Frank Zappa

(Zappa Records)

To me it's a fact that's been proven as being certain beyond any reasonable doubt: the farther we get from the time of those events, the more difficult it gets to communicate the varied, complex feelings (a mix of wonder, amazement, irritation, discomfort...) one experienced when Frank Zappa and his group, The Mothers Of Invention, appeared on a scene defined as being the "counter-culture"; a scene whose being "in opposition" was thought of as being good enough to make it overcome any possible objections (and who could have imagined any criticism, save for those coming from the opponent, i.e., The "Establishment"?). Forty years after his first two albums, Freak Out! and Absolutely Free (two titles, it has to be noted, perfectly in tune with the "young spirit" of those times), came out, let's place Zappa's We're Only In It For The Money side-by-side with its apparent target, the world-famous Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, without a doubt the event of summer 1967 (to increase the drama quotient, one is advised to have the vinyl versions at hand).

Later cultural criticism of the "leather & needles" type has made it increasingly difficult to perceive the Sixties' most significant feature: the appearance of colour. Here the word colour can very well indicate a widening of the range of possibilities - but also, obviously, colour tout court; let's try thinking about how colourful "Swingin' London" could appear to those musicians coming from Birmingham or Manchester; let's also think about those even more colourful places such as the one from where The Byrds, coming down from Eight Miles High, came: affluent and sunny California - which must have proven quite a contrast to the city of London, where signs of the previous war were still there to see.

In those days, Zappa was (also) important because his work warned us about the danger of mistaking the colours at hand for the whole palette of colours. Sure, we don't have to forget about the notion of those fast-approaching "leaner, meaner times" of which Ellen Willis (1941-2006) so perceptively talked about. But Zappa's work is also highly important for reminding us not to mistake a set of choices that are numerically decreasing due to a decreasing income for all the choices available to us; also for helping us remember that a worsening of our criteria of quality may well make our available choices appear as having increased - but at what price?

It's not only a "different noise" what we have by using electricity and amplification, provided we add manual skill and clarity of purpose (both are fruits of what it's known as a process of "trial and error"). But in those days a "different noise" had a lot of personal variations, from the "Made in U.K." Triad of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Peter Green to a transplanted Jimi Hendrix, from Mike Bloomfield "in Chicago" to "noisy" Pete Townshend, with Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore still in the horizon line. Far from being a "guitar hero", at first Zappa placed his instrumental work inside a complex architecture where soloing was obviously not a priority (an interesting parallel is Robert Fripp's early work with King Crimson). It's only between the late 60s and the early 70, with albums such as Hot Rats and Chunga's Revenge, that the notion of "Frank Zappa, guitar player" began to emerge.

Simplifying things quite a bit, we could talk of a "first period" Frank Zappa, whose early solos have a definite blues flavour but are quite unusual in their choice of scales, accents, and sounds: just listen to Get A Little from Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution from Uncle Meat and here and there on the album Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Using the already mentioned Hot Rats and Chunga's Revenge as starting points, we can also listen to Waka/Jawaka, Over-Nite Sensation and Roxy And Elsewhere: it's Zappa's "second period". It has to be noted that, be it live or in the studio, here Zappa plays rhythm together with the group. While it's his later use of other guitar players (at first one, then two or three) that will make him "the singer/ focal point" or "the lead guitarist" who gets his guitar in his hands only at the time to start a solo. Win some, lose some.

Reagan was already president, and the dollar was sky-high, when I learned that Zappa had released three albums of guitar solos: sold by mail only, in the States only. But where there's a will there's a way, even if I still remember the walls of the phone booth I was using getting steamy as soon as I understood that the decidedly high but in a way not terribly exaggerated sum I thought I was being requested to pay for all three albums was in fact to be understood as being the price of EACH.

Brilliantly recorded, those three volumes of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar were destined to prove a milestone of "rock" guitar. Here Frank Zappa highlights the "moment of the solo", when the guitarist goes "without a safety net" with the only company of bass and drums to enrich the leader's instrumental excursions with ingenious rhythmic subdivision and daring harmonic extensions. It was a highly stimulating matter to try to decide from which songs those solos had been taken, and also investigating the "thematic areas" of those explorations. Thinking about the timbres alone kept me busy for years.

Those three volumes (a similarly structured double album, Guitar, appeared almost at the close of that decade) sold surprisingly well, if not by the truckload. These are not the times of the "human beast" yet (there is an important piece of the puzzle that's still missing: the arrival of "videomusic"), but the fact of mistaking the end of one's shoes for the horizon had many to start thinking of anything whose logic was not immediately, easily graspable as "empty, self-indulgent showing-off". And while the framework of the 60s made one think that when things appeared difficult to understand, still they had to have a content, now this is thought of as being of no importance whatsoever. So, an aesthetic which has narcissism at its core, from which those who sell ads have profited nicely.

