“Hot Rats” by Frank Zappa (1969)
The weekend of Woodstock, Frank Zappa was a couple of hundred miles to the north, playing gigs with the Mothers of Invention that Saturday and Sunday in Montreal. The band then traveled to Toronto for a television appearance.
Those represented the final outings of the original Mothers – MGM Records insisted the “of Invention” be tacked onto the end – before Zappa decided to break up the group, which started as an R&B outfit called the Soul Giants and evolved into an amalgam of styles that, in the band’s latter stages, was “close enough for jazz,” as the saying goes.
“In 1969, George Wein, impresario of the Newport Jazz Festival, decided it would be a tremendous idea to put the Mothers of Invention on a jazz tour of the East Coast,” Zappa wrote in “The Real Frank Zappa Book” with Peter Occhiogrosso.
The touring package did not carry its own PA. We had to use whatever speakers existed in each of the venues we were booked to play. The hall in South Carolina was rigged with small jukebox speakers, set in a ring around the building. Useless, but there they were. We had to play the show.
Before we went on, I saw Duke Ellington begging – pleading – for a $10 advance. It was really depressing. After that show, I told the guys, ‘That’s it. We’re breaking the band up.’ We’d been together in one configuration or another for about five years at that point, and suddenly EVERYTHING looked utterly hopeless to me. If Duke Ellington had to beg some George Wein assistant backstage for ten bucks, what the fuck was I doing with a 10-piece band, trying to play rock and roll, or something that was almost rock and roll?
The Mothers of Invention had been a groundbreaking act, combining dadaist theatrical elements – a rubber chicken often was involved – with several musical influences: jazz, classical, doo-wop and and some of the hardest rock ever heard to that point. Observers tended to focus on the band’s antics, which in turn tended to obscure the brilliant playing of its members, particularly lead guitarist Zappa.
On the LPs released by the Mothers through 1969, his contributions were rather subdued, but his talent shone through whenever he allowed his guitar to take the spotlight, notably on the tracks “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin,” “Stuff Up the Cracks” and “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution.”
So it may have come as somewhat of a revelation to the public at large when Zappa’s first post-Mothers album, “Hot Rats,” hit the shelves in October 1969. Not only was his guitar at the forefront of the record’s rock-oriented songs, but the ones that leaned toward jazz were eminently listenable compared with some of the more challenging MOI work.
The album’s opener, “Peaches En Regalia,” is a prime example. The song builds on a simple six-note theme, one of Zappa’s most recognizable melodies, to explore a series of increasingly complex variations. Zappa took full advantage of 16-track recording technology, then the state of the art, to build layers of music, resulting in a full, rich aural texture.
Most of those tracks featured contributions by Ian Underwood, the sole member of the Mothers of Invention who worked on “Hot Rats.” By all accounts, Underwood should have received co-credit for the album, but he seems to have been content to supply Zappa with virtuoso performances on various keyboards and woodwind instruments.
Providing a driving bass guitar throughout “Peaches En Regalia” is Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr., known professionally as Shuggie Otis. The son of early rock ‘n’ roll singer-impresario Johnny Otis was just 15 years old when he entered the studio to record with Zappa, Underwood and drummer Ron Selico. Shuggie went on to success as a songwriter – his “Strawberry Letter 23” was a massive hit for the Brothers Johnson in 1977 – and solo artist, although he stopped doing more than session work after his highly regarded 1974 album “Inspiration Information.”
By then, Frank Zappa’s voice had become one of the most widely recognized in rock, but he provides no vocals on “Hot Rats.” Indeed, the album mostly is instrumental, except for the short opening section of the second song, “Willie the Pimp.” The guitar riff-driven composition opens with Captain Beefheart (Don Vliet), with whom Zappa recently had worked on the absurdist classic “Trout Mask Replica,” belting out the short tale of a guy trying to make a few bucks:
I’m a little pimp with my hair gassed back, pair a khaki pants with my shoes shined black
Got a little lady, walk the street, tellin’ all the boys that she can’t be beat
Twenty-dollar bill, I can set you straight, meet me on the corner, boy, don’t be late
Man in a suit with bow-tie neck, wanna buy a grunt with a third-party check
Standin’ on the porch of the Lido Hotel, floozies in the lobby love the way I sell:
HOT MEAT HOT RATS HOT ZITS HOT CHEST HOT RITZ HOT ROOTS HOT SOOTS
What follows is nearly eight minutes’ worth of jamming, with Zappa at the forefront, trading licks with violinist Don “Sugarcane” Harris, who had scored some R&B hits as half of the duo Don & Dewey in the late ’50s. The rhythm section for “Willie the Pimp” is Max Bennett on bass and John Guerin on drums, and Underwood plays his usual array of instruments.
The title of the next track led to the oft-repeated story about Zappa that he refutes at the very beginning of “The Real Frank Zappa Book”:
Because I recorded a song called “Son of Mr. Green Genes” on the “Hot Rats” album in 1969, people have believed for years that the character with that name on the “Captain Kangaroo” TV show (played by Lumpy Brannan) was my “real” dad. No, he was not.
Rather, the title was derived from a song on “Uncle Meat,” the Mothers of Invention’s final album before the breakup. For “Son of,” Zappa took the basic theme and stretched it into a nine-plus-minute workout that contains some of the most fluid, inventive guitar of his entire career.
“Little Umbrellas” is styled along the lines of “Peaches En Regalia,” a shorter, jazz-oriented composition relying heavily on Underwood’s various instruments.
“The Gumbo Variations” is the third of the extended jams on “Hot Rats,” with Harris’ violin and Underwood’s saxophones carrying lengthy sections. Zappa’s guitar again is the dominant instrument, providing a monstrous riff over which the other musicians solo.
The final track, “It Must Be a Camel,” features French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty on violin before he became a well-known solo artist in his own right. The most complex composition on the album, it contains several shifts in tempo, a structure Zappa had explored to a large degree on “Uncle Meat.”
“Hot Rats” barely scraped the American charts on its release, but since has become recognized as one of Zappa’s most accessible and accomplished recordings. When it was released in the United Kingdom in early 1970, the album hit the Top 20, Zappa’s all-time best showing across the Atlantic.
Following the “Hot Rats” project, Zappa assembled another version of the Mothers, eventually dropping the “of Invention” and featuring former Turtles singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who developed the persona of Flo and Eddie. For the next couple of years, the Mothers focused on comedy and satire, and it wasn’t until 1972 that Zappa returned to a musical format that somewhat resembled “Hot Rats.” The resulting album, “Waka/Jawaka,” even had the phrase from the previous album emblazoned on its cover.
Speaking of album covers, the woman featured on “Hot Rats,” seemingly crawling out of a crypt, is Christine Frka. She was a member of the GTOs, the band of groupies and nominal musicians that recorded a Zappa-produced album called “Permanent Damage” in the late ’60s. Frka also served as the inspiration for “Christine’s Tune,” the opening track on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ debut “The Gilded Palace of Sin.” Unfortunately, she later had to wear a body cast to try to correct a crooked spine, and she died of a drug overdose in 1972, a few weeks before what would have been her 30th birthday.