Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart/The Mothers [extended]

  • Absolutely Free [Verve, 1967] B-
  • Trout Mask Replica [Straight, 1969] B+
  • Hot Rats [Bizarre, 1969] C
  • Lick My Decals Off, Baby [Bizarre/Straight, 1970] A-
  • Weasels Ripped My Flesh [Bizarre/Reprise, 1970] B+
  • Chunga's Revenge [Bizarre, 1970] C+
  • Fillmore East, June 1971 [Bizarre, 1971] C-
  • Clear Spot [Reprise, 1972] B+
  • The Spotlight Kid [Reprise, 1972] B+
  • Waka/Jawaka--Hot Rats [Bizarre/Reprise, 1972] B
  • Just Another Band From L.A. [Bizarre, 1972] C
  • Mirror Man [Buddah, 1973] B+
  • Over-Nite Sensation [DiscReet, 1973] C
  • Unconditionally Guaranteed [Mercury, 1974] B-
  • Bluejeans and Moonbeams [Mercury, 1974] B-
  • Apostrophe (') [DiscReet, 1974] B-
  • Roxy and Elsewhere [DiscReet, 1974] C+
  • One Size Fits All [DiscReet, 1975] C+
  • Bongo Fury [DiscReet, 1975] B
  • Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) [Warner Bros., 1978] A
  • Sleep Dirt [DiscReet, 1979] B-
  • Sheik Yerbouti [Zappa, 1979] C
  • Doc at the Radar Station [Virgin, 1980] A-
  • Ice Cream for Crow [Virgin/Epic, 1982] A-
  • We're Only in It for the Money [Rykodisc, 1995] A
  • Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-82) [Revenant, 1999] C+
  • The Dust Blows Forward: An Anthology [Rhino, 1999] A
  • I'm Going to Do What I Wanna Do: Live at My Father's Place [Rhino Handmade, 2000] B+
  • Zappatite: Frank Zappa's Tastiest Tracks [Zappa, 2016] **

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Mothers of Invention: Absolutely Free [Verve, 1967]
This well-paced, well-pastiched "oratorio" might be of compelling interest to the sort of avant-garde composer whose work incorporates pop usages; after all, here we have genuine pop musicians doing the obverse. But as rock and roll it's a moderately amusing novelty record, much too obvious in its satire, with harmonies and time changes that presage Yes and Jethro Tull rather than ELP and the Moody Blues. Best cut: "Call Any Vegetable." B-

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica [Straight, 1969]
I find it impossible to give this record an A because it is just too weird. But I'd like to. Very great played at high volume when you're feeling shitty, because you'll never feel as shitty as this record. B+

Frank Zappa: Hot Rats [Bizarre, 1969]
Doo-doo to you, Frank--when I want movie music I'll listen to "Wonderwall." C

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Lick My Decals Off, Baby [Bizarre/Straight, 1970]
Like Trout Mask Replica, this music is so jumpy and disjoint it's ominous. But after some acclimatization you can play it while doing the dishes, and good. Beefheart's famous five-octave range and covert totalitarian structures have taken on a playful undertone, repulsive and engrossing and slapstick funny. N.b.: us new dinosaurs had better kick off our "old dinosaur shoes." Or was that "Dinah Shore shoes"? Both. A-

The Mothers of Invention: Weasels Ripped My Flesh [Bizarre/Reprise, 1970]
Talk about "montage"--the construction here is all juxtaposition, the composition all interruption. Together with some relatively straightforward instrumentals and "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama," the album's two finest strokes--a metal remake of Little Richard's "Directly From My Heart to You" and "Oh No" a devastating reply to "All You Need Is Love"--would make for a highly enjoyable album. But if Brecht considered pure enjoyment counterrevolutionary, Zappa considers it dumb--that's why he breaks in constantly with dialogue and vocal or electronic sounds whose musical interest/value is essentially theoretical. I find most of these engaging enough to think I might want to listen again some day. But all that means is that I enjoy it, quite moderately, in spite of itself. B+

