Bad Zappa Songs, Anyone?

This is a guest post by Alan Wechsler from Albany, NY.
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Everyone knows how prolific Frank Zappa was as a composer. So it’s natural that such a great songwriter might have a few duds. I thought it would be fun to put a list together of his worst. Yes, it’s arbitrary and petty, but if you don’t like it you can grow your own green rosetta…

  • Jumbo Go Away/Charlie’s Enormous Mouth (You Are What You Is) – I was never a huge fan of YAWYI, because the songs all sound homogenized and overproduced. However, there’s some great tunes on the album – Dumb All Over, Coneheads, Suicide Chump, the title track. But Jumbo and Charlie’s are not among them. The songs seem particularly misogynistic, not to mention mean-spirited, without being funny or even having a point. And by the way, the “female” voice is incredibly annoying, just as it is on I don’t want to get drafted (“I don’t want nobody/to shoot me in the … foxhole.”).
  • Why don’t you like me? (Broadway the Hard Way) – The ’88 tour contained a half-dozen new songs, and none of them were particularly inspiring. After all, what’s hard-hitting in a song about “women in advertising” (Planet of the baritone women). Nevertheless, Why don’t you like me stands out as particularly mediocre because 1. it’s a retooling of Tell me you love me and 2. how could a song about Michael Jackson be so unfunny? I mean, Richard Thompson referred to Michael in a song about Janet Jackson a few years ago – and not even by name – and he had the audience rolling in the aisles. But Zappa’s take on pop’s most pathetic star is as limp as the late Jackson himself.
  • Weasels ripped my flesh (Weasles Ripped My Flesh). If I wanted to hear five minutes of pure feedback I would buy Lou Reed’s Play Machine Music, thank you very much.
  • Billy the Mountain (Just Another Band from L.A.). In truth, this song has its moments. But anyone who hears this after listening to the far superior Adventure of Greggary Peccary is going to be hugely disappointed. Billy goes nowhere in its 25 minutes of tedium, and musically doesn’t have much going for it either. However, Studebaker Hawk is a great name.
  • Any song (Jazz from Hell) –Zappa was so happy to have purchased the Synclavier in the mid 1980s – now he could get rid of musicians with their tedious personalities and human limitations and compose whatever the hell he so desired. Was this such a good idea, however? Aside from having absolutely no soul, the unmelodious songs on this album seem like nothing more than something you’d listen to in an Introduction to Electronic Music class as a sort of lesson in what was possible, circa 1987. But most importantly, does it stand the test of time? I don’t think so. Now that any bozo can make the same sounds with a $1,000 Mac, it makes us appreciate real musicianship more and more. No one will ever go to a concert hall to watch a person playing a computer.
  • Jelly Roll Gum Drop (Cruising with Rubin and the Jets) – On a Dr. Demento show, Zappa once introduced this song by referring to it as “mongoloid entertainment.” That’s a strange thing to call a genre of music that Frank is said to have loved. Anyway, while some of the Rubin songs are tasty, this one is merely flavorless. Frank, if you thought it was mongoloid, why record it at all? And by the way, the remixed drum and base lines give all the songs on this album a bizarre “then and now” feel that completely ruins the historic nature of these recordings.
  • Any song (Lumpy Gravy) – There may be fans of this uneven, experimental orchestral album, and it certainly has its psychedelic and humorous moments. However, any bourgeoning Zappa fan who makes the mistake of buying this record before hearing such masterpieces as One Size Fits All, Sheik Yerbouti, Hot Rats or Absolutely Free will probably swear off Frank for the rest of his or her life.
  • ‘Torchum’ Never Stops (Thing-Fish) – How do you ruin one of Zappa’s greatest songs? Create a stupid “mock-negro” accent and pepper a two-record set with it, including this annoying version of Torture. Ike Willis is a genius, but his potato was clearly bakin’ too long to think that his dialect wouldn’t annoy the hell out of most fans after a while.
  • Be in my video (Them or Us) – This is supposed to be a spoof of heavy-metal hair bands, right? So why does it sound like Oingo Boingo? It’s just another case of Zappa completely missing his mark (not unlike Harder than your husband, which was supposed to be a send-up of country-and-western songs, but was actually so dry in its humor it could have easily played at any cowboy bar in Tulsa or El Paso). And by the way, am I the only Zappa fan who thinks that Chad Wackerman is the most boring drummer to ever pound skins with Frank? The guy has incredible precision and talent, for sure, but he has no personality and no power. Of course, it’s impossible to have “hands with a hammer” when you’re playing synth drum pads (boo)!
  • Nig Biz (unreleased, except live) – Having a black guy sing this song doesn’t make it any less pointlessly offensive. Hey, I’m no prude – I loved Catholic Girls and Jewish Princess. But what does the rock ‘n’ roll (or blues?) industry have to do with the most detested word in the English language?

