowing Pete was ill and on dialysis was one of the reasons I always checked.

But where was I this past Thursday? En route to a mini-vacation upstate with my girlfriend and some of her friends, with no Internet, no TV, and no cell phone reception. I had a wonderful time - although my mom wanted to get a hold of me and when I couldn't, she made the casual and logical assumption that I'd been tortured to death at a crack den. But that's a different story.

Once I cleared all that up and we got back to the city, my girlfriend and I hung out at her place. Being as our relationship is still in a very early stage, we're still at the point of introducing our favorite bands and songs to one another.

I played her some Kinks. She had a few from a compilation, but I decided to skip the "classics," which are all phenomenal tunes, and go straight for playing my straight-up favorites.

The first song I introduced by saying, "Let me play you the one song I use as my example of the genius of Ray Davies as a lyricist." I went on to say how it is an accurate description of young romance, realistic rather than entirely smitten, with the key line in it all coming at the end of the bridge: "I wonder how long it will last."

The song? "Something Better Beginning," from 1965's Kinda Kinks:

Second was "This Is Where I Belong," the b-side of "Mr. Pleasant" from 1967:

Then I played "She's Got Everything," which I introduced as being "a love song with a delicate guitar solo."

I ended with what will, hands-down, hold a place in the five best songs I have ever heard in my life.

Now, make no bones about it, I love - LOVE - The Kinks throughout the years. For me, there's no better storyteller than Ray Davies, no better harmony vocalist than Dave Davies, and no better string of albums than what they had through the 1970's. But I realized that when it came down to introducing the Kinks songs that meant the most to me or that I found the most immediately accessible without simply running through the greatest hits, what songs did I pick? I didn't pick any of Ray's more cynical numbers like "Yes Sir, No Sir" or a preachy song like "Live Life." I didn't go for something too out there, but still amazing in its own way, like "Money And Corruption / I Am Your Man" or "Second-Hand Car Spiv." Didn't pull out anything from Sleepwalker or Give The People What They Want.

No. I chose songs from those truly sublime years in the band's history. Pete's last album with The Kinks was The Village Green Preservation Society. In my experience, the fans splinter from there. It's quite obvious in the contemporary reviews - John Mendelssohn goes from "God Save The Kinks? Nah, more like God Bless 'Em" in The Kink Kronikles in 1972 to taking a massive dump on the group and their present direction in the following year's The Great Lost Kinks Album, for example - and even today it seems that the only things the critics and fans can universally agree upon is that Face To Face, Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society, and the singles from that time period are definitively essential, classic Kinks.

It might not be mere coincidence that with Pete's departure, Ray's creative control over the group increased dramatically. Arthur is a potent, at times grim, album, which is why I love it...but the same reason my father wasn't thrilled about it. Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround is a scathing attack on the record industry - but some contend it's too bilious. Again, same reason I love it. With the band's tenure at RCA, each record seemed to be an artistic endeavor of one kind or another. I think it's great, but for others it's self-indulgent crap. Their sound continued to change, yes, and one more time for the world - that's what makes them as a band so damn great to me; it was their versatility, along with Ray being such a wonderful writer. But, as a band's sound changes, it will lose and gain followers. It happens.

The point I'm trying to make here is that when push came to shove, I went for introductory listening material from a time where one could safely call The Kinks a band. I don't want to disparage later line-ups of the group, but there was a greater deal of collaboration, and in Dave Davies' heartfelt message board post about Pete he suggests as much.

So, that said...and if you're a Kinks fan reading this, it's probably the 1,000th time you've encountered this touching video, especially if Dave links this to his fabulous Kinks site...this one's for you, Pete:

At the beginning of "Days," for a reason that I'm sure will be obvious, I choked up.

God Save The Kinks.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Beatles - A Hard Day's Night (1964)

"The Beatles well what can I say now there's a band." [sic]

So goes Glenn Gass' recollection of a student's paper from many years ago, when his class on The Beatles was small enough that he could assign papers in it. He even specified the lack of punctuation.

Anyway, he admitted he's such a pushover for Beatles love that all he could say in reaction to that opening line of an academic paper was, "Yes! Brilliant! That says it all!"

That's about how I feel regarding this album. What can I say?

First of all, A Hard Day's Night is a groundbreaking piece of cinema, and not just because The Beatles are in it. I don't want to get hung up on who the proper claimants should be for inventing music videos - musical shorts have existed since the dawn of talkies, so Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong are just as much of contenders for this coveted title as The Monkees or The Beatles - but Richard Lester's editing style was remarkably innovative.

What set it apart from conventional cinema is that his background was in television and commercials. He applied that rapid-paced aesthetic to a feature-length film, especially with the musical sequences, and along with the influences of French nouvelle vague and Italian Neorealist cinema created something truly unique.

Go see the movie if you haven't. You won't regret it. And don't let the fact that it's black and white steer you away. It's marvelous. Each member of the group has their own distinctive persona. John is the cheeky one, Paul is the long-suffering - but cute - straight man (due in no small part to his pain-in-the-ass grandfather stirring up trouble wherever he goes), George is the one with the deadpan and dry sense of humor, and Ringo is the lovable goof. These personae were played upon more in The Beatles cartoon series on ABC, although the lads themselves had nothing to do with it. I've seen a few episodes, and they're not so great.

Of course, there IS one Beatles cartoon that is positively sublime, but I'll leave Yellow Submarine for another day. It's one of my favorite movies ever, and watching it even as a little guy ranks among my earliest (and fondest) memories.

Frankly, Help! is even better, and not just because it's in glorious Technicolor. I think the humor is even sharper. Still, from a movie geek's perspective, it's A Hard Day's Night, hands-down.

Of course, the avant-garde film lover in me has a special place in my heart for the deliciously weird Magical Mystery Tour. That's 60 minutes of psychedelic heaven.

I'm getting off-topic, though a book about The Beatles' films would make for an interesting project.

The second point worth making, and I don't want to spend a year and a half on my opening statement before going to the tracks, is that this album was an early masterpiece for the band. Consisting entirely of Lennon/McCartney originals (which was a HUGE deal in 1964; The Stones and The Kinks wouldn't do that until 1966 with Aftermath and Face To Face, respectively, while The Who didn't have an all-originals album until 1971's Who's Next), this is the peak of the band's early pop sound. For me, everything they had done from "Love Me Do" onwards was building up to this. There's the distinct Beatles sound, yes, but they're able to incorporate the feel of those early rock and rollers and the various Motown tunes they covered on singles, With The Beatles, and the Long Tall Sally EP (included at the end of this review, along with a pair of singles).

I would say this album is just as important for The Beatles and the world of popular music as Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Its musical influence was felt in subsequent releases by bands both in the UK and the US, including a new batch of musicians who were just as into The Beatles as they were with Bob Dylan; the album's inception, a solid collection of pop songs with very little filler material - and again, this cannot be overstated, ALL-ORIGINAL SONGS - would also pave the way for the paradigm shift that bands who didn't write their own stuff wouldn't make it. At least for a period.

That line in the sand was definitely drawn by Rubber Soul, and when I inevitably get to that fine record I'll have more to say about what a game-changer it was, but it happened here first. It was a momentous occasion for John and Paul, that's for damn sure. Of course, having George on only one song (singing only, he didn't write it) and nothing from Ringo are things I will hold against it, but these are minor drawbacks.

01. A Hard Day's Night [10]
02. I Should Have Known Better [9]
03. If I Fell [10]
04. I'm Happy Just To Dance With You [9]
05. And I Love Her [10]
06. Tell Me Why [9.5]
07. Can't Buy Me Love [10]
08. Any Time At All [7.5]
09. I'll Cry Instead [9]
10. Things We Said Today [11]
11. When I Get Home [8]
12. You Can't Do That [10]
13. I'll Be Back [10]

01. I Want To Hold Your Hand [10]
02. This Boy [10]

01. Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand [N/A]
02. Sie Leibt Dich [N/A]

Long Tall Sally EP
01. Long Tall Sally [10]
02. I Call Your Name [8]
03. Slow Down [10]
04. Matchbox [10]

I'll go ahead and point out that, to my eternal annoyance, the DVD of the film features the songs at their original speed. Yes, they were slightly sped-up for the album. I don't know why they did this on the DVD, because as a result the songs don't completely synch up. Whatever.

01. A Hard Day's Night [10]
This, friends, is how you start a movie:

This song starts with an instantly recognizable bang, the musical equivalent of a gunshot at the beginning of a race. It's a song full of energy and movement. Listen closely for the bongos under the verses, adding a busy edge to the rhythm. Paul does a great job singing on the bridge, or as they called that section of their songs, the "middle eight."

During the solo, the instrumentation is George on 12-string guitar (more on that instrument later) and producer George Martin doubling the line on piano. It's a very unique sound.

Fantastic song, what can I say? It's a classic. It was also their first big hit in America after "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and a clear sign they wouldn't be going away anytime soon.

02. I Should Have Known Better [9]

Although there's a lot of early Beatles songs featuring the harmonica - "Love Me Do," "From Me To You," "Please Please Me," "Little Child," and so on - this is the first instance of John playing the harmonica in the style of Bob Dylan, whose 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan marked the beginning of his influence on The Beatles' approach to songwriting. The song itself isn't like anything Dylan was doing at the time. He was still very much rooted in the folk-protest movement, so the harmonica is, if anything, just a sly nod and wink.

This one's really catchy. I love when they sing this song in the movie and the schoolgirls watching them swoon. One of those girls, Patti Boyd - the blond with the gappy teeth - later became Mrs. George Harrison in 1966. Speaking of George, that solo features the 12-string guitar. I won't go into the mechanics of what gives it such a unique sound, all one needs to do is hear it to know what I mean by the 12-string guitar having a "jangly" quality. This particular instrument would be a trademark in the sound of The Byrds.

