There are a few reasons why I believe the best way to experience this album is by tracking down a copy of the original vinyl:
1. The cover design is really something to behold. It's so full of tiny intricate detail that the tiny size of the CD jewel case simply cannot do it justice. You can spend hours staring at the Zappa-fied map of the cosmos trying to just understand the meaning of it all. It's really so overflowing with imagination that you can keep yourself entertained for hours without ever taking the record out of its sleeve.
2. The sound quality of it all. For whatever reason, Zappa on CD is a messy affair. It seems that he created the digital masters for the CDs at a time of very primitive digital technology. Frank simply couldn't resist all the bells and whistles and trappings of over using them. Although this album is hardly one of the worst examples, very early-80s digital reverb is dumped all over his catalogue. There is an excellent (albeit dated looking) website that you can spend the rest of your life going over, that boldly attempts to make heads and tails of each and every Zappa release. The original vinyl version is, however, one of the best sounding releases of its day. It's warm, lush and brimming with the full breadth of frequencies that your human hearing is capable of hearing.
But wait, what about the actual music? Hmm, just give me 40 minutes or so to listen to this sucker and I'll get back to you...
Wow, just....wow! I had to stop listening after just the first side because I was so overwhelmed by it all, and I've heard this thing countless times! Where to begin? How about the beginning? Inca Roads! An undisputed Zappa classic in every sense. Originally composed as an extremely complex instrumental, the lyrics about flying saucers landing in the Andes are certainly amusing but hardly the main attractive. Did I mention that this lineup features one of the most talented ensembles ever assembled by Frank Zappa (or anybody for that matter)? Well I should have. The percussion throughout this album is a marvel to gawk at, but nowhere is this more apparent than Inca Roads. Ruth Underwood and Chester Thomson are on fire here. Zappa was always writing the most complex marimba parts for Mrs. Underwood to tackle and she seemingly could handle it all and make it look easy at the same time! And then there is the guitar solo. You can think of this as a song within a song. It's so perfectly constructed and played you'd think Zappa worked on its composition for days, except he didn't. It was improvised live at a concert in Helsinki and pasted on here. Inspirational stuff.
While Inca Roads is the main attraction on side one, the quality throughout never drops. Can't Afford No Shoes is the least Progressive item on the menu, but its lyrics concerning the economic hardship of recession will probably ring truer today then they even did in the volatile 1970s. Sofa #1 may be one of Zappa's grandest instrumentals. You'd think it would have some sort of serious epic meaning behind it if it were not for the reprise that occurs at the end of the album (we'll get there later). Po-Jama People, Zappa's tribute to all those boring dull folks in the world (and boy, are there ever plenty of them) is another guitar showcase. I really can't think of another guitarist that was playing like that in the 70s. The licks here cover the full range from the dirty bluesy intro to the rousing solo in the second half of the track. If you don't have the ending coda stuck in your head for days after hearing it (Wrap 'em up, Roll 'em out, Get 'em out of my way, Hoy Hoy Hoy!) then you simply aren't human. Period.
(Takes a deep breath) Alright, give me another 20 minutes while I indulge in side 2...
Pffffff.....Jeez. Somehow the second side is seemingly more rampant with musical ideas than the first, and it's a whole minute shorter! This is unbelievable stuff. It's the kind of album that conflicts me as a potential aspiring musician and composer. On one hand, I feel so inspired by the sheer amount of musical ideas presented here, and the seamless skill on display executing said ideas, that I feel that there is just so many possibilities to create something likewise. On the other hand, I'm just so intimidated by the fact that all of this came out of one man's head that even trying to create something similar would certainly pale so much in comparison, it's not even worth attempting.
Take, for example, Florentine Pogen. In its first two minutes or so you hear sooo many musical ideas and riffs. How does he do it? They are all catchy and complex yet it flows seamlessly. In fact, the recording on the album was taken directly from this TV performance. That's right, it's all done live! This band was a well oiled machine. They make it look so easy and appear to be having fun while doing it to boot. Chester Thomson was completely wasted during the 80s playing with Phil Collins' Genesis. This is impressive playing. And how about Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals? You know Zappa discovered this guy playing in some corny night club in Hawaii?
The second last track, Andy, is another contender for 'most musical ideas crammed into a delightful six minute package'. It's Progressive, yet has a bluesy soulful charm that makes it simply addictive to listen to. A masterpiece without a doubt. San Ber'dino is another track that, were it written by anyone else and included on any other album, would be hailed as an all time great song. Sadly, it's packed into an album with so many great pieces and composed by the most prolific artist of its time. It seems almost forgotten in time. And then the album closes with Sofa #2. Reprising the melody of the instrumental from side one, it lyrically is based on the idea that (and I'm not making this up folks) God is singing an ode to a giant maroon sofa that happens to be floating in space, in German! Just look at the album cover! There is the sofa, and there is God's hand, holding a cigar (of course).
You think that putting such silly concepts onto such beautiful melodies may have diminished their impact? You bet. By doing this time and time again throughout his career, Frank Zappa has proven that you can make music that is complex, challenging and progressive without taking yourself at all seriously and being pretentious. Why isn't this album, and many others by Zappa, considered the out-and-out classics that they are? The humour contained in his lyrics are so disarming that you might not even bother to appreciate the musical ideas that he kept churning out throughout his tragically short life.
This album is not the easiest one to get into. It's a dense work that is brimming with some of the best music of the time. My recommendation is to take your time. You'll need to listen to it a few times over before you start to appreciate its genius. Once you do, once you 'get' it, you will undoubtedly regard this album as an all time classic of Progressive Rock. It's Progressive Rock in the truest meaning of the term. Oh yeah, it's fun and catchy too!
On the next instalment, I'm going to take a look at one of the earliest examples of real Progressive Rock, The Mothers of Invention's Absolutely Free.