Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 20: Roxy & Elsewhere (Frank Zappa and The Mothers, 1974)

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All right, who wants to dance to the "Bebop Tango"? Rick, Jane, Carl? Lana? Brenda? Step right up. Oh this here? This is bebop, even though you think it doesn’t sound like that. Link your mind with the mind of George Duke. When he plays those funny fast little notes, twitch around and have a good time. And not too adagio!

In Frank Zappa’s powerhouse, live-with-overdubs recording from late 1974 called Roxy and Elsewhere, we’re treated to a wide range of signature Zappa compositional and performance features, including air-tight rhythmic and melodic virtuosity, loose-and-jammy solos, whirling masses of wild improvisation that suddenly snap back to attention like one of those collapsing thumb-push toys; and then there are the wacky skits, the golden-voiced and sesquipedalian introductory and narrational remarks, the stylistic parodies, and, yes, even some audience participation in the form of twitching around to funny fast little notes.

Frank Zappa had a way of pushing great culture into the ears and minds of his listeners. On the LP notes of his early 1968 album We’re Only in it for the Money, for instance, he beseeches the listener to hold off on spinning the final track—called "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny"—until they’ve gone and read Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony.” (Instructions, by the way, that I followed to the letter when I first enjoyed the album.)

Zappa also wanted his audiences to know about 20th-century composers like Edgar Varèse, for example, not just by mentioning Varèse’s name in liner notes and in interviews, but by pulling those timbral and rhythmic influences into his own compositions, providing for those “stubbornly conditioned ears” of the public an intermediary stepping stone to perhaps some day get to the kernel of the real deal.

In The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa’s autobiography of sorts, he wrote about two modes of composition he flits between: “the ‘musically uncompromising boy-is-this-ever-hard-to-play’ category,” and the other category—”songs in which the ‘intrigue’ resides in the lyrics, rather than the music.” You get some great moments of unyielding musical complexity, at breakneck tempos, no less; and such intrigue! Penguins in Bondage, badinage about the smoking of a high school diploma stuffed with a gym sock, and an expression of highest regard for the campy cheapness of monster movies—cheaper the better.

In the middle of the instrumental romp entitled "Echidna's Arf (Of You)," Zappa draws attention to percussionist Ruth Underwood, claiming that the whole time she has been thinking, “What can I possibly do that will amaze everyone?” It brings to mind for me another protean and, indeed, protein-ly titled Zappa album, Uncle Meat, from 1969, in which Ian Underwood (Ruth’s then husband), tells the listener of his first meeting with Zappa, his audition for the band, when Zappa asked him: “What can you do that’s fantastic?”

Go check out Roxy and Elsewhere, and then, when you love what you hear, hunt down a copy of the concert film of same, entitled Roxy: The Moviefinally released after all this time in October of last year. If nothing else, take Zappa’s advice to heart: If you can do something fantastic, whip it out.

Oh, and register to vote.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.