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Was Zappa incapable of failing? Or perhaps you have other ideas for Zappa’s worst songs?

104 Responses to “Bad Zappa Songs, Anyone?”

  1. Paul Jonker-Hoffrén says:

    Hi,

    I think Lumpy Gravy is a very important album, maybe not necessary in Zappa’s Canon but as a classical record – it’s use of ‘cut-up’ techniques foreshadows a lot of stuff. I agree that it is hard to get the meaning of the talking parts, but somehow this album is similar to John Zorn’s Naked City.

    As for Jazz from Hell, I like the compositions a lot (how can you not like G-spot Tornado – happy song!). I don’t believe there is soul IN music, rather i think people are conditioned to perceive certain types of sound as an expression of a feeling (which is bullshit). Zappa must have been very thrilled to have his most difficult compositions performed correctly (and as we know, he sampled the Ensemble Moderne’s sounds for future synclavier use). But I think while the Yellow Shark or Greggary Peccary by EM are very, very good, I do like the clarity of the jazz from hell album, plus it has the shock value of the live guitar solo in the middle. Different sonic worlds, definitely!
    Greetings from Finland

  2. Bálint says:

    Hm, it would be interesting to add notes to the songs above, but fist my dislikes:
    Luigi and The Wise Guys – I dont thing I’ve listenned to it more than once (or twice). And: this is a “bonus track” for the CD edition!.. Why?…
    Tegno Na Minchia Tanta – see as above.
    Uncle Meat Film Excerpt – this, on a classic album like Uncle Meat? Ununderstandable. I’ve made a single-CD-cut for myself. 🙂
    SEX – too slow, too long, too boring. Totally unneccessary.

    Well, at first.. I don’t know how much more do I have – we’ll see later :-).

  3. Jamez says:

    1. Luigi And The Wise Guys
    2. The Radio Is Broken
    3. Charlie’s Enormous Mouth
    4. Rubber Shirt

  4. A.F. Harrold says:

    Hi, I agree with Paul there’s lots to like on Jazz From Hell and especially Lumpy Gravy, and with Balint and Jamez that Luigi is hardly the finest bit of bonus one could expect (and seems to be Zappa being nasty about (a member of the road-crew?) someone with no right to reply – at least taking the piss out of public figures they can respond if they want to), and that the Uncle Meat additions add nothing.

    I suspect there’s going to be a lot of overlap on pet dislikes, as well as a lot of fighting for secret favourites (for example I’d stick up for Weasels, which is only two minutes long, including applause, and must be consumed in context as the closing event on the album – that noise is what every rock band does at the end of every song, strumming vigorously to say – ‘look how loud my finish is!’), but that’s the nature of Zappa.

    Here just one extra from me to be going on with.

    The Illinois Enema Bandit – besides it being the encore at just about every show in the ’80s and subsequently becoming a tad boring, and putting aside the fact it often harbours nice solos and that I find the ‘court room’ scene at the end a fun piece of interaction between performers, this is in the end a song celebrating a series of serious real-life sexual assaults at gunpoint on women – nevermind it being a piece of ‘folk documentary’, I find it unsettling and unpleasant. (Especially hearing some of the early introductions.)

