Best Zappa Live Albums

Carole Stephens
• Thursday, 31 December, 2020
• 8 min read

With so much music to choose from, getting started on your journey through the world of Frank Zappa can no doubt be a daunting task. Regardless of this, the record was one of Zappa’s most popular and features one of the strongest gatherings of musicians ever assembled by Frank.

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Featured on this album are the hits “Wind Up Working’ In A Gas Station,” “Disco Boy” and the fan favorite and live staple “The Torture Never Stops.” From the opening track, “Hungry Freaks, Father” to the Watts Riot-inspired “Trouble Every Day,” this debut record from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention is one of the biggest game-changing albums out there.

The music video of the title track was banned from MTV for depicting President Ronald Reagan strapped into an electric chair. The album touches on everything from religion (“The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” “Dumb All Over,” “Heavenly Bank Account”) to infidelity (“Harder Than Your Husband”) and even Deadheads (“Teenage Wind”), as well as the Halloween hit, “Goblin Girl.” This is some of the very best of eighties-era Zappa and exemplifies the lyrical and intellectual prowess of the late creative genius.

Hot Rats was Zappa’s second solo effort and proved to be one of his most celebrated musical works. The album is a jazz fusion masterpiece and features one of Zappa’s most well-renowned instrumentals, “Peaches en Regalia.” Hot Rats is jam-packed with horns, reeds, organ, bass, drums, percussion, flutes, saxophones, clarinets, tape speed manipulation, bizarre sound effects and extended guitar jams.

Captain Beef heart takes the lead vocal on “Willie The Pimp,” which also features Don “Sugarcane” Harris on violin. Songs such as “Who Needs The Peace Corps?”, “Concentration Moon”, “Absolutely Free” and “Flower Punk” unmercifully tear into what Frank saw as the shallow absurdities of the hippie counterculture.

Frank takes aim at the parents and authority figures of sixties America on tracks like “Mom & Dad”, “Bow Tie Father”, and “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?”. With brilliantly hilarious satire, expert musicianship, mind-bending arrangements and incredibly advanced recording techniques, We’re Only In It Forth Money is by far one of the most important albums of the late sixties.

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This was also one of the greatest lineups that Frank has ever pulled together, live on stage, and if you close your eyes while listening, you’ll feel like you’re front and center. The young and extremely charismatic drummer Terry Ozzie delivers some of the albums most memorable moments.

Never to be outdone of course, is Frank’s face-melting guitar work on songs like “Cruising’ For Burgers” and “Pound For A Brown.” The explicitly hilarious, “Honey Don’t You Want A Man Like Me” was a live staple at the time and is one of the high points on the record as well. This was Zappa in his prime and features the exceedingly intricate fan favorite, “Inca Roads”, as well as the singles “San BER’Dino” and “Sofa No.1 & 2.” The band lineup includes some of the most prominent members of the Zappa alumni: George Duke (keyboards, vocals), Napoleon Murphy Brock (flute, tenor saxophone, vocals), Tim Fowler (bass) and Ruth Underwood (vibraphone, marimba, percussion).

“Pajama People,” “Florentine Po gen” and “Andy” also are highlights on this phenomenal record, and are among some of the greatest songs of the entire Zappa catalog. This highly-renowned rock classic offered up the first charting single of his career, “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.” The song was in conjunction with the subsequent tracks, “Nanook Rubs It,” “St.

Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” and “Father O’Oblivion,” however the radio edit of “Yellow Snow” was the official single. Also in attendance is the well-known “Cosmic Debris” as well as the standout track, “Uncle Remus,” which sheds light upon racial tensions in America.

Recorded during the same sessions as Apostrophe, this progressive masterpiece was the launch of Zappa’s commercial years. With hits like “Camarillo Brillo,” “I’m The Slime,” “Dirty Love,” “Zomba Woof,” “Montana” and the obscenely sexually-charged fan-favorite, “Dinah-Moe-Humm,” this record is brimming with classics of the 1970s.

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No doubt a controversial record, the subject predominantly focuses on themes of a sexual nature. Meanwhile, songs like “I’m The Slime” take aim at the addictive nature of television; “a tool of the government and industry” as Frank puts it.

“Echidna’s ARF (Of You)” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing” are arguably two of the most elaborate instrumentals in rock history. Percussionist Ruth Underwood’s work on the xylophones, marimbas and vibraphones is some of the best you’ll ever hear, while the vocal styling of Napoleon Murphy Brock are some of the strongest of his career.

Other notable songs are the kinky “Penguin In Bondage” and the autobiographical anthem “Village Of The Sun.” Roxy & Elsewhere offers up the best of the best. From disco and cocaine (“Dancing’ Fool”) to sex and S&M (“Bobby Brown Goes Down”/“Broken Hearts Are For Assholes”), Zappa saw right through the trends of the 70s just as he did during the previous decade.

Peter Brampton is mocked on the opening track “I Have Been In You” and even Bob Dylan takes a hit on the following song “Flakes.” It seems no one is safe. Whether it be the fiery performance of “Train’ To Grow A Chin,“ the politically incorrect hilarity of “Jewish Princess” or the silly and suggestive “Wild Love,” Sheik Djibouti gives the fans everything you’d want from a Zappa record.

The title track is one of Zappa’s most famous tunes, along with the popular fan-favorites “Catholic Girls,” “Crew Slut,” “Fem bot In A Wet T-Shirt,” “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee” and the guitar instrumental “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” which is famously known as one of Zappa’s greatest solos. From the musical diversity and density to the satirical humor and masterful guitar wizardry, Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III showcases the very best of Frank Zappa.