03. If I Fell [10]

During one of VH1's all-important countdowns of the greatest albums of all time, Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day said about The White Album that every song on it seemed to inspire the entire careers of later groups. The same can be said about any Beatles album, it seems, and this is no exception. I don't have any quote or any sort of evidence to back this up, but this song had to be a major influence on Ray Davies from The Kinks.

I say this because it's a pretty frank description of venturing into a new love while still tending to a broken heart. (Not to get too personal, but quite honestly, I can easily relate to the sentiment behind this song.) Everything seems to begin with the word "If": "If I give my heart to you...", "If I trust in you...", "If I fell in love with you..."

There's a massive sense of insecurity in this song, asking, "You're not going to hurt me like she did, will you?" There's also a hint of bitterness: "And that she will cry / When she sees that we are two." One other influence this may have had on The Kinks extends beyond the lyrics, but in the music itself. The high/low harmonies shared by John and Paul wouldn't be out of place between Ray and Dave Davies.

It's a beautiful piece of music, a melody that sticks with you, and a genuinely heartfelt message. Amazing.

04. I'm Happy Just To Dance With You [9]

I'll just go ahead and get this out of the way before I say this on every single song, but this album features John and Paul's best melodies, hands-down. They aren't getting too experimental with harmonies (not in the vocals, anyway; musically, there's some downright bizarre stuff going down with the chord changes, but it works and it sounds marvelous), and each one of these songs can be easily whistled. Think of some of John's later stuff - don't get me wrong, he only got better as a songwriter - but whistling the melody to "I Am The Walrus" is like trying to whistle a rap song or something. He began to favor a minimalistic approach, saying a lot with a little, and it's great, but here he's firing on all cylinders.

Of course, the lyrics here are a bit simple, it's about sharing a dance with a girl and then realizing you love her. Basic pop stuff. George sings it, and he does a really good job. Apparently he was still self-conscious about his songwriting abilities (even though "Don't Bother Me" is one of their greatest early songs). Seeing as he had only written that one song (although there is a George tune called "You Know What To Do" on Anthology One, and it's nothing to write home about) by this point while John and Paul were able to write chart-topping hits in their sleep, and not just for The Beatles, but for other artists, too, it's easy to conclude George was probably somewhat intimidated.

Anyway, good song, nothing earth-shattering, but a memorable melody and well-played.

05. And I Love Her [10]

The lyrics are simply beautiful. I love the "Bright are the stars that shine / Dark is the sky" passage. This is pop balladry at its absolute best. There's a Latin flavor here, thanks to the percussion (Ringo on bongos and claves) as well as the mellow tones of George's acoustic solo. "And I Love Her" is another example of many early Beatles tunes where Paul brought a near-complete song to the table and John finished it off by writing the middle eight, or vice versa. Here, John wrote the "A love like ours / Could never die..." bridge, supposedly, although Paul claims this song is all his. I can't blame him, I wish I could write something this stunningly gorgeous.

This tune also stands out as being only one of three (out of thirteen songs overall on the album) where there's just solo vocals and no harmonies.

06. Tell Me Why [9.5]

John wrote this song to try and imitate the sound of a black female vocal group. And it shows, which is why I absolutely LOVE this song. It's got the earnest sincerity and sweetness of an early 60's pop record. The call-and-response vocals, with John singing a line and Paul and George singing a follow-up to it, sounds like something right off of a single by Diana Ross & The Supremes. This stands as one of my favorite overlooked early Beatles songs.

07. Can't Buy Me Love [10]

If that scene doesn't make you smile, then get out of you here, because you clearly don't have a heart. It's one of my favorite scenes of all time.

The song is bloody brilliant. It's a big kiss-off to materialism, no doubt written as a result of The Beatles' new-found fortune and fame: "I don't care too much for money / 'Cause money can't buy me love." It's true. Think of how many pop songs out there state that message again and again. I guess that's what makes love so great: it's free.

Anyway, this is just a fun song. Paul sings like his life depends on it, George's guitar solo is perfect, and the band stops and starts on a dime. I LOVE that scream before the solo. Yet another classic Beatles tune.

08. Any Time At All [7.5]

With side B of the original album, we get to the songs that weren't in the original film. I have a stronger case with the Help! album, but the same applies here: a lot of these songs have been lost in the shuffle of time, overlooked in favor of the certified classics on side A, which are made all the more iconic by being in the movies.

Of course, I'm not a huge fan of this song. I think it's just a little sloppy. It feels like John is exerting himself to get all the words in when he sings "Any time at all / All you gotta do is call", but the verses are good. Additionally, the middle eight was supposed to have lyrics, at the 1:30 mark. It clearly doesn't, resulting in what I always thought was a fairly awkward musical interlude.

It isn't awful. But I wouldn't be putting this on a "Best of Beatles" mix CD anytime soon. It's forgettable.

09. I'll Cry Instead [9]

This photo-montage was included on the 1982 home video release of "A Hard Day's Night," but is nowhere to be found on the DVD. Bit of a shame, because I grew up with this clip being almost like a teaser for the rest of the film.

In his early years, John had a bit of a nasty streak. He had some serious jealousy issues, and wasn't above mean-spirited comments or jokes at others' expenses. This song provides a glimpse into John's darker side. Here, he sings about having his heart broken - hence the crying in the song's title - before warning "You'd better hide all the girls / I'm gonna break their hearts all around the world / Yes, I'm gonna break 'em in two / And show you what your lovin' man can do." Yikes.

And yet, despite his dastardly scheme to inflict his wrath on other girls, he admits he doesn't like to cry in front of other people. This is a hint of things to come, with John's increasingly candid, personal, and brutally honest lyrics. My only complaint is that the song's too short.

10. Things We Said Today [11]

When I was much younger and I first heard this song, I didn't really bother to comprehend the lyrics. Besides, I misunderstood a lot of what they were singing because of their accents. Anyway, as a kid, I always this was a break-up song. It feels like it is, because most of the song is in a minor key, rather than a major key.

Now, as a grumpy old man at age 23, these lyrics are among the finest Paul McCartney ever wrote. That's saying a lot, considering how early in his career this is, and what other masterpieces he would go on to write. It's from such a unique point of view, with two young lovers looking ahead to the future:

"Someday when we're dreaming
Deep in love, not a lot to say
Then I will remember
Things we said today"

That's beautiful. Although there is some tight competition for being the best song on the album, I will staunchly defend this song as my choice.

11. When I Get Home [8]

This one's another misfire. It's catchy, but I don't like the intro. Otherwise, this is a song that catches Lennon in a Motown-ready mood. I just feel like it doesn't succeed on all fronts. It needs more, some layered handclaps, some double-tracking, percussion, maybe a piano? I don't know, it just seems to be missing several components. The vocals on the verses are a little thin, the chorus is slightly off, but that bridge! WOW. It's the song's saving grace, and wonderfully done.

12. You Can't Do That [10]

Another delicious 12-string guitar lick, with plenty of cowbell. It's another slightly mean-spirited song of John's, rooted almost certainly in his own jealousies, but in a general context it could just be about a guy with an untrustworthy lover. John plays the distinctive, noisy, choppy guitar solo in this song, a mark of his later simplistic take on rock and roll.

Great song...and it was supposed into the finished movie, during the big concert at the end:

13. I'll Be Back [10]

This almost got the 11 ranking as the best song on the album. It's a moody song, from one lover to another, about no matter how awfully they'll be treated, he'll be back. It is never specified why, but it's again a subtle hint at some sort of weakness. Simply beautiful. I love the harmonies, the bridge, the overall feel of the song.

And, just for fun, here are two early versions of the song. This first one is in a different time signature (6/8), and it actually works quite well during the verses before falling completely apart at the bridge. It isn't perfect.

Here's another early take of it, done in 4/4 time.

It's great to hear this AMAZING song as a work-in-progress. I think this song is quite overlooked and underrated. And yet, I would rank it among their best. It's kind of a surprising choice to end the album, but at the same time...I like it like that.

Subtotal: 94.62% A

Replayability Factor: 3
This is a fun album, and it can be played anywhere.

Consistency Factor: 2
After the big ones, the ones that all the critics (deservedly) worship - Rubber Soul, Revolver, Pepper, The White Album - get this one.

External Factors: 1
No Ringo, and only one George song. Poo-poo.

TOTAL: 100.6% A+

Now for the singles:

01. I Want To Hold Your Hand [10]

I always point to this as one of their most banal pop songs, but it's SO damn good! Love the shift to a minor key in the bridge. Fantastic, catchy, it's a quintessential pop song.

Oh, yeah, and this was their first American number one. This was a tremendous achievement for an English artist - let alone a rock and roll band - to top the charts in the States. So, in short, this song started Beatlemania in the US.

02. This Boy [10]

Beautiful three-part harmonies, with a memorable solo performance from John.

01. Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand [N/A]

It's "I Want To Hold Your Hand" German.

02. Sie Leibt Dich [N/A]

It's "She Loves You" German.

Now, the Long Tall Sally EP. This is the only Beatles EP that features songs not found elsewhere. The Kinks had two EP's like this. The Who had one or two...and The Rolling Stones had a few. It's like a single, but with an extra song on each side, so roughly a third of an album.

01. Long Tall Sally [10]

McCartney at his manic best, with the band playing like the building is on fire. Jaw-droppingly good. The original was done by Little might also know him as God.

02. I Call Your Name [8]

This John song was given a new life when Mama Cass from The Mamas & The Papas had a hit with it. It's good, but not outstanding. I do like how the song shifts to a shuffle beat in the guitar solo, before going back to straight time. That's pretty cool.

03. Slow Down [10]

One of three songs by Larry Williams, a rather obscure 1950's rocker, covered by The Beatles. John's performance here rivals Paul's on "Long Tall Sally." Just phenomenally great.

04. Matchbox [10]

Ringo sings this song, originally done by Carl Perkins. Perkins, along with Larry Williams, is the most-covered artist on official Beatles releases. Ringo also sang "Honey Don't" on Beatles For Sale, with George (who idolized Carl Perkins) ending the same album with "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby." A great little rockabilly number. I'm a sucker for great little rockabilly numbers.

