The Mothers Of Invention
Weasels Ripped My Flesh

(Zappa Records)

These days, the notion that Frank Zappa was once a very popular, and quite influential, artist, also a "public figure" whose comments on all things public were given a great deal of attention, is somehow quite difficult to believe. We can solve the "popularity" issue quite easily: one has only to check past album charts, read those articles and interviews, those reviews of his albums and concerts, have a look at those pictures and magazine covers. Traces of his role as a commentator of mores can be found everywhere, even on vinyl - just check the album Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention, featuring audio excerpts from public debates held at the US Congress, in order to appreciate Zappa's brilliance as theorizer and communicator. ("Fame" has its drawbacks, of course. I remember reading about Zappa's wife, Gail, being asked in a shop, the cashier having noticed the name "Zappa" on her credit card: "Are you the wife of Frank Zappa, the comedian?") But, in a way, a lot of Frank Zappa's music was a deliberate comment on all things, with its use of musical quotes, of montage, and its practice of putting disparate materials side-by-side, to make them interact in unexpected ways.

(Was Frank Zappa a "post-modern" artist? Well, if we use the term in its "neutral" meaning, the notion is quite banal but indeed true. However, should we choose the "ironic" meaning of the word, my answer would be a resounding "no". Zappa was "ironic", but in a very different way than what is implied by "post-modernist" "irony".)

Zappa's musical influence on a lot of groups - some English groups, many French and German groups from the 60s and 70s - is quite apparent: just listen to those traces on Legend, Henry Cow's debut album; or to the similarities and direct quotes one can easily find on those "classic-period" albums by Faust; also, check his influence on many European groups from the area one usually puts under the umbrella name Rock In Opposition. It was a deep influence, and one has to take into account Zappa's perceived role as a spokesperson for (so-called) "counterculture" - hence, the harsh debates when it was believed that he had gone to bed with the devil.

Just like the album Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Weasels Ripped My Flesh features music recorded live and in the studio before the release of Zappa's acclaimed instrumental album Hot Rats, which in a way closed (and opened) a different chapter. But whereas Burnt Weeny Sandwich assembles diverse materials in order to create a whole which shows meaning and beauty as such, Weasels Ripped My Flesh celebrates the fragmentary nature of its featured materials, which in the end "coalesce". (To put it a bit too simply, we could say that the former album is to Faust's debut as the latter album is to The Faust Tapes.)

Weasels Ripped My Flesh celebrates Frank Zappa the composer, the guitar player, the skilful tape manipulator, the clear-thinking inhabitant of the recording studio. It also shows the great versatility and originality of his group, The Mothers Of Invention, and of their main soloists: Don Preston on keyboards, Ian Underwood on keyboards and winds, Bunk Gardner on winds, Arthur Tripp on percussion. This music requires great maturity - not to mention great playing skills - from those who attempt to perform it. Young listeners - also those who have spent their life in hibernation - will find here the magnificent traces of a world that nowadays has all but disappeared. Inhale with great caution.

Opening track Didja Get Any Onya? clearly states the territory: percussion, trumpet, strange vocals, and a weird tale that gets engulfed by the general mayhem. The R&B-flavored Directly From My Heart To You features Don "Sugar Cane" Harris on vocals and violin, who has a great solo. There's a reference made to Debussy in the title - and is Tchaikovsky quoted at the end?, where a classical-sounding aria played on piano duets with what sounds like an angry dog - of Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, which features a dialogue made of laughs and vocalizations. Acoustic and electric guitars and a clear melody are featured in the first part of Toads Of The Short Forest, while the second part embraces Free Jazz moods. With its slow, meticulous chord progression and a bluesy guitar solo through a wha-wha pedal, Get A Little is one of the pinnacles of Frank Zappa, guitar player.

Featuring a very fine theme, an accurate development, an agile electric bass, and an excellent performance by Arthur Tripp on percussion, The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue is for this writer one of the most beautiful pages in Frank Zappa's discography (it was the opening number of Zappa's concert in Rome on August 31, 1973). A fine melody and a skilful use of tapes are featured on Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula. My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama is a lively R&B, Zappa on vocals, featuring an intermezzo for speeded-up winds and a fine acoustic guitar. Ray Collins is on vocal on Oh No, with a fine melody, a song that "talks back" to The Beatles. Another fine theme, a clear wind section and a vivacious guitar solo are featured on The Orange County Lumber Track. I'll say nothing about Weasels Ripped My Flesh, recorded live, in order not to spoil the effect for those who have not listened to this track before.

How does the new CD sound? A legitimate question, while all those discussions are flourishing on the Web, with Europe - hence, this writer - lagging behind, the release of the second batch from the Zappa catalogue - from Waka/Jawaka (1972) to Sheik Yerbouti (1979) - having been postponed by a month or so. It's already possible for me, however, to say something about the titles newly re-mastered from the original analog tapes that appear in the first batch, which cover the territory between Freak Out! (1966) and Just Another Band From L.A. (1972).

I think I can say that, with the only exception of Hot Rats - which was previously re-mastered by Bernie Grundman to appear on vinyl, and later on CD - the compression at the mastering stage is definitely more than the optimum (some colleagues from US tell me that the compression on the second batch is less pronounced, but having no access to said titles I have no way to confirm or deny this). While all the new analog-sourced titles appear to suffer from an overabundance of bass (which is not really too severe, but which is a bit too much anyway), when it comes to compression I found those albums mastered by Doug Sax to sound more pleasing to my ears than those mastered by Bob Ludwig. (Here one could maybe say that the albums in question are really too diverse to make such a comparison possible, but one has only to check two live albums recorded in a similar time frame with the use of similar equipment - Fillmore East, June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A. - to see my point.)

This new version of Weasels Ripped My Flesh was re-mastered by Bob Ludwig. Compared to the new edition of Burnt Weeny Sandwich, also re-mastered by Ludwig, it sounds like not as much compression was applied. Details are clear, timbres are life-like, the acoustic guitars are clean, not harsh, winds and percussion are good, those tracks that were better recorded - above all, The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue - still sound fine, though there's too much bass for my liking (a common trait to the whole series, perhaps?). To those who, quite pragmatically, only want to know if this new version can replace the one on Rykodisc, I'll say that the lack of reverb which was annoyingly featured on the Rykodisc CD makes this new edition quite preferable.

Did I listen to a vintage pressing of this album in order to compare the two? Of course! A Reprise Made In USA from the early 70s. "Unfortunately" the pressing of the copy in my possession is not merely "acceptable" - as is the case for my copy of Burnt Weeny Sandwich - but, to say the least, "excellent", so... The comparison - and please, take into consideration the fact that it's the DAC of my recently-purchased CD player that's the technically most advanced item in my set-up - made listening to my old album the more rewarding experience. Sure, one has to take into account my listening to this album on vinyl for forty-one years, while I only had about two weeks to make myself familiar with the new CD. However, the exaggerated amount of compression applied on two vocal tracks speaks volumes: while My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama is "only" severely affected, listening to Ray Collins's vocals on Oh No - which on the old LP appear to "come out" from the speakers to come forward and spread sideways, with great effect - one perceives an invisible hand squeezing Collins's head.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2012 | Sept. 14, 2012