Frank Zappa may be the only rock star as prolific in death as he was in life. And that’s saying a lot, considering he released 62 albums in his 52 years on this planet. Since his death in 1993, his estate has put out nearly 60 releases, making it even harder to navigate his labyrinthine catalogue and making most of these posthumous releases jewels waiting to be discovered. The latest is The Hot Rats Sessions — a six-disc, exhaustive deep dive into the main Mother of Invention’s first solo masterpiece, Hot Rats, which was also the third(!) album Zappa released in 1969.
The original LP was a tight 43 minutes of jazzy rock jams and cosmic compositions — a “movie for your ears,” as he called it in the sleeve art — but here, with nearly every single one of the 43 bazillion notes Zappa and his band recorded for the LP present, it spans some seven hours and 19 minutes and ventures into strange stratospheres. An exercise like this might seem like robbing the crypt for any other artist, but for someone like Frank Zappa who cultivated a dedicated cult of fans hell-bent on hearing all 43 bazillion notes — fans who make no qualms about seeing a Frank Zappa hologram simply because his vocals are sourced from an uncirculated bootleg — it’s more like an anthropological expedition.
Zappa always fancied himself a composer first and foremost — his widow, Gail, once told me she hoped an upcoming Zappa documentary would answer the question, “Why the fuck would anybody want to be a composer?” — and in The Hot Rat Sessions, you can hear his compositional genius at work.
For fans already familiar with Hot Rats and its bizarre tableaus and characters — the whimsy of the kazoo-like synths on “Peaches En Regalia,” Captain Beefheart’s lubricious yowls on “Willie the Pimp,” the school-educational film vibe of “Little Umbrellas” — the collection is like a how-to manual showing its construction. There are different permutations of each song, rehearsals, mixes that show off certain instruments, remixes. It’s a bit like lifting each of the transparencies in Gray’s Anatomy to see the muscles beneath the skin and the bones beneath the muscles to examine what makes a living organism. There are “rhythm” tracks, early takes that show off Zappa’s jaw-dropping guitar solos, even an a cappella version of “Willie the Pimp” that spotlights Beefheart’s singular phlegmatic sleaze.
Of course, none of this will interest new Zappa fans — and it might even frustrate Zappa diehards. After all, Frank Zappa has one of the most inscrutable discographies in recorded music. With more than 100 albums to choose from, would-be fans are often flummoxed trying to find a starting place. The original Hot Rats is a good one — as is the Mothers of Inventions’ debut Freak Out!, Zappa’s solo Sheik Yerbouti, Apostrophe(‘) and about a dozen other releases — but until you’ve spent serious time with Hot Rats, a set like this will feel like overkill. Moreover, only Zappa fans with diagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder (and they are most definitely out there) will appreciate the sparse, work-in-progress “take 1” of “Son of Mr. Green Genes” (though there is a brilliant guitar solo on there) and listening to the band rehearse “Peaches” slowly, to get it right, will appeal only to the sort of muso who regularly attends symphony rehearsals.
But even on the weirder tracks, Hot Rats is the sort of album that Zappa made for you to bliss out to. It’s a mood, one that’s not totally reflected by its cover art of Miss Christine from Zappa’s all-together Zappaesque girl group the GTO’s climbing out of an empty pool; it’s more serene than that. And when you immerse yourself in the sessions’ hours and hours of solos, it’s easy to get lost in it. It’s a mood that’s more accurately reflected in the Candyland ripoff board game “Zappaland” that comes with the box set, where a smoke break sets you back on the board or a “hot guitar solo” can push you ahead. And it’s a mood that’s captured in The Hot Rats Book, a separate standalone coffee table book of photographs by Bill Gubbins that visually shows “why the fuck would anybody want to be a composer” — or at least why Zappa did, given his intense looks in the photos. And it’s fun when you’re jarred back awake from the music by one of the promo spots on Disc Six or two young women telling “More of the Story of Willie the Pimp,” which mostly consists of them hysterically screaming (as Willie), “Son of a bitch!” or Zappa explaining that the phrase “hot rats” was just his description for how he felt an Archie Shepp solo sounded.
This box set is the type of treatment usually reserved for Beatles reissues, but because it’s Zappa The Hot Rats Sessions is a more delightfully quirky. It doesn’t contain everything, the way something like the Stooges’ 1999 box set, 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions, did, but because of the Zappa-esque details, it feels more comprehensive, for better or worse — there’s even a wholly unnecessary 1987 remix that feels more unnaturally “Eighties” than the original mix. (You can skip it). Here, experimentalism is the star, and Zappa’s adventurous spirit is why Hot Rats became an early classic for him in the first place.
You won’t walk away from it with any better understanding of why he was driven to be a composer or made the music he did, but you will have a better grasp on the innumerable details that made Hot Rats a classic.