THIS month marked the 50th anniversary of an LP release which was to prove a landmark in modern music. Hot Rats, by Frank Zappa, is without doubt the album I have played most in my life yet its virtuosity still staggers me. At the age of 15 I was to be seen and heard walking to school whistling Willie the Pimp, complete with all the guitar solos, and sometimes managing to get near the actual playing time of nine minutes 21 seconds.
So what’s so good about a record its creator described as ‘a movie for your ears’? Answer: everything.
After several years of avant-garde musical anarchy with the Mothers of Invention, Frank Vincent Zappa (born 1940) broke up the band and decided to make a serious, mainly instrumental solo album composed, arranged and produced by himself. To back up his guitar, he enlisted the heavyweight help of former Mother Ian Underwood on piano, flute and woodwinds; drummers Paul Humphrey, John Guerin and Ron Selico; electric violinists Jean-Luc Ponty and Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris; and bassists Max Bennett and Shuggie Otis. Oh, and his old school friend Don van Vliet, the inimitable Captain Beefheart, who supplies the record’s only vocals on Willie the Pimp.
Hot Rats, recorded in California in July and August 1969, was one of the first LPs to utilise 16-track equipment. This gave Zappa the ability to use multiple overdubs, with Underwood playing several instruments on the same cut, and record individual tracks for each component of the drum kit. He also messed about with tape speeds to create different sounds.
The first track, Peaches en Regalia, was a revelation – a mini symphony in just over three and a half minutes. Zappa plays ‘octave bass’ – a normal bass guitar jazzed up to double speed. Otis is on bass and Selico on drums while Underwood contributes keyboards, flute, sax and clarinet. This was released as a single and, while it did not trouble the charts, remained a much-loved fixture for many years on jukeboxes in student bars.
Sugarcane’s fiddle and Guerin’s drums introduce Willie the Pimp before Beefheart’s vocals break in (the Lido Hotel mentioned in the lyrics was apparently a seedy dive in Coney Island). After not much more than a minute the Captain fades out and Zappa’s wonderful, fluid soloing begins. Bliss. No wonder Rolling Stone magazine named this one of the hundred greatest guitar songs of all time.
So far, so brilliant and the standard is maintained with Son of Mr Green Genes, an instrumental remake of a track from the Mothers’ Uncle Meat album. This features more great guitar, plus horn work from Underwood, and completes side one of the LP. After all this guitar virtuosity side two might seem a little disappointing by comparison at first, but repeated playing reveals its own delights.
Little Umbrellas is of similar length to Peaches and again features multiple overdubs by Underwood. Perhaps he should rename himself Overwood.
The main track on side two is The Gumbo Variations, weighing in at 12 minutes 53 seconds on the original vinyl, although this was extended to almost 17 minutes on CD reissues. This is basically an inspired studio jam with a lengthy tenor sax passage from Underwood plus solos from Zappa and Harris.
We conclude with It Must Be a Camel, another jazzy and complex tune with lots of overdubs.
With its striking gatefold cover, featuring Miss Christine of the GTOs, Hot Rats was expected to be a huge hit. In Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs wrote: ‘This recording brings together a set of mostly little-known talents that whale the tar out of every other informal “jam” album released in rock and roll for the past two years. If Hot Rats is any indication of where Zappa is headed on his own, we are in for some fiendish rides indeed.’
However, the album sold poorly in the US, reaching only number 173 in the Billboard charts. Thankfully the discerning Brits were far more appreciative of Zappa’s huge talent and it made our top ten.
Over the years Hot Rats has had many incarnations, the latest of which is a six-disc box set due to come out on December 20, the day before what would have been Frank’s 79th birthday – he died of cancer in 1993. It includes ‘an abundance of rare and unedited mixes, work mixes, relevant vault nuggets and complete basic tracks mixed from the original multi-track master tapes’. At a cost north of £100 it counts very much as a luxury item but let’s hope Father Christmas believes in Frank Zappa.