by Simon Abrams Feature Articles Featured Music

ZAPPAtite Is a Dish Best… Not Served at All

October 13, 2016

“One of these days, I’m going to erase all the tapes in the world. Tomorrow I may do it. All the Frank Zappa masters: nothing, blank, empty space.”
—Frank Zappa, “Are You Hung Up?” 

What would the world be like if ZAPPAtite, a new best-of compilation of music by poly-generic composer/prodigy Frank Zappa, served as its primary method of Zappa education? This is (hopefully) my less aggro way of asking, “Who needs this fucking thing anyway?” ZAPPAtite, a concept proposed by Frank’s son Ahmet, seems like a pointless endeavor. “Conceptual continuity” is the cornerstone of Zappa’s discography, so the idea of chopping up his songs into a finger food-style buffet seems contrary to what the artist would have wanted. Still, Frank Zappa’s dead, and there’s little point in accusing his son/estate of disobeying his wishes (also I don’t want to get sued). 

I can say that ZAPPAtite will only really work for people who have just seen Eat That Question, the new Frank Zappa doc, and/or anyone who just knows of that Zappa guy and are curious to see what his music is all about. To those people, I say: don’t bother. A paltry 18-track collection, ZAPPAtite, which bears the subtitle “Frank Zappa’s Tastiest Tracks,” is strictly disposable, and entirely antithetical to the spirit of Zappa’s dense, avant garde aesthetic. You’d need at least two more discs to get a good survey of Zappa’s music, and that alone proves how impossible it is to make Zappa’s music more accessible to listeners ostensibly too intimidated to pick up Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Inventions’ extant albums, like Absolutely Free or We’re Only in It for the Money

ZAPPAtite doesn’t offer anything that Zappa’s intricate arrangements, juvenile humor, intelligent orchestration, and strident virtuosity didn’t already, in its intended album contexts. I mean, music-listening practices are so abundant and diffuse today—listeners can stream Zappa’s albums (readily available on iTunes, Pandora, Amazon Music, and other virtual Blaupunkts near you) or they can just YouTube search “Frank Zappa” and figure shit out for themselves.

ZAPPAtite is strictly disposable, and entirely antithetical to the spirit of Zappa’s dense, avant garde aesthetic.

Still, you—meaning me, since you’re strictly hypothetical—might ask: Why not engage with what ZAPPAtite tries/fails to do instead of questioning its existence? Good question, you/me. For starters, the set’s arrangement is bafflingly eccentric. Rather than curate with a know-nothing listener in mind, Ahmet Zappa and Joe Travers favor an eccentric mix of their personal favorites and of some of their preferred aspects of Frank’s personality. You won’t find any tracks from continuity-heavy albums like the aforementioned Free and Money, but you will find anthemic title tracks from the just as continuity-driven Joe’s Garage and You Are What You Is. Meanwhile, the only live track—and Zappa’s music arguably sounds best live—is “Titties and Beer.” There are just three orchestra-only cuts, which flies in the face of Zappa’s drive to prove that he was as serious and formidable a composer as any of the 20th century. And the sole album represented more than once on this tracklist is Overnite Sensation, which is likely to show up only on diehards’ lists of Top Five Zappa Albums. 

The existential experience of listening to ZAPPAtite is equally disorienting since the album is not organized chronologically. Starting with anti-music-video funk jam “I’m the Slime” is a ballsy but also a confusing move. It’s also impossible to tell why some tracks are called “appetizers” and others are classified as “entrees” according to the album’s dinner menu theme; many don’t even seem to belong with each other (for instance, there’s an insurmountable tonal chasm separating jaunty disco parody “Dancin’ Fool” and ambivalent protest song “Trouble Every Day”). And who exactly values acidic bubblegum rock spoof “Valley Girl” enough to consider it essential? And why is “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” on here, but not “Muffin Man”? Why include an anti-drug track like “Cocaine Decisions” and not the vastly superior “Charlie’s Enormous Mouth”? And how exhausting is it to read a series of inevitably rhetorical questions? I get it, but I’m asking them for effect.

I mean, any Zappa fan is going to nitpick Travers and Ahmet Zappa’s choices—but for good reason: ZAPPAtite does not need to exist because Frank Zappa’s music is best appreciated in its full-length album form. Do yourself a favor and read Zappa’s invaluable memoir, The Real Frank Zappa Book, if you want to get an in-depth understanding of what the man stood for, and why listening to his music in bits and pieces is a deeply stupid idea. ZAPPAtite could have disabused me of that notion, but as it is, all it made me think is: Why aren’t I listening to an actual album? Who put this together? And why does it matter, in the cosmic sense? I have no good answers to these questions. And I don’t care because the makers of this album apparently don’t either.