Frank Zappa: Chunga's Revenge [Bizarre, 1970]
Like Bobby Sherman, Zappa is a selfish exploiter of popular taste. That Bobby Sherman wants to make money while Zappa wants to make money and emulate Varese is beside the point--if anything, Zappa's aestheticism intensifies his contempt for rock and its audience. Even Hot Rats, his compositional peak, played as much with the moods and usages of Muzak as with those of rock and roll. This is definitely not his peak. Zappa plays a lot of guitar, just as his admirers always hope he will, but the overall effect is more Martin Denny than Varese. Also featured are a number of "dirty" jokes. C+

The Mothers: Fillmore East, June 1971 [Bizarre, 1971]
The sexist adolescent drivel that hooks these moderne mannerisms should dispel any doubts as to where Big Mother finds his market--among adolescents and sexists of every age and gender (bet he gets more adults than females). It must tickle Frank that a couple of ex-Turtles are now doing his dirty work. Probably tickled him too to split the only decent piece of rock and roll (or music) here between two sides. C-

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Clear Spot [Reprise, 1972]
This one really does rock out--it's got the Blackberries, horn charts, everything the promotion department could ask except a hummable tune. Much womanizing, of course--rather less, er, allusive than usual but laced with the unexpected, as in the title "Nowadays a Woman's Gotta Hit a Man," a prescription from which Cap exempts himself. But what makes it work is that it really rocks out. B+

Captain Beefheart: The Spotlight Kid [Reprise, 1972]
Cap's much-bruited commercial bid turns out to have all the mass appeal of King of the Delta Blues Singers, complete with modernized terraplane and an avowal of primitivism in which the Kid threatens to "Grow Fins." All the primordial themes are here--sex, love, poverty, destiny, ecology--and the Howlin' Wolf imitations are as dense and heartfelt as the music. Still, Robert Johnson cuts him, and primitivism is rarely better the second time around. Maybe the Stones could cover "I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby." But if this were all it's cracked up to be, that wouldn't be the only candidate. B+

Frank Zappa: Waka/Jawaka--Hot Rats [Bizarre/Reprise, 1972]
With Sal Marquez playing "many trumpets" all over "Big Swifty," there are times you could drop the needle and think you were listening to recent Miles Davis. That's certainly what Zappa's been doing. But where Davis is occasionally too loose, Zappa's always too tight--he seems to perceive only what is weird and alienating in his influences, never what is humane. Also, Sal Marquez doesn't play trumpet(s) as good as Miles. B

The Mothers: Just Another Band From L.A. [Bizarre, 1972]
You said it, Frank, I didn't. C

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Mirror Man [Buddah, 1973]
Recorded one night in 1965, these four pieces, which go on for more than fifty minutes, seem insultingly sloppy and thin at first--lacking Beefheart's later rhythmic assurance and aural density. But in their linear way they're pretty crazy and pretty involving. Makes you wonder why the Captain got left out of all the blues jams that followed in his wake. B+

The Mothers: Over-Nite Sensation [DiscReet, 1973]
Oh, I get it--the soft-core porn is there to contextualize the serious stuff. Oh, I get it--the automatic solos are there to undercut the serious stuff. Oh, I get it--the marimbas are there to mock-trivialize the serious stuff. But where's the serious stuff? C

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Unconditionally Guaranteed [Mercury, 1974]
I've always suspected that underneath the naive surrealism the Captain might be a dumbbell, and now that he's really (really really) trying to go commercial he's providing proof. This time he really (really) does it--writes dumb little songs with dumb little lyrics and dumb little hooks. Maybe all the dumb dumb parts can be blamed on svengali and cocomposer Andy DiMartino. And I admit that a lot of these are passable ("Magic Be") to wonderful ("Sugar Bowl") dumb little songs. But they're still dumb. Really. B-

