Classic Albums: Frank Zappa – ‘Apostrophe (‘) / Over-Nite Sensation’

Frank Zappa - ApostropheSynopsis: “Overnite Sensation” (1973) and “Apostrophe(‘)” (1974) encapsulate the extraordinary musical diversity of Frank Zappa and were also the two most commercially successful albums that he released. This Classic Albums release uses interviews, musical demonstrations, rare archive and home movie footage plus live performances to tell the story behind the conception and recording of these groundbreaking albums. There are contributions from Frank’s wife Gail, his children Dweezil, Moon and Ahmet and friends and colleagues including Billy Bob Thornton, Alice Cooper, Steve Vai and Warren Cucurullo plus new performances of some of the classic tracks from these albums by Zappa Plays Zappa.

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Classic Albums: Frank Zappa – ‘Apostrophe (‘) / Over-Nite Sensation’ ?
eyelights: the raw genius on display.
eyesores: the inaccessibility of the music.

“To me, absurdity is the only reality.” – Frank Zappa

I honestly don’t get Frank Zappa. I don’t hate his music one bit. I just don’t get it. It leaves me barely befuddled, mostly just vacant, incapable of comprehending what’s just happened. I was first introduced to his music via a friend back in high school. She made me a tape, which I tried to listen to a few times but couldn’t get through with any sort of ease.

Over the years, I remained puzzled by the sheer amount of stock some stores had on their shelves. And the variety, too – as they were largely all different titles. They didn’t go cheap, and I always wondered who bought so much of the stuff that stores would hold five to ten times more Zappa than any other artist. Surely it wasn’t just to fill the Z section.

In any case, I largely avoided that part the stores, feeling no motivation to explore his discography, and never bothered with Zappa again.

For Christmas 2014, one of my best friends gave me ‘Apostrophe (‘)/Over-Nite Sensation’ from the Classic Albums series. The Classic Albums series consists of hour-long programmes (including commercials) that each focus on the making of a  specific iconic album. It’s entirely produced with the involvement of the musicians and other participants.

The DVD version of these programmes are often slightly longer, featuring material not in the broadcast version, and usually serve up a wealth of bonus material on top of that. For fans of these artists and/or albums it’s a nice look at what took place behind the scenes. Sometimes the content is familiar to die-hard fans, but not to casual fans and the merely curious.

I watched this programme as a nearly blank canvas: I knew very little about Zappa’s music, and knew even less about the man (aside for his peculiar choices of names for his children). So I can only report what I picked up from the documentary, and can make no other assertions of my own. Heck, I haven’t even heard the albums being discussed here.

That’s not to say that the music doesn’t feature greatly in this Classic Albums episode. In fact, his music seems omnipresent – if not in the form of live footage, then at a mixing desk with his son, Dweezil, at the helm, discussing the particularities of each track being presented. There are also clips from some of his (oft-innovative) music videos to boot.

Yes, there is a lot of Frank Zappa to be heard over the course of this hour!

Zappa (who died of cancer at the age of 52 in 1993) also shows up in the form of archival interview footage, on top of the various live performances. He comes off as an extremely intelligent and articulate man, even if his music is mostly inaccessible to the masses and his ideas can easily be considered abstract, absurd and/or a bit goofy.

I was particularly impressed to hear that he wrote music all the time, and on sheet music no less, composed specifically for the members of his band, and even conducted orchestras. As well, he was a business-savvy archivist, who owned all his master tapes and recorded just about everything that he did, resulting an astonishingly huge vault of material.

The documentary was very interesting, but it was obviously made for people already familiar with both albums: it was impossible to distinguish one album from the other even though they were released on different years (1973 and 1974). Granted, they were recorded with much of the same musicians, but having some context would have been helpful.

In fact, the filmmakers don’t even bother to situate the recording sessions or the albums’ releases in time; we only know it’s the ’70s because of the bad clothes and hair. To make matters worse, the title of the programme is misleading because ‘Apostrophe (‘)’ was released after ‘Over-Nite Sensation’. Non-fans are left unilluminated here.

It’s also a challenge for the casual observer because much of the documentary is so technical that one has to be a musician or an engineer to appreciate what is being discussed – especially when Dweezil and his associate are in the studio dissecting tracks at the console. But at least they a few stories to share, like when Zappa recorded with Tina Turner.

Aside from Dweezil and the rest of his family, this episode of Classic Albums features many/all (it’s left unclear) of the musicians who recorded the albums with Zappa. There are also other collaborators and celebrity fans, such as Steve Vai, Billy Bob Thornton and Warren Cuccurullo (of Duran Duran fame, but who also worked with Zappa in the late ’70s).

Most of the interview material from the participants consists of flattery, naturally, with Zappa’s genius being painted in large letters for all to see; there weren’t any negative aspects to the man, apparently. They also talked about the musical ability of his band, but it was cautiously added that Zappa had to be talented as well in order to earn their respect.

All in all, it left me curious about Frank Zappa. And, thankfully, the DVD had a wealth of other featurettes on it:

  • Dirty Love: Dweezil picks this ‘Over-Nite Sensation’ song apart at the mixing desk. I’m not sure what they were analyzing, going through the different tracks, but there you have it. Fans might get this, but I sure didn’t.
  • Montana (Live at the Roxy in 1973): This is a nearly full performance (it fades out at the end) of the ‘Over-Nite Sensation’ track with split screens to cover more of the action. They sounded really tight, and I was surprised to see that they had two drummers – plus a percussionist!
  • Nanook Rubs It: This is an outtake of the ‘Apostrophe (‘)’ track with Dweezil at the mixing board.
  • Camarillo Brillo: Also from ‘Over-Nite Sensation’ this shows Dweezil playing it on a set with his own band (which includes Steve Vai) in 2006. It sounded good to me, but what the heck do I know?
  • Transduce the Marimba: Ruth Underwood, Zappa’ percussionist at the time, talks about him making her marimba electric so that they could record it. He not only succeeded, but he managed to even make it play in Quadraphonic Sound!
  • Welcome to the Vault: In this short segment, we visit the Zappa archives, which are shelves full of tapes, audio and video, both analog and digital. We are shown the tapes to some of the classic numbers, and told how much of this has not been heard yet.
  • Dinah-Moe Humm: Again revisiting a track from ‘Over-Nite Sensation’, Dweezil tries to find where the so-called “hum” on the track comes from. As he and the engineer listen to the master tapes on the mixing board, they find bits that are not on the album. Nice.
  • I’m the Slime: This is a performance that Zappa did on SNL in 1976, using a blackboard as a prop and featuring a TV leaking ooze above the audience. And, yes, this is from ‘Over-Nite Sensation’ as well.

In the end, let’s just say that I respect the man, even if I don’t understand the music. I love that he didn’t do drugs, and neither did his band, and yet he was able to be not just creative, but prolific, and prolific in a way that simply couldn’t be categorized; he didn’t follow conventions but got all his inspiration from inside and was damned good at what he did.

‘Over-Nite Sensation’ is when Zappa finally captured his audience, but ‘Apostrophe (‘)’ remains his biggest seller to date; they are natural inclusions in this documentary series on iconic albums. However, this programme could have been more accessible, if only because the music really isn’t, and that makes more than one bridge for the uninitiated to cross.

That’s a difficult prospect for even the most daring and open-minded audience.

Date of viewing: April 10, 2015

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