A Very Zappa Birthday (ep)
UMG Recordings, Inc.
Had he still been alive, Frank Zappa would have celebrated his 80th birthday this month. As we know he barely made it into his 50s. As we know from watching any of the clips from the talk show appearances he made in the 1980s he’s missed as much for his mind as his music and for a guy that seemed to arrive fully formed and belligerent to, erm, be frank, it was so clear his journey was one of constantly evolving. Even if you’ll never care for his music there’s his political outlook which has continued to seem influential.
This newly compiled EP – a tiny wee token of his extreme has been released in honour of his 80th and is of course weird and is also sometimes wonderful. And it’s hard to know who this is for really and if it works at all. But I’m in a place where I’m more interested in FZ’s music than I’ve been in a while; almost ready to deep-dive once again.
There’s nothing deep to find here in this simple surface skim which opens with Fembot in A Wet T-Shirt. The aim, surely, is to show how silly and outrageous he could be, but this comes from the album that was my intro to Uncle Frank (Joe’s Garage) and is forever my favourite example of not just his songwriting but his bandleading (arguably the more important thing). And for drummer Vinnie Colaiuta it remains a high water mark, reason enough to listen. It’s a jarring jump-cut to hear that excised though as it careens abruptly on over to Valley Girl from the early 80s – and my ears are forever waiting for the Joe’s Garage segueing instrumental On The Bus. Anyway, Valley Girl was Frank’s charting 80s pop hit, thanks entirely to his daughter Moon and her silly/funny Valley girl send-up; a spoken-word performance that is cartoon-brilliance.
Stinkfoot in a live version from 1988 is next – it’s one of those bog-standard blues vamps that Zappa enjoyed injecting with ribald sea-shanty verses, rollicking waves of political satire and smut to rub up against a guitar solo that was scratched into place by a diamond on a glass table top.
I could care less for Stinkfoot I reckon. But it’s here. And if it wasn’t one of 6000 other options could have been.
Dirty Love from the early 70s is almost Valley Girl-like and I’ve always liked its great groove and how the guitar seems to throw back to the earliest Mothers vibes while the voice is desperately out to ruin everything. This is belligerent Frank also being succinct Frank even though he doesn’t really have anything of value to say or add here.
Watermelon In Easter Hay is another Joe’s Garage highlight, and it’s the usual proof that’s offered for Frank’s own guitar prowess and musicianship and often held up as the great example of his emotive and emotional guitar playing – it’s also an instrumental so no pesky vocal affectations to climb over if you’re still at the foothills of FZ appreciation. But this shortened live version doesn’t do it for me the way the studio album cut always has and always will. This is merely okay and loses something in the live setting, though maybe it was a thrill if you were there eh.
The EP closes with another Dirty Love-era fun-ride in I’m The Slime. Another good groove and silly song all in one. I should know better, but also I don’t want to.
At the end of the six songs I’m not sure what has happened in honour of Frank Zappa’s 80th – maybe this is the EP you have on hand for the friend or partner in your life that has never understood your interest in Frank Zappa and wants a quick intro. I doubt it will do anything to win them over. It is but a mere postcard from a man that penned so many volumes of musical encyclopaedia that there are still whole pages to be added rather than little pull-quotes to parade around.
Still, Happy 80th Frank. You were a genius. Even if the 2020 landscape would be more interested in your mind than your music for the most part.
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