Hi! A lot to say this week but I wanted to start by reminding y’all that Cheap City’s new record “Clocktower Broke” is OUT and you can stream it right here:
At the beginning of the summer I decided I wanted to listen to every Frank Zappa album, in the order given by the Zappa Family Trust. All 111 records. I’ve been a pretty big Zappa fan since I bought Burnt Weenie Sandwich about three years ago, but anybody who’s even vaguely familiar with his work knows that you can know all the ins and outs of a hundred hours of his music, and still have barely scratched the surface. So I got to work. I have to say it’s been a journey and it hasn’t always been easy. There’s a pretty dark period for me in the mid 70s when Zappa seems to be trying to figure out what shape his career should take without the Mothers behind him. That was hard for me to get through. Zappa In New York is one of the only albums that does absolutely nothing for me. The only redeeming track on it is “The Black Page” and that’s only exciting because it’s notorious for being really hard to play. Anyway, I’m not I’m not done yet. As I’m writing this I’m currently listening to The Lost Episodes, official release number 64.
What I want to talk about is a podcast I just finished listening to called Discography. It’s put out by Consequence of Sound and it’s hosted by Marc With A C, who I had never heard of prior to the podcast. So what Marc does is exactly what I’ve been doing. He goes through every Zappa album - although he doesn’t include the posthumous releases. He stops at Civilization Phaze III, official release 63, which was technically released after Zappa died but was finished and ready to be printed at the time of his death.
So I guess this is my review of Marc’s own journey through the discography. (My own thoughts on the discography as a whole forthcoming…)
The biggest problem I have with Marc’s interpretation of Zappa’s music is the idea that everything is supposed to flow together. This is actually an often misunderstood concept about Zappa. Marc perpetuates the idea that Zappa’s entire recorded output is one big song, and so he reviews everything with that in mind. That leaves the listener sometimes listening to Marc kind of blather on about how the flow from one record to the next doesn’t work and this is actually pretty irrelevant. What Marc is referring to is that after the sessions for Lumpy Gravy (a musique concrete pastiche) Zappa was talking about how the process for making the record was a lot of cutting tape and rearranging it. He then said that you could take any of the recordings from those sessions and do the same thing and it would make sense. This quote has been misconstrued to imply that all of Zappa’s work is one big piece. In some senses that’s kind of true - there are lots of recurring themes and characters and songs get rearranged all over the place. But the idea that everything is supposed to be one big song just isn’t true and doesn’t make sense. If that was the case then Zappa wouldn’t have sometimes abandoned projects in the middle of them. Marc listens to the Zappa discography in order because he thinks it was composed in that way. It’s only interesting to listen to it in order to see how the artist develops.
There’s also this thing Marc says in the intro to each episode that really kind of bothers me. He’s talking about how Zappa was less of a rock and roller and more of a composer. That’s really how he saw himself and he more or less wrote ‘rock’ songs because he didn’t have access to an orchestra. That part is true but when Marc is talking about how everything in life informed Zappa’s perception of composition, he says something about how composing is just ‘stringing together pretty dots on a piece of paper,” which is 100% untrue and almost offensive to those who know what composers actually go through. I mean, there are actually some composers who actually would randomize the process of writing music, but Zappa definitely wasn’t one of them.
I do have to say that one thing I really respect about Marc’s review of the Zappa discography is that he pays a lot of attention to the remastering of each record in the 2012 releases. Marc is a guy who has been listening to a fair number of Zappa records on many different formats for a long time, so he has a pretty good ear for what works on the new versions and what doesn’t. According to him, some of the releases sound a LOT better, some could still use improvement, and some don’t really show much of a difference. So if you’re someone who has a bunch of old Zappa records on vinyl and wants to know if you should get the new versions, I’d recommend just skipping to the end of his review of each album to see if he suggests having the ZFT issued CD.
But frankly that’s the only redeemable thing I got out of the podcast. Marc constantly refers to things as controversial, but never gets around to explaining why they’re that way. Example: He keeps talking about how ‘controversial’ it was when the Turtles joined the Mothers of Invention, but nothing I’ve ever read shows that anybody really gave a shit. I definitely have my gripes with the guy for not liking some of the records that I really love. Burnt Weenie Sandwich and Uncle Meat are two high points for me that Marc just really hates. And that’s fine - the difference in opinion is totally okay but as a journalist I think Marc also has to dig deeper. For example he really didn’t like Lumpy Gravy, but is also absolutely unaware of what the piece is and how it fits into a long tradition (even in the 60s!) of collaged tape pieces. The historical context of the work is important! Later on in the discography, Marc takes aim at what he percieves to be Zappa’s boredom with his own work, but doesn’t back this up with any tangible description. It felt like Marc needed something to say so he just made something up.
There’s also the issue of how Marc treats Zappa the composer versus Zappa the guy in a rock band. To be fair Marc is always quick to remind us that he doesn’t know much about classical music, but that doesn’t mean he’s exempt from doing any research. The way he talks about The Perfect Stranger exemplifies this. That album was a big deal for Zappa. It was conducted by Pierre Boulez at a time when Zappa was still relatively unknown in the classical community. Getting ANYTHING conducted by Boulez was a huge deal, especially given that Boulez was a notorious curmudgeon. Marc seems totally unaware of this context, which is unfortunate because I think it plays a lot into the importance of the album. Also, Marc constantly mispronounces Boulez’s name. I don’t usually get down on people for pronunciation but there’s a certain point where you gotta do your homework and figure out how to say the dude’s name. Marc does the same thing with Ensemble Modern. He openly admits that he thinks he’s saying it wrong but it would probably take all of two seconds to find out. And this is different then something like, you can say Debussy’s name but maybe not in the perfect French pronunciation. This is just basic research.
This is the same problem I had with what I wrote about Joe Gross’s book on Fugazi a few weeks ago. March will just say he doesn’t like things or make these pretty big judgements about them but not back it up with anything. It’s one thing not to like it, but when you say you don’t like an album like Weasels Ripped My Flesh, you have to understand that there a TON of people who worship that record and there should be some more context and analysis given to WHY you don’t like it.
At the end of the sixth episode of the podcast Marc mentions that maybe someday he’ll come back and do the same thing with all of the posthumous releases, which I think would be well worth it. Of course a lot of it is archival and was likely never intended by Zappa to be released commercially but it’s still really interesting to hear. And there’s some real gems in the later albums. I recommend Dance Me To This to anyone I talk to about Zappa. It’s an album that was actually finished while he was alive, I just don’t think he had mixed or sequenced it, but all of the recordings were finished and intended to be on a record at some point.
Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve said it and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I’d really like to see people taking on the role of rock journalism or criticism take more of analytical and journalistic approach to it. That doesn’t mean that the writing has to be overly academic or jargon-y, but it needs to say something more than, “I didn’t like this.”