This was written for Classic Rock’s 1969 special, a retrospective on one of my favourite Zappa albums.
Hot Rats, his second solo album, remains one of Frank Zappa’s more popular and approachable works, the one that people who don’t ‘get’ Zappa tend to like, and the one that many Zappa snobs dismiss as “slick” and over-rated.
It’s a largely instrumental set of jams, jazz rock fusion before such an animal really existed. Along with Miles Davis’ classic Bitches Brew – released a mere eight weeks before in August 1969 – Hot Rats was hugely influential on the jazzers who wanted to reach the larger and more lucrative rock audience as well as rockers who wanted to stretch themselves beyond three chords and a 4/4 beat.
Zappa described it as “a movie for your ears” in the sleeve-notes. It has some of the hallmarks of a soundtrack, but it’s hardly a sound that settles comfortably into the background. It’s more melodic, with less reliance on humour and 50s doo-wop pastiche that characterised the late Mothers Of Invention Mark I output.
It arrived at a time when the wild experimentation that had revolutionised rock music in the late 60s was coming to an end. ‘Head’ music was falling out of fashion and everyone was heading back to the garden. Country rock, folk rock, Americana, blues and plain R&B were in; the sound of the cosmos imploding or heaven in a grain of sand was out.
Zappa, as always, didn’t give a flying one about prevailing trends.
In mid 1969 he dissolved the first incarnation of The Mothers Of Invention because he was “tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons.”Early in the year he released the dense and difficult double album Uncle Meat, which bemused even hardened Mothers aficionados.
The sleeve of Hot Rats is probably the last great acid trip images to grace and album sleeve: Miss Christina from Zappa proteges The GTOs emerges from a swimming pool, the colours harsh and wrong, like a dose of LSD-25 twitching into bad trip territory. Militantly drug-free all his life (apart from red wine and cigarettes) Zappa had never been part of the psychedelic movement. Too old, to cynical, his experimentation was based in European avant garde composers like Edgar Varese, free jazz pioneers like Eric Dolphy as well as the fecund possibilities offered by the recording studio.
Hot Rats pioneered the use of 16 track recording which opened out the potential for overdubbing, varying tape speed to create unsettling sounds as well as allowing drums to be recorded in true stereo for the first time. It was a home brewed version, a 16 track desk custom built that Zappa moved from studio to studio. Zappa and collaborator Ian Underwood, ex-Mothers of Invention keyboards player, used a small group of musicians including violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, Suggie Otis and Captain Beefheart (who lent vocals to the only non-instrumental Willie The Pimp) to create a massive, almost big band orchestral sound.
Zappa himself gave the impression of being slightly underwhelmed by Hot Rats: “I quite like Willie The Pimp and Little Umbrellas,” he replied archly when asked about its significance.
Nevertheless, it was an album years ahead of its time; 16 track never became the norm until well into the 70s. Hot Rats was an album with an eye to the future rather than some folksy past and for good or ill laid the foundations for the studio sound that every would be prog rock band would aspire to.