Frank Zappa Reviewed

Read MOJO’s verdict on the latest release from Frank Zappa’s vaults, Funky Nothingness.

Frank Zappa

by Mark Paytress |
Published on

After Hot Rats, the Alpha Mother ditched jazz-rock improv for smut, satire, and showbiz. Newly discovered tapes reveal the missing link.

Frank Zappa


Funky Nothingness


RELEASED STATESIDE in October 1969, Hot Rats was Frank Zappa’s breakout solo album, an assertion both of his compositional powers, and – vital in those boom times for rock virtuosi – his gifts as a fast, fluid and innovatory guitarist.

In Britain, where it appeared four months later, Hot Rats went Top 10. Back in the States, where three earlier Mothers Of Invention titles had gone Top 50, it stalled at 173, lower than Lumpy Gravy, Zappa’s strictly uncommercial orchestra-and-conversation debut set. But critics rated it; and having disbanded the Mothers in August ’69, Zappa was committed to extending his slimmed-down, “electric chamber music” project. Between early February and early March 1970, he took a four-, sometimes five-piece act out for a few select gigs, including San Diego and Los Angeles. He named the band Hot Rats.

This short-lived outfit featured Zappa, Mothers Of Invention and Hot Rats woodwind/keyboard player Ian Underwood, Rats bassist Max Bennett (a Wrecking Crew regular who’d also backed Charlie Parker and Miles Davis) and Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, who’d played fiery electric violin on Hot Rats. Session drummer Ed Greene played one gig, before Aynsley Dunbar answered Zappa’s call. The pair had met in October 1969 while Zappa was MC-ing at the Amougies Festival in Belgium. Frank had sat in with The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, liked what he’d heard and invited the British drummer to stay at his Laurel Canyon home.

In concert, Hot Rats’ set included The Mothers’ King Kong, Willie The Pimp from Hot Rats, a cover of Little Richard’s 1956 R&B single Directly From My Heart To You, and three epic new works, Sharleena, Twinkle Tits and Chunga’s Revenge.

Now, with this latest Zappa vault release, we at last hear sessions recorded by Hot Rats during February and March. Better still, Zappa subsequently mixed enough of the material to constitute an album, before mothballing the idea. Here, there’s three discs of the stuff, culled from a variety of sources ranging from 2-track to 24-track tape.

It’s a rare haul, indeed. Twenty-five, mostly unreleased tracks, which translates as threeand-a-half hours’ worth of undiscovered compositions, cover versions and jams, including alternate takes, edits and full-on unedited masters – plus a 28-page illustrated booklet. But whether it lives up to its ‘Sequel To Hot Rats’ billing is disputable. It’s a great sales pitch, but Funky Nothingness is more accurately the precursor to October 1970’s Chunga’s Revenge, Hot Rats’ less celebrated follow-up.

That’s not to diminish the many pleasures on offer, especially for those hungry for more studio sessions featuring Zappa and ‘Sugarcane’ at full pelt.

Four of the titles here ended up in different form on Chunga’s Revenge: Transylvania Boogie, The Clap, Sharleena and the title track, the last two becoming popular Zappa perennials. Both Twinkle Tits, one of several to feature Harris’s outlandish violin-playing, and Tommy/Vincent Duo, a Zappa/ Dunbar jam, run wild on Hot Rats energy. Two vintage R&B covers, Hank Ballard’s Work With Me Annie/ Annie Had A Baby and The Penguins’ Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild, the latter with Harris – once half of ’50s vocal duo Don & Dewey – handling the vocals, reaffirm Zappa’s enduring passion for doo wop. Freely interpreting Lightnin’ Slim’s I’m A Rolling Stone, Zappa exposes another, less edifying, passion – groupies: “All your good lookin’ pussy/Just fishin’ after me”. Other cuts, notably Khaki Sack, find the musicians moving with a new-found funkiness.

The mood is set by the title track, Zappa’s original choice for the Chunga’s Revenge opener. An outtake from late 1967, Funky Nothingness is a porch-style acoustic blues, with Zappa grunting in unison with his guitar lines in the manner of Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. “Funky,” a voice says as the sketch of a song winds down.

Disc one features ‘the album’. These cuts, lifted from sessions at Zappa’s Laurel Canyon home basement studio and the recently opened Record Plant in LA, comprise those edited and/or mixed down by Zappa for possible future use. Discs two and three mostly consist of unedited or alternate takes of material on the main disc. A full-length Transylvania Boogie, previously released in edited form, turns out to have been mostly a long, meandering shuffle with a drum solo. Hitherto undocumented titles Halos And Arrows and Moldred turn out to be, respectively, an exploratory guitar overdub piece (all that’s missing is Joni Mitchell at the mike) and a brief Tommy/Vincent composite with added bass.

Listening to disc one, it’s understandable why Zappa felt there wasn’t enough to release in spring 1970. Few of the instrumentals come close to the intensity of the Rats blow-outs. The vintage covers are no substitute for the Beefheart cameo on Willie The Pimp. And for an opening fanfare, Funky Nothingness is no Peaches En Regalia.

Nevertheless, there’s enough here to suggest that the Hot Rats band could have thrived had Zappa pitched himself against the supergroups. Instead, the project marked his last full engagement with virtuoso playing for some years. By May, Zappa had revived The Mothers Of Invention and returned to regular gigging. Perhaps he was spooked by Hot Rats’ poor showing in the States, where it was eclipsed sales-wise by a Mothers’ outtakes collection, Burnt Weenie Sandwich.

Most improbably – for that was Zappa’s way – he constructed his new-look Mothers Of Invention around Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (alias Flo & Eddie), the shrill-voiced good-timers who’d fronted The Turtles and who happened to share Frank’s bad-taste humour.

By July 1970, the pair were singing the still-unreleased Sharleena and Chunga’s Revenge as this vaudevillian edition of The Mothers thrilled the new era’s entertainment-first rock audiences with X-rated dialogue and a greater emphasis on showbiz than solos.

For all his originality, Zappa also reflected his times. Funky Nothingness does that too, being very much the bridge between the high-wire extravagance of Hot Rats and the more solidly rooted sound of post-hippy rock.

Deep in the sleevenotes, we learn that the set features “multiple instrumental jam-oriented segments”. But unlike Hot Rats, this is strictly one for the Frankophiles.

Funky Nothingness is out now via Zappa/UME

Picture: John Williams

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