For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.
It's rare that the children of great artists ever succeed in carrying on the family legacy. The Wilson daughters didn't eclipse the Beach Boys. Ziggy Marley for all his talents hasn't transcended the work of Bob. But Dweezil Zappa with his band Zappa Plays Zappa has both captured and made fresh the music of his father Frank Zappa. When Kevin Courrier and John Corcelli considered this legacy between father and son, they found a link in this joint review.
On Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, Frank Zappa with The Mothers of Invention set out to mirror what Igor Stravinsky did during his neo-classical period when he took the clichés and musical forms of the classical period and recast them. Zappa applied a similar technique, with satirical intent, to the complex vocal harmonies of fifties doo-wop, the formative music of his adolescent years. It was a bold move. For one thing, very few music listeners in 1968 were even aware of fifties rock beyond Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Secondly, there was nothing more "uncool" at that point in time than oldies rock. When it did raise its greasy head (as Sha Na Na did at Woodstock in 1969), it was considered nothing more than a circus act for the hippies to laugh at. Even before Woodstock, Zappa anticipated that hostility, correctly perceiving that the music he loved was considered horribly retrograde to the very hip counter-culture. So while the late sixties audience was looking for psychedelic morsels to feed their head, Zappa provided a dish nobody was waiting to consume.
By the seventies, because of movies like American Graffiti (1973) and television shows like Happy Days, people pined for the fifties, mistaking it for a simpler time. When Zappa and The Mothers recorded Cruising with Ruben & the Jets in 1968, they weren't presenting the past as a refuge for those wishing to escape the present. The album features a number of re-arranged Zappa compositions from the early sixties ("Fountain of Love," "Deseri"), plus wildly different arrangements of songs first heard on Freak Out!, his 1966 debut album ("I'm Not Satisfied," Any Way the Wind Blows," "How Could I Be Such a Fool" and "You Didn't Try to Call Me"). Though the melodies on Cruising were consistent with fifties doo-wop, including the timbre of the vocal style, the chord progressions were radically different. All through the record, blocks of percussive sound echoes like finger snaps while piano triplets roll on redundantly. The singers, Ray Collins (with supporting harmonies by Roy Estrada and Zappa), sound authentic one moment, and the next like a resurrection of Alvin & the Chipmunks. Cruising with Ruben & the Jets is an irreverent tribute to doo-wop, a fascinating study in contrast between the norms of the past and the clichés of the present.
Cruising With Ruben & the Jets shows how Zappa set out to reinvent the music of the fifties for the time in which he lived. The rejection of the album and fifties R&B by the sixties counter-culture audience illustrates how their form of cultural snobbery would inadvertently plant the seeds for the nostalgia wave in the seventies - when the counter-culture itself truly died. Don't make the same mistake.
The outstanding tracks for me, though, are “The Torture Never Stops,” “Magic Fingers” and the instrumental, “The Deathless Horsie,” the latter originally transcribed for guitar by former Zappa alumni, Steve Vai. What makes these versions appealing is Dweezil’s conscious attempt to blend his own musical ideas into the style of his father. Dweezil doesn't provide a replication of Frank Zappa on The Return of the Son of... so much as an interpretive blend of his father's style and sound. And he brings it into his own so that the original music comes across with an invigorating freshness. Dweezil is so conscious of what the fans expect that he offers a short explanation in the CD liner notes, “Each time I play a solo I try to imbue my own playing with some of my Dad’s idiosyncrasies, both technically and sonically.” For me, that explanation is unnecessary but it does speak to Dweezil’s awareness and respect for the music and the devoted audience who continue to support it.
|Dweezil & Frank Zappa|
Recorded for the most part in the Chicago Theater, The Return of the Son of... celebrates the work of Frank Zappa in ways that only a generation removed could enjoy it because the music has already proven itself. Dweezil Zappa is not interested in imitating the work of his father, but rather, playing the music as well as Frank did - and with as much improvisational feel as possible. The son has truly returned…