When Frank Zappa released Hot Rats in 1969 a number of people didn’t know what to make of it.
Despite the fact he’d never really been a mainstream act Zappa’s first solo album took fans places he’d never really gone with his much-loved Mothers of Invention.
The almost exclusively instrumental album earned high praise for Zappa for its highly innovative and conceptual nature, its orchestration, its use of what was then new technology and for Zappa’s masterful guitar work.
Fifty years after the release of that groundbreaking set Zappa’s record label has decided to mark the anniversary by putting together a massive boxed set.
The original Hot Rats release, self-described as a “movie for your ears,” had a running length of slightly more than 40 minutes. The commemorative release, The Hot Rats Sessions, contains no less than six discs.
Packed into those six discs are unreleased basic tracks, rare and unedited mixes, work mixes and what his label describes as relevant nuggets from Zappa’s vault.
Included in the box as well are never-before-seen photos from the Hot Rats recording sessions and the photo shoot that yielded the Hot Rats cover.
There’s even a unique Zappa Land board game in which fans are tasked with helping Frank get back to the studio to finish Hot Rats. Never saw that coming.
Hot Rats is considered a milestone record for Zappa because what he did with tracks like “Peaches En Regalia”, “Son of Mr. Green Genes”, “The Gumbo Variations” and “Little Umbrellas” helped define what we came to call jazz-rock fusion.
Through the additional tracks that make up this set you truly get a sense of how Zappa’s mind worked in the studio and what he was willing to try to achieve the sound he wanted. This collection documents and compiles every composition recorded during several days in July 1969 when Zappa recorded Hot Rats and a wealth of other material that ended up being used throughout multiple releases during his lifetime.
Hot Rats was composed, arranged, and produced by Zappa who played guitar on all tracks and delivered extraordinary solos throughout.
The fifth and sixth discs of The Hot Rats Sessions presents the original Hot Rats album with Zappa’s 1987 digital re-mix along with an assortment of extras such as vintage promotional audio ads for the album, the mono singles of “Peaches En Regalia” and “Little Umbrellas” and rare mixes of more than a dozen tracks.
The Hot Rats Sessions is rife with unreleased session material and also includes the first-ever official release of “Bognor Regis,” and several unedited masters of songs like “Twenty Small Cigars,” “Toads Of The Short Forest,” “Lil’ Clanton Shuffle” and “Directly From My Heart To You.”
One of the best-selling albums of his career, the six-song record was made up of five instrumentals, and one non-instrumental, the blues rocker “Willie The Pimp”, which was sung by frequent Zappa collaborator Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart.
Zappa was joined in the studio by an impressive line-up of musicians that included multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, violinists Don “Sugarcane” Harris and Jean Luc Ponty, bassist Max Bennett, drummers Jon Guerin, Paul Humphrey and Ron Selico, R&B pioneer Johnny Otis and his 15-year-old son, Shuggie Otis.
The material here was mixed from the original multi-track master tapes by Craig Parker Adams and mastered last year by Bob Ludwig.
The liner notes include essays by Zappa collaborator Ian Underwood and Vaultmeister Travers and an appreciation from “The Simpsons” creator and lifelong Zappa fan, Matt Groening, who recounts his first time listening to Hot Rats as a teenager:
“From the opening moments of that unforgettable drum fill, I was transported. The kaleidoscopic, calliopean, dare-I-say-callipygian, mini-masterpiece ‘Peaches En Regalia’ elevated my scrawny body into the air, spun me around like a propeller beanie, and melted my brain.”
Listening to Hot Rats today I am even more amazed that this record came out 50 years ago.
Zappa was a genius. There can be no doubt of that.
(Rating 4 out of 5 stars)
Doug Gallant is a freelance writer and well-known connoisseur of a wide variety of music. His On Track column will appear in The Guardian every second Saturday. To comment on what he has to say or to offer suggestions for future reviews, email him at email@example.com.