Hot Rats

‘I’m a little pimp with my hair gassed back/Pair a khaki pants with my shoe shined black…’

I was too young really when I bought this very grown up album to understand exactly what a pimp was. I missed the clues about the little lady who walked that street and there were still a few years to go before Harvey Keitel and an uncomfortably young Jodie Foster would make it all transparent in Taxi Driver.

However, I did appreciate that 'Willie the Pimp' was a bit of an unsavoury character, that the vocals by Captain Beefheart were like nothing I'd ever heard before and that Frank Zappa's extended guitar solo with its emphasis on the wah-wah pedal was thrilling enough for me to get out the Slazenger Les Paul, 'plug' it into an old 1950s fan heater and play-along-a-Frank. Which became one of the most mortifying moments of my teenage years when my mother came into the room mid-solo. I remember feeling it necessary to explain what I was doing and probably not managing with any coherence.

My mother didn't like Frank anyway. His Rasputin-like features adorned the walls of my bedroom and she thought that he, like Roger Daltrey before him, was the Devil incarnate. It probably alleviated the situation slightly when I explained that he was Jewish – like Saul Bellow, her favourite novelist, and like all those millions of people persecuted by the Nazis and others throughout history – and that he was a family man. I don't think I bothered to reveal that he called his children Moon Unit and Dweezil, if I remember correctly. Gee, thanks Dad.

It wouldn't have made any impression if I'd told her that his music was some of the most literate of the time. There weren't many poking fun at flower children and writing about the thought-police in those heady days, and there weren't many capable of composing something as multi-layered and as richly melodic as 'Peaches en Regalia', the track that kicks off the album with a drum roll and an unforgettable bang. His music would probably have come under the same category as my simulated guitar playing, an 'awful racquet'.

But 'Peaches en Regalia' was the kind of song that I would have wanted to try out on the unconverted – parents, even grandparents. Which just goes to show how naive one can be in your mid-teens. Yet it did have an instantly recognisable tune and, like 'Son of Mr. Green Genes', the track that sandwiches 'Willie The Pimp' on the brilliant first side, it seemed to be orchestral in a way that older generations' ears might recognise, even though it used few of the instruments they would have recognised as 'classical'. My father seemed to quite like it, in any case, though he didn't stay on to listen to 'Willie The Pimp'.

'This movie for your ears was produced & directed by Frank Zappa' the credits proclaim and I knew enough to recognise that Zappa was not simply a great guitar-player, but a kind of presiding genius and creative consultant in the manner of later heroes like Charles Mingus and Gil Evans. I probably didn't recognise, however, just how important a role Ian Underwood played in providing many of the exotic sounds that were assembled into Zappa's aural movie: piano, organus maximus (whatever that was), flute, clarinets and saxes. Ian and his wife, Ruth, were both regulars in The Mothers of Invention and both, I believe, were trained as jazz musicians.![](upload://eOwCtPnG5RwSTEQomXAMXwpiaku.jpg)

As indeed were several of the other luminaries that Zappa employed on Hot Rats. People like the bass player, Max Bennett, and the French violinist, Jean-Luc Ponty, whose King Kong I would investigate soon after. The jazz element is particularly pronounced on the second side.

It would have been very hard to come up with something as good as the dazzling first side, and the second side is, I suppose, a slight disappointment. The two jazzier numbers, 'Little Umbrellas' and 'It Must be a Camel', are just fine and can live happily with 'Son of Mr. Green Genes', but 'The Gumbo Variations' do go on rather. They also feature to an excessive degree the shrill violin of Don 'Sugarcane' Harris, one half of the Californian rock 'n' roll act, Don and Dewey. Even though I was a fan of bands at the time that featured the electric violin, like Curved Air and It's A Beautiful Day, all that string-scratching was and is too much for my tender ears.

Still. One weaker track would not debar Hot Rats from the Hall of Fame. It is generally considered as Zappa's masterpiece and, while his brooding hirsute features no longer grace my bedroom wall, the album has never figuratively left my side. Apart from the quality of the music itself, one reason I think why it had such a huge impact on impressionable mini-me was simply the fact that it was – apart from the Captain's banshee yips and squawks on 'Willie The Pimp' – an instrumental album. Groovy music didn't have to have words. So, in that respect alone, the album opened up my gates of perception. Once opened, I would stumble my way into the secret garden of Jay-azz.

Hot Rats came out on Zappa's own Bizarre label, part of the Warner Seven Arts conglomerate. The bizarre thing is that I have never even heard the album's supposed follow-up, Waka Jawaka. I think that Zappa's visual movie, 200 Motels, and its deeply disappointing double soundtrack album, made me tread more warily when it came to our Francis Vincent Zappa. I sold the album to Peter Metcalfe from my A-level English class. I hope he found something more to enjoy in it than I did.

