Frank Zappa is a genius. Right. Frank Zappa probably knows more about music than you and I and 3/4 of the other professional musicians in this country put together. Right. Frank Zappa has made an incredible contribution towards broadening the scope of the average American kid’s listening habits. Absolutely. Frank Zappa has certain possibly dangerous Machiavellian, manipulative tendencies. Yeah, probably so, but so what? Frank Zappa is a snob who underestimates his audience. Hmmm. Think so, huh?
After giving all credit where credit is due, we have to start asking some other questions. When Zappa dissolved the Mothers, he explained that they were going to “wait for the audience to catch up” with them. Whatever that meant at the time, it takes on increasing irony as the passing months bring new Zappa and old Mothers. Uncle Meat was a good album, but not nearly as involving as the three that preceded it. I seriously doubt if very many members of the Mothers’ audience had trouble with bits like “God Bless America at the Whiskey” and “Louie Louie at Albert Hall.” And the jazz on there, “King Kong” and others, was good
about as significant a movement from Coltrane’s shadow as the work of, say, Charles Lloyd. As for the more “serious” material, I suppose you could say that it adds to the 20th Century Classical tradition without borrowing too obviously from any one source, but without being worked into structures more pointedly vernacular it loses its force
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interesting, but hardly compelling as both Edgar Varese and Little Richard are compelling.
Most of the albums released since then have been insubstantial, even allowing for the fact that something like Burnt Weenee Sandwich is something of a Mother’s sampler. Hot Rats was brilliant, filled with fine, strong solos most of which could easily stand beside the current work of some of the best jazzmen in America, even if Zappa’s guitar solos were carrying too few ideas through too many minutes, just as they had in “Invocation of the Young Pumpkin.”
Burnt Weenee Sandwich sounded to me like a collection of Hot Rats rejects and warmups, groping, relatively simple and obvious improvisations which never really got off the ground. And Weasels Ripped My Flesh didn’t stand up very well, either
a couple of good songs, some lukewarm jazz (what a chance was blown when “Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue” failed to communicate any of that great musician’s ideas to people who were in grade school when he died!), and some pointless, pretentious electronic noise. Lots of people gave these albums good reviews, and lots of others bought and listened to them solemnly, I suspect in a dutiful spirit akin to: “Well, now Uncle Frank’s gonna sit us down again and teach us something else about that great wide world of music we don’t know anything about because we’ve been fucking off listening to rock ‘n’ roll all these years.”
The fact is, though, that a lot of people are picking up on some very challenging music these days, the likes of Pharoah Sanders and Miles Davis and Roland Kirk, and they are turning from those listening experiences to things like Burnt Weenee Sandwich and coming away with a yawn. The public may not be quite as ignorant or as debased in its tastes as Zappa possibly thinks, and I suspect a lot of them are going to be even more let down by Chunga’s Revenge than they were by the last two albums. It doesn’t have the long boring solos, but the grab-bag Weasels feeling remains.
Briefly, “Transylvania Boogie” is a melodramatic Spanish/Oriental guitar solo that sounds like a studio man trying to combine the kind of scales and tonal colorings Gabor Szabo was into a few years ago with John McLaughlin – type approach. It doesn’t work.
The other instrumentals are pretty standard Zappa fare, except for the pleasant, moody “Twenty Small Cigars” and some excellent guitar choruses that break up the boring drum solos in “The Nancy & Mary Music.” Most of the vocals are pale reflections of lodes Zappa’s mined too often: greaser rock (“Would You Go All the Way,” “Sharleena”), the Absolutely Free look-at-all-those-drunk-businessmen – aren’t – they – repulsive riff (“Rudy Wants To Buy Yez a Drink”), and why he would even consider recording something like “Road Ladies” (a groupie song set to The World’s Oldest Blues Riff: “Don’cha know it gets lonesome
When yer way out there on the road/etc”) is beyond me. It would certainly never have made any of the Mothers’ first albums.
Zappa can go on putting out dull records like these indefinitely and always find somebody who’ll buy them, out of respect for his name if nothing else. And it is a name worthy of much respect. The original Mothers of Invention were a significant force in the music of our time. But these diddlings are not only insignificant, not only do they suggest that one genius is not at present working towards anything in particular, but they also smack of a rather cynical condescending attitude towards a public that may be getting ready to pass Zappa by.