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Bluejeans and Moonbeams [Mercury, 1974]
Supposedly, this album consists of outtakes from Cap's previous Andy DiMartino LP, but if anything I prefer it. "Party of Special Things to Do" (mama told him not to come) and "Observatory Crest" (Beefheart's first make-out song) surround his cover of "Same Old Blues" so cunningly that after a while you start to forget J.J. Cale, and before you know it you're at the funky harmonica features that closes side one. B-

Frank Zappa: Apostrophe (') [DiscReet, 1974]
Disillusioned acolytes are complaining that he's retreated, which means he's finally made top ten, but that's just his reward for professional persistence. If anything, the satire's improved a little, and the title piece--an improvisation with Jack Bruce, Jim Gordon, and rhythm guitarist Tony Duran--forays into quartet-style jazz-rock. Given Frank's distaste for "Cosmik Debris" you'd think maybe he's come up with something earthier than Mahavishnu, but given his distaste for sex you can be sure it's more cerebral instead. B-

Frank Zappa/Mothers: Roxy and Elsewhere [DiscReet, 1974]
You can actually hear Zappa thinking on "More Trouble Every Day," and "Son of Orange County" is an uncommonly understated Nixon tribute. The rest is the usual eccentric clichés, replete with meters and voicings and key changes that are as hard to play as they are easy to forget. C+

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: One Size Fits All [DiscReet, 1975]
Zappa's music has gotten a little slicker rhythmically--which is what happens when you consort with jazz guys--but basically it's unchanged. And his satire has neither improved nor deteriorated--if his contempt would be beneath an overbright high school junior, there's also a brief lieder parody that I'd love to jam onto WQXR. What's changed is the tastes of his erstwhile lionizers--they've gotten bored with his repertoire of stylistic barbarities. Us smart people just got bored faster. C+

Bongo Fury [DiscReet, 1975]
This sentimental reunion album, recorded (where else?) in Austin with (what else?) additional L.A. studio work, is dismissed by Zappaphiles and 'Fhearthearts alike, but what were they expecting? Perhaps because there's a blues avatar up top, the jazzy music has a soulful integrity, and though it's embarrassing to hear the Captain deliver Frankie's latest pervo exploitations, the rest of the songs are funnier because he's singing them. B

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) [Warner Bros., 1978]
Inspired by the Captain's untoward comeback, I've dug out all his old albums and discovered that as far as I'm concerned this is better than any of them--more daring than Safe as Milk, fuller than Trout Mask Replica, more consistent than Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Without any loss of angularity or thickness, the new compositions achieve a flow worthy of Weill or Monk or Robert Johnson, and his lyrics aren't as willful as they used to be. Bruce Fowler's trombone is especially thaumaturgic adding an appropriately natural color to the electric atonality of the world's funniest ecology crank. A

Frank Zappa: Sleep Dirt [DiscReet, 1979]
For what it's worth, I thought I'd mention that this collection of outtakes showcases more good music than any Zappa album in years--including its companion piece, Studio Tan, which features a twenty-minute narrative called "Greggery Peccary" that could make me defend El Lay. Maybe the secret of Sleep Dirt is that Frank doesn't talk on it. But that didn't help Orchestral Favorites. B-

Frank Zappa: Sheik Yerbouti [Zappa, 1979]
If this be social "satire," how come its sole targets are ordinary citizens whose weirdnesses happen to diverge from those of the retentive gent at the control board? Or are we to read his new fixation on buggery as an indication of approval? Makes you wonder whether his primo guitar solo on "Yo' Mama" and those as-unique-as-they-used-to-be rhythms and textures are as arid spiritually as he is. As if there were any question after all these years. C

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station [Virgin, 1980]
Beefheart is an utter original if not some kind of genius, but that doesn't make him the greatest artist ever to rock down the pike--his unreconstructed ecoprimitive eccentricity impairs his aesthetic as well as his commercial reach. Only don't tell grizzled punks now discovering the boho past, or avantish rockcrits who waited patiently through the cleansing storm for musicianship to come round again. In synch with the historical moment for once, Beefheart offers up his most uncompromised album since Trout Mask Replica in 1969--never before have his nerve-wracking harmonies and sainted-spastic rhythms been captured in such brutal living color. Me, I've always enjoyed his compromises, which tend to be crazier than normal people's wildest dreams, and wish he'd saved some of his melodic secrets for the second side. A-