Having been announced as "about to be released", and never have been, I had completely forgotten about the possible existence of Trance-Fusion, an album of guitar solos Frank Zappa had personally assembled and worked on before his premature death. I'm afraid I already know what kind of destiny awaits for it - not a single sighting on the Web during the week I spent listening to it. I would not be terribly pleased to admit - as it already happened in the not-too-distant past - that Zappa's name on an Earth scale doesn't mean much now, except to a small bunch of aficionados. But I have a feeling that in this respect things are even worse: those times when "material" elements (Blackmore's "scalloped" fingerboard, Zappa's wha-wha, Beck's "artificial" harmonics, Hendrix's "hand-bent" vibrato bar, Kahler and Floyd Rose) were perceived as means to an end are long gone; gone are also the times when "seeing" meant "understanding" (observe the eyes of those now attending concerts: darting all over the place - maybe looking for a remote control?).

With a couple of significant exceptions, all tracks included on Trance-Fusion come from the last two tours by Zappa: the one from 1988, with a large line-up with a wind section; and the one from 1984, a septet with two rhythm guitars and two keyboards. Maybe this could appear as secondary compared to the fact that here we have the same rhythm section, Chad Wackerman on drums and Scott Thunes on bass; but attentive listeners will notice the more exuberant way they play in 1984. Just as in the past, the titles of the solos don't reveal the names of the songs, and here the Web comes to our help; those already in the know will not have to sweat to notice the way Inca Roads relates to Dark Matter, City Of Tiny Lights to Scratch & Sniff, The Torture Never Stops to Gorgo and After Dinner Smoker, and so on.

Chunga's Revenge, with winds, opens the CD. The track has a long solo by Zappa's son, Dweezil, quite linear, and (at least to my ears) more similar to Steve Vai than to Daddy.

Bowling On Charen (it's the solo to Wild Love, but I'd say to keep in mind The Sheik Yerbouti Tango) comes from a tour from '77, so we have Pat O'Hearn on bass and Terry Bozzio on drums. The guitar solo is excellent, alternating dark movements on the lower strings and more lyrical moments. Starting from about 2'50" we have a brilliant moment where the "elementary raw propulsion" Bozzio excels in pushes the track with great gusto.

Good Lobna is a brief track with feverish phrasing, almost working as an intro to Cold Dark Matter/Inca Roads: the bass has quite skillful countermelodies, while drums are sometimes very dark.

Butter Or Cannons (it's really Cleveland from '84) is jerky, with a dry snare, a ride, a bass that sounds almost "sawtooth", a spiky guitar, a "comping" piano (by Allan Zavod, whose comping when the guitar left "empty" spaces definitely had a be-bop logic), then the guitar turns into a hurricane.

Ask Dr. Stupid, from '79, has bass by Arthur Barrow (strange, he's not mentioned on the cover) and polyrhythmic drums by Vinnie Colaiuta, with great bass drum.

Scratch & Sniff/City Of Tiny Lights (and quite obviously Variations On The Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression) is full of verve, with nice drums, counterpoint from the bass, a fine background.

Trance-Fusion (Marqueson's Chicken) can be considered in many ways as being the best moment on the album: slow, regular, with some notes on the bass repeated/compressed in the style of Jack Bruce, superb drums.

Liquid and bluesy, we have an excellent Gorgo. Diplodocus is a King Kong from '84, with Bobby Martin's tenor sax, uncredited, to frame the solo; a reggae upbeat (a classic move in that year), Zavod's piano, crammed gruppettoes on the guitar.

Soul Polka is three very fast minutes in uptempo. For Giuseppe Franco goes back to the reggae uptempo from '84, electric piano, counterpoint from the bass, snare in the foreground.

After Dinner Smoker, recorded in Genova, '88, goes back superbly to The Torture... solo and it's another very fine moment on the CD. Fluid, with a nice background, and a performance on the part of the drums that's really something.

A nightmarish atmosphere, with a strict cadenza from the keyboards, and a nasal distortion on the guitar: Light Is All That Matters, two different solos.

The real close is the almost "flamenco-blues" on Finding Higgs' Boson, with nice percussion. The CD closes with Daddy and Son together in Monaco.

(What if somebody considered this CD as being an "empty, self-indulgent showing-off"? Well, I clearly remember what Zappa once defined as his "humble curse": "May your shit come to life, and kiss you.")

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | Jan. 14, 2007