  5. Paul Jonker-Hoffrén says:

    I am going to defend Rubber Shirt very much indeed 🙂 Of course it is weird because it is this xenochrocity thing, but I just love the bass solo and what happens on drums. I don’t care that these things don’t belong together. Although I like Occam’s Razor on ‘One Shot Deal’ I like it more in the context of Joe’s Garage. – and A.F. Harrold, total agreement on the context of Weasels. Rock bands just do that kind of stupid stuff and I think it is very funny in the context of this bizarre album – as if to say, ‘look, we still are a rock band!’

    I do agree with TNTM and the Uncle Meat film stuff. From the Dub Room Special I nonetheless understood that Tengo.. is a song written by a roady or something, and that the lyrics say some very dirty stuff in italian.

    OK, one more: the 1980s remixes of Cruising with Ruben and the Jets? I have never heard the original versions, and although I hear the ‘anachronism’ in drums and bass, I still like especially the bass sounds, they are so deep and growling.

    Illinois Bandit – I like the solos but it is rather unnerving to listen to the lyrics (as a non-native englishspeaking person I can ignore this a bit more). I think Zappa is willfully harsh in the end, although there is truly a psychological phenomenon that victims tend to start identifying with to perpetrator…

  6. jonnybutter says:

    Luigi and The Wise Guys, definitely.
    Stick Together
    Conehead
    Mudd Club
    ‘Enema Bandit’ is pretty boring, and not terribly funny in practice. I understand why the idea appealed, but the song is dull. BTW, I don’t think the stuff in the end is meant to be harsh; as Zappa says, it’s a parody of typical blues lyrics and hollywood movie cliches – that the women want the fiend to go free.
    I was always bored by ‘Muffin Man’.

    I like ‘Rubber Shirt’ too. And Lumpy Gravy is a classic, which I never found to be boring.

  7. epistrophy says:

    1. The Mud Shark.
    Lyrically and musically dull.
    2. No Not Now
    Lyrically uninteresting, musically uninteresting, and the production has no contrasts, no dynamics.
    3. All of the re-writes that turn up on Thing-Fish.
    4. Sex (the re-release version)
    – actually I used to like the vinyl version, but the remix features some terrible lyrics.
    5. The Poodle Lecture.

    i could go on….but I don’t want to be too negative, especially after my scathing review of Philly ’76.

    In Defence:
    i love Billy The Mountain – it is packed full of great tunes with outrageous lyrics: I often find myself singing “A mountain is something, you don’t want to….”, much to the bewilderment of whoever I am with at the time.

  8. Thinman says:

    Kaiser Rolls. For good reason never released by Frank.

    Th.

  9. Jake St. Vitus says:

    I’ll be writing more later, as I’ve loved Zappa’s music for 20+ years and still have (more than) a few that never worked for me. And I find this topic more fascinating than “what do you like by Zappa”. There is something about constructively discussing which songs don’t work for you. And it’s great when someone else hates the song you love and yet you both still adore “Blessed Relief” (by example).

    My off-the-top-of-the-head list:

    1. No Not Now (or ever, really)
    2. Sex (always sounded like Spinal Tap imitating FZ)
    3. Any Downers (old 70’s live version – love the YAWYI version, too short in my opinion)
    4. Luigi…
    5. Jazz Discharge Party Hats (tasteless and hard on the ears)
    6. Wild Love (yes indeed, I remember back in high school I just didn’t get why the “perfect” Zappa album in my opinion could not have had a better song lead into “Yo Mama”. Sounds like Weird Al does Zappa.)
    7. Drafted, Jumbo, Husband, and even Teenage Wind from YAWYI. (great album that might have been better as a single disc)
    8. Conehead album version (I like it live).
    9. (The thankfully never officially released) Swallow My Pride
    10. Much of Broadway – Why Don’t You…, Jezebel…, in fact it is easier to write what I do like on this album.

    I’ve decided not to even count “Tengo…” as a song.

    Always loved Rubber Shirt, no problem with Enema Bandit except with smutty introductions to the song in some boots. The fact that my wife loves the song was surprising (and relieving). Radio is Broken makes me laugh. I like all of Lumpy Gravy. Nig Biz is one of my favorite songs, and I quite like Be In My Video even if it sounds almost exactly like Carol You Fool (also one of my favorite feel-good songs).

