Eastern Hero – Stephen Chow

Play the Milwall way

Play the Milwall way

This is a piece I wrote for DVD Review a few years ago, about Stephen Chow, who had just made Kung Fu Hustle, one of my favourite films of the past few years.

STEPHEN CHOW

UNTIL fairly recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the glory days of the Hong Kong action movie were over. The puritan censorship of the Communist mainland made it impossible to imagine such dark, violent films like The Killer, Streets On Fire or Full Contact being made in the former colony while all the industry’s major talent – directors Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and John Woo, actors Jet Li , Chow Yun Fat, and, of course, Jackie Chan – had been lured to Hollywood. The whole infrastructure that had been built up over decades collapsed very quickly.

Yet such setbacks, as they say in old Chinese proverbs, can also be great opportunities. Although to Western audiences he seemed to arrive fr0om nowhere, at 43 Stephen Chow is hardly an overnight sensation, his talents as a martial artist, an actor and a director having been honed over decades. Chow’s career began inauspiciously enough as a TV star and a bit part player in numerous rather hokey knock-offs and sequels. His first film as director, 1994’s Love On Delivery, was a rather poor rom com – albeit a rom com with lots of high speed high kicking kung fu action – that has only recently been available outside China. It was hardly an announcement that there was a new sheriff in town. But fast forward to 2005 and, in the wake of his incredible, highly stylised martial arts gangster musical comedy Kung Fu Hustle, he practically is the Hong Kong movie industry.

The hustler

The hustler

Kung Fu Hustle rams in as much scatological and slapstick comedy, stunts, CGI and ballet-like fight scenes as one movie can stand. At times it’s as close to The Benny Hill Show as it is to any other kung fu movie you’ve ever seen.

“It is, that’s it took me three years to make the film,” says Chow. “To make a kung fu film is quite easy. To make a good kung fu film totally different from any other is something really difficult.”

Set in a fantasy 30s Hong Kong, Chow takes on the top hat-wearing axe-wielding gang terrorizing the lowly inhabitants of a tenement called Pig’s Sty Alley. As the ante is upped – more martial arts mercenaries are hired by each side until the fight scenes become an apocalyptic cross between classic Shaw Brothers 70s kung fu mayhem and a Golden Age of Hollywood Fred Astaire musical, like a chorus line except with axes. It is totally absurd – they had even planned to have scene involving a kung fu fight against a shark underwater but nixed it for technical reasons – but you will believe every minute of it. Although it is extremely violent, it’s closer to the level of a Bugs Bunny cartoon than to the more visceral gore’n’guts of, say, a Tarantino flick.

“Because it’s a story about the battle between good and bad, first of all I have to build up a bunch of gangsters to be really scary and horrifying,” says Chow. “It’s hard for me to avoid all of that, because when you talk about a bad guy there has to be some description of how cruel they are. But actually I already tried my best to eliminate the violence, keep it to a minimum. But still, how they kill people and carry out their crimes, if I don’t have this in the beginning of the film then the whole structure of the story fails.”

Perhaps it is the fantasy element and the fact that the violence is so cartoonish that allows Chow to flourish, even under the stern eye of the Communist Party. Yet with Chinese films such as the historical epics Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House Of Flying Daggers bringing in valuable foreign revenue, they seem willing to allow Stephen Chow some the space he needs as an artist.

Actor, director, screenwriter, producer, Chow – an auteur in the proper sense of the term – is already hotly tipped as the next Eastern hero to take a one way ticket to Hollywood. Yet Chow is emphatic that despite the fact that he makes no secret that he would like to work in the US with both western and Chinese expats, this isn’t going to happen.

“I want to say categorically that I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to Hollywood. I’m not compromising my vision,” he told US interviewers earlier this year when Kung Fu Hustle opened there.

Although he is loathe to criticize actors like Chan or Li, he is aware that they have been roped in as virtual coolie labour on substandard multiplex fodder. Yet it isn’t just the prospect of appearing in Rush Hour IV that puts him off: there is the botch up that Miramax made of his 2001 comedy Shaolin Soccer, with 23 minutes worth of scenes gouged out, leaving the film almost incomprehensible. (Fortunately, with the DVD release, you have the option of seeing the movie exactly as he intended. One small victory for Chow.)Although the editing was nowhere near as savage on Kung Fu Hustle, Western audiences still saw a slightly different movie to the one Chow made in Hong Kong.

