Frank Zappa: Zoot Allures

By Peter Douglas

Beat Instrumental, January 1977


"Knives and spikes and guns and the likes of every tool of pain/A sinister midget with a bucket and a mop where the blood runs down the drain . . . "

All good family viewing it certainly ain't, and that's one of the things that make Frank Zappa such a welcome relief from the usual mindless pap that goes under the umbrella of rock music. The words quoted are from the album's showpiece – "The Torture Never Stops" – a grisly descriptive piece about life in some medieval dungeon. The plodding gloom is accentuated by the moans of a slide guitar, reverberating piano chords and a scuttling bass. The words are half-spoken in that deep, sibilant, obsessive manner that has become Zappa's trademark. Most significant is the fact that Frank plays everything except the drums – and also presumably the shrieks and groans of the woman who is being "tortured". In the best Zappa tradition, we are not sure whether the "torture" is entirely unpleasant.

"Zoot Allures" is a guitar-dominated album more so than we would expect if it were by the Mothers. "Wind Up Working in a Gas Station" leads into "Black Napkins" – a fairly straightforward blues guitar jam, recorded live in Japan. Then, after "Torture", a track entitled "Ms. Pinky". This is also rather sinister, with a heavy-metal style bass line underpinning a song that sounds extremely dirty and perverted, though the exact words are deliberately indistinct. It's a good thing that Zappa generally refrains from that tedious habit of printing the words on the sleeve. In most cases, the very fact that the words have been printed is an indication of their mediocrity. In this case, you have to strain to hear them, so that a) you really listen, and b) the assumption is always that there's something obscene going on (which there usually is).

Side two, after a couple of fairly unremarkable tracks, starts to bite with "Wonderful Wino", which reflects Frank's delight in scatology, the wino staggering along the pavement with "bugs in my zoot suit/Been scratching like a dog/Can't stand no water/And I'm stinking like a hog . . . " The title track follows, the last of three instrumentals; an unusually bright-sounding guitar makes effective use of odd chords and brilliantly controlled feedback in what is one of the high points of the album. "Disco Boy" closes the side, an excellent sneer at narcissistic youths: "You run to the toilet and you comb your hair." And the girls must "leave his hair alone, but you can kiss his comb." Vintage stuff. Don't play it in front of your parents.