There’s a weird oxymoron with Frank Zappa’s career. He was the curmudgeon who hated drugs, made fun of hippies, berated the Beatles and mocked ‘alternative’ culture, and yet he was espoused as the freakiest freak of all.
On “We’re Only in It for the Money,” he spent most the album belittling anyone likely to hear it. On the one hand, he could be the grumpy grandpa who puts down every little thing that defines the ‘young generation’, but on the other, he’s the wry social critic who says exactly what he thinks and gets laughs and attention for his brutal honesty. The fundamental gist of “We’re Only In it for the Money” was made brutally poignant by the album cover, a mocking parody of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In Zappa’s world, the Beatles were simply kow-towing to the burgeoning hippie culture by incorporating psychedelic ideas onto their corporate sponsored musical creations. It is such a cynical view that it borders on the outrageous, but thousands were bemused at the time, and the album crept all the way to #30 on the Billboard charts.
It’s hard to lead a counter-counter-culture revolution if you are in the mainstream, and that was not a place that Zappa aspired toward. His musical interests were so far afield from mainstream tastes that it’s a wonder he ever got near it in the first place. With “Hot Rats”, Zappa completely avoided satire, focusing instead on tightly arranged musical structures and long improvised jams that put the emphasis on his prowess as a guitar player. After seven albums, it’s hard to believe that Zappa had hidden his prowess as an outstanding electric guitarist until this point, but jams like “Willie the Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations” more than make up for the wait. By releasing a ‘solo’ album made up primarily of instrumental tracks, it virtually ensured that Zappa’s sales would diminish, but mainstream acceptance was the furthest thing from his mind. Previous releases made it obvious that Zappa was an extraordinarily unique – weird, even – and talented arranger, but we did not yet know about his proficiency on electric guitar. “Hot Rats” combines Zappa’s formidable composition skills with some astounding guitar work, aided and abetted by multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, the only “Mother” present for these sessions.
Until this point, Zappa’s work often featured satirical lyrics that could veer from strident to absurd, with an element of self-conscious and self-righteous sermonizing hidden beneath judgmental humor. “Hot Rats” solved that problem by turning the microphones off and letting the music do the talking. Only one track features vocals, supplied by Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), and they only exist to set up a lengthy blues jam. The rest is all instrumental, and it’s a pleasure to hear Zappa stretch out without all of the accouterments of his music concrète tendencies and bizarre spoken word passages. Judging by previous albums, you could make the argument that Zappa was not particularly gifted melodically but was a compositional genius. On Hot Rats he excels at both.
October 1969 - Billboard Charted #172
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