“I think the Asian version has more blood. But I don’t think they’ve cut it too much, there are no specific scenes that they took away. They just took away the blood,” he says.

Although few of the Hong Kong old school have made a particularly happy relocation to the US – there’s a story that Jackie Chan, rumoured to be considering a return to China, was referred to by one American meathead director throughout filming as “the Jap” – Tsui Hark has said that Chow would do well, partly because of his excellent command of English. Chow’s films, like the early Bond-send up From Beijing With Love to Kung Fu Hustle are loaded with references to Western movies.

“One of my favourite comedians of all time is Charlie Chaplin,” he admits.

Chow also takes recent Hong Kong-influenced films like The Matrix and Kill Bill and sends them back. His character Sing becomes The One, a kung fu superhero, which some have said was a lift from The Matrix.

“The idea of my character becoming ‘The One’…..that’s not a Matrix joke. I think that idea of ‘the One’ is originally from that old Hong Kong kung fu folklore, a long time ago. It makes sense to us, with the story of a man from nowhere becoming a Superhero, the One, is commonly used in kung fu novels or comic books in the old days. I think The Matrix took that idea. So for me it’s our traditional story structure.”

Like Tarantino, Chow has the knack of finding actors considered past their prime by the powers that be in the studios, and giving them a new lease of cinematic life. Hardened kung fu nerds certainly appreciate the cast that Chow assembled: “Yuen Wah (who has appeared in countless movies including the seminal Fist of Fury) was always in my mind because he has never left the movie industry in Hong Kong. He has been acting in TV comedy for a long time. I saw him on TV every day, so he was straightforward to cast. When I thought about the landlord Yuen Wah was the first person to come to mind. The landlady did take a long long time to find, someone who is old and fat and can do all these stunts, it was very difficult.”

In the end, Chow settled for Qiu Yuen who was – amongst other things – a Bond girl, appearing in The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974. The landlady, one of the most memorable characters from the film, is almost like a direct lift from the old Shaw Brothers comedy The House of 72 Tenants. Both Wah and Yuen were synonymous with the great films that came out of the Shaw Brothers stable, classics such as The Five Venoms, The Wu Tang Clan, The One Armed Swordsman and others. Even the sets of Kung Fu Hustle look deliberately like the wobbly sets on the sound stage where a majority of Shaw Brothers films were made.

“If you ask me about influences I would say the Shaw Brothers’ movies in the 60s influenced Kung Fu Hustle more than any others,” says Chow.

As an actor and a kung fu fighter there are already the inevitable comparisons with Chinese cinema’s first and greatest superstar Bruce Lee. Chow is flattered and recalls The Big Boss, the first film that he ever saw.

“I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday. We were in a very run-down theater, but I didn’t mind it at all. I was simply overwhelmed by the movie experience. Watching this film in the darkness, I felt as if my heart was going to burst, and I had tears in my eyes. Bruce Lee was so incredible, not only because of his martial arts expertise, but also because of his furious spirit. He just filled the screen. He became everything to me. I decided then that I wanted to be him – I wanted to be Bruce Lee,” he says.

“Being a martial arts expert was really my first career choice; being an actor was the second – after all, that’s exactly what Bruce Lee was,” says Chow.

Despite his success at home and abroad, Chow still hasn’t achieved the sort of superstar status that gets Jackie Chan mobbed when he returns to China.

“No, I’m not a big star like Jackie Chan. I’m more like a film producer, a filmmaker, and I think that’s how they look at me there. I’m absolutely free all the time, nobody chases after me. I don’t have those problems. I’m not an idol or a star. Actually I make a movie once every three years, so people don’t really remember who I am,” he says modestly.

Chow, then, is hot. There is an inevitable Kung Fu Hustle sequel underway, as well as talk of a project with Hong Kong horror master Tsui Hark.

“We are brainstorming at the moment, lots of different ideas, rehearsals, but mostly the sequel is not better than the first film so it is a very hard job,” says Chow.

