Frank Zappa: The Hot Rats Sessions

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Frank Zappa’s Hots Rats, released in 1969, was arguably one of the most important records in the history of popular music. In his book Zappa And Jazz (Matador, 2015) Geoff Wills wrote that “Zappa created a new dimension in his music”. This was surely an understatement. Certainly it changed a lot of fans lives, this writer included. For a start it opened up a whole world of jazz to rock fans and introduced a paradigm shift in multi-track recording that, at that time, easily surpassed the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper (Parlophone, 1967) in technological terms. Hot Rats was one of the first albums to utilise a prototype 16-track tape machine.

But crucially, Zappa was canny enough to know how to get exactly what he wanted out of the technology and the musicians. It was also one of the first jazz-rock albums (if not the first) ever released, instigated by a rock musician rather than a jazz musician. This was technically Zappa’s second solo album, his first being Lumpy Gravy (Capitol, 1967/8) written for a large ensemble.

This box set of archival outtakes and backing tracks (but surely much more than that!) forensically discloses the painstaking route to the final construction of the album. Peaches En Regalia is broken down in various takes to unveil how it was recorded in sections and how the tracks were slowly overlaid to become the masterpiece that it became.

Other tracks not directly associated with Hot Rats are included to show how the genesis of the album emerged. A double-length version of Richard Wayne Penniman’s blues Directly From The Heart To You, subsequently released on Weasels Ripped My Flesh (Bizarre/Reprise, 1970) showcases Don “Sugarcane” Harris on electric violin who Zappa had employed on Hot Rats to great effect, along with fellow violinist Jean-Luc Ponty who appeared on It Must Be A Camel.

However, the only other member of The Mothers Of Invention, other than Zappa himself, to appear on the album was the talented multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood who supplied the piano, organ and all woodwind and sax parts. Zappa also hired jazz bassist Max Bennett, and some session drummers including John Guerin and Shuggie Otis played some remarkably lithe bass on Peaches. Zappa’s old mate Captain Beefheart sang an essential vocal track to Willie The Pimp thus immortalising him in the annals of rock music.

Much of the music on this box set arose out of jams but, judiciously edited, they emerged as some of the most pivotal elements of these six memorable tracks. The anodyne titles of Transition and Another Waltz belie the fact that they provide perfect examples of this jamming for gold. Transition later appeared on Zappa’s third solo album Chunga’s Revenge (Bizarre/Reprise, 1970) as Twenty Small Cigars whilst an edited version of Another Waltz was to be found on Burnt Weeny Sandwich (Bizarre/Reprise, 1970) as Little House I Used To Live In.

It should be noted that since Zappa himself could not have had any influence on the contents of this box set, he would no doubt have approved of the inclusion of his 1987 digital remixes of the record, rather than the original 1969 analogue version; he clearly favoured the former. This was a case of the artist improving – in his view – his masterwork. The most obvious departure from the original version was the few minutes of warm-up on The Gumbo Variations which adds another four minutes onto the ’69 track. But Zappa aficionados can easily detect the other subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes made throughout the album.

Whether this handsome box set quite merits its high price (around £100) is questionable. Was a Zappa board game, accompanied by plectra as place markers, really necessary? That said, the six CDs plus accompanying LP-sized booklet with copious sleeve notes, tributes and rare photographs, are unequivocally excellent as is the hilarious alternate photograph of The GTOs’ Miss Christine on the box cover. Whether Zappa would have desired this trawl through his studio vaults cannot be known, but a more fitting 50th anniversary tribute to his magnum opus would be hard to imagine. 

Discography
CD1: Piano Music (Section 1); Piano Music (Section 3); Peaches En Regalia (Prototype); Peaches En Regalia (Section 1, In Session); Peaches En Regalia (Section 1, Master Take); Peaches Jam – Part 1; Peaches Jam – Part 2; Peaches En Regalia (Section 3, In Session); Peaches En Regalia (Section 3, Master Take); Arabesque (In Session); Arabesque (Master Take); Dame Margret’s Son To Be A Bride (In Session) (71.18)
CD2: It Must Be A Camel (Part 1, In Session); It Must Be a Camel (Part 1, Master Take); It Must Be a Camel (Intercut, In Session); It Must Be a Camel (Intercut, Master Take); Natasha (In Session); Natasha (Master Take); Bognor Regis (Unedited Master); Willie The Pimp (In Session); Willie The Pimp (Unedited Master Take); Willie The Pimp (Guitar OD 1); Willie The Pimp (Guitar OD 2) (75.26)
CD3: Transition (Section 1, In Session); Transition (Section 1, Master Take); Transition (Section 2, Intercut, In Session); Transition (Section 2, Intercut, Master Take); Transition (Section 3, Intercut, In Session); Transition (Section 3, Intercut, Master Take); Lil’ Clanton Shuffle (Unedited Master); Directly From My Heart To You (Unedited Master) ; Another Waltz (Unedited Master) (68.57)
CD4: Dame Margret’s Son To Be A Bride (Remake); Son Of Mr. Green Genes (Take 1); Son Of Mr. Green Genes (Master Take); Big Legs (Unedited Master Take); It Must Be a Camel (Percussion Tracks); Arabesque (Guitar OD Mix); Transition (Full Version); Piano Music (Section 3, OD Version) (76.27)
CD5: Peaches En Regalia (1987 Digital Re-Mix); Willie The Pimp (1987 Digital Re-Mix); Son Of Mr. Green Genes (1987 Digital Re-Mix); Little Umbrellas (1987 Digital Re-mix); The Gumbo Variations (1987 Digital Re-Mix); It Must Be A Camel (1987 Digital Re-Mix); The Origin Of Hot Rats; Hot Rats Vintage Promotion Ad #1; Peaches En Regalia (1969 Mono Single Master); Hot Rats Vintage Promotion Ad #2; Little Umbrellas (1969 Mono Single Master); Lil’ Clanton Shuffle (1972 Whitney Studios Mix) (69.08)
CD6: Little Umbrellas (Cucamonga Version); Little Umbrellas (1969 Mix Outtake); It Must Be A Camel (1969 Mix Outtake); Son Of Mr. Green Genes (1969 Mix Outtake); More Of The Story Of Willie The Pimp; Willie The Pimp (Vocal Tracks); Willie The Pimp (1969 Quick Mix); Dame Margret’s Son To Be A Bride (1969 Quick Mix); Hot Rats Vintage Promotion Ad #3; Bognor Regis (1970 Record Plant Mix); Peaches En Regalia (1969 Rhythm Track Mix); Son Of Mr. Green Genes (1969 Rhythm Track Mix); Little Umbrellas (1969 Rhythm Track Mix); Arabesque (Guitar Tracks); Hot Rats Vintage Promotion Ad #4 (78.10)

Zappa (elg, elb, pc); Ian Underwood (p, org, f, cl, s); Captain Beefheart (v); Buzz Gardner (t); Bunk Gardner (s); Don Preston (p, org); Johnny Otis (p); Max Bennett (b, elb); Shuggie Otis, John Blakin, Roy Estrada (elb); John Guerin, Paul Humphrey, Ron Selico, Art Tripp III (d); Jimmy Carl Black, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Jean-Luc Ponty (vn); Lowell George (elg, v) and others. Hollywood, 1969.
Zappa Records/Universal ZR20032