Frank Zappa might not be your run-of-the-mill rock star. He was not one for recreational pharmaceuticals. As a teenager, when his contemporaries were listening to Bill Haley & His Comets, Zappa was paying attention to Edgard Varèse. And there are precious few 1960s guitarists who could include sophisticated musique concretè works in their portfolio. But then, not many musicans could turn out an album like Hot Rats.
Having virtually invented the concept album (and narrowly missing releasing rock’s first double album by about a week) with Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! debut, Zappa’s second solo project saw the polymath turn his attention to multi-track recording. Although multi-track recording dates back to the early-1950s experiments made by guitar legend Les Paul, it was only in the latter part of the 1960s that the technology had matured enough to be commercially viable. Pioneering recordings by The Beatles and The Beach Boys created a buzz about this entirely new way of recording, but the technology was changing at such a rate, the four- and eight-track recordings of 1966 and 1967 were very much behind the technological curve, and Zappa was one of the first to notice.
In mid 1969, Zappa (who had been a very early adopter of multi-track, learning his craft at Paul Buff’ Pal Recording Studio way back in 1961) headed out to TTG Studios in Los Angeles to record the five instrumental and the single vocal cuts on Hot Rats. TTG was only the second studio in the world to utilise the new 16-track recording system, on reels of two-inch tape. TTG had built the recorder itself the year before, based closely on the Ampex design first seen in 1967 and installed in New York’s CBS Studios. The first released album made using CBS’ Ampex 16-track was the epynomous second album by Blood, Sweat & Tears, but the recording utilised the system more for greater flexibility than for greater creativity. Zappa, ever the creative mind at play, went for both. Big time.
Zappa used those 16 tracks to create complex, layered overdubs, pioneered the idea of recording different drums to different tracks, and experiemented with the concept of using the tape machine as a musical instrument in its own right, such as recording at a range of speeds to change instrument pitch. All of these concepts would be taken up by later artists and formed the basis of the sound-scape of everyone from King Crimson to The White Stripes and beyond. Not bad for someone who reputedly hated studios!
The album is more than just technologically important; it’s musically and culturally significant, too. The opener, ‘Peaches En Regalia’ is an early example of jazz fusion (this time from the rock side of the fusing process) and features a young Shuggie Otis on bass. The vocals on the one non-instrumental track ‘Willie The Pimp’ is a result of Zappa’s “mutually useful but volatile” friendship with Don Van Vliet (better known at the time as Captain Beefheart), ‘Son of Mr. Green Genes’ is considered by many in the guitaring cognoscenti to be one of the most complete guitar parts in rock, with two of the best solos ever recorded. Even the closing ‘It Must Be A Camel’ (featuring the violin of Jean-Luc Ponty) is an intricate arrangement of jumps in melody set against a surprisingly complex rhythm. What is still shocking today is that just five people cut that track!
45 years after its launch, Hot Rats is still not an immediately accessible album for many. It’s as challenging as it is ultimately rewarding. But it’s worth the effort.
Recorded at: TTG Studios, Los Angeles
Produced by: Frank Zappa
Released: October 10, 1969
Label: Bizarre/Reprise/Zappa Records