His days as an all rounder may be over: with his new found status, he can assemble the team that he needs to get his vision on the screen and no longer has to – by necessity – b e involved in every stage of the process.

“Right now my plan is just to focus on directing for my next project. Not to act, direct and write the script and produce – all that work at the same time is really tough.”

Where does you find the energy?

“I don’t know. But that’s true, every time I complete a movie and I look back I ask myself how I did it. Sometimes I don’t understand how I could do so much work at the same time. But I get it done.”

For the sake of the entire Hong Kong film industry, that’s good news.

Did punk really kill prog?

This is a rant published a few years ago in Classic Rock, my big idea that I continue to bang on about at length.

Pistols 76

Pistols 76

IN all of the interminable books, memoirs, articles and TV documentaries contemplating the meaning and legacy of punk rock, there’s one thing that they all seem to agree upon: punk rock killed progressive rock. “Almost overnight, after the Sex Pistols, prog rock came to a halt,” declaimed one pundit on a recent BBC documentary. A neat assessment, very well phrased, the final word on the subject. Apart from the fact that it is totally untrue.

In the same period that saw the Pistols shoot and burn, not only did prog not die, but in fact it enjoyed one of its golden ages. Pink Floyd, Yes, ELP and Genesis all released some of their biggest albums and played some of their most gargantuan UK tours. New bands like Rush, Kansas and Happy The Man were starting to break through. And in the immediate aftermath of punk, former three chord bands like Simple Minds, Ultravox, Magazine, Wire and Public Image Ltd were playing something that was definitely progressive rock in all but name.

hawksThe fact that Johnny Rotten once wore a Pink Floyd t-shirt with the words “I HATE” scrawled in Biro above the band’s monicker is always held up as evidence that punk rock was some kind of reaction to prog. Yet Rotten nee Lydon was a huge fan of Hawkwind, Van Der Graaf Generator, Can and various other bands whose progness was never in any doubt. Punk was more about a burning desire to join in and make music. There are aspects of the music scene in the mid 70s that were loathsome to many fans, not least the fact that many bands never really bothered to play here, but none of these were particular to prog rock.

Prog, then as now, was just one of many competing strands of post-psychedelic rock. It wasn’t a particularly dominant one: despite the fact that some prog bands enjoyed huge sales, you virtually never saw bands like Gnidrolog, Renaissance or Jethro Tull on TV or heard them on the radio. And the attitude of the music press at that time was almost wholly as sneery as that of the mainstream press today. It was perfectly possible to be a young music fan and actually remain completely unaware of the very existence of prog. The idea that punk “had to happen” because a whole generation was idly fuming away at the complexity of King Crimson or the overblown theatricality of Rick Wakeman’s – admittedly daft – staging of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table on ice is just absurd.

r4ickAnd as a crop-haired angry young man myself, I can’t recall ever wasting a minute of 1976 , 77 or 78 thinking about how much I hated prog. Like most of my contemporaries I was having too much of a good time to really give a toss about prog, disco, rockabilly, pub rock or chart pop one way or another. There were too many other things in the world to hate. If there was anything, musically, that I couldn’ts stand it was the constant diet of crap novelty records and golden oldies and smug DJs that ruled Radio One and Top Of The Pops in those days.

It was in the pages of NME, Melody Maker and Sounds that we were told that prog was the class enemy and encouraged to feel hatred. This was a revolution and, to paraphrase VI Lenin, what use is a revolution without firing squads? The thesis was that punk was a product of the salt-of-the-Earth discontented proletariat while prog was made exclusively by evil right wing toffs and consumed only by Tory voters, fox hunters and those addled by false consciousness. The reality, of course, was that while prog certainly had its share of former public school boys, it was probably no more a preoduct of poshos than of punk: the difference seemed to be that at least the prog rockers were honest about their origins while public schoolboys like Joe Strummer felt that it was important to fake a prolier than thou past for themselves. At my comprehensive school, as well as a small smattering of punks, the popular artists of the day in 1976 were Frank Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra and – for some reason – The Incredible String Band. Conversely, the boys from the nearby fee paying school were always trying to convince you that they were “too street” to listen to anything more compicated than The Ramones and that their spare time was spent sniffing glue, getting nicked by the pigs (maaaan) and smashing the state.

