Pick of the Geek – Hot Rats by Frank Zappa
If your only memory of Frank Zappa was that of a comedy rock virtuoso or a weird musical madman, then chances are, there is some great music from him that you’re missing out on. From the social satire early days of records like We’re Only In It for the Money to the sex-driven world of the triple album, Joe’s Garage, Zappa loved to dabble in instrumental only albums every once in a while featuring a variety of extremely talented musicians. The album that kick-started this string of vibrant records off was 1969’s Hot Rats. Hot Rats starts off with one of Frank’s most acclaimed compositions, “Peaches en Regalia”, a colourful and otherworldly three-minute tune made complete with twangy guitars, a flow of piano chords and a horn section. After that is “Willie the Pimp” featuring the grisly vocal work of Zappa’s close friend, Don Van Vliet [a.k.a. Captain Beefheart]. This is the only track on the album that fans will label as a rock song for this particular release. With a dirty blues-inspired riff, a distorted and noodling guitar solo and Van Vliet’s screeching singing theatrics, “Willie the Pimp” is a standout track.
Following that is “Son of Mr. Green Genes” which has an orchestral feel to it. In parts, it almost sounds like a Henry Mancini score to a Peter Sellers starring Pink Panther movie, only for Zappa to bring it back down again with more fluid guitar work. The rest of the album offers experimental touches here and there, tracks like “Little Umbrellas” and “It Must Be a Camel” sound like straight-up jazz numbers and not jazz-rock numbers. However, arguably, the best instrumental on here is “The Gumbo Variations”, a thirteen-minute jam where Zappa’s guitar, Ian Underwood’s screaming saxophone and Don “Sugarcane” Harris’ unbroken electric violin solos fight it out. The track builds and builds with so much intensity, that it explodes at the end with so much energy coming from all three musicians that it leaves the listener exhausted after it. At nearly three-quarters-of-an-hour, Hot Rats offers so many distinct and unique flavours of music. From the opener to the closer, every song is well crafted and thought-out. It proves itself as a great starting point for any newcomer to Zappa’s large and varied discography. It just comes to prove that Zappa was a serious musician after all.