So I’m guessing that when Frank was working on Captain Beefheart’s magnum opus, Hot Rats was the album that he was working on for himself.
I don’t pretend to know squat about Zappa beyond what I read in his autobiography and what I learned from Sheik Yerbouti. As a friend once told me, “Every town has a big fan of Frank Zappa.” And I’ve discovered that he was right on. So to anyone who knows their shit about Zappa and is reading this, I’d like to apologize for the assumptions here. Feed us the real story in the comments.
It appears that Zappa is really earning his chops as a guitarist here, and Hot Rats displays his notable talents in supreme fashion. You start to hear bits of an individualized tone crop up within the grooves, particularly on the mindblowing solo for “Willy The Pimp.”
There’s a sense of his compositional sense showing fruit on Hot Rats, particularly on “Son Of Mr. Green Genes” where horns, jazzy keys and, yes, more ridiculous guitar solos to make more ridiculous Zappaphiles.
Fair warning, there are clarinets, but the fact that I can appreciate them while otherwise despising that instrument is noteworthy.
It works because everything here has been rehearsed to death, tweaking every performance to ebb and flow to allow listeners the ability to grasp at just how good Zappa was at finding top-notch performers, and then finding more of them when the first ones moved out of the line-up.
About 10 years ago, I started hedging towards the Zappa catalog tentatively, asking friends who seemed to be long in the tooth with his work where to begin. I started throwing out albums that struck me with just their cover art, records that grabbed me visually whenever I came across them in someone else’s collection.
Hot Rats fits that category, and I remember the response that it was an instrumental work caused me to move somewhere else. I wish I hadn’t done that now. There is so much being said within those notes of Hot Rats that it makes a claim for repeated listening, ones where those fortunate enough to be a part of it will find new discoveries and chart the record as a period of great heights for the man.
The drag isn’t that those Zappaphiles were on to something beyond what the rest of us would understand. Instead, it's that we squandered the all of that time we could have been listening right along with them.