1974 was the year that critics began to turn on Prog Rock. You see, up until that point Prog was generally considered a good thing. Critics appreciated the creativity and musicianship that was growing out of the scene up until that point. It was all happy and cheery and lovely for all... until Yes released Tales From Topographic Oceans. "That's it! They've gone too far! This is the most pretentious overblown piece of self-indulgence in the history of music bla bla bla" It went slowly but surely downhill from there.
There is an album that came out right around the same time that shows the other side of what Progressive Rock could be. Apostrophe(') has just as much musical skill on display as Tales, but instead of the serious 'high-art' that Yes were presenting, Zappa brought his silly sense of humour and irreverent satirical style to the table. When people are quick to harp on Prog's excessiveness and cite Topographic Oceans as example, I quickly 'whip-out' this sucker as counter argument. It has everything that any Prog fan wants: insanely jaw-dropping instrumental and compositional creativity, a complex and surreal concept and even an extended suite of continuous songs. What it lacks is the self-important arrogance that some listeners perceive when they dismiss Progressive Rock. (I have a hard time picking up on such things personally, Tales is pure fun to my ears) Zappa brings so much excitement to his compositions that an unknowing listener may not even realize just how complex things are instrumentally.
The album starts with the infamous tale of Nanook the Eskimo. The suite of four tracks that starts things off is really so bizarre and funny that it really couldn't be by anyone except Frank Zappa. I won't get into the details because, well, frankly (heh) it's hard to explain. Just know that you must "Watch out where the huskies go and don't you eat that yellow snow". As absurd as that line is, you only really realize the true silliness of it all when you find out that the backup singers are Tina Turner and the Ikettes. No foolin'.
But the Ikettes are hardly the main attraction of this album. The gigantic lineup assembled to play here is quite amazing. Who else but Frank Zappa could bring names like George Duke, Jack Bruce, Don 'Sugar-Cane' Harris, Sal Marquez and Jean-Luc Ponty to play on an album with songs titled "Nanook Rubs It" and "St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast"? The level of musicianship on display is simply mind-boggling. Ruth Underwood's percussion alone is worth the price of admission. Please watch this video:
So while you are laughing away at the silly lyrics, keep in mind that there is really serious complex music happening here. Zappa's compositional skills were out of control by this point of his career. Take Cosmic Debris for example, a fairly simple and straight forward attack on the 'self-help' gurus that were popping up around that time in the States. Not only are there beautiful backup harmonies by the Ikettes, but the constant shifting rhythm section is superbly tight. The guitar solo is one of Frank's most classic and the tempo shift is so well executed that it almost appears seamless. The instrumental title track is a super professional jam session with Jack Bruce and Zappa on bass and guitar respectively. Imagine Cream but with Zappa taking the lead. Bruce's fuzzy bass tone goes so insanely well with Frank's lightning fast yet completely melodic lead guitar solo.
George Duke co-wrote Uncle Remus with Zappa. The gorgeous piano underlying the song is probably a direct result of this collaboration. The Ikettes are again very prominent here as Zappa's lyrics take on racism and civil rights. The final track "Stink-Foot" is probably an attack on advertising agencies who make up "imaginary diseases" to push products you don't really need. It features more interesting time changes and ends with one of Zappa's most explicit explanations of "Conceptual Continuity". We'll get into that whole subject in another post, on another day.
This is an album that works on so many levels. From the instrumentation to the silly and yet often poignant lyrics, this is Zappa at the peak of his abilities and is required listening to anyone who like Prog and Zappa - best served together.