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Zappa continued to challenge his audience over the years, subverting their expectations at every turn, gleefully playing the role of square peg in a round-hole music industry he loathed throughout his career. There are no bad Zappa albums, but it doesn’t follow that just because you enjoy the fusion of Hot Rats you will necessarily want to wade through his complex and impenetrable syn clavier compositions which occupied his latter years.

Zappa’s mid-70s masterpiece, the rebirth of the Mothers, with fine cameo appearances from Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Captain Beef heart (credited for contractual reasons). It’s almost a continuation of the work he started on Hot Rats ; largely instrumental, with a heavy emphasis on brass and Zappa’s flowing guitar, it’s as close as he ever came to creating a straight jazz-rock album.

It was also one of the best bands Zappa ever worked with and included trumpeter Sal Marquez and George Duke on keyboards. Foot Allures is a pretty stripped-down, straight-ahead rock album, flawed but with some amazing high points like the sensuous The Torture Never Stops and the guitar instrumentals Black Napkins and the title track.

There’s a lot of mediocre parody, like opener Wind Up Working In A Gas Station and the blast at the Travolta craze of the time, Disco Boy. Foot Allures certainly isn’t essential Zappa, but it is one of his most accessible for those from a rock background coming to his music for the first time.

This marvelous, albeit short, album is the first steps towards the accessibility of Apostrophe (’) and One Size Fits All, and again showcases the musical talent he assembled for Grand Wazoo and Aka/Jataka. Zappa’s first proper solo album, Hot Rats was a clean break from the cut-ups and sneering comedy of the Mothers.

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Oddly, this was Zappa’s most commercially successful album (it was his first gold-selling disc), largely thanks to the freakish hit Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow. With guest appearances from fusion legend Jean Luck Pony and ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce, it’s a hard rock album that presents the listener with only a modicum of challenge, and includes some of his most memorable songs like the snaky and soulful Cosmic Debris and the comic-prog of St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast.

It’s actually hard to separate one solo from another, and in the end the whole thing just sounds like two-and-a-half hours of somebody noodling away aimlessly. Zappa and The Mothers also made some excellent live albums, the best of which are Fillmore East June 1971, Just Another Band From LA and Broadway The Hard Way.

Zappa’s work in the 80s is best represented by 1982’s Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (which spawned his biggest-selling single, Valley Girl (and the already mentioned The Man From Utopia, his last really great ‘conventional’ rock studio album). Zappa may have despised the rock business, but he made some incredible hard rock, starting with the Satisfaction -like riff of Trouble Coming Every Day from Freak Out, and including the likes of the acidic blues jam Willy The Pimp from Hot Rats, and I’m The Slime from Overwrite Sensation.

His work is characterized by nonconformity, free-form improvisation, sound experiments, musical virtuosity, and satire of American culture. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestral and musique concrète works, and produced almost all the 60-plus albums that he released with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist.

Zappa also directed feature-length films and music videos and designed album covers. He is considered one of the most innovative and stylistically diverse rock musicians of his era. As a self-taught composer and performer, Zappa’s diverse musical influences led him to create music that was sometimes difficult to categorize.

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While in his teens, he acquired a taste for 20th-century classical modernism, African-American rhythm and blues, and dewdrop music. He began writing classical music in high school, while at the same time playing drums in rhythm and blues bands, later switching to electric guitar.

His 1966 debut album with the Mothers of Invention, Freak Out!, combined songs in conventional rock and roll format with collective improvisations and studio-generated sound collages. He continued this eclectic and experimental approach whether the fundamental format was rock, jazz, or classical.

It’s got a hysterical blend of jazz fusion and kick ass guitar solo’s. Eat That Question is probably my favorite song on this album, the guitar solo is amazing.

Frank gave the world what he created as a creator of art trough music, and he loved doing it, and he managed to make a living from what he loved doing, I can hear that in his music, don’t we all wish we could go to work and produce something we enjoyed doing and make a living at it? He was able to do this without betraying his ideas in the name of profit, Frank was a man that evolved as a human being and wrote music for people that had and have a higher standard rather than settle for a temporary trend.

It was a nice album along with Act I to fill a cold January in my dorm room alone during my Sophomore year after my roommate moved out. Some songs in this are okay, Watermelon has a nice guitar solo and of course there’s the catchy yet so awful Green Rosetta that is the bane of every Zappa fan’s existence.

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Haven’t the listening experience to say whether this is an album that belongs in everybody’s collection, but to Zappa fans, it is.” “Frank Zappa’s third album, the sardonically titled We’re Only in It for the Money, is a near-perfect satire of hippies and 1967’s commercialized Summer of Love.

“I’m the Slime,” “Fifty-Fifty” and “Zomba Wolf” are not among my favorite Zappa songs, but neither are any of them bad, I just find myself skipping them to get to the three songs I absolutely love (after Camarillo Brillo): Dirty Love (“poodle bites (‘come on Frenchy’) poodle chews it”), Dinal-Moe Hum (“she looked over at me with a glazed eye, and some bovine perspiration on her upper lip area”), and Montana (“I’m moving to Montana soon, going to be a dental floss tycoon”). This is where we meet the fur trapper who unwisely decided to have the audacity to smack Nanook’s favorite baby seal around with a lead filled snowshoe.

A brilliantly executed album: this is the one that introduced me to the music of Frank Zappa. John & Yoko sat in with Frank and The Mothers at the Fillmore East, and it was captured on tape.

But then one day in January 1974 I bought the Frank Zappa single “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” with “Cosmic Debris” on the flip side. “For some reason One Size Fits All doesn’t get as much attention as many other Zappa albums, but it might be his greatest studio album.

Mostly instrumental, it opens with the gorgeous Peaches En Regalia then comes Willie The Pimp featuring Captain Beef heart on vocals and a jaw dropping Zappa guitar solo. The Gumbo Variations features wild solos from Ian Underwood (sax) and Sugarcane Harris (violin).

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