"This is special material. Be thankful and give it the attention it should have."
Ian Underwood, 2019
I'm not sure which of the many revelations I've been experiencing from listening to an amazing new 50th anniversary boxed set -- celebrating Frank Zappa's landmark jazz rock fusion breakthrough album Hot Rats -- is more important and jaw-dropping...
Is it the nearly 15 minute original unedited jam that became the now legendary song "Willie the Pimp?"
Or is it the presence of a backing track for a song that didn't appear until around 1978 on the multi-disc set that would've been known as Lather: "Lemme Take You To The Beach" (eventually released on Studio Tan)?
Or perhaps it is the rather gob-smacking genesis across early takes of the opening track to the album -- "Peaches en Regalia" -- letting you witness the formation of drummer Ron Selico's iconic introductory beats that kick off the album. This sequence of snare hits in some ways -- for some of us, at least -- arguably signal the birth of jazz-rock fusion music. And yeah, that is Shuggie Otis on bass there folks...
Perhaps it's also the fly-on -the-wall perspective throughout the Hot Rats Sessions 50th Anniversary collection, which allows us to hear Frank work things out in the studio with his musicians? Watch (with your mind's eye) in wonder as he sculpts a new sound with pianist Ian Underwood as well as legendary jazz (and Wrecking Crew) session Bassist Max Bennett and Don "Sugarcane" Harris on Violin.
Maybe it is the connect-the-dots (ah ha!) glue realizing that tracks which appeared on other Zappa albums from that time-frame all came from the same period? Songs such as "The Little House I Used To Live In" from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, "Directly From My Heart To You" and "Toads Of The Short Forest" from Weasels Ripped My Flesh and "Twenty Small Cigars" from Chunga's Revenge all had their roots in these Hot Rats sessions. Consider that an early jam with Sugarcane Harris called "Bogner Regis" was eventually used for the basic tracks of an early version of "Conehead" (which didn't see a studio release until 1981's You Are What You Is).
Of course, these early versions are in unedited form which is fascinating and you can often hear exactly what influenced Zappa's sometimes radical editing choices such as the mad aggression after the beautiful minute of whimsey at the beginning of "Toads..." That song, by the way, was originally called "Arabesque" in this primal stage of development. After that first minute, the song goes on but doesn't really evolve and grow that much, so I can see why he made the jump there... but... its still super cool to hear how it was initially conceived and where it went.
Oh, and then there is the amazing brand new isolated vocal-only mix of "Willie The Pimp" which lets you hear exactly what Captain Beefheart was doing. It is one of many stunners on this set.
And then there is the realization that Ian Underwood provides much of the connective conceptual continuity gluing these recordings together, as the one musician from the original Mothers of Invention who also plays on most of the tracks even with different drummers and support players. The album is remarkably consistent in that sense...
And... well.. good golly, by gosh, folks! All this is just the introduction to my review of the Hot Rats Sessions 50th Anniversary collection!
Spread across six CDs the sound quality on the Hot Rats Sessions 50th Anniversary collection is uniformly terrific, newly mixed off the 16-track master sessions tapes by Craig Parker Adams.
Clearly a great deal of love when it to the making of it this set. Just the yeoman-like effort by Zappa Vault-meister Joe Travers must be applauded because his archival work and notes on all this stuff is incredible. He even dug out original commercials promoting the album and interview snippets discussing related trivia such as who was the inspiration for "Willie The Pimp."
The Hot Rats Sessions 50th Anniversary contains every note of related material that went into the making of the Hot Rats album. You even get a 1961-64 period acetate recording of Zappa leading some sort of teenage jazz combo in his legendary first recording studio (Studio Z in Cucamonga) through a song that would eventually show up on Hot Rats as "Little Umbrellas."
I only have one criticism of the Hot Rats Sessions 50th Anniversary collection, which I admit is easily refuted by the general purpose of the set : to compile everything related to this album in one place.
To that, included in the set is Zappa's fan-dividing 1987 digital remix of Hot Rats which was initially released on the Rykodisc CD label. Some of us love that version for the same reason we hate it because you hear different things and longer takes than the original album. But, it had to go in. And I guess the cool thing is now I can get rid of my original Rykodisc CD (which I have kept purely as a completist thing)!
The set also includes some nifty rare MONO and instrumental mixes including "Little Umbrellas" and "Peaches En Regalia," all of which also happen to appear on an equally nifty 10-inch vinyl 45 RPM EP picture disc that was issued on Record Store Day this year! And, it is one of those rare picture discs that actually makes some sense and works as an entity on its own.
The Hot Rats Sessions 50th Anniversary collection is really something and it comes with some poignant insights from luminaries involved with -- and influenced by -- the album including producer Joe Travers and photographer Andee Nathanson (who crafted the now classic original cover images).
The Simpsons creator Matt Groening brings up some fairly flabbergasting insights to contemplate about Zappa's alway inspiring and simultaneously intimidating work aesthetic for the year 1969 leading up to the release of Hot Rats. I don't want to spoil that joy for you but suffice it to say that Frank was frighteningly prolific in this period, not only with his music but producing music for other artists including Jean Luc Ponty, Wildman Fischer, The GTOs and more.
Dang. I know people who would be happy if they accomplished that much in their life time as Frank did in that one year.
The Hot Rats Sessions 50th Anniversary collection is also a great complement to the wonderful restored vinyl version of the classic album which was reissued not too long ago and which I reviewed here on Audiophile Review (click here to get to it). There is a new pink version of the original Hot Rats album being released in conjunction with the new boxed set.
At the time of writing this, only a couple of tracks were available for pre-release streaming: an early version of "It Must Be A Camel" (click here for Qobuz and here for Tidal) and "Dame Margaret's Son To Be A Bride" (click here for Qobuz and here for Tidal). The latter is an early quick mix of raw tracks that were eventually repurposed into "Lemme Take You To The Beach" (on the Studio Tan LP).
The streams sound pretty good. I suspect you'll be able to hear the whole set that way when its released. It should be at this link here for Qobuz, but we'll have to update you when the full Tidal stream page for the album is set up. Both sound decent in CD quality, each with their own unique sonic signatures, so choose the service that works best for you. Personally, I preferred listening to it off the advance download which was sounding cleaner and more balanced some how to my ear overall than the streams, but that is just me and perhaps related to the quirks of my ISP. I suspect the CD will sound similar to the downloads, but will have to let you know as soon as they arrive (I will update this review accordingly below).
Any way you listen, if you like Zappa and you love the Hot Rats album, you need to at least hear or own The Hot Rats Sessions 50th Anniversary collection in some form. This is the good stuff, folks.
Ian Underwood's quote from the liner notes at the start of this review sums it up best, I think.
We should all be thankful and listen.
UPDATE on Friday, December 20, 2019
Yesterday, I received the physical box set of the Hot Rats Sessions 50th Anniversary collection and it is "super deluxe" in every way shape and form. The large scale LP-sized box is glossy laminated on the outside, and when you open the lid (spoiler alert) be sure to take note of the lyrics to "Willie The Pimp" around the inside lip -- a nice touch! The booklet is printed on high quality stock and the pictures come alive in the large format, offering a wonderful a behind-the-scenes look into Frank's world at that point in time. The CDs come in a nice hard bound LP-sized binder and there is even a nifty board game included called Zappa Land (click here to go to the promo video which the ZFT just issued about the game). Most importantly, the CDs really sound -- as good as my advance downloads did -- so that is good news too. This set is officially released today. Go get it!