Record of the Day: Joe’s Garage by Frank Zappa
Release year: 1979
Joe’s Garage is a rock opera, I guess, about a guy who starts a band, get’s dumped by his girlfriend, get’s venereal disease, gives all of his money to the Church of Appliantology (led by L. Ron Hoover), gets thrown into jail for having aggressive adult relations with an appliance and, upon his release, goes insane dreaming imaginary guitar solos in a world where music has been outlawed. Pretty standard story, really. Along the way, though, we get to hear Zappa at his least inspired. The melodic ideas on this album are simple and the level of song writing creativity that we’ve been used to for 15 years is starting to get stale. It’s as if, at this point, Zappa believed the hype surrounding him and figured anything he did was brilliant.
Many people cite this as one of his finest albums but after today’s listen, I don’t even rank it as his best album from 1979. There’s some great work on here and the musicianship is astounding. Any doubt that Vinnie Colaiuta is one of the best drummers of all time should be quickly put to rest after hearing his work on this record and the overall production is top notch, Zappa being an early advocate for digital recording, but the songs are simple, by Zappa standards, and the lyrics are almost defiantly bad. Furthermore, this “rock opera” doesn’t stand on the legs of the music requiring a narrator (the Central Scrutinizer) to tell the story of Joe because, with few exceptions, the songs are only loosely aligned with any type of narrative. The Central Scrutinizer, which is just Zappa whispering through a megaphone, ends up talking over intros and outros of several songs, like a radio DJ, and damaging your ability to listen to some of these songs separate from the album.
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There are a ton of great moments, though, mixed into this album. Catholic Girls is a terribly offensive “satire” set to a catchy tune and great groove and Token of My Extreme is one of my favorite Zappa “hooks” that devolves into nonsense. A lot of the music presented on this album shows that Zappa was capable of making great, commercial recordings ready for mass consumption but had no idea how to write a PG13 lyric. In the old days, when his music challenged the listener on an aural level, he said the words were meaningless and he chose stupid, juvenile lyrics to attract people to complex and challenging musical ideas but in a rock opera the words are actually the focal point and, in this case, they fall short of their satirical intent and sound more like a sophomoric attempt to piss off your parents.
Couple that with the nearly 20 minutes of repetitive reggae groove, absent of real melody (Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up, SyBorg), and you’ve got an album that is very difficult to sit through without ever hitting the skip button (which is a requirement I’ve made for myself for this series of blogs). The highlight comes at the end of this record in an instrumental titled Watermelon in Easter Hay. Here our protagonist imagines one final guitar solo and it just happens to be one of the finest pieces of guitar work Zappa ever committed to tape, the only guitar solo recorded in studio (all the other solos were taken from live recordings and superimposed onto the studio songs, and a fine example of 9/4 meter in rock and roll. Zappa himself claims this track as the best song on the album, Dweezil Zappa claims it’s the best solo his father ever recorded and countless reviewers have claimed it as Zappa’s masterpiece.
I for one think it is all of those things. Of all Zappa’s great solos, this seems to be the most orchestrated, emotional, and melodic and really shows the new listener everything Zappa is capable of when he’s truly inspired. Much of this album will lead you to believe that Zappa was a drug addicted musician (he was actually very much anti-drug), a misogynist (the jury’s still out on that one), a bigot (jury is deliberating) or an adolescent satirist (much of his work before and after proves the power of his satirical wit) but Watermelon in Easter Hay proves that, more than anything, Zappa was a brilliant musician, guitarist and composer and at the top of his game, unmatched.
Joe’s Garage is essential listening for Zappa fans but I wouldn’t list this among the 10 or 15 albums a new or aspiring Zappa fan should pick up, those albums will be reviewed at a later date. For now, enjoy some Watermelon.