zappa - hot rats

Frank Zappa: Hot Rats (1969)

We’re back with the #mayvinylchallenge, and Day 1 is all about introducing yourself. And while there were plenty of artists and albums that made me love music, the first artist whose music made me obsessive about it was definitely Frank Zappa. A deep dive on his music has been a long time coming, and I still plan on it (between vinyl, CDs and box sets I’m over 70 albums) but if I were to introduce myself by way of a record, there’s no better artist. And even though Hot Rats wasn’t my first exposure to Zappa (that was Apostrophe (‘)) over time it’s become one of my favorite and most listened to records, regardless of artists or genre. So let get to it.

This is one of the albums where listening to an original pressing was an ear-opening experience. For decades I was only familiar with the 1987 digital remix and remaster Zappa did, readily available on CD via Rykodisc (I was manic about collecting his discography and getting all the different colors the CDs spines showed off). Fortunately the remix didn’t involve re-recording the bass and drums like some of his other releases, but upon re-listening now and comparing to the vinyl there’s some big sonic differences, choices in accentuating or suppressing the drums and piano, not to mention I’m assuming due to time constraints cutting “The Gumbo Variations” on the vinyl version.

Ultimately I have no real favorite – I love hearing the differences in percussion on tracks like “Willie the Pimp” and “Son of Mr. Green Genes” on the vinyl but since “The Gumbo Variations” is my favorite thing on Hot Rats the more of it I can get the better, so the CD wins out there. Same with “Little Umbrellas” – I love the more prominent piano in the intro, whereas the original pressing has the bass and woodwinds featured to emphasize the melody.

None of that really matters though when you sit back and hear what to my ears are some of the best examples of Zappa being a composer in the rock genre. These tracks aren’t vehicles for solos like so many “instrumental” albums are nowadays. If anything that could be said more for the one vocal track on the album…and who is going to argue with the sublimely dirty swagger of Captain Beefheart standing on the porch of the Lido Hotel as Zappa rips one of his signature solos? “Willie the Pimp” is one of those songs that once you hear it, you can’t get it out of your mind. Same with the main melody of “Peaches en Regalia” which is the perfect opening fanfare for Hot Rats.

Since for the next month we’re going back to doing these daily, I’m going to try and keep it short, but rest assured: one day we’ll be going back and revisiting this along with the rest of Zappa’s discography in way more detail. For the purposes of the #mayvinylchallenge and by way of introduction, it’s sufficient to know that perhaps more than any other musician Frank Zappa made me what I am today as a listener.

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