    I could get hyperbolic quickly, so I’ll stop here until I have something else worth contributing.

  10. Theydon Bois says:

    My least favourite Zappa tracks (not including the likes of “The Poodle Lecture” – does anybody actually rate that?) are those which consist wholly or largely of one idea (maybe two) repeated ad infinitum, endlessly hammering you over the head with their limited material. “I Don’t Even Care”, “No Not Now”, “Ya Hozna” and “Little Rubber Girl” are all in this camp. None of these is completely worthless – they each have some saving grace, be it an amusing lyric here, a nice performance from a member of the rockin’ teenage combo there – but they are essentially dull, not an adjective that I often have cause to associate with Zappa music. (I do like “Help, I’m A Rock”, though, so perhaps I’m a bit inconsistent.)

    Of the other songs that have been mentioned so far, “SEX” is definitely a lame dog of a song. Even by Zappa’s smutty standards, the lyrics never really rise above immature sniggering, while the music in the verses is mostly recycled from “Crew Slut”. The other Man From Utopia tracks that have been mentioned bother me less; admittedly, “Luigi And The Wise Guys” does appear to show off a less-than-flattering school-bully side of Zappa’s personality, but I can’t imagine that absurd lines like “You eat cheese and other things” would have bothered the victim unduly.

    I wouldn’t say that anything on Jazz From Hell is actually bad; its major problem (“Night School”, “G-Spot Tornado” and “St Etienne” aside) is that it’s often rather forgettable. And while it’s true that the Synclavier sounds are rather primitive compared to today’s electronic music, it would be a mistake to criticise the songs on that basis; after all, if you get too hung up over how dated and ineffective older records sound by modern standards, you end up doing stupid things like re-recording all the drum and bass tracks on some of your classic early albums, and nobody likes that.

    Some of the other choices that have been mentioned are wildly off-base, though. Lumpy Gravy is a definitive mission statement, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” is an entirely appropriate coda to the album (and to the recorded work of the original MOI), “Jelly Roll Gum Drop” is immense fun (the backing vocals remind me of Smiley Smile-era Beach Boys), and “Rubber Shirt” works three times over as an introduction to xenochrony, an oasis of relief in the middle of Sheik Yerbouti, and a nice O’Hearn showcase. Also, I think the original author may have missed the point of “Be In My Video”; it’s a parody of early-’80s Bowie, isn’t it, rather than hair metal? I find that song loads more fun than much of the live output of the ’84 band, which is odd considering that it’s almost exactly the same lineup.

    I’m sure there are others. I’ll come back to this.

  11. tim says:

    There are a lot of misses post-1976 or so for me.

    Tengo Na Minchia Tanta really kills the Uncle Meat re-release for me.

    Be In My Video is also awful.

    Ya Hozna. Blech.

    I’m not into his goofy parody songs like Disco Boy, Jewish Princess, Bobby Brown Goes Down, Dancin’ Fool, or Valley Girl either.

    Most of You Are What You Is. Doreen is the saving grace on that record.

    Most of Joe’s Garage (save for Outside Now and Watermelon). Sy Borg / Stick It Out in particular were much better with Flo and Eddie as part of the Sofa suite.

    Everything on Sheik Yerbouti except for City of Tiny Lites.

  12. Al Stone says:

    There are days when I would rate Lumpy Gravy as my favourite, and it rarely drops out of my top 5. The two tracks that are on my unfavourite list are Bobby Brown – notthing in it redeems the boring chord sequence for me – and Stevie’s Spanking. Apart from being one of the least subtle of Zappa’s musical offerings, I find the lyrics unnecessary. Zappa usually picks targets that deserve the treatment he gives them so why display Steve Vai in this way? Does he think he’s paying him a compliment?
    I used to find Jazz Discharge Party Hats and The Radio is Broken tedious until I started to appreciate Vai’s guitar overdubs and I like both tracks now.

  13. jonnybutter says: