Almost a trick question really – looking for the crap Frank Zappa albums that are good. His music lives in the vacuum of its cult endorsements. Ask the wives and girlfriends. Ask the bemused best friends of certain music nerds. Ask yourself. Is there an enjoyably Frank Zappa album? Or is it all just various stages of homework? I say this as a (lapsed) fan. I was reading about Frank Zappa before I was ever listing to Frank Zappa. I think I got massively interested in him and his ideas around the time of his death. Must have been some obits that did it. And then when I went in I went in deep (that’s the sort of “tool-shed” innuendo FZ would probably appreciate).
As the sort of music nerd that’s both incorrigible and (arguably) “encourageable” I was easily led to a bunch of Zappa albums, coinciding with the big Rykodisc reissue campaign. In a year I went from half a dozen to a dozen albums and a year later I had about 30 – just a year or two on from there had about 60 or 70 and this is back in the days of hard fought music collections, working a job (usually in a music store) for perks and discounts and feeble pay packets just to buy a few meals, several drinks and lots of CDs. Then it was on to the bootlegs…
One of the first albums I bought though was Jazz From Hell. I’d heard Zappa in his earliest days with the original Mothers, I’d heard him do instrumental jazz-rock fusion and the silly satires, I’d heard a few albums already and thought I knew what I was getting myself in for…
But when I first heard Jazz From Hell of course I was disappointed. For a start, I’d took the title to mean literally jazz – and I’d assumed he was going to be playing the hell out of it, but the closer result was casting the genre there.
Jazz From Hell is not jazz. And that seemed to very quickly fit given this was made in the 80s. The jazz is dead decade. And don’t’ write in with your examples of all that was great then in jazz – I’m a big fan of Black Codes (From The Underground) and a few other things, I’m just saying, it wasn’t the genre’s finest run.
Frank had taken the “from Hell” idea from the fact that President Reagan was “the president from hell” and so he’d cast jazz in that light (or rather darkness). And he’d done it with his favourite 80s tool: The Synclavier. He one-man-banded together some silly, annoying, instrumental noodles that had more in common with neo-classical music than jazz (and the clue ahead of this was his Francesco Zappa album, a tribute to a composer that never existed, another of Frank’s silly games, another of the “worst” Zappa albums, another that I quite like).
I spent the time listening to Jazz From Hell. Because that’s what you did then when you bought an album you didn’t like – you didn’t return it or exchange it so you ended up playing it almost more than the albums you loved; you wanted to be won over on some level. I spent time listening to Jazz From Hell because once I got the joke – it’s not jazz, but it is from hell – I really started to like it. I spent time listening to Jazz From Hell because it wasn’t all that different from the Jean Michel Jarre and Jan Hammer that I was also listening to at that time (and had listened to earlier).
But I will say that it felt like a massive reward when you’d get 7/8s of the way through the album and you’d hear a guitar solo! In fact that’s all the track St. Etienne is – a liquid, loquacious FZ guitar solo taken from the 1982 tour, where Steve Vai is stuck on rhythm guitar (lol!) and Frank is spiralling out towards the never-ending land where his guitar solo all coil.
Ahead of that, and after that, it’s Francesco Zappa Goes Jazz! And it’s where jazz goes out the window and gets driven over and rots in a muzak hell.
And people hate it. And don’t get it. And don’t want to know it. And all of that is fair.
But I’ve always though it was just funny and silly and ahead-of-its-time enough to enjoy it. I mean it’s the AI of music before there was AI of music. It’s not too dissimilar to what the likes of Sam Gendel is doing now. His Satin Doll is just standards fed through the filter of Jazz From Hell, but with real live actual instruments still.
Every Frank Zappa album is a Crap Album I Love perhaps. And some days (many in a row) I’m not in the mood for any of his silliness. His, er, Frank-ness. Because the cartoonery and buffoonery gets to me. But there’s still something – even in this – that calls me right back.