Hmm. Fascinating dialogue, chaps. I loved your tale of the ex-Crazy World drummer, Peter. And Brian, I'm dead jealous of those great bluesmen you witnessed. Me, I saw Otis Rush and Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown at the Hague and Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson at the jazz & blues club in Brighton. God I was awe-struck! Eddie Vinson in particular was marvellous. Someone in the audience presented him with a bottle of whisky, which probably made his voice crack all the more. Listen to 'Cherry Red' and you'll know what I mean about his unique vocal gimmick. By the way, I bought an album by the Tedeschi-Trucks Band thinking at first that it was some automotive in-house band. They're very good. Slightly Little Featish without the dirt and the grease.
Chris, I entirely agree with you about Joe Bonamassa. I was disappointed for that precise reason: no chuffin' soul! Bon weekend à tous.

Susan Tedeschi is really good. I know I threw a lot of black names at you but the white people are terrific as well. I saw Johnny and Edgar Winter a few times and got off the purist Afro-American bus there and then. Live they were great, the acoustic sets after their big name days fabulous. Some of the bands now are far better.

I'd forgotten about Gary Clark and Doyle and i'd not heard Eric Gales. Been listening now though, and he really is s**t hot. If you keep throwing names at me I'll never get any work done!

here's a link to Gary Clark and Doyle Bramhall playing "Bright Lights"

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi playing "Midnight in Harlem"

and Eric Gales at the Dunlop sessions

There are apparently some good ones but trends in music make it hard for them to break through. Grady Champion is said to be the best harmonica player for two generations, comes from Elmore James' neighbourhood too. Doyle Bramhall plays a mean guitar Lightnin' Hopkins style, Eric Gales is s*** hot, Gary Clark too. Eddie Taylor's daughter Demetria is great and Jarekus Singleton is probably the best very young up and coming bluesman. They are there.

Yes, you really are lucky Brian. I would have loved to met BB and would most likely have stood there with mouth open unable to speak! The sad thing is that there are no young upcoming players to follow those blues legends. All we really have today are white pretenders, like John Mayer or Joe Bonamassa who are technically gifted guitar players but they’ve got no SOUL.
Just thought of Derek Trucks, now he’s really good…

Could never get into FZ Mark, don't know why. I felt he was overhyped and vastly overrated though spin-off acts like the Mothers & Flo & Eddie were easier to listen to.

I've told this story a few times so apologies in advance but in the late '80s I was selling houses in the Charente and one customer was a guy called John 'Drachian' Theaker from Manchester who went to LA in the about 1967 as a young kid hoping to get a break in the mussic industry. He met up with Arthur Brown and became the drummer in The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, one of those psychodelic bands of the time. Their only hit was of course 'FIRE' ("I am the god of hellfire and I bring you Fire etc etc"). I became quite friendly with Drachian and his Indian wife during after the house sale in France and got to hear many stories of the Flower Power days in LA and the West Coast in general. Fascinating listening for me of course with my insatiable interest in anything musical. Drachians greatest moment according to him wasn't reaching no.1 with Fire in 1968 but when they were at no.15 a few weeks later when the no.1 position was held by Hey Jude in the iconic TOTP performance. As Arthur Brown & co walked off stage Drachian was approached by no other than John Lennon who said to him "Son, you're a f*****g good drummer" !

Many stories followed though the funniest for me was when Drachian described Arthur Brown. He reckoned the Fire track had been so intense that he actually believed he WAS the God of Hellfire !

Drachian returned to LA in he mid-seventies and said his former band leaderhas gone 'all respectable' and wore a collar & tie and a suit in his new role a businessman.

The drummer sadly passed away in 1995 due to drug abuse which apparently led to cancer. Pity, he was a nice guy...

Yes, I consider my luck the same. I saw so many of them perform but missed few I wish I had not. I met the blues boy several times, in fact my oldest and closest friend, the blues photographer Bill Greensmith, married somebody related to the great man. He has been there in the USA documenting them (like 'A Blues Life') in image and print since I don't know when. After BB going the other week, he must be really down and living the blues.

Hello Brian,
Bit of a coincidence really as I once went out with a girl from Battersea when I worked in London,and I did indeed frequent various bars and clubs around there but of course although I didn’t inhale, those times are a bit hazy now!
My first real gig was Rory Gallagher at the Marquee Club and have really only ever liked “live” music. My favorite being EC’s Blues night at the Albert Hall with Buddy Guy and Robert Cray. I’m also lucky enough to have seen people like Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin and of course the Thrill that is no longer with us.

I vaguely remember somebody called Chris Kite who was a regular at the 'Blue Horizon' club at the Nag's Head in Battersea many, many moons back. Not you by chance?

Bobbly Blue Bland, verrrrry understated and underrated, T-Bone was the inspiration of so much early rock and roll of the Bill Haley variety that he deserves a big mention as a/the father of modern rock music. The lines: 'Call It Stormy Monday, But Tuesday Is Just as Bad' are seminal.

The 1962 American Folk Blues Festival tour Albert Hall date was my first real concert. He was along with pianist Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon, still got the programme somewhere.

