Book review: FRANK ZAPPA – On Track Every Album, Every Song 1966 to 1979 by Eric Benac

Eric Benac - On Track Frank Zappa 1966 to 1979

Sonicbond Publishing [Publication date 29.09.19]

Where Ben Watson’s exhaustive mid 90′s ‘Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play’ provided a left wing cultural and critical examination of Frank Zappa and his conceptual continuity, Eric Benac’s ‘On Track’ take a different approach.

‘On Track’ is something of a contradiction, being packed with a track by track musical analysis of Zappa’s 60′s and 70′s output and yet it doesn’t offer many insights in the way of lyrical analysis.

If the time span isn’t considered to be arbitrary, then there’s an unspoken suggestion that from ‘Tinsel Town Rebellion’ onward,  Zappa’s most important work was already done.

Not so,  if you consider the ebullient flow and accessibility of ‘You Are What You Is’, the sheer weight and substance of the triple ‘Shut Up & Play Your Guitar’ or indeed the award winning ‘Jazz From Hell’.

Of course, the latter two were instrumental albums, but given this book’s predilection for breaking down the songs in terms of musical theory rather than social or cultural analysis, he might just as well have extended his time span.

He’s at his best when analysing the guitar solo’s, the arrangements and song dynamics. And though his introduction talks about: “the historical context behind the album”, this is very slight.

The author is obviously a fan, but every self respecting Zappa fan knows that Frank was the perennial outsider, which led to his unrelenting satire.  And Benac frequently misses the opportunity share any insights into Frank’s ire, albeit he does provide the structural framework, from Zappa’s early incarceration onward, to suggest he never trusted authority.

However, given Benac’s meticulous musical examinations of the tracks, the book ends up feeling top heavy with musical theory and lightweight in terms of context.

No matter, it’s decent read, but will probably only appeal – as did Watson’s book – to Zappa geeks.

When Benac mentions: “a sense of space unique for Zappa”, in the context of ‘How Could I Be Such A Fool’, or suggests ‘King Kong’ is one of Frank’s best counterpoint compositions, you aren’t going to argue.

He almost leaps from clinical analysis to the rhapsodic, when he describes ‘It Must Be A Camel’ from ‘Hot Rats’ thus:” Shockingly heavy guitar cuts through a mix that moves like moons orbiting Jupiter.”

His analysis of ‘Hot Rats’ – arguably Zappa’s greatest album – also throws up another problem, which is his annoying reliance on American-centric reviews.

Given the time span of this book, Europe was Zappa’s biggest market, yet there  a complete lack of European reviews which would at the very least provide a clue as to his chosen musical direction and style.

The author also timidly skirts over some of Zappa’s most outrageous lyrics, but on the other hand does illuminate the musical highlights often lost in the comedy routines of Flo & Eddie.

Significantly, when we come to ‘Sharleena’ the last track on ‘Chunga’s Revenge’, which he accurately says: “feels authentic and legitimately emotional,”  he makes no attempt to uncover why this song should be one of Zappa’s very few “straight” ballads unencumbered by comedy or lightning tempo changes.

He similarly calls ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up’,  ”a sentimental love ballad” and something Zappa said he’d never write, without leaving the reader any the wiser as to why, other than being part of the libretto.

In exploring ’200 Motels’ he does correctly point out that the chorus of ‘Shove It Right In’: “intones varying dirty lyrics that are hard to make out, but funny to hear a chorus sing. Combining low and high-culture like this was one of Frank’s best gags.”

Funnily enough, this is the same point Watson went to great lengths to examine in his book.

He delivers his most succinct analysis when comparing ‘Hot Rats’ with ‘Waka/Jawaka’ : “Hot Rats contains a unique combination of composed and improvised music, a balance that appeals both to rock fans who want structure and jazz fans who want free playing. By contrast ‘Waka/Jawaka’ and ‘The Grand Wazoo’ feature fewer rock structures, with the lengthier tracks being very exploratory.”

Benac does offer a more expansive career context leading into ‘Overnite Sensation’, pointing to a combination of Zappa being broke and the collapse of the counterculture, leading to his musical direction.

When it comes to his research, he overlooks interviews in the public domain with Jack Bruce, which confirm Jack played on ‘Apostrophe’. He falls back on the assumption that “Jack either forgot about the jam or didn’t enjoy it.”

He’s better when quoting George Duke about ‘Inca Roads’ (from 1975′s ‘One Size Fits All’): “This is such a beautiful melody, do you have to mess it up?”. This is an apparent reference to the percussion and sax interruptions.

Perhaps the most frustrating point in the book comes with his analysis of ‘San Ber’dino’, when he abandons his forensic approach to each song, and simply says: “At the risk of boring the reader, let’s skip breaking down every individual theme and melody on this complex track.”

It’s a perfunctory statement that comes deep into the book and almost suggest he’s struggling with the weight of his chosen approach.

But, there’s still plenty to enjoy here, including his own occasional evocative prose, as on the guitar solo on ‘Andy’ (from ‘One Size Fits All’), which he describes as driving the song: “to the finish like a sprinter going over the finish line.”

He also offers fleeting insights that might otherwise have been overlooked, most notably on ‘Sheik Yerbouti’s ‘Jones Crusher’.  He says: “better singers allowed more approaches than when Frank, with his appealing but limited vocalisation, handled all the vocals.”

He also neatly describes the zenochrony of  ‘Sheik Yerbouti’s  Rubber Shirt’ thus; “The end result is a rather slow-motion dance between two musicians who never heard the other’s part.”

He finally considers the title track of Joe’s Garage’ as: “The finest ode to rock ever written.” He also reminds us that ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’ is a rare example of Zappa’s “pure emotion”, full of: “stinging sustain” and “the melodic moves Frank makes.”

All of this is true, but aside from his musical critique, he’s not really telling us anything we don’t already know.

‘On Track’ is obviously a labour of love and seeks to shine a light on the intricacies of Zappa’s weighty back catalogue. If nothing else its a unique take on Zappa’s first 13 years, and if it requires the reader to sit down and listen to the music while reading the book, at least it’s driving us back to some great music. Job done. ***

Review by Pete Feenstra

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Power Plays w/c 26 October (Mon-Fri)

LYKANTROPI Axis Of Margaret (Despotz Records)
LIONS SHARE Aim Higher (indie)
ALL RUNS RED What Good Would That Do (indie)
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