The attitude of prog musicians to punk was sometimes pretty condescending: Rick Wakeman signed a letter to the head of his label A&M asking to have the Sex Pistols dropped; Roger Waters made it clear that he hated punk; the lack of musicianship was decried. You could sense that they felt threatened though obviously they needn’t have. Outside of the fantasy world created by the music press, it was prog that really ruled.

In the official history, 1977 was the year of Anarchy in the UK, the Clash, no future, maaaan. But it was also the year of Rush’s A Farewell to Kings, Pink Floyd’s Animals, Yes’s Going for the One, Genesis’s Wind & Wuthering, all Top 10 albums (Yes, reunited with Rick Wakeman, going in at Number one and also enjoying a Top 10 single with Wonderous Stories), all accompanied by massive tours, their biggest ever.

In the last years of the 70s, they still continued to outsell punk bands both on album and live: the decade culminated with one of the most massive prog albums ever, Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

It wasn’t just the same old faces: in the late 70s and early 80s new bands like UK, IQ, Pendragon, Twelfth Night, Marillion, After The Fire and Pallas all formed at this time, while a realignment of prog’s superpowers created bands like Asia. It says much about the hubris of the media that having failed to notice these bands, there is a sort of collective assumption that it doesn’t exist. With practically no press, radio or TV coverage anywhere, these bands regularly sold out shows and sold millions of albums.

What’s more, away from the stadium level bands, the thriving UK progressive underground continued to make challenging and innovative music: Soft Machine, Henry Cow (and successor band The Art Bears), Van der Graaf Generator and Bill Nelson (formerly of Be Bop Deluxe and later Red Noise) made some of their best albums around this time.

Ultravox (pre-Ure!)

Ultravox (pre-Ure!)

Perhaps even more interesting were the bands who emerged in the immediate aftermath of punk who tried to make music that did more than repeat the same three chord formula. Cabaret Voltaire from Sheffield incorporated electronics, sampling and Hawkwind-like light shows; Glasgow’s Simple Minds, particularly on their Steve Hillage-produced 1981 double album Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Cal’, incorporated many elements from classic Genesis along with krautrock, disco and the avant garde; Ultravox, on their third classic album Systems Of Romance, made an album that seemed to continue the direction that Roxy Music abandoned after For Your Pleasure.

Indeed the fact that many of the post-punk generation were making a new kind of progressive lost was not lost on some more conservative commentators: “It’s bloody Curved Air,” sneered Nick Lowe when asked about Siouxsie & The Banshees, whose first three albums definitely pushed the boundaries of punk rock to their limits. And when Wire – arguably a synthesis of Ramones-style minimalist punk and high prog complexity – recorded a 15 minute track called Crazy About Love for a John Peel Show session in 1979, he grumbled that it was a step backwards.

Rather than punk seeing prog off there’s a case for saying that it was prog that ultimately triumphed: there were effectively two separate and distinct schools of progressive rock active in the 80s and 90s. A nice argument, yet punk too continued to thrive throughout the 80s and 90s when its one-time champions had abandoned it too.

Today, prog is almost all pervasive: there are so many bands, from the Dream Theater prog metal school to the experimental post-indie rock of Radiohead to leftfield superstars Tool, who can all be termed prog and are indeed comfortable with the tag. The influence of King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Yes is ridiculously all pervasive and King Crimson themselves still make incredibly cutting edge music. Not bad for something that supposedly “came to a halt” 30 years ago.

This is all a rather neat demonstration that things are never so simple as to be choices of either/or. You write off entire genres, styles, bands and subcultures at your peril.

Interview with John Carpenter

The greatest movie ever made on a budget of less than $30

The greatest movie ever made on a budget of less than $30

This was originally published in NME in 1996. I’m still a massive fan of Carpenter: when I wrote this he had still to make Vampires, and gives the impression that his career was winding down.

Getaway Out West

After two decades making cult horror and sci-fi movies together, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell have returned to familiar territory with their new all-action anti-PC satire Escape From LA. Tommy Udo talks censorship and copycat killing with the alien butt-kicking duo.

John Carpenter is an infuriating sod. For every great movie the man has made – The Thing, Assault On Precinct 13 – he has made an absolute stinker – In The Mouth Of Madness, The Invisible Man, The Fog.

So much so that after making one of the all-time sci-fi classics, Escape From New York in 1982, he has for some reason, 14 years on, felt the need to counterbalance that with a sort of remake/sequel that’s just plain inferior. What is it with the man?

Carpenter’s first film Dark Star, made in 1975, was a classic cult hit. The director began the movie, a sort of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in outer space satire on the high minded sci-fi of 2001 : A Space Odyssey, while he was still a film student in Los Angeles. He dropped out and expanded the movie, blowing up the original 16mm footage to 35mm – so the film could be shown in commercial cinemas – and getting funding from an independent distributor.

The following year he directed another film that established itself as a classic on the late-night cult circuit, the flawed but brilliant Assault On Precinct 13, essentially a remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo set in modern LA in a decommissioned police station.

Carpenter wrote and directed the movie as well as writing the score, an edgy electronic soundtrack that added to the on-screen tension.

But he laughs at the suggestion that he is maybe one of only a handful of American directors (Woody Allen is another) who could be called a true film auteur. “I know that I can produce a soundtrack fast and cheap,” he says.

Carpenter is also one of the few directors to have dedicated his career to science fiction and horror.

“There are two basic kinds of science fiction and horror films, two kinds of stories,” he says. “They’re very basic and very old. Imagine us all sitting around the campfire with our tribe and the medicine man is telling us about evil. He says ‘Beware, the evil is out there,’ and he points beyond the fire light to the tree line. It’s the Other, the other tribe, the other race, the other religion. But there’s another kind of witch doctor who says, ‘The evil is in here,’ and points into the human heart. That’s scary.”

Even Carpenters most flawed works are interesting because he always deals with bigger themes and ideas than most low-budget sci-fi exploitation movies.

In They Live, his 1988 film about alien invasion, the Others have arrived and taken over. The only problem is that nobody knows. The aliens are yuppies (remember them? Never mind, it was an 80’s thing) who are asset stripping the planet, and only an armed underground resistance can see them. The film also made several witty points about homelessness, unemployment and rampant consumerism in between the roller coaster violence and alien butt-kicking.

“You have an opportunity in a lot of films to really tell a story,” says Carpenter. “They Live is a good example of a traditional story turned inside out. The aliens have taken over, they’re definitely horrible, ugly aliens, but what they stand for is unrestrained capitalism and what it’s doing.”

In the first Escape… film, New York has been turned into a maximum security prison where the United States dumps it human garbage. Snake Plissken, a near psychopathic outlaw is blackmailed into being sent to rescue the President and avert World War III. In the remake, the US is a police state ruled by a fascist Christian fundamentalist coalition under a fruitcake right wing president played by Cliff Robertson. LA, meanwhile, has literally broken away from the mainland after an earthquake and is being used as a lawless prison island for all the country’s dissidents. Plissken has to go in to kill the president’s daughter and recover the launch codes for a doomsday weapon she has stolen.

“I think he’s unique,” says Kurt Russell of his character Snake. “Most of these characters who are ‘on the edge’ as it were, doing all these disputable things, explain why their characters got this way. In other words they have a socially redeemable manner. What I like about Snake is that he doesn’t. He’s a sociopath. And it is a challenge to make people understand that, but at the same time to root for the guy to pull through.”

This is the fifth time Russell and Carpenter have worked together, but this time Kurt is credited as co-writer. They worked together for the first time in 1978 when Carpenter directed the TV film Elvis : The Movie, starring Russell as The King. Since then they have collaborated on high points including The Thing and Escape From New York, and lows such as Big Trouble In Little China.

“You don’t have to tell him what to do,” says Carpenter of his on-screen alter ego. “He’ll do what I’m thinking without me saying a word. It’s the great collaboration. It’s fun. I have a couple of actors I love working with, Sam Neill and Jeff Bridges, but Kurt is totally professional and a lot of our time is spent talking about sports and girls.”

Snake looks like a cross between Charles Manson and Jim Morrison, blazing through the film in the time-honoured tradition of shooting or blowing up everyone and everything that gets in his way.

The violence in Escape From New York and Escape From LA is obviously at a comic book level. However, these are nervous times for film makers in the light of a lawsuit recently brought against Oliver Stone, which alleged his Natural Born Killers inspired a copycat murder.

“Recently in America somebody was writing about that and finally pointed out the truth to me, because I didn’t understand it before,” says Carpenter. “There is a segment of the audience which is delusional, they cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. So they might come into a film that is a parody, they might come into a film that is a bit surrealistic, and not be able to tell that is what they’re seeing. And for their own problems, their own demons, they’ll go out and do a real life copycat killing. So the only solution I can think of, and I’m about to present it to the studio heads when I go back to the States, is that we put a warning label on movies, that watching a motion picture may cause emotional identification with certain characters and events. If a segment of the audience is so ill-equipped to distinguish between fantasy and reality then they should be warned.”

Carpenter, however, is pessimistic. Having just filmed a cameo role in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, he feels the climate is changing for mavericks like himself and Tarantino.

“There’s a backlash in the press,” he says. “You always read about how Hollywood is out of Touch. Censorship is coming, no question about that. I recognise that my career as a film maker is reaching an end, but if I was a young film maker like Quentin Tarantino, I’d be very, very worried indeed.”

Magma – Studio Zund

Studio Zund

Studio Zund

Magma
Studio Zund
Chant Du Monde

There are Magma fans who will go hungry to own this handsome boxed set that includes all nine studio albums, from Kobia in 1970 to KA in 2004, as well as a double disc set of unreleased material and out-takes. There are, of course, only a few Magma freaks in the world, but the fanaticism with which they love this intense celestial music more than makes up for their numeric scarcity.

Assembled from the cream of the late 60s French jazz scene by drummer Christian Vander, Magma were to develop from a reasonably conventional fusion outfit, often compared with Blood, Sweat And Tears singing in Serbo-Croat, to a stunning creative peak in the early 70s with their Wagnerian epics Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh and Köhntarkösz.

While their contemporaries would make concept albums, Magma’s concept embraced almost every aspect of their music right down to the words: French and English were inadequate tongues in which to express the cosmic vision. Vander invented his own umlaut-ridden language, Kobaian, a Germanic-sounding gutteral Esperanto of the future. The music drew on the later spiritually-inspired work of John Coltrane as well as the frenetic dance music of Igor Stravinsky. The story was of humanity’s future: during an ecological disaster, a small group escapes Earth to settle on the planet Kobia. They find a better way of life and after re-estebalishing contact, send missionaries to Earth. But the deluded earth people don’t want to know and send them packing. Years later the prophet Nebehr Güdahtt tells humanity that they must cleanse themselves from the universe, joining in a cosmic song. At the end, the Earth is destroyed by Kobia’s ultimate weapon, the Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh. Not king Arthur on ice, then.

In retrospect, what is quite amazing, is that Magma’s finest hour was released on Herb Alpert’s A&M label: they were stablemates of the Carpenters and the Captain and Tennille.

Later albums, notably Üdü Wüdü, veered away from the narrative, though retained the language and the sinister mandala symbol. Although it returned to a slightly more conventional jazz base, there are inspired track’s like bassist Jannick Top’s 18 minute De Futura, a brutal assault on the senses.

As Magma members left and formed their own bands, some aspects of the music or the concept went with them. There is a thriving underground of Zeuhl bands (Kobioan for celestial music) all over the world, some like with direct links to Magma, others like Japan’s Ruins and Koenjihyakkei inspired by them.

As an outsider to the strange and terrible world of Magma, you may not, in these credit-crunch times, be prepared to fork out a ton for this set. But if you have any interest in music that is genuinely and indisputably progressive, by whatever definition you have of the term, then you owe it to yourself to hear at least one of these albums, probably Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh.
But for those of us with the obsession, this is a must-have item, not least for the booklets which will raise as many questions as you have ever wanted answered,

And look: a review of Magma where we never once mention Steve Davies.

Tommy udo

Frank Zappa – Hot Rats

This was written for Classic Rock’s 1969 special, a retrospective on one of my favourite Zappa albums.

Frank Zappa
Hot Rats
Reprise/Bizarre
1969

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.

Tommy Udo