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow [Virgin/Epic, 1982]
Two cuts have no lyrics, one has no music, and guess which your humble wordslinger prefers. Ornette or no Ornette, the Captain's sprung delta atonality still provides surprising and irreducible satisfactions, but his poetry repeats itself more than his ideas warrant. Any surrealist ecologist who preaches the same sermon every time out is sure to provoke hostile questions from us concrete-jungle types. A-

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: We're Only in It for the Money [Rykodisc, 1995]
Whatever his ultimate standing as social critic or present-day composer who refuses to die, Zappa was everything he claimed to be on this 19-cut, 40-minute sendup of the Summer of Love. No, it wasn't like this; most of the naive teens who lost-and-found themselves in the Haight were sweeter and smarter than the "phony hippies" he lacerates with such hopeless contempt. But that doesn't mean his cruelty isn't good for laughs. And not only is every wee tune--motive, as composers say--as well-crafted as a Coke commercial, they all mesh together into one of those musical wholes you've read about. With bohemia permanent and changed utterly, this early attack on its massification hasn't so much dated as found its context. Cheap sarcasm is forever. A

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Grow Fins: Rarities (1965-82) [Revenant, 1999]
If you have any doubts about needing this handsome $94-list package, you don't. If you're moved to ask pop-friendly me, you don't. Every CD box is larded with marginalia, but the good folks at Revenant--who last year reckoned Charlie Feathers cut 42 "essential" tracks between 1954 and 1969--live for it. They believe consumers should share the thrill of digging through the crates, palpitating as the voice of genius emanates from a dusty reel of tape. So instead of winnowing out an hour or so of lost songs, jelled jams, and unjust outtakes, they throw in a 13-minute CD of dim studio chatter, a minute of Don Van Vliet playing the harmonica over the telephone, etc. Take it from pop-friendly me--if you've spent more time with the Captain's free sessions than with Ornette Coleman's, you need to get your priorities in order. C+

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: The Dust Blows Forward: An Anthology [Rhino, 1999]
The proof of his avant-gardism isn't the rejects and weirdness of Grow Fins. It's that the music (if not the poetry) on his finest albums--Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), Lick My Decals Off, Baby (1970), and Doc at the Radar Station (1980), with the insufficiently fluent Trout Mask Replica (1969) a distinct fifth behind Ice Cream for Crow (1982)--is more gripping and coruscating than ever. But only Trout Mask is in print domestically. And while this double-CD lifts heavily from all while pulling him as far out of shape avantwise (blame Frank Zappa) as popwise (blame Ted Templeman), it also documents, more songfully than he ever cared to, the progress of blues that were progressive to begin with. That's right, blues, no matter what he says, from Skip James and Elmore James to Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer, who Don Van Vliet may never have heard and who should only be so dense and nutty. Another referent: the Band at their careening best. Another: Pavement. Repressive tension, explosive release; sprung rhythm, fugueing melody. All that. A

Captain Beefheart: I'm Going to Do What I Wanna Do: Live at My Father's Place [Rhino Handmade, 2000]
Title protestations to the contrary, Don Van Vliet promos like a good touring artist should, supporting a near-great album that 22 years later has left the catalog (for the nonce) as nine de facto bonus tracks reprise his illustrious underground career. Live on this November night, his music was slacker and more forceful than on the studio Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). His anointed helpers weren't improvisers, not hardly. But they were a fairly magic band. B+

Frank Zappa: Zappatite: Frank Zappa's Tastiest Tracks [Zappa, 2016]
Pop being beyond him emotionally, the anal guitar virtuoso applies his high IQ to satire ("Trouble Every Day," "Valley Girl," "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow") **