By Andy Gill

Q, January 1988

Freak Out!
Hot Rats
Uncle Meat
Cruising With Ruben & The Jets

It's to be commended when a musician takes a personal interest in the CD re-mastering of his back catalogue – especially when, as here, the CD release makes available again albums which had been changing hands for upwards of £30 on the secondhand market. What's less commendable is the prospect that Zappa's re-issue schedule stretches beyond the early Mothers Of Invention albums to include some distinctly dodgy later stuff (32 albums in all, over the next three years).

Opinion is divided as to when Frank actually stopped being funny, but I'd say that, like Woody Allen, it was when he started to view himself as a Serious Artist rather than a member of the entertainment industry (oddball branch). For while there's no denying his prowess as musicien and composer, it's clear that Zappa's talent is at its most potent when marshalled in support of the biting satire of, say, We're Only ln lt For The Money, rather than the lame jibes, scatology and dreadful puns of Sheik Yerbouti, or the symphonie stodge of Orchestral Favourites.

The initial batch of four releases on Zappa's own CD outlet gives a good impression of the strengths and weaknesses of his early records. Freak Out! – initially released in truncated single-album form in Britain, and unavailable for well over a decade – is quite remarkable for 1966, almost a sampler album for the wide variety of Zappa's musical interests. Cheesy bubblegum pop (wie Zowie) rests side by side with greasy doo-wop (Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder) and state-of-the-zeitgeist psychedelia {Who Are The Brain Police?).

A cursory comparison between my battered old vinyl copy and the CD reveals a general improvement in clarity and separation throughout, but as usual it's the guitars and vocals that profit the most, expecially the falsetto harmonies of Ray Collins and Roy Estrada on the doo-wop cuts.

For this reason, presumably, the Cruising With Ruben & The Jets album – a doo-wop pastiche presented as the Mothers' "last ditch attempt to get their cruddy music on the radio" – has been completely remixed by Zappa. Ruben & The Jets was apparently recorded simultaneously with the Uncle Meat double album, a soundtrack for a movie which never got released. Unable to cram the whole thing, as with Freak Out!, on to a single disc, Frank's done the decent thing and added on an extra 45 minutes of material to justify the double-CD status. Which is fine until you hear the new material, 41 minutes of which appears to be simply people chatting as they rehearse their parts in the movie. When is a good deal not a good deal? When it's Zappa being generous with his "genius".

That said, the original Uncle Meat material remains probably Zappa's most impressive cumulative outpouring, containing plenty of his basic elements – in-joke lyrics, baroque complexity and unusual instrumentation. Some tracks, such as Zolar Czakl and A Pound For A Brown On The Bus, sound like the music that accompanies Czechoslovak cartoons, while others stretch categorisation to its limits. It's certainly not rock'n'roll; maybe it's just the kind of music made by ugly guys with facial hair, including the recording debuts of al least two of the finest musiciens of the '70, (guitarist Lowell George and drummer Artie Tripp, aka the Magic Band's Ed Marimba).

There are still people around who rate Hot Rats, Zappa's most successful record, as a masterpiece. For me, it remains the moment he slipped over the edge from entertainment into the abyss of Serious Artisthood. Willie The Pimp still has some bite, courtesy Beefheart's vocal and Sugarcane Harris's violin screech, but for the most part Hot Rats is a lumpy stodge of jazz-rock jamming over some of Zappa's quainter themes.

Zappa's problem, like many a gifted megalomaniac, is self-obsession. As his career has progressed, he's lost the self-critical faculty which makes the early albums – up to and including Uncle Meat – enjoyable patchworks of a fecund imagination. As his music has got both longer and less interesting, so has his conviction grown that just about everything he does is worthy of release, every joke screamingly witty, and every concept deserving of al least a double-album. Andy Gill

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