I really climbed in with another great, Sonny Boy Williamson. In 1963 he appeared on Tonight on BBC and was interviewed by Cliff Michelmore. He was wearing a bowler hat with an umbrella over his arm, gangly old boy looked cheeky as hell. My parents were watching because of Michelmore, he having been a host of Two Way Family Favourites on Sunday lunchtime BBC Home Service, but had frequently visited the NAAFI in Cologne where the other end of the 'two way' was whilst my mother was managing the place. So, the two loyalists had it on and I was allowed to watch because they watched Cliff as I watched Sonny Boy performing 'Tell Me Baby', 'Do'n' Let it Rain' and 'Goin' Home'. Anyway, he exposed the public to blues just as the Stones, Yardbirds and so on were doing big things in SW London so actually then played a few live gigs at the blues clubs, of which I was a devotee. He really did help to keep the simpler acoustic rather than electric blues strong and needs some appreciation too Mr Sampson! Sonny Boy Williamson gave B.B. King his big break on his in 1948. In 1985, on the BBC Arena Blues Night B.B. said just that. 'Down and Out Blues' is one of the most memorable blues albums of all time.

Oho, here I go again...

Hi Chris. I love the blues, too, and am keenest on Zappa when he 'shuts up and plays guitar' (to paraphrase his own words). I shall certainly be looking at T-Bone Walker and Bobby Bland albums in the future, if I keep it going for that long! Thanks for your comments.

I remember buying Hot Rats when it came out. Expect a friend recommended it. Even though I was really a blues fan I absolutely loved it and still play it occasionally now. I tried to like some of his other albums but just couldn’t get into them. Still a blues man today but I have to say Hot Rats is definitely a classic.

Brian, we're going to have a lot to talk about! I, too, have got Stepmother City - and equally remarkable and weird it is, too. Good luck with your venture! I shall await your news...

I also have Stepmother City. Tuvan music is one of my odd musical distractions. When I first heard it I could not believe my luck. I have CDs from time in Kyrgyzstan where they are totally into everything from Mongolia and Tuva, so well supplied. I am trying to get Carole and Tülüsh to tour France. Our professor died on Thursday, so the anthros are gathering for the last rites on Tuesday (Ryanair to Stansted for me tomorrow afternoon ) so I shall be talking to her about thinking about it and another go at Mrs Z before she kicks the proverbial.

I think I get your drift from the other day and some time we really must have a bit of a chin wag about music (probably other things), no doubt our families would suggest we are locked away somewhere where we would not bore them into early graves though...

Serendipitous, my dear Mr. Milne. I saw that programme on FZ and noted with particular interest his relationship with Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, who was a great favourite of mine in the '70s and '80s. I hadn't made the link with throat singing, though. Remarkable stuff it is, too. I know Huun Huur Tu and am rather partial to the Tuvan broad, Sainkho Namtchylak, whose album 'Who Stole the Sky?' is one of the weirdest ever made. I certainly didn't know that Aynsley Dunbar recorded a version of Willie. He sure was in demand in his day. Thank you for the links, too, Brian. You're a noble Roman.

OK, so I suppose having mentioned Zappa and Hot Rats myself I should go further down that road.

There is a 'missing' album. In 1993 when already ill and a couple of months left, Zappa invited Kongar-ol Ondar the Tuva throat singer and some of his friends to join a session known as Salad Party 93 at his house on Rose Parade. The other musicians in the session included Johnny Guitar Watson and the Chieftains. It was filmed by the BBC and used patchily in a programme on Zappa at some stage so bits and pieces can be found on YouTube and Vimeo.

Some years earlier the physicist Richard Feynman had been obsessed with Tuvan music. He tried his utmost to get there, in fact got a visa from the Soviet Union only days before he died. Zappa was a clever bloke and somehow or other knew Feynman and heard about Tuva throat singing from him. Feynman's assistant Ralph Leighton and I have been trying to get Gayle Zappa to release the tapes since 1994. A couple of years ago one of my Cambridge friends, Carole Pegg (was Carolanne Pegg of Mr Fox way back when) who is an ethnomusicologist and expert on Mongolia, Tuva and other bits of Central Asia began to perform again. She started the Goshawk project which is a collaboration with Radik Tülüsh of Huun Huur Tu, a group of throat-singers from Tuva. They mix traditional English folk and Tuvan instrumental and vocal music. Tülüsh is a great fan of and much influenced by Ondar who died in 2013. I told them about the 1993 sessions now she is also badgering Gayle for a release.

I have heard some unreleased Zappa work through the connections on this and whilst some of his experimental rock like Waka Jawaka is rocky, where the man was going was unbelievable. There are notes about using a top orchestra to back this session alone and some of the other musicians he wanted to add are beyond belief. He was also proposing a modern opera, which thought simply excites me but was never to be.

Just as a note, just before your post came up I was comparing Zappa's version of Willie the Pimp with the cover version by Aynsley Dunbar's Blue Whale from just before Aynsley became Zappa's drummer after turning down Jimmy Page's offer to help form Led Zeppelin and Robert Fripp's to start King Crimson! Paul William's vocal is far better than Beefie Don Van Vliet's.