Hot Rats : A movie for your ears

So you want to listen to Frank Zappa? Perhaps you’re overwhelmed by the frankly staggering discography or the, let’s be honest, inaccessible nature of some of the weirder stuff, or hey perhaps you’ve never even heard of the guy. This is all fine. I present for your consideration the album, fresh from the dissolution of Zappa’s old outfit The Mothers Of Invention, the persistently relevant and pioneering 1969 release Hot Rats.

Okay, so it’s not going to be a tight setlist of 8-10 hard tunes with catchy hooks, sing-song melodies, and easy listening. No, it’s an experimental jazz-rock fusion album featuring groundbreaking recording techniques and instrumental virtuosity. Having said that the sheer variety of musical ideas and styles that are explored will give even the most casual observer something to latch on to. From avant-garde jazz to blistering, psychedelic guitar fuzz, this record has it all; oh and a sprinkling of Captain Beefheart guest vocals thrown in just to add some delightful chaos into the mix.

Right off the bat, Zappa makes his mark on the contemporary jazz landscape with ‘Peaches En Regalia’ which has become widely recognized as a modern fusion standard; a joyful composition which showcases his mastery of writing and arrangement. Zappa is credited as playing the “octave bass”, a bass guitar sped up to double speed; the sound is like a guitar, but with a throatier punch that cuts through the mix. This, along with a woodwind section carries the melody for the track and is backed up by a jazz combo of drums, keyboard, bass, and additional percussion.

This track also features a 15-year-old Shuggie Otis holding his own on bass duties; having played in jazz clubs since he was big enough to hold a guitar he’s more than a welcome addition to the mix. A real masterclass in effortless playing ‘Peaches En Regalia’ is a tight, heavily rehearsed introduction to the ideas and techniques pioneered by this album.

The dirty, mournful screech of a bluegrass violin sets the tone for ‘Willie the Pimp’ to which Captain Beefheart lends his voice; a hard blues-rock jam chronicling the adventures of the aforementioned Willie. One of the first proponents of the amplification of the violin, Don “Sugarcane” Harris plays on this track lending another string to the bow, if you will, of Zappa’s cadre. Beefheart doesn’t so much sing, as bark the lyrics; a gritty, dirty vocal performance that eventually descends into maddening whoops and shrieks as the track builds towards the instrumental section.

There’s a lengthy blues guitar solo exhibition as Zappa winds his way melodically through the various pentatonic stages and demonstrates some outside playing as it continues; the dynamics range from heavily overdriven fuzz passages and cleaner wah-wah phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in any of the Hendrix-era blues-rock albums that followed in the 70s.

‘The Son of Mr. Green Genes’ is another instrumental with a Motown vibe and is a showcase for some of Zappa’s most melodic and impressive playing. The double speed bass makes a return, as does double speed overdubbed percussion. The recording of the album was done on a custom made 16-track recorder allowing for multiple overdubs and other technical wizardry that lent a richer, vibrant texture to the whole record. This added to some other unusual instrument choices, the tap of a plastic comb, the mechanical clicking of a socket wrench and another manner of additional percussive instruments gave a wholly unique and original sound.

‘Little Umbrellas’ is another track that was carefully arranged and rehearsed similar to ‘Peaches En Regalia’; the sound of an acoustic double bass and washy, jazzy cymbals sets the scene of a smoky underground club. The woodwind section plays a silky, harmonic minor refrain and the keyboards unleash some superbly technical playing; all performed by Ian Underwood with many overdubs.

‘The Gumbo Variations’ is another straight-up jam track with a blues vibe featuring solos from Zappa, Underwood on sax and Don Harris on electric violin. This track is entirely improvisational in tone in execution so there is a healthy dose of outside playing and is probably useful only to those who would be interested in the jazzier side of the spectrum, but again the musicianship cannot be faulted. The drum breaks towards the end of the track are funky and almost border on dance-oriented; similarly, there are sections where the playing on the toms and bass drum approaches double foot-pedal metal speeds. Don Harris plays like the Devil in a fiddle contest on the outro solo; and indeed throughout, giving a frenetic, whirring energy to the track.

The final composition ‘It Must Be a Camel’ couples a jazz combo sound with some highly advanced melodic playing; noteworthy are the large skips between intervals in the melody giving it an unusual, eerie quality. It’s probably the most traditional-sounding track on the album, yet it does make use of the double-speed overdubbing; most noticeably the machine gun snare hits that pepper the track. Overall a haunting yet very relaxing song; with the drums playing behind the beat then suddenly switching to driving in the faster sections.

So, take your pick. There’s plenty to entertain music fans of all backgrounds and genres, you’ll notice the heavy influences this record has had on its contemporaries and on the musical landscape that we now inhabit. The nice thing about this album is you don’t have to listen to it in sequence, although that would be recommended, there’s enough variation here for everyone to glean something from the record. If you want a chilled afternoon of psychedelia, some driving blues-rock, a jazz masterclass or simply to bear witness to the process of one of the most creative minds in Western music, it’s hard to go wrong with ‘Hot Rats’.

Article by Theo Wildgoose

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