Looking back at Frank Zappa’s magnum opus from 1974.
Frank Zappa’s highest charting album – somehow managing to get to number 10 in the US charts in 1974 – Apostrophe (‘) gets a welcome 40th anniversary vinyl re-release in a newly remastered edition. One of FZ’s most important albums, it’s also perhaps one of his most accessible to the newcomer, without at any point compromising on the unique Zappa sound.
Side one is mostly taken up with the Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow suite, a collection of four tracks that have a loose conceptual theme about eskimos and fur trappers. Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow tells the story of eskimo Nanook, listening to his mother’s warnings to “watch out where the huskies go and don’t you eat that yellow snow”, and the next three tracks all blend seamlessly into this – Nanook Rubs It sees Nanook confronting a fur trapper who is clubbing his favourite baby seal, rubbing the urine-soaked snow into his eyes and blinding him. The blinded trapper then heads to St Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast, where a man engages in all manner if illicit shenanigans, before employee Father O’Blivion makes way for a leprechaun who is masturbating into a sock and mutters about “sleazy pancakes”.
This suite doesn’t really comprise of a story as such, but it does flow as one musical piece, flitting between funky Zappa and complex Zappa, sometimes managing to be both at once. Zappa was always a better musician than he was often given credit for – the outrageous nature of his songs sometimes overwhelming the incredibly complex, jazz and classical influenced deconstruction of rock ‘n’ roll that he was so good at doing. This opening suite is classic Zappa – thematically weird, musically difficult and yet entirely listenable. It’s a sound that defies genre – it’s not even rock music much of the time, if we are honest. It’s somewhere between the underground, the experimental and the ‘strictly commercial’, a sound pretty much unique to the man and at its best – as it is here – genuinely enthralling.
Side one finishes with the bluesy, funky stoner classic Cosmik Debris. It’s tracks like this, with it’s incessant groove and Zappa’s deep, sleazy vocals, that make you understand why he was so beloved of bikers, hippies and stoners, even though of course he had complete disdain for drugs and hippies (his tolerance for bikers seems to have been a little bit bigger). Despite the lack of hallucinogenics in his system, Zappa seemed able to plug into the same zeitgeist that brought us the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and the like – and Cosmik Debris certainly feels like it belongs on the soundtrack to Fritz the Cat or something.
Side two has a mix of Zappa styles. Excentrifugal Forz might be the weakest thing here, a brief (under two minutes) piece of freneticism that doesn’t gel as well as the rest of the LP. The title track is a heavy jam with Jack Bruce and drummer Jim Gordon, and allows Zappa to break loose with his amazing psychedelic guitar solos in a piece that is both free-form and carefully structured (Zappa would cut and paste live jams like this, over-dubbing and editing until they became entirely new and coherent pieces).
Uncle Remus is a satirical look at racial conflict that is darkly amusing and catchy, while album closer Stink Foot sees Zappa’s sometimes scatological, sometimes bad taste humour come to the fore in a track about the horrors of foot odour. In any other hans, this could almost be comedy music, and there’s comedy running throughout certainly – but for all the humour of the lyrics, the music is potent and powerful.
This new edition of the album sounds fantastic – the stereo mix is gorgeous and all-eveloping, and the record has a genuine warmth to the sound. This is a great example of why vinyl really is the best way of hearing music – it has that indefinable something to the sound that is missing from CD versions. Of course, the 180 gram vinyl itself is flawless and the remastered version makes the record sound as fresh as I assume it did forty years ago. And that’s the most remarkable thing about this album. It might be an indictment of how bland so much music has become these days as much as it is praise of Zappa’s art, but this still sounds unlike anything else out there. It still feels experimental, challenging, fresh. In a world of safe indie bands who think they are being edgy and avant garde by having a challenging haircut, artful tunelessness and a discordant singer, Zappa’s work actually feels more vital, more edgy than it did when I first began to listen to it in the early 1980s. People looking to produce genuinely original, tripped out, groovy and challenging music could do much worse than to look here for pointers (though for crying out loud, don’t copy it!). That this once spoke to a mass audience seems incomprehensible now, and that’s a sad thing to say.
The music world is a poorer place for the absence of artists as inventive as Zappa, and albums as remarkable as this one. If you don’t already own this on vinyl (or if your original copy is simply worn down through excessive play), you need this.