28
May
14

More Mothers Than Anyone Can Handle

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Frank Zappa. I own more of his records than any other artist and even some bootlegs, too. I think it’s safe to say I listen to him more than the average person does, which suits me fine. He made a lot of music, after all.

Anyway, the other day I found a guy online who’d put together a giant Zappa and Mothers of Invention playlist, something like nine hours of music. Then I found another guy who actually made the playlist into a video, which was then posted to YouTube. It’s up there on top. Now before I explain why I listened to it, let’s get into the how and why of the playlist.

During his lifetime, Zappa released over an album a year, with album 62 – The Yellow Shark, a live recording of the Ensemble Modern playing his compositions – coming out just before his death in 1993. Since then, his estate has released dozens of CDs: entire concerts, album demos, finished yet unreleased projects, even a couple of deluxe box sets. But Zappa, who was an ideas guy if nothing else, pitched dozens of ideas to record companies that never panned out. The Zappa Patio has a fun section devoted to these abandoned projects: everything from a RFK audio documentary to a single recorded with Burt Ward.

One of the odder pieces is a box set called The Collected Improvisations of the Mothers of Invention, a 12-record set he started pitching in the late 60s. Actual details are a little sketchy, but it seems certain it would’ve had a bunch of stuff Zappa recorded as a youngin, before joining The Mothers, then a bunch of stuff featuring them. It’s alleged some of it was officially released as Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Burnt Weenie Sandwich, both released in 1970, but who knows for certain. Eventually his pitches for this set got smaller and smaller until he stopped mentioning it altogether. Eventually, he included a bonus record with some odds and ends in box set of remastered old titles.

But the history gets sketchier once you go into the grey world of bootlegs and tape trading: there’s several acetates circulating which people claim came from this unreleased set. Some represent full LPs, others just one side and each represent something that got as far as test pressings. But each generally contains material which did see official release, though. They just saw release on other albums, some of them decades later.

Back to the playlist. A few years back, some kind soul tried to recreate the 12-LP set using a mix of official and unreleased material. More recently, another kind soul – Arghdos – actually made it, splicing it all together into one giant set. It’s an admirable project. This is no way a criticism of their work, but of the music itself and the proposed box set taken as a whole. Think of this as a review for a record that doesn’t exist.

First off, I can see why no record company touched this thing when Zappa was alive. The sense of releasing a 12-LP set for an artist who was never much of a big seller at the time – Weasels peaked at 189 on the charts, Sandwich at 94) –  isn’t there; how many people would’ve bought the entire set?

As the music was officially released, things came out in a more sensible way. Both Weasels and Sandwich work on their own as albums: Weasels for the more experimental/freeform side of the Mothers (think Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, The Eric Dolphy Memorial BBQ or the title cut), Sandwich as a showcase for Zappa’s more tricky compositions (Holiday in Berlin, Little House I Used to Live In). You can play ’em back to back, but they work just fine on their own, too.

On the other hand, The Lost Episodes and Mystery Disc are essentially pre-histories of the Mothers, showing Zappa’s growth as a young musician. They show him growing from a young, experimental composer to a guy leading a rock band and playing some tasty guitar solos. But even with a couple great tunes on each, they’re specifically for hardcore fans; people just casually into him won’t see the appeal of his early doo-wop singles, studio experimentation or of Zappa and Captain Beefheart jamming away in the studio.

Taken as a whole, the 12-LP set poses an ugly dilemma: if you want two of the Mothers best albums, you gotta pay for two or three records of early, unfocused Zappa too. The first record is all about these early years; the Mothers don’t show up in any form until side three. Soon there’s demos from 1965, a making-of for the first Mothers record and a hodgepodge of outtakes and live cuts. This trend continues through most of the set: a handful of great tunes scattered throughout stuff only devoted fans would take interest in.

One example: My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, one of the best Mothers tunes, is buried deep on side 14, behind a cover of a sea shanty and a skit where Lowell George plays a border guard. If this was a real set, would Zappa have buried a gem so deep into a side? Who knows.

But that’s kind of the problem: on any box set, there’s bound to be some filler. And on one as large a scope as this, with relatively so little a period covered, Zappa would’ve painted himself into a corner. After all, the original Mothers released five albums, two of them double LPs, before Zappa broke up the band in 1969. Altogether that would’ve been just 12 sides: just half of his proposed box set.

Some musicians are good judges of their own work. Neil Young is one, which is why his compilation Decade is still one of the gold standard for a best-of: it doesn’t just have all the cuts you’d want and some new ones for fans who already have those records, but it presents his best material in a way that suggests each of his records are just as good. It works as both a best-of and as a sampler: you’ll buy iy thinking it’s all you’ll need but it just whets your appetite for more.

Zappa? Not so much. This 12-LP set, it just doesn’t satisfy either of those needs. Everything officially released works better in those contexts and what little unreleased material here wouldn’t be worth shelling out for.

But then again, Zappa never displayed much interest in a career spanning set. He only released one best-of in his lifetime (1969’s Mothermania) and compiled a couple more that came out after he died (Have I Offended Someone and Understanding America) – although a few were made without his involvement. He was more concerned with what he currently doing than looking back. As he said in 1986:

After I am dead and gone, there is no need to deal with any of this stuff, because it is not written for future generations, it is not performed for future generations. It is performed for now.

Instead of this set, Zappa released two Mothers odds-and-ends albums and sometime in the early 70s compiled another double record set that sat unreleased until a couple years ago: Finer Moments, which could even be a cousin of the 12-record set! It certainly covers some of the same material. But generally, once the Mothers broke up, Zappa moved on to new projects. It wasn’t until he started looking into his back catalogue, first with The Old Masters box sets and later when compiling assorted live material for CDs, that any new 1965-69 Mothers material saw release. And in those smaller doses, they’re much easier to get into.

Like I said above: I’m glad Arghdos compiled this together into one unit to make a long-rumoured set a reality. It’s something I’ve wondered about for a while. But I’m also glad I didn’t have to buy it, either. I’m a big Zappa guy, but this set would’ve been more Mothers than even I want.

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