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Based on pretty much everything I’ve ever read about Frank Zappa, it seems that his music making universe was in operation 24/7, every day. There was always something brewing, always new ideas emerging and as a composer he was constantly creating, scoring compositions, experimenting and innovating sounds. Yet with as many albums as he released — 62 during his lifetime — a vast amount of his music never saw the light of day during his lifetime, remaining in his storied “vault” for his family to curate and bring out to the public. According to the wiki, to date there have been 64 posthumous releases since 1994!
The latest three compact disc collection released just yesterday (June 30, 2023) called Funky Nothingness celebrates a period of particularly extreme creativity for Zappa. This music mostly comes from the aftermath of his pioneering October 1969 jazz-rock fusion release Hot Rats and October 1970 ’s Chunga’s Revenge.
Zappa apparently had been preparing a “build reel” — essentially formally mixed tracks assembled into a form that could be turned into a new album — with an eye to a possible release. Discovered by official Zappa archivist Joe Travers (known to many as the “Vault-Meister”), the wealth of new material here will no doubt blow the minds of more than a few Zappa fanatics and maybe even some more casual fans of his music from this era.
From the official press release for Funky Nothingness, we learn:
“Considered the missing link between Frank Zappa’s iconic albums Hot Rats and Chunga’s Revenge, Funky Nothingness, out now via Zappa Records/UMe, features 25 unreleased and incredibly rare tracks, recently unearthed from the Vault after more than five decades, recorded shortly after Zappa’s groundbreaking debut album, Hot Rats, with several of the same musicians. The sessions, which took place primarily in February and March 1970 at the newly opened Record Plant in Los Angeles, included the five-piece band of Mothers member Ian Underwood (keyboard, saxophone, rhythm guitar), violinist and vocalist Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Wrecking Crew bassist Max Bennett, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, who had just relocated to Los Angeles and moved in with Zappa following his invite to join the band after witnessing him play drums at a festival in Belgium, and Zappa on guitar, vocals and percussion as well as production duties. Together the group recorded hours’ worth of original compositions, inspired covers and extended improvisations that drew from Zappa’s R&B and blues roots, while blending influences of the emerging jazz fusion scene. Largely instrumental, these recordings showcased the guitarist’s virtuosity, while offering what could have easily been the sequel to Hot Rats, had it ever been released.”
While the initial tracks on the new album are fascinating — the title track apparently stemming from a bluesy acoustic jam found on Zappa’s “build reel” which was actually recorded in 1967 but once considered as an opener for Chunga’s Revenge — it is the first longer jam of the album that raised my adrenaline.
Lasting more than 12 minutes, I noticed immediately that the core of this bluesy song called “I Am A Rolling Stone” (a Lightnin’ Slim cover) was very similar to a track that was released four years later on the Apostrophe(‘) album called “Stink Foot.” Indeed, in the liner notes, it turns out that Zappa had apparently built that song out of this embryonic 1970 blues jam! He took the original multi-track tape into the studio and recorded over everything he didn’t need to create that now fairly iconic closing track on what became his first Top 10 smash hit.
So, now we get to hear pretty much the complete original take as he’d mixed it in 1970. Once again it helps to pause in wonderment over the fertile creative brilliant mind that was Frank Zappa. Think about it: having the vision to know you loved the core rhythm track of a jam from four years earlier and were able to turn it into something completely different.
In a way this explores a technique Zappa dubbed “Xenocrony,” which according to the Wiki “is executed by extracting a guitar solo or other musical part from its original context and placing it into a completely different song, to create an unexpected but pleasing effect.”
On this Zappa-mixed album (again, from the “build reel”) we also get to hear a Stereo version of a track which was initially released on one of the now-rare DVD Audio Disc albums featuring surround sound and quadraphonic experiments called QuaAUDIOPHILIAc. “Chunga’s Revenge (Basement Version)” was indeed recorded in Zappa’s Laurel Canyon home basement on a then bleeding-edge 4-channel recording system he had in 1970. This new release features that take mixed to 2-channel Stereo as well as a jam from that same session.
Another of the previously released tracks initially earmarked for the potential sequel to Hot Rats is (in Zappa’s words) “the funky version” of “Sharleena.” A shorter version of this song was eventually re-recorded and released on 1970’s Chunga’s Revenge with lead vocals by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of The Turtles (listed on the album credits as “The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie” due to contractual issues the duo was enduring at the time). This newly released earlier take with a different era of Zappa’s band is a wilder ride, extending more than 12 minutes in length. This was included in the 1996 CD compilation called The Lost Episodes.
As great as the “build reel” recordings are on the first CD of Funky Nothingness, my excitement over this collection grew even more once I got into the next two discs of additional unedited material.
Disc Two includes a nearly 15-minute long unedited version of the full take of “Sharleena” which includes an alternate vocal part, additional overdubs and a longer guitar solo than the version first heard on The Lost Episodes collection!
The unedited master take of “Transylvania Boogie” — a tune which ended up as the opening track on Zappa’s third solo album, 1970’s Chunga’s Revenge — is truly revelatory. The version we have heard for all these years was just the last five minutes of a fairly epic 18 minute jam! If you are deeper Zappa fan — and a collection like Funky Nothingness is no doubt aimed at those who are committed Zappa-verse explorers — that moment when the extended jam suddenly turns into that section which kicked off the original album, it is… well… pretty mind blowing… at least from this hard core fan’s perspective!
Another stunning track is “Twinkle Tits,” a tune which Zappa worked on extensively. The liner notes indicate he’d recorded nine takes of it and made numerous edits leading to the final 11-minute version heard on the first disc of Funky Nothingness. He even tested it out on stage (there are live recordings performed by this incarnation of the band in circulation; I have found several versions up on YouTube). But now we get to hear the full studio work out by the group including a false start.
There are a number of fascinating duet recordings included between Zappa and drummer Aynsley Dunbar– yes, you heard that right, simply drums and guitar improvising off of one-another (“Tommy/Vincent Duo”). “Halos & Arrows” is just another one of those gorgeous rare Zappa acoustic guitar work outs, this time in a near Jazz vein which at points feels like The Grateful Dead could have covered this.
“Khaki Sack’ is an almost pop-flavored upbeat instrumental boogie. You’ll hear fun work-outs on the classic 1950s Hank Ballard & The Midnighter’s hits “Work With Me Annie” and “Annie Had A Baby.” And there is nifty original Doo Wop-like song called “Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild” with a great vocal by Don “Sugarcane” Harris and featuring his groovy violin solo outro. I could imagine Flo & Eddie singing this little gem (well, actually I can also imagine Tiny Tim singing it!).
Anyhow, I think you get the idea that Funky Nothingness is an essential listen for Zappa fans, especially if you are into the Hot Rats / Chunga’s Revenge era recordings. This collection no doubt connects many musical dots in Zappa’s recording history.
If you want to learn more about this album, Vault-Meister Joe Travers has produced a series of videos about Funky Nothingness (see YouTube videos embedded below) including interviews with Chris Bellman of Bernie Grundman Mastering and original Mother of Invention member, Ian Underwood.
If you can’t wait to get the CD and vinyl editions (which I recommend as the foil-printed packaging is beautiful!), you can find the album streaming on the better streaming services in 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity including Qobuz (click here) and Tidal (click here).
Funky Nothingness is a great release and an essential listen for serious Zappa fans. I can’t wait to dive into the vinyl edition (separate review to come soon).