Rock on.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Kinks - 'Sleepwalker' (1977)

This three-month sabbatical has been pretty wild. Not that my personal life is the focus of this blog (that would be the other one), but my fiance and I broke up. It was my call.

Between that and my semester ending, I've had a lot more time to just sit and listen to music. It's been a real renaissance for me.

But enough about me in 2010, let's go back to me in 2001, when I first heard this album. I picked it up in May, along with Misfits (1978), and I really feel like those two albums are brothers, in the same sense that George Harrison once said, "Rubber Soul and Revolver could be 'Volume 1' and 'Volume 2'." Granted, these two albums have different tones to them. Misfits is a little more playful lyrically, more whimsical. Sleepwalker is a darker today's context, with death metal and everything, it's about as dark as Times Square at midnight, but the songs are largely unhappy.

What I love about The Kinks - besides everything, of course - is that you can't pin them down as having a particular sound. Since they were in such a constant state of flux creatively, there aren't any transitional albums, either. No Beatles For Sale-like album that shows where they've been and where they're headed. None of that. Instead, each album seems to catch Ray, Dave, and the boys in different musical settings. Hell, even Preservation Act One and Preservation Act Two are markedly different stylistically.

The one precursor I have for all this is a simple one:

Some albums just have connotations to them, and it all goes back to when it was that I first got into it in a big way. For me, Rubber Soul is a very autumnal album. Tonight's The Night is a winter album. This is a late-night summer drive, with a full moon out, maybe even some lightning, out in the middle of nowhere.

Putting this album in context within The Kinks' career, this was their first disc after all the rock operas and concept albums that began with Arthur back in 1969. Depending on who you ask, this is either a perplex, inaccessible period in the band's story or some of the greatest music the group ever did. I fall into the latter, but I don't wish to disparage Sleepwalker in any sense. They came off the whole rock opera thing with a tightly-packed album containing what I think Ray does best: character sketches.

I'm sure I'll repeat this several more times when I talk about the songs, but I'd love to sit down with him and find out what inspired the stories on this album. It's surprising to read that such fairly oblique jabs like "A Well-Respected Man" and "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion" stemmed from incidents where someone pissed Ray off, very specific events. At the same time, however, he truly is an expert storyteller, and some songs just come from the top of his head.

In a way, each song is like a little movie all on its own, a 3 to 5-minute summary of what could unfold as a great novella. Additionally, every song on the album is at least partially in the first person. Ray seemed to be returning to a more introverted literary persona, rather than the deliciously bawdy showman we encountered on Everybody's In Showbiz or his Mr. Flash get-up on Preservation Act Two.

This is a terrific album, and one I always point to as proof that, unlike what most publications would have you believe, The Kinks were still producing art worth a damn long after "Lola."

01. Life On The Road [9.5]
02. Mr. Big Man [9.5]
03. Sleepwalker [10]
04. Brother [8]
05. Juke Box Music [10]
06. Sleepless Night [9]
07. Stormy Sky [10]
08. Full Moon [11]
09. Life Goes On [9]

The songs hyperlinked above are from the band's appearance on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' in April 1977. The user who posted the (extraordinarily high-quality) videos doesn't have them available for embedding.

01. Life On The Road [9.5]

It starts off nondescriptly enough, maybe even a little too quiet as far as the mix goes. Still, Ray daydreams of venturing to London over a delicate organ/piano arrangement. Right at the one-minute mark, it turns into an upbeat rock song. It's at the perfect tempo, capturing the excitement detailed by the narrator.

The strange thing is, this is a subject Ray has tackled before, on Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround and on Everybody's In Showbiz; what makes it so strange is that it doesn't seem stale. He's approaching it from a different angle. On Lola it's a band rising to fame, on Showbiz it's about what happens once a band has achieved fame, but here it's about a kid hitting the streets and seeing the seedy underbelly of the world: "I didn't know then that the dives and the dens / Would be so vulgar and wicked and wild...", his failed encounters with "stuck-up city ladies" yields him nothing more than a cold, he naively gets seduced by a gay muscleman while "hanging out with the punks."

His quest for success gives him holes in his socks and bloodshot eyes. At the end of the song he yearns for home, hoping to "Say goodbye to a world that's too real / Goodbye to a world that's forgotten how to feel," confessing it's taking its toll on him, he sometimes hates it, but it's all he's ever known. When he sings the chorus - "But I'm livin' the life that I chose" - he has such a sense of resignation that it's like a reluctant sigh, something he tells himself in the mirror every morning, before launching back into the chorus at full-speed.

The song's musical energy is a nice displacement to what is a fairly downtrodden tale, one I'm sure Ray had witnessed after 15 years in "the business."

02. Mr. Big Man [9.5]

This one HAS to be based on someone in Ray's life. It isn't Tom Robinson, though we'll talk about him a little later.

In the YouTube comments, someone claims it's about John Lennon. While John did act like an ass towards The Kinks at the 1964 NME Poll Winners' concert, this is 13 years later, never mind smack in the middle of John's "house-husband" phase. I doubt it...but it could be about anyone who let fame get to their head.

Anyway, this is a pretty grim song, about a former friend whose lust for money and power has made him a crooked, intimidating figure in the business world, although in the final verse, Ray suggests a far more sinister path: "Your enemies and foes / Are all stacked-up in rows / Eliminated one by one."

There's a lot of passion in the music, and a palpable sense of hurt and anger in Ray's vocals. This album and Schoolboys In Disgrace have some of Ray's best performances as a singer. He's quite underrated in that regard.

03. Sleepwalker [10]

That is some damn funky drumming from Mick Avory on the intro. Good, catchy riff, too.

This was the big single from the album, and their first hit in some time. It almost reminds me of "Lola," in that both songs have a slightly twisted lyric wrapped up in a catchy-as-Hell rock song. The stuff about sleepwalking seems fairly harmless until he starts talking about "Better close your window tight / I might come in for a bite," or at the end, when he says "I'll even come to your home / If you're ever alone." I read somewhere that an extra verse was cut out of the song with an overt sexual reference. I can't find any record of what the extra lines were, but I'd love to know. Whatever it was, I have no doubt that it was removed with the idea of the song being the album's single in mind.

And how about Dave's dueling guitar solos? Listen to that with headphones for the full effect.

Because I like this song so damn much, here it is again, and in an entirely different mix:

04. Brother [8]

This could have been the single, but Ray resisted and held out for "Sleepwalker." I can see why. I used to dislike this song, I thought it was too schmaltzy. But, as is the case with a lot of Kinks songs, a close reading of the lyrics shows something much different than the music suggests.

"You're my brother / Though I didn't know you yesterday"

This isn't a celebration of Ray and Dave's relationship - which is an amusing, at times sweet, love/hate sibling affair - it's about how the world is going to Hell, with people "...breaking off relationships / And leavin' on sailin' ships / For far and distant shores." There is an odd sense of impending doom in this song, something we'll return to later on the album, as if everyone seems to be fleeing from some sort of cataclysmic event. While I'm glad this wasn't the single - it's too repetitive, I think - it is a good song.

05. Juke Box Music [10]

This is a masterpiece. Never mind the lyrics - for now - but musically, the way the song builds up to an intro, with a guitar solo that sounds like it was plucked from the clouds...and whatever sort of synthesizer John Gosling was playing sounds fantastic. Sounds like the Stringman synth Frank Sampedro plays on Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane." Those short bursts of guitar solos at the end of the choruses is a pretty, melodic bit of playing. And again, Ray sounds great; so does Dave on the last chorus.

Then there's the lyrics. It's a character study of a woman at a dance club who pumps quarters into the jukebox to simply listen to the music she loves, like an addiction. She doesn't dance, she doesn't interact with anyone else, just listens to the music. Ray assures us, the listener, that "It's only jukebox music!" After that stellar guitar break in the middle, the lyrics get personal, compounded by it being Ray and Dave singing these lyrics, seemingly to each other:

"It's all because of that music
That we're slowly drifting apart
But it's only there to dance to
So you shouldn't take it to heart"

Maybe it's because there's so much meaning in Ray's lyrics, maybe it's because Ray stands with George Harrison and Frank Zappa as one of the great idols of my youth, but there's such irony in Ray Davies telling us that his music is only there to dance to. Perhaps it's a comment on the direction they were taking, opting for a more commercial sound upon signing to Arista Records in 1976.

It's one of the best examples of Ray Davies the storyteller, and I love how he brings it full-circle to briefly reflect on his relationship with Dave. Classic Kinks.

06. Sleepless Night [9]

Looking through all these videos, I have to paraphrase something Glenn Gass said about The Beatles in 1966: The Kinks circa 1977 look so cool. When I was younger, I thought Dave was the shit. I still do.

Dave takes the lead vocals on this song (although Ray gets two lines in the bridge), and he sounds great. There's something about the timbre of his voice that I just love. When I first heard The White Stripes, I thought, "Wow, this guy sounds like Dave Davies!"

Anyway, the song is a great showcase for some backing vocal harmonies, organ, and Dave's guitar. I'm a big sucker of this, although other musicians I know think it's a cheap trick, but I love when a drummer switches to playing in double-time. That happens at the beginning of the song, it lumbers for a second, but then Mick kicks it into high gear and away it goes.

It's a funny story, although if it were a situation happening to me, I wouldn't be laughing. The song's hero is kept awake by his neighbors having loud sex. That's already a pretty bad situation, but then in the bridge comes the critical line:

"Once I was her lover
It was so good to be
Now she's got somebody else and I can't sleep
Nothing hurts people more than other people do
But what can you do?"

Good song.

07. Stormy Sky [10]


This is a tender love song, for the most part. There's two of those great Davies twists, little lines that throw the song's balance, if one is focusing on the lyrics: "Perhaps it's a sign of what we're headed for" and "There's nowhere we can hide," both suggesting apocalyptic doom, much like in "Brother."

