by Rachel Brame –
Hot Rats is the kind of album you can play at full blast with the television on mute and just enjoy the ride. While Frank Zappa’s time with the Mothers produced a signature novelty sound, his breakout album in 1969 (just in time for Halloween) is truly epic due to its solid performance of raw genre-bending jazz-rock fusion. It makes total sense to me now why he looks like a zombie emerging from an empty pool on the front cover. Released through both Bizarre and Reprise Records, Hot Rats is just over 42 minutes of seamlessly flowing upbeat tunes packed into 6 tracks. Exempting Captain Beefheart’s spot on Howlin’ Wolf imitation on “Willie The Pimp” (it really is uncanny), the entire rest of the album is purely instrumental. Zappa’s notoriously weird twist on every song’s orchestration IS HIS THING, and on this one he really hit the mark!
Although this is, technically speaking, Frank Zappa’s first solo release without a formal back-up band, he did recruit a few notable musicians to come along for the ride. Shuggy Otis helps open Hot Rats beautiful odyssey playing bass on “Peaches En Regalia”, with Ron Selico masterfully blasting away on drums. “Willie The Pimp” switches up with John Guerin on drums and virtuoso Max Bennett on bass. The remarkably eerie violin riff that distinguishes this song from all the rest is by the infamous Sugar Cane Harris. “Son Of Mr. Green Genes” combines the forces of Bennett and drummer Paul Humphrey on this almost 9 minute jam out. Zappa breaks into dazzling guitar solos on more than one occasion showing off his skill and breadth of ability. “Gumbo Variations” includes the same cast of characters but also brings back Sugar Cane Harris back into the mix for this grand 12:55 minute pièce de résistance. “Little Umbrellas” and “It Must Be A Camel” include Guerin on drums and features Jean-Luc Ponty’s exquisite violin talent on the final track.
After reading Zappa’s autobiography I found it interesting that although he was such an outsider to regular radio play or the ‘usual’ rock scene he still looked toward commercial charts as a measure of success. “The album, which I happened to like a lot, sneaked onto the Billboard charts somewhere around 99 and vanished immediately. In the United States, at least, I had produced another flop”.1 It’s not too common for artists to be really satisfied with their work, but I think it’s totally justified to be proud of this album. Oh, how time can change opinions! Based on Hot Rats ratings now it goes down as one of his greatest masterpieces.
- Zappa, Frank and Occhiogrosso, Peter.The Real Frank Zappa Book. New York: Poseidon, 1989, 109.