The group is running on all cylinders, too: Ray goes from a sotto near-whisper at the beginning to a full-voiced bellow at the end. Fantastic. The band plays with a great deal of temperament, all building up to the 2:45 marker, where the song stops for just a second and Dave ushers in the song's coda with a great high riff. It ends perfectly, slowing down to a halt, almost like the end of a violent storm.

08. Full Moon [11]

But we're not out of the woods just yet. This is one of Ray's best songs, period, and the easy winner of best song from the album. It's almost like the spiritual invert of "Stormy Sky." Where the previous is a dark, stormy night shared by two lovers, this clear night with a bright full moon shining down is one of solitary torment.

Everything about this song is perfect, the way Ray asks, "Haven't you noticed a kind of madness in my eyes?", confessing to all these character flaws and quirky mannerisms as being the result of a full moon. The melody is simply beautiful, and the band does the song justice; like the last song, there's a sense of reserve until the coda. The piano break near the end brings in the big finale, where Ray is singing like his career depends on it. It's a beautiful point when the backing vocals hearken back to "Johnny Thunder" from The Village Green Preservation Society (at the 3:22 mark), it still floors me.

Songs like this are the only reason I need to defend my choice of The Kinks as my favorite band of all time.

09. Life Goes On [9]

I used to hate this song, and let's face it, "Full Moon" is an incredibly difficult act to follow. I also used to hate any song that openly acknowledged one's own mortality. Now, though, the line "And one day when you are gone / You know that life will still go on" sits fairly well with me.

Some great Ray one-liners here, "Life goes on / It happens every day," "Get that frown off your head / 'Cause you're a long time dead," and "No matter how hard I try / It seems I'm too young to die." I really like that bridge where he talks about his own suicide attempt, how he planned to gas himself to death, but hadn't paid his bills so his supply was cut off. As I've gotten older I've developed more of an appreciation for such bare-faced morbid humor.

And on that note, I have to say, where else could we go after a song like "Full Moon" but to a meditation on life and death?

Subtotal: 95.5% A

Replayability Factor: 3
I can listen to this album anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

Consistency Factor: 2
For a band with such a long career, it's easy to pick the immediate classics. I don't think too many people will disagree with me if I say your first Kinks album should be Village Green, Something Else, or Arthur. But as far as second-level Kinks listening goes, I put Sleepwalker very high up as a sign that they still had it.

External Factors: 2
It's a great example of Ray's songwriting reaching new heights as far as storytelling and painting pictures of people, whether sympathetic ("Juke Box Music") or less so ("Mr. Big Man"). There's a lot about sanity, things taking a toll on one's psyche, so it's lyrically one of the more harrowing Kinks releases. It just happens to be wrapped in a deceptively gorgeous musical package.

TOTAL: 102.5% A+

And now, since there is a single to cover plus some outtakes that I think are worth mentioning, let's go into the bonus round.

01. Father Christmas [11]

This is my favorite Christmas song of all-time. It's hilarious, and it gives a good glimpse into what the holiday is really about for the Western world: greed. It's also punk, through and through.

Also, does that video not look like the best party ever? I'd hang out with them.

02. Prince Of The Punks [10]

And speaking of punks, this is the best diss song since "Positively 4th Street," an almighty "fuck you" to Ray's former protege Tom Robinson, who apparently decided to go into punk music because it was the "thing" at the time. Even without any knowledge of what/who the song is really about, it's a pretty pointed barb about the guy we all know who tries too hard.

All I know is I would never want Ray Davies pissed off at me.

01. The Poseur [10]

This was originally going to be the title cut for the album. I don't quite know why it got trimmed, it's a really good song, a bit different in style from the rest of the disc, but in a good way. I mean, you can DANCE to this! Pretty unique song, nothing else quite like it in the canon.

02. On The Outside [9]

While I like this song, I can definitely see why it wasn't on the finished album. It might have been better-suited for Misfits or a Ray Davies solo release. It isn't bad at all, maybe a little too much on the side of easy-listening. Still, the song was dusted off in 1994, polished with some new tracks, and released on an EP featuring a newly-recorded version of "Waterloo Sunset," the aptly-named Waterloo Sunset '94. The version here is from 1977.

03. Elevator Man [10]

Oh, my God, this song.

I'm so proud that I have a copy of this tune. Assuming my friend Dave Emlen at the greatest Kinks site in the universe posts this review on the "News & Rumors" feed, this will hopefully mean a batch of Kinks fans are hearing this ditty for the first time. It's a funky little rocker, about an elevator operator who sees all sorts of people.

I like it.

On that note, if you bother to click through on the YouTube link for "Elevator Man," you'll notice it was posted by one Sleepwalker1977.

That's me. That's how much I love this album. My old email address is Sleepwalker_1977 [at], so yeah...Sleepwalker is an album I enjoy very much. It's super-dorky, but what can I say? I'm a dork.

Good to be back. Hope to see you again soon.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Quick Addendum - The Village Green Preservation Society

Hi Kinks fans -
Previously, I mentioned not being too moved by "Animal Farm." Listening to the album in mono at this Endymion hour (it's 5AM here in NYC), let me just say I've engaged in some critical re-evaluating of the song.

In short, it's terrific. A majestic tune, with a lot more nuances than I'd previously given it credit for.

And if you are looking to get into The Kinks, look no further than this fantastic website for all the lyrics, album covers, chords, and a very engaged online community.

'Night! (Or should I say, Morning!)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Monty Python's Flying Circus, S01/E01 - "Whither Canada?"

It's about bloody time I got around to doing this! This has been getting kicked around in the back of my head since last year when Shelley and I were watching Python religiously. A few weeks ago I watched a few vintage Saturday Night Live episodes on NetFlix, and I have to say the comparisons between SNL (even in its "Not Ready For Primetime Players" heyday) and Python are bullshit. That's like saying so-and-so is "an American Beatles" or even, like so many critics and fans were searching for in the early 1970's, "the NEXT Beatles."

Both were sketch comedy shows, yes. Both were radical departures from the standard fare of their respective countries (and that, too, makes a key difference)...but that's about it.

Subversive by American standards was "I want to feed your fingertips to the wolverines."

Subversive by English standards was...well, watch:

Click here if the video isn't working.

Regardless, this shouldn't be an excuse to knock Saturday Night Live. We're here to praise the Python...although something about that sentence just doesn't sound right.

On with the episode.

By and large, one should not judge the strength of a series by its premiere episode. With American programs, pilots are generally the first aired, and even if they're "good," they pale in comparison with the rest of the series. This one is no exception. Not to say it's awful, in fact, it's still very watchable - plenty of classic Python bits to be found here - but the moments where the show is off it feels like a cheap skit put on at a talent show.

(Yes, yes, Python geeks, I'm aware that Season One, Episode One, "Whither Canada?", was the second episode filmed. No matter, what I consider canon is the airing order. This aired first, this was England's introduction to the Pythons, so there.)

The opening sequence, with Michael Palin emerging from the water as the tattered "It's" Man, takes just a little too long for my liking. (I clocked it at 55 seconds.) Years later, Palin made a joke about the not-at-all steep grade of the ground underwater, hence the length of the sequence. Still, seeing this hairy scruffian wearing the haggard shreds of a suit emerge from the sea, only to collapse and sigh the word, "It's..." before the animated credits roll is iconic absurdism.

One of the great features of the Flying Circus series was that the troupe wanted to avoid sketch program cliches. One such cliche is that sketches are written, built up, but then brought to an end by way of a punchline, which more often than not didn't hold up to the rest of the sketch. Why end sketches in a program, when they could all be linked together, in a surrealistic stream-of-consciousness fashion?

This first time out, though, the comedic device of people sitting on pigs is the source of linking material. Frankly, I think it's poorly played the first time (not well-performed by Graham Chapman, also some poorly synced sound), though later on in the episode it's quite funny. Maybe it's the repetition. The idea of repetition being a simple gag for humor would be taken to its most bizarre next season, but that' season.

That aside, this isn't some crummy pilot. They don't hold any punches with their first sketch, a phony program entitled It's Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, featuring John Cleese as the composer. However, it's nothing really to do with Mozart - he is merely the host - and instead is a program featuring the deaths of historical figures. It's got a dark undertone to it (a commentary on television violence, perhaps?), balanced out by the sheer slapstick of seeing Genghis Khan (Cleese in a filmed bit) die a cartoonish death by way of leaping in the air and landing on his back.

My great thesis on Python, whether it's the films, albums, or television series is that their brand of humor succeeds because it combines some intelligent, cerebral wit with simple, funny-no-matter-how-many-times gags. This is best symbolized by the death depicted of Admiral Horatio Nelson. You don't need to know about the Battle of Trafalgar to laugh at seeing a dummy in early 19th-Century garb tossed out of a high-rise window. However, you can laugh just a little harder knowing among his last words were "Kiss me, Hardy!", to his second-in-command.

Don't miss Cleese, with a German accent, uttering, "Blimey, how time flies!"

The Italian For Italians sketch is...okay. The audience laughter at Terry Jones' instructor saying he is from Gerard's Cross is something lost on me. As for the Italians taking the lesson, they're played a little broadly, pinstripe suit-wearing spivs divided by regionalist pride. Political correctness makes sketches like these age poorly, but at the time other sketch programs would often display national stereotypes and call it humor. The Pythons are in fact offering their own twist on this trope. They would do it again throughout the series, and frankly, the underlying point is much more obvious. It's amusing enough, but not a strong sketch. Thankfully, Terry Jones sits on a pig (porcine casualty number three in this episode - PETA would be pissed!), leading to the first cartoon.

A runaway pig from the tallyboard, where dead piggy #3 is crossed off, marks the debut animation from Terry Gilliam. Even in the weaker shows, the cartoons never cease to amuse. Explaining what all happens would suck the fun out of seeing it. It leads to a phony commercial for Whizzo Butter, "containing 10% more less," a product that brings with its purchase admission to Heaven. Pitchman Palin is seen with the other four actor Pythons (Gilliam's on-screen presence is generally that of an extra and/or grotesque, making "Terry Gilliam appearances" a tally category at the end of this post) all dressed in drag as middle-aged housewives.

These little wenches are called "pepperpots," dubbed such in Cleese's pre-Flying Circus special How To Irritate People, relating to the shape of their bodies. Along with Gilliam's on-screen appearances, I'm also going to have Cleese's appearances in drag as another tally. At six-foot, five inches tall, Cleese is an extraordinarily unconvincing woman and, to me at least, as unfailingly hilarious as Gilliam's cartoons.

The pepperpots can NOT tell the difference between Whizzo Butter and a dead crab, and this is apparently a good thing, although they threaten Palin that if he's one of those television pitchmen trying to get them to compare Whizzo Butter to a dead crab, they'll slit his face.

So far, we've got animal cruelty, broadly-played national stereotypes, clever historical references, death, a mockery of consumerist stupidity, and one demented cartoon. Yep, this is Python, all right!

Unfortunately, the Whizzo bit ends in a very un-Python manner, with a hard edit to the credits for It's The Arts. (According to Kim Johnson's marvelous Python book, The First 28 Years of Monty Python, quite a few sketches were cut from this episode, many to be seen in future episodes.) The first segment of It's The Arts features a great lampooning of the formality of names and nicknames, with filmmaker Sir Edward Ross (Chapman) being called a litany of names: Ted, angel-drawers, Franny-knickers, and everything in between. Storming off the set, Ross is summoned back by Cleese's Tom (who doesn't want Ross "bothering with all this 'Thomas' nonsense") with a serious question about his latest film. Ten seconds into Ross' guaranteed-to-be-dull yarn, Cleese interrupts with an, "Oh, shut up!", expertly dashing audience expectations.

Eric Idle, who I now unfortunately think of as the Python with the honor "Most Likely To Ride Python All The Way To The Bank," gives his own variant nickname-based interview. While Cleese's interviewer tries so desperately to be polite and personable with his subject, Eric is a cheeky smart-ass with composer Arthur "Two-Sheds" Jackson (Jones), who earned his nickname not by actually having a second shed but rather by simply thinking of building a second shed.

This doesn't keep Idle from asking if Jackson wrote his latest symphony in the shed. He drives him to his breaking point, turning from sheds to inquiring about Jackson's interest in trainspotting. After a snippy, ready to crack retort of "What's that got to do with my bloody music?", Cleese's Tom joins Idle in booting the irate composer off-set. Again, another sketch ended before getting stale (maybe even a little early) and without some silly punchline.

The final bit of the It's The Arts segment centers around Pablo Picasso's latest painting, which is being done whilst riding a bicycle. If this notion isn't delightfully silly enough, the entire thing is played out with the detailed enthusiasm of a sportscast. Picasso's route is outlined, the model of bicycle is explained, and in one of the best moments of the episode, Cleese presents an on-the-scene report while a laundry list of famous artists (dead and alive) zip by on bicycles. Palin's surprisingly informed pepperpot tells Cleese that it's Vassily Kandinsky he's seeing and not Picasso, later correcting Cleese that the (dead since 1948) Kurt Schwitters was German, not English.

What makes the scene, beyond the incongruity of Palin's middle-aged housewife displaying a good knowledge of 20th-Century art is more than just the attention to detail. It's Cleese's performance. He delivers his lines at a mile-a-minute, like his head is ready to's one of those things, you can't explain why it's funny. It just is.

How does this build-up climax? With the absurdist logic that makes Python so great: Picasso falls off his bicycle, unseen, the details of his painting unknown. We are informed, thankfully, that the artist is unharmed, "although the pig has a slight headache." One more piggy pops its head up from under the desk as Palin's host bids us goodnight, right in time for the end credits (around the 21-minute mark) if this were American television.

Thank God for the commercial-free programming of the BBC, as we've still got nine minutes to go. We get another wonderful cartoon, featuring what I consider Gilliam's staple art: animations of vintage photographs. It's twisted, it's slightly disturbing (the man trapped inside the military officer begging to be let out), but it's marvelous. And to think this was on mainstream television some 40 years ago.

The show ends this week with an extended sketch, featuring the world's funniest joke, which induces fatal laughter. The film version of the sketch's first half featured in the 1971 film And Now For Something Completely Different is performed a little better - notably in the joke's author and his mother's deaths from reading the joke - but this is a fairly important sketch for the lads. It seems all three writing teams (Chapman/Cleese, Idle, and Palin/Jones) all contributed their own bits to it, and while there are no animations, Gilliam appears on-screen in two minor roles.

Rounding out the rest of the show, the segment lags at times (mainly in the battlefield scenes), but its high points more than make up for the bumps. Terry Jones' dorky, unsuspecting Army test subject and his tittering demise still makes me laugh, Cleese's goose-stepping interrogator is great (and we'll see him again as a Nazi before the season's end, a more famous one, in fact...), and the scene where the defense ministers laugh themselves to death (on the other side of a guarded door), with the laughter punctuated by the sounds of bodies dropping, is a beautiful stroke of macabre humor. And history geeks will appreciate the stock footage of Chamberlain declaring "Peace in our time!" as Idle mentions "England's great pre-war joke."

Idle's narrator wraps the segment with a solemn tribute at the burial site of the Unknown Joke, before a quick cutaway to stock footage of a ref blowing his whistle and a title frame saying "THE END".

The "It's" man is roused by way of a pointed stick (an incredibly specific prop we'll be seeing and hearing of again in future episodes) and he drags himself back out into the surf as the end credits play.


Low Points:
+ I feel like the first few episodes of this series treat Cleese as if he were the leader of the troupe, for better or for worse. He'd enjoyed the most success already by this point with At Last The 1948 Show, The Frost Report, and his TV special How To Irritate People (which plays like a really, really bad episode of Python.) He certainly seems to elicit the most laughs from the audience.

+ Parts of this episode's first half, pre-It's The Arts, come across as tentative.

+ The piggy gag. (In all fairness, Shelley liked it.)

High Points:
+ This episode is kind of like "I Saw Her Standing There," the first song from the first Beatles album. It's hard to define the inaugural quality of "Whither Canada?", as the show most definitely picked up some serious momentum in the episodes to come, but damn if it doesn't make me happy every time I see this and know this is where it all started.

+ Cleese's stream of ridiculous nicknames for Sir Edward "Ted/Eddie Baby/Sweetie/Sugar Plum/Angel Drawers/Frank/Fran/Frannie/Little Frannie/Frannie Knickers" Ross.

+ Idle's ribbing of Arthur "Two-Sheds" Jackson.

+ Cleese's sportscaster, forerunner of so many classic Cleese moments.

Best Lines:

"We are proud to be bringing to you one of the evergreen bucket kickers. Yes, the wonderful death of the famous English Admiral Nelson."

"He say, 'Milan is better than Napoli!'"
"Oh, well, he shouldn't be saying that, we haven't done comparatives yet!"

"I don't like being called Eddie Baby!" - this implies he's been called this before...

"I'm going to get rid of the shed. I'm fed up with it!"
"Then you'll be Arthur 'No Sheds' Jackson."

"In 1945, peace broke out."

SCORE: 84% B

John Cleese in drag count: I
Terry Gilliam count: II

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Addendum: A Beginner's Introduction To Frank Zappa

That wonderful (anonymous) comment from the last post made a good point. I'm one who celebrates his entire discography, although there are some real clunkers on his lesser albums.

Anyway, this revised list is for the people who might run away screaming from their stereo systems the moment they hear Uncle Meat. I need to keep in mind, what I consider Zappa's masterpieces just aren't for everyone.

Let's do round two, in which FZ's more accessible material is the focus:

10. Freak Out! (1966)
The last twenty minutes of this hour-long double album notwithstanding, this is a good, healthy blast of the mid-60's LA scene along with some finely-written pop songs...and a greasy doo-wop number that firmly established that often-repeated phrase from the LP's gatefold, "No Commercial Potential."

Oh, how we beg to differ.

Key tracks: "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," "Who Are The Brain Police?," "Motherly Love," "Wowie Zowie," "Trouble Every Day"

09. Joe's Garage (1979)
One of the best fusions of orchestral sensibilities with rock and roll instruments, this album has some of Zappa's most memorable (and quotable) moments. Peppered throughout are some amazing guitar solos, proof that Ike Willis is the most underrated singer in rock and roll, and some of Zappa's most beautiful (and haunting) melodies.

The only caveat is there's plenty of crude humor that might throw off an average listener with tales mocking religion, depictions of sex in German (later described in English - may want to brace yourself for that one), and incredibly unsubtle mentions of, uh...prison romance. Don't play this for your girlfriend if she's Catholic.

Definitely play this for your girlfriend if she's a lapsed Catholic.

Key tracks: "Catholic Girls," "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?," "Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up," "A Token Of My Extreme," "Watermelon In Easter Hay"

08. The Grand Wazoo (1972)
I was a bit reluctant to have two jazz records on here, but this one is too damn good to pass up. Featuring a true big band, rather than the usual shit-ton of overdubbage from someone like Ian Underwood or Sal Marquez (although Marquez is very much on this record, in full trumpeting force), the album's title track wouldn't be out of place in some sort of historical epic. And George Duke's hot-shit keyboard solo on "Eat That Question" and its lead-in to one of Zappa's funkiest grooves is not to be missed.

The only thing that might throw off the "average" listener (whoever that might be) is the absence of lyrics. There really is sort of a demand, as Zappa pointed out with typical cynicism, that songs have words in the present day. Regardless, this is a great introduction for the jazz-head.

Key tracks: "The Grand Wazoo," "For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitchhikers)," "Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus," "Eat That Question," "Blessed Relief" (The whole album is five tracks...they're all great.)

07. Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
No libretto, no maniacal sonic experiments, no stage antics, just rock and roll - Zappa style, of course. This is the album for the "classic rock" fan. Terry Bozzio's vocal adventures, Adrian Belew's Dylan imitation (by the way, Adrian Belew is on this album), and the seamless dubbing of studio material onto live backing tracks make for one Hell of a trip.

The only real hang-up here is the song that caused some trouble for FZ back then: "Jewish Princess." Justify it all you want, give them the great Zappa quote of "Unlike the unicorn, the Jewish Princess does indeed exist in our society," explain that he wasn't a misogynist, and you might still have a very indignant reaction.

Don't play this album for your rabbi.

Key tracks: "Flakes," "Tryin' To Grow A Chin," "City Of Tiny Lites," "Dancin' Fool," "Wild Love"

06. Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
The debut of The Mothers mark III, this is a compact run of pop/rock/jazz numbers that shows off the incredible talents of Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, and Ruth Underwood. The real star here, though, is Frank, having lead vocals on nearly all of the songs (with MVP going to in-and-out-of-Zappa's-band-because-of-alcohol vocalist Ricky Lancelotti for his two madcap performances) and providing a great guitar solo - short or long - on EVERY tune.

The only snag? "Dinah-Moe Humm" plays like a porno. You can't hide behind hoping the listener will focus only on the music; the song is mixed in such a way that the vocals are pretty front-and-center.

Also, and this is my own hang-up, but I personally think "Montana" is one of his stupidest songs. Period.

Key tracks: "Camarillo Brillo," "I'm The Slime," "Dirty Love," "Fifty-Fifty," "Dinah-Moe Humm"

05. Hot Rats (1969)
Rykodisc nailed it when they referred to this album as "the album that people who don't even like Frank Zappa can enjoy" (or something to that effect). Possessing a distinctly rockier/bluesier edge than The Grand Wazoo, this really is one of the best all-around introductions to Zappa as a songwriter.

Key tracks: "Peaches En Regalia," "Willie The Pimp," "The Gumbo Variations"

04. Apostrophe (') (1974)
This is one of the easiest FZ albums to hunt down used on vinyl. It's just one of those mid-70's albums it seemed everyone owned, no doubt because of "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow." Unlike, say, "Valley Girl" and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, it's not hard to picture buyers giving equal time to both sides of this record.

Key tracks: The "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" suite on Side A, "Cosmik Debris," "Apostrophe (')," "Uncle Remus" (I actually know two people who have done as the lyrics to this song describe: stealing lawn jockeys out of rich people's lawns. One I don't think knew fact, they took the jockey and shot it with a Mosin Nagant rifle...the other guy did it because of this song.)

03. We're Only In It For The Money (1968)
Quintessential Zappa, with what many consider his best band (if just on principle - and with said principle in mind, they kind of were) and an even smaller contingency feel is his only band worth a good God-damn. Plenty of humor, bold musical experiments, and even a dash of pathos here and there.

Not to be played for hippies.

Key tracks: "Who Needs The Peace Corps?," "Mom And Dad," "Flower Punk," "The Idiot Bastard Son," "Mother People"

02. You Are What You Is (1981)
There's some bias in this. I love this album, and I contend it is Zappa's most accessible album in the milieu of pop-rock. The lyrical topics were life-altering (side C's series of songs on religion said things I'd been thinking for years by age 15) and just plain funny, sending up the shallower side of American society. Great vocal performances throughout courtesy of Bob Harris, Ray White, Ike Willis, and even the Indian of the Group himself, Mr. Jimmy Carl Black.

Frank's sneering vocal line on "Dumb All Over" sounds like he's on the brink of spewing acid. Unforgettably awesome.

Might want to skip the song where the protagonist smacks his (whiny, obnoxious shrew of a) girlfriend, though.

Key tracks: "Teenage Wind," "Harder Than Your Husband," "Doreen," "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing," "Dumb All Over"

01. One Size Fits All (1975)
I reviewed this one back in the summer of 2009, so you can read all about it there. It is the album I consider the finest example of Zappa's "Zappaesque" sound, with goofy lyrics that conceal two or three different layers of meaning, mean guitar work, and musicianship that will make you wonder why you're even bothering with your garage band.

Key tracks: "Inca Roads," "Can't Afford No Shoes," "Sofa #1," "San Ber'dino," "Andy"

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

So, You Want To Get Into.........Frank Zappa?

Have I talked about this before, the AV Club's feature called "Gateways To Geekery?" It's one of the best columns they have, though I feel like they don't do it enough. There's plenty out there that seems daunting at least from the outset.

Anyway, this is the same premise - and be real, this might be an act of theft, but their own column is an act of theft of the type of conversations you would have with your friends ("I've always wanted to get into so-and-so, any suggestions on where to start?"), so don't even start - as the AV Club's column, making allowances for my own opinions. I really need to branch out from just music. In fact, since I still think my Dr. No review stands as proof that I'm reeeeeeally rusty at writing about films, it might be better for me to frame films through such a context - "So, You Want To Get Into.........Monty Python?" or "...Soviet Film?" would be good entries.

Let's start.

I'm a Zappa fan who is sort of on the fence about fellow Zappa fans. The ones I meet in person I get along with really well. I was telling a friend this past weekend it's a lot like meeting a fellow drummer, in that we can talk for hours about "What was your first FZ album?" or "Who's your favorite bassist?", fun stuff like that.

The online fan community, though? Rabid, contrary, bloviating, arrogant, misinformed, close-minded, vitriolic, territorial, and confrontational. There are some shining stars out there. My friends running Kill Ugly Radio are great. It's in the comment boards, however, that the discourse can veer into some unappetizing turf. Some of these bozos can't comprehend first of all that Frank Zappa was not only human, but one with many character flaws.

Second, anyone who doesn't appreciate one of his works is an uncultured Philistine who simply "doesn't get it." This especially becomes the constant cop-out in instances where Uncle Frank gets exceptionally vulgar. To them, if you find his work offensive, it has something to do with YOU, not the music.

Take my dad - a very open-minded guy musically, with everything from Beethoven to Juice Newton to Cheap Trick to Indian folk music in his collection. But for the most part, he doesn't like Frank Zappa, and it isn't a case of him not "getting it." Believe me, in all my attempts to proselytize to him I have had success in all other cases (I got him into The Ramones, The Residents, Wesley Willis, and pretty much any original blues rendition of a song later done by Cream or The Yardbirds), but with Zappa's discography it's almost completely been a brick wall. One notable exception was this past January when we listened to Orchestral Favorites in the car. He said it was "not bad," which on his grading scale is about a B.*

Trust me, he "got it" when he heard "Dinah-Moe Humm." He "got it" when Flo and Eddie sang about monstrous dicks on Fillmore East, June 1971. He "got it" when he heard this stuff originally, and he "got it" 30 years later when I tried playing it for him.

His criticisms are three simple, admittedly valid points:

1.) "He Just Tries Too Hard To Be Weird!"
This is where it simply becomes a matter of taste. Some chords, timbres, tones, and intervals that may seem harsh to one set of ears could very well be another person's conception of what Heaven itself sounds like. My dad didn't care for Uncle Meat, he said it was "harsh and atonal."

And you know what? He's right. That's also the exact same reason I LOVE that album.

2.) "He Can Be Too Vulgar Sometimes!"
Since Zappa regularly singled out Republicans (though he did target Democratic figures on occasion, too), it's a safe bet that just about any serious analyst of Zappa's work is at least slightly left of center. Unfortunately, this means more than a few of them (Kelly Fisher Lowe's The Words & Music of Frank Zappa does this to the point of annoyance) attempt to justify the existence of songs in Zappa's canon that contain references to bodily functions, sex, sexism, racism, and homophobia. Frank was no racist - his earliest bands featured black and Chicano musicians, before The Mothers Of Invention - and he was certainly no sexist. But he was fascinated by gender roles. He was fascinated by human nature. And guess what? Humans do some pretty interesting things. Put into an unflinchingly honest light, they can seem disgusting. They can even seem alien.

This is the thrust of so much of his "vulgar" works.

Ben Watson upped the ante with the claim that Zappa's trips to Vulgaria are a test on the listener's values. Things are only offensive because of one's own morals. Blah, blah, blah. It's all horse-shit. You know how some people (maybe even you, the reader) just can NOT talk about bowel movements? Yet others - myself included - can be pretty shameless in talking about our latest dump? It's not that the people - mainly women - who jokingly deny that they even create poo are close-minded moralists. They just think it's nasty.

Again, yes, poop is nasty. But it's something we all do...and, as before, it's a matter of taste, BUT - poop can be very, very funny. (Note to self: try to avoid having the words "poop" and "taste" in the same sentence.)

Zappa could be pretty vulgar, sometimes without using a single proper swear word. In fact, those are sometimes the worst (uh, "Keep It Greasey," anyone?). Same case can be made - how comfortable you are with such crudity is a tricky and highly subjective case.

3.) "God, That Guy Could Be A Cynical Asshole!"
Zappa wasn't exactly Mr. Sunshine, even when he was younger and slightly idealistic. For most of his career, I'd say he was a blunt realist. It is not an attitude everyone can appreciate, and I understand that. After about 1980, Frank got increasingly cynical - and I wager even bitter - regarding the declining state of affairs in the world of popular music, the world of "serious" music, and the United States. His dislike of punk music, baseless accusations of conspiracies levied on the American public, and the future of music make him come off like a cranky curmudgeon.

That said, there is a point where I think Zappa's music has to be separated from Zappa the human, otherwise you'll find it very hard to listen to Broadway The Hard Way without thinking of his dissolution of what would be his final band, or to hear any of his Synclavier albums without thinking of his claim that if he'd had a Synclavier in the 60's he never would have had a band.

So, where to start indeed? He released almost 60 albums during his life. Sixty. The guy put out more albums than years he walked this planet. With similarly long-lived groups like The Kinks or The Rolling Stones, you can point to maybe five releases that are absolute essentials. But again, their discography is roughly a third of the size of Zappa's. As a result, I'd say a core collection of Zappa albums would number maybe 10. Keep in mind, though, that the following lists are based on even representation of his multifaceted career. Some - not all, mind you - of my personal favorites might have seeped through onto this list, but (I assure you) not because of any bias.

The Core Collection:

01. Freak Out! (1966)
Remember everything I said about all those British Invasion debut albums? This is just the opposite. It's bold - oh, so bold - with lyrical put-downs of the authorities, education, love, the Watts riots, and close-minded conservatism. The song also has some catchy (in some instances, I think cloying) pop songs thrown in for good measure, with some incredibly bizarre avant-garde pieces to round out this 2-LP set. There's some great rock and roll, some surprising pop music, and experimental tunes you could use to frighten your grandparents.

In short, Zappa needed four sides of vinyl to introduce himself to the world. I don't think it's one of his best, but dammit if it doesn't prove he was incredibly ambitious (and talented as a songwriter/composer) from the very start.

Key tracks: "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," "Who Are The Brain Police?," "Wowie Zowie," "Trouble Every Day," "The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet"

02. We're Only In It For The Money (1968)
If you were to only get one Frank Zappa album, it is this one. Recorded in the wake of the Summer of Love, Zappa calls out the hippie movement as one that had been taken over by kids equating freedom with free weed and free tail as well as the record companies hoping to turn the music of the counterculture into something. Some of it gets even darker, suggesting a Kafkaesque nightmare where hippies would be rounded up and placed in internment camps and warnings of a murderous police state.

What was blasphemous to some and a nod-inducing manifesto to others then is a fine case of iconoclasm effectively calling the bluff of an entire generation that collapsed into itself like a dying star in a haze of self-importance. The Age of Aquarius would never come, frankly because the entire notion was bunk from the get-go. Frank was the one in the 1960's who was urging people to join the system if just to infiltrate it from the inside out. They could have listened...but the LSD and the titties were just too damn tempting.

All of this lyrical bluntness is set to an amazing sonic backdrop of rock, gorgeously illustrated with some fantastic performances by The Mothers Of Invention. There's also some extremely discomforting pieces of musique concrete...those with an aversion to harsh noise: avoid the album's closing track like the plague. (I think it's a masterpiece.)

Key tracks: "Who Needs The Peace Corps?," "Mom And Dad," "Flower Punk," "Mother People," "The Chrome-Plated Megaphone Of Destiny"

03. Uncle Meat (1969)
Another double album, this features Zappa using The Mothers in lieu of an orchestra by way of layering tracks upon tracks. The music has gotten more dense and complex, and the album itself marks the debut of many of Zappa's musical staples: tuned percussion, deliberately harsh editing between songs, and a monster jam on side D. The shifts between blues vamps, avant-jazz, chamber pieces, surrealistic tunes with gorgeous melodies, and field recordings might be jarring, but this sort of manic juxtaposition is all done with a purpose: Zappa doesn't want you to differentiate so-called "high art" music from so-called "low art" music. He doesn't.

Key tracks: "Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme," "Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution," "Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague," "Mr. Green Genes," "King Kong"

04. Hot Rats
The jump from avant-jazz to rock-infused jazz-blues isn't all that puzzling, although Kelly Fisher Lowe mulls over it incessantly in his book; for me, I consider it the next logical step after he broke up The Mothers. Being mainly instrumental, and featuring some really tight layers of keyboard/woodwinds (all played by ex-Mother Ian Underwood), this is a very melodic album. There's no musique concrete, no snippets of dialog, no underlying politics, just music for the sake of music - and an unforgettable guest vocal from Captain Beefheart on one of Zappa's signature tunes.

I could probably list this as the second most essential Zappa release, possibly even number one if you're playing this for someone who thinks 1967 was the zenith of the civilized world (even if they were born decades after, let them have their delusions!).

Key tracks: "Peaches En Regalia," "Willie The Pimp," "The Gumbo Variations"

05. 200 Motels (1971)
Another 2-LP set, this one the soundtrack to his 1971 film from the incarnation of The Mothers with ex-Turtles vocalists Mark Volman (Flo) and Howard Kaylan (Eddie). This has a little bit of everything, from early 70's comedy-injected cock rock to choral performance to some real classical explorations, as Zappa somehow managed to wrangle the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to perform his orchestral compositions. It's a treat to hear, and a musical kaleidoscope just as out-there as the film...which you need to see. Now.

Key tracks: "Mystery Roach," "This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich" and the related suite of tunes, "Lonesome Cowboy Burt," "Penis Dimension," "Strictly Genteel"

06. Apostrophe (') (1974)
With his final incarnation of The Mothers, Zappa scored a sleeper hit with an edit of a suite of songs from side A of this record, "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow." While it gave Zappa some long-overdue mainstream attention, the irony rests in the fact that the musically interesting passages from the suite are nowhere to be found on the single version. The flip-side features a great jam with Jack Bruce and a rare co-credit (with keyboardist George Duke) that offers a sentimental statement on the Civil Rights movement, in what I consider one of Zappa's most overlooked songs.

It is complex rock-funk-jazz fusion (which isn't a bad word, unlike in gastronomy) with goofy and at times nonsensical lyrics. The combination made it obvious that Zappa was able to market his product to two very different segments of the public.

Key tracks: "St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast," "Father O'Blivion," "Excentrifugal Forz," "Apostrophe (')," "Uncle Remus"

07. Zoot Allures (1976)
His first solo release after the final line-up of The Mothers, Frank offered an album with a dark, grimy edge. Lots of crunchy, distorted guitar, lyrics on all sorts of subjects (stupidity, disco, torture chambers, sex dolls, pick-up methods), extremely close-miked vocals (you can even hear the spit inside his mouth - do it with headphones and it's like he's right in your ear), two signature guitar solos, and the birth of a technique called xenochrony, where a bass solo from 1976, a drum solo from 1975, and a new guitar solo are all mixed together to make a cohesive whole. Frank would get better at making xenochronous music, but its premiere appearance (on "Friendly Little Finger") is nothing to sneeze at. It's a safe assertion that this album set the precedent for Zappa solo albums recorded in the rock milieu.

Key tracks: "Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station," "Black Napkins," "The Torture Never Stops," "Friendly Little Finger," "Disco Boy"

08. Jazz From Hell (1986)
The jump ahead ten years isn't to suggest the material released in the interim is worth ignoring - far from, I think it's his best period, especially from 1978-1982, where a whopping THIRTEEN albums were released - but his next major musical innovation, that is to say something he had truly never done before, came with this all-instrumental album. Aside from one live guitar solo, the other seven cuts are all realized on the Synclavier.

The idea behind it is that Zappa didn't want to mess with the human element of hearing his music. With a band came temperaments, pay rates, and the fact that some things might be extraordinarily difficult for his bands to play. On earlier songs like "The Black Page," "Mo 'N' Herb's Vacation," and "Drowning Witch" that almost seemed to be the point: test to see if his bands could play such dense music.

With every tick of the clock, the timbres on this album sound more and more like an old Nintendo, but the intricacies and sheer beauty of the works within still hold up almost a quarter of a century later...although the cover of the record is about as clinical and dreary as the outdated sounds of the Synclavier. This is Zappa the composer at his utmost.

Key tracks: "Night School," "While You Were Art II," "G-Spot Tornado"

09. Broadway The Hard Way (1988)
This audio souvenir from Frank's final tour featured a five-piece brass/sax section, demonstrating that Zappa is a great arranger on top of everything else. Zappa was also at his most political since We're Only In It For The Money. It sheds a similar light on the hypocrisy of what seems like a backwards age. I'm glad it was the time I was born in, not the time in which I grew up...Jesus.

Lots of barbed attacks on conservatism, Evangelical Christianity, Michael Jackson, and Jesse Jackson (who was making a bid for President at the time). Some people have lamented this album seems dated, but I say it's no more dated than the anti Flower Power stuff from 20 years prior. Still, musically exquisite, lyrically intelligent. What more could you ask for?

Key tracks: "Elvis Has Just Left The Building," "Any Kind Of Pain," "When The Lie's So Big," "Rhymin' Man," "Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk"

10. Civilization Phaze III (1994)
This album's status as being both the first posthumous release and the fact that it is currently available new for ONLY $140 on Amazon makes this a dark alley in a dense city of music...and that is a travesty. He might have had the honor of seeing his "impossible" music willingly taken on by the Ensemble Modern with 1993's The Yellow Shark, but it's here on CPIII where he uses the instruments of the Ensemble Modern as voices on the Synclavier, the resulting pieces interspersed with old (1967) and new (1993) dialog. The notion of death lingers over the album the way it hovered over its terminally ill creator as he slowly lost his battle with prostate cancer.

Find this album one way or another. Get a copy from a friend, pick it up dirt-cheap somewhere, Hell - TORRENT IT.

Key tracks: "Amnerika," "N-Lite," "Dio Fa," "Beat The Reaper," "Waffenspiel"

Intermediate Listening:

These albums won't have lengthy descriptions...I value both your time and mine too much to do that. They are grouped in thematic sections rather than in chronological order.

Given the breadth of Zappa's own albums individually, there is bound to be some overlap.

Special Mention:
Absolutely Free (1967) - this one deserves its own special place as a great silver medal, bridging the gap between Freak Out! and We're Only In It For The Money.

You Are What You Is
(1981) and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982) - Surprisingly with-the-times musically, these albums aren't quite children of Zoot Allures...neither are his other three studio offerings from the 1980's, but as you'll see in the next section, they are filed under "Advanced Listening."

Fans of Uncle Meat and the classical portions of 200 Motels:
Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970)
Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970)
The Läther saga (originally intended to be released in 1977 as a 4-LP set; for some reason, the label wouldn't put it out...), which can almost entirely be found on these four sublime late-70's releases:
Zappa In New York (1978)
Studio Tan (1978)
Sleep Dirt (1979)
Orchestral Favorites (1979)
London Symphony Orchestra, Volume I (1983)
Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (1984)
Francesco Zappa (1984)
London Symphony Orchestra, Volume II (1987)
Ahead Of Their Time (1993)
The Yellow Shark (1993)

Fans of Hot Rats:
Chunga's Revenge (1970)
Waka/Jawaka (1972) - which was unofficially dubbed Hot Rats II due to the cover.
The Grand Wazoo (1972)
Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)
Sleep Dirt (1979) - which was apparently going to be named Hot Rats III, but along with the other Läther albums it was an "unauthorized" release (according to Frank), right on down to the album who knows? The whole Läther thing is a confusing mess of a story, with dubious claims made by Zappa that seem to contradict other things he's said, and not something for the uninitiated, or even the initiated. Just enjoy the music.
Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991)

Fans of the rock portions of 200 Motels:
Chunga's Revenge (1970)
Fillmore East, June 1971 (1971)
Just Another Band From LA (1972)
Zappa In New York (1978)
Playground Psychotics (1992)

Fans of Apostrophe ('):
Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)
One Size Fits All (1975)
Studio Tan (1978)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 2 (1988)

Fans of Zoot Allures:
Zappa In New York (1978)
Sleep Dirt (1979)
Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
Joe's Garage Act I (1979)
Joe's Garage Acts II And III (1979)

Fans of Jazz From Hell:
Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (1984)
Francesco Zappa (1984)
Thing-Fish (1984)
Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985)
(Note that in this category, the suggested listening all predates the album listed as essential. I'm not sure what that means, but it has to mean something, right?)

Fans of Broadway The Hard Way:
The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (1991)
Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991)

Advanced Listening:

Note the absence of Civilization Phaze III as a starting point in the Intermediate category. That's because the only other album in his catalog that is remotely like it is the album that inspired it. There is some challenging material here, and in many cases it rewards those willing to give it multiple listens.

Descriptors here will be short. Like this one.

Lumpy Gravy (1968)
A true masterpiece in editing, with avant-classical, spoken dialog, beautiful orchestral themes, snippets of rock music (just enough to whet your appetite for more), and musique concrete experiments peppered throughout 31 crazy minutes. It's a little too short to my liking, but whatever, it's the musical equivalent of an Eisensteinian montage. This is one of the few works Frank consistently spoke well of throughout his career.

Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (1968)
This one's pretty simple, you have to ask yourself three simple questions:
1.) Do I like doo-wop music?
2.) Do I own a turntable?
3.) If not, can I stomach hearing digitally recorded drums and bass overdubbed onto vintage-style doo-wop and R&B?

If you have answered yes to Question 1 and yes to 2 and/or 3, then you will enjoy this album. (Buy it on vinyl. The remixing is atrocious, and the overdubs are even worse. Zappa did it because he didn't like the way it sounded, but then made up a bunch of shit about how the tapes were in awful condition.)

Thing-Fish (1984)
Would you enjoy a Broadway musical that dealt with gays, feminism, race relations, and sexual fetishes that had as its basis a hybridization of the Tuskegee Experiments and the conspiracy that AIDS was designed by the Reagan Administration to kill off blacks and gays, featuring Ike Willis as a black man-turned potato-headed mutant with a duck bill in a nun's habit who speaks in a stereotypical Negro dialect?

Wait, why are you running away?!

Funny enough, this is the other album besides Lumpy Gravy that Frank seemed to cherish. It's also (EASILY) the most divisive entry in his canon. Many hate it, some are merely indifferent, and a tiny lunatic fringe (including this guy) swear by it.

Final Exam:

These are the most difficult and/or uneven of releases. Zappa's work is so huge that every album has its defenders - like the one weirdo James Bond fan who claims Roger Moore is his favorite. Again, sorted by category.

In The (Cold, Sterile) Studio In The (Cold, Sterile) 1980's:
The Man From Utopia (1983)
Them Or Us (1984)
Something about these two albums make them "just kinda there;" although they both have their moments, the bad production and the lapses into humor that I think is just Frank being gross because he can outweighs the peaks. See my review of Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch for why it isn't in this category.

Thing-Fish, too, has been critiqued for sounding clinical, but that's not entirely fair. Much of it is (deliberately) recycled versions of old backing tracks - like a Broadway revue - with any new songs being done on the Synclavier. Part of FZ Meets The Mothers Of Prevention falls into this category, too, but the songs in question ("We're Turning Again," "Yo Cats") make up for the mediocre production with potent - and funny - lyrics.

Baby Snakes (1983)
Does Humor Belong In Music? (1986)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 1 (1988)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 3 (1989)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 4 (1991)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 5 (1992)
You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 6 (1992)

Those first two albums listed are reasons I'm glad most Zappa fans are happy to share their music. No one should have to pay more than ten dollars for either release. Baby Snakes is a rip-off of a live document, featuring the studio version of the title track plus a measly 30-something minutes of music from the two and a half hour long movie. Anyone else I'd say, "Oh, okay, cool, a live album!" but this is a guy who wanted to release a 12-LP set in 1969 and wanted a 4-LP set in 1977. Excuse me, Frank, but I think we could have handled a double or even triple album.

Does Humor Belong In Music? is from a night with the 1984 band, an ensemble much reviled by this author. Other fans seem to think the '84 band has simply been overexposed.

And why's that? Because a lot of the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series seems to be devoted to showing their crisp, picture-perfect renditions of complex pieces and breakneck-fast treatments of songs for casual listeners more than any other incarnation. Between Guitar and the YCDTOSA series (with Volume 2 solely from 1974 and Volume 5 consisting of works from 1965-1969 and 1982), I count 67 songs that were recorded and included.

All while several touring lineups went almost completely ignored, including his 1972 big band, The Mothers' final tour in late 1975/early 1976, and Zappa's first solo tour in 1976. It's a shame.

On the upside, Volume 2 is a complete concert of the Roxy-era band at their performing peak. The fifth volume consists of one disc of early Mothers recordings, including some studio outtakes (I guess you can't really do those on stage, can you?) that are all worthwhile.

One would think Frank would have given equal time to all lineups, or at least made it a little less '84-centric. Still, these packages were 2-CD's...and there were six released, in some weird way fulfilling the plans Frank had in 1969 with the 12-LP set he'd planned called The History And Collected Improvisations Of The Mothers.

The Guitar Albums:
Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar (1981)
Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar Some More (1981)
Return Of The Son Of Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar (1981)
Guitar (1988)
Two questions:
1.) Do you like Frank Zappa's soloing styles?
2.) Are you yourself a guitarist?
If you answered yes to both of these, you are within all your rights to buy this albums once you have We're Only In It For The Money.

I like them all right, but I don't think I've ever listened to Guitar end-to-end. The three SUNPYG albums are actually pretty listenable, though some pieces (like his electric bouzouki duet with Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, "Canard Du Jour") stick out more than, say, the three title cuts, which are all different solos from the same song ("Inca Roads") from different nights. It's the sort of thing you might find yourself excited about as a guitarist...I think?

Extra Credit:
From this point on, strictly optional.

Beat The Boots:
These were two different volumes of bootlegs given an official release on Rhino Records with Frank's blessing. Even though Frank (allegedly) had these shows in soundboard-quality mixes in his vault, he sanctioned only the release of the bootleg tapes. As a result, some recordings are LP-quality, and others are almost unlistenable.

That said, Volume One (1991) of Beat The Boots was released as a boxed set and also as individual CD's. Volume Two was a boxed set only, making it a pretty nice collector's item. In a slightly cruel twist, Volume Two (1992) contains the best of the bootlegs, in terms of performance quality, historical importance, and sheer sonic fidelity. Makes me wonder if Uncle Frank did this on purpose.

Beat The Boots, Volume One:
As An Am (1981-1982)
The Ark (1969)
Freaks & Motherfuckers (1970) - awful sound
Unmitigated Audacity (1974) - ABYSMAL sound
Anyway The Wind Blows (1979)
'Tis The Season To Be Jelly (1967)
Piquantique (1973)

Beat The Boots, Volume Two:
Disconnected Synapses (1970) - with Jean-Luc Ponty on guest violin
Tengo Na Minchia Tanta
Electric Aunt Jemima (1968)
At The Circus (1978, two tracks from 1970)
Swiss Cheese / Fire! (1971)
Our Man In Nirvana (1968)
Conceptual Continuity (1976)

Posthumous Albums:
Aside from Civilization Phaze III, which was finished and in the can when he passed away, the canonicity of all other posthumous releases is speculative and contentious.

The only posthumous releases that I think are essential are The Lost Episodes (a collection of early stuff and outtakes, like The Beatles Anthology except good) and Have I Offended Someone?, a compilation of remixes of FZ's more controversial songs. Both were in the same boat as CPIII, projects approved, mixed, and mastered by Zappa before he shuffled off his mortal coil.

As for the rest? All bets are off. Any of them that aren't complete concerts (FZ:OZ, Buffalo, Philly '76) or Lost Episodes-lite discs of early recordings (Joe's Corsage, Joe's Xmasage, The Making Of Freak Out! Project Object, and Lumpy Money) I say caveat emptor. You could be buying some real garbage, like noisy lo-fi rehearsal tapes for the 1972 big band tour (Joe's Domage) or some head-scratching odds 'n sods collection of seemingly unrelated tunes (One-Shot Deal) or something of dubious origins that someone in the Zappa camp (usually either widow Gail, son Dweezil, or vault-keeper Joe Travers) swears was an unreleased project of Frank's (Trance-Fusion, which was just another guitar feature album).

That said, happy hunting and welcome to one of the most esoteric music cults this side of The Residents.

*The Eric DiBlasi Sr. grading scale is a patented system of oft-repeated phrases that I've aligned up with letter grades:
"Now, THAT was a good...(album/movie/book)" - A+
"Pretty good" - A
"It was okay" - B+
"Not bad" - B
Holding out hand and tilting it from side-to-side - C
"I didn't care for it" - D+
"Oh, MAN, that (album/movie/book)", usually accompanied by laughter - D
"I prefer not to think about the time I (heard this album/saw this movie/read this book)" - F