Here’s the Good Zappa, Ace

I’m going to get to Zappa, but first let’s talk a little about Adam Carolla. Some of you might know the comedian from Loveline, others from Crank Yankers, The Man Show, or Family Guy, where he’s provided the voice of Death on several occasions. A few of you might even remember Carolla from his morning radio show with Danny Bonaduce, or maybe his Dancing With the Stars appearance. Or perhaps you’ve read one of his books, caught one of his documentaries, loved his film The Hammer, enjoyed one of his TV shows (The Car Show, Catch A Contractor), or seen him live at a local comedy club, theater, or out on the track racing one of his Paul Newman cars. He’s done a lot of things is my point. Some of them maybe you liked, some of them maybe you didn’t.

And then there’s the podcasts. Carolla has a couple, but The Adam Carolla Show is the comedian’s crowning achievement. It’s the perfect expression of a self made man: A former carpenter, Carolla literally built his own studio to serve as the epicenter of the self-built entertainment empire that brought you all of the goodies mentioned in the previous paragraph. Each morning the comedian, his on-air partners, Bryan Bishop and Gina Grad, and a guest or two riff on current events and the handful of common themes that recur throughout Carolla’s work. Tune in on any given day and you’re likely to hear about growing up in the suburban wasteland surrounding Los Angeles, the importance of family, the stupidity of authority figures like cops, the stupidity of non-authority figures like security guards, the stupidity of the rest of us, individual rights vs. governmental overreach, and the enormous power of getting off your ass and forging your own path through life.

That all might sound pretty heavy, but it isn’t: Carolla is a comedian, after all. It’s ranty, but it’s a fun rant. Ranting has always been a large chunk of Carolla’s comedy, and he does it well. His early live performances were built around a bit that he still does named “What Can’t Adam Complain About.” Audience members shout out a topic–fuzzy bunnies, for example–and the Ace Man invariably figures out how to rant about it.

And while nobody outside of Looney Tunes hates fuzzy bunnies, there’s always a kernel of truth in his rants. One common theme that emerges in Carolla’s rants is his rigid absolutism regarding right and wrong, and I’m not talking about social justice but rather potato salad. “Nobody cares about your special twist–when they order potato salad they just want potato salad,” he might shout. Vegetarian pizza isn’t pizza in Carolla’s estimation–ordering it for a group is a waste, nobody likes it. And, according to Ace, nobody likes Frank Zappa. They claim that they like Zappa so that they can look hip, but just show him one Zappa song that isn’t a piece of crap. Nobody can do it because it can’t be done! I said good day!

You might not be familiar with Frank Zappa, so here’s a little background: Zappa was a smart, funny guy who built his own entertainment empire singing and talking about such topics as growing up in the suburban wasteland surrounding Los Angeles, the importance of family, the stupidity of authority figures like cops, the stupidity of non-authority figures like security guards, the stupidity of the rest of us, individual rights vs. governmental overreach, and the enormous power of getting off your ass and forging your own path through life.

Like Carolla, Zappa owned his own studio and produced his own material. Unlike Carolla, Zappa didn’t publish his work daily, though it’s a pretty safe bet that if Frank were still alive he’d be hosting a podcast. But back in the dark ages of Zappa, who died in 1993, a self-made man with his own studio put his own work out in the form of albums.

Starting with 1966’s Freak Out and ending with ’93’s The Yellow Shark, Zappa released 62 live and studio albums (for Zappa there wasn’t much difference between live and studio releases, but that’s a long story). In comparison, between 1964 and 2018 the Rolling Stones released 53 live and studio albums–9 fewer over twice as many years. My point is that the guy was insanely prolific, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Because Zappa was his own industry for much of his career–his own label, his own producer, etc.–he had no one leaning over his shoulder who could say, “Uh, Frank, this is crap.”

That’s both a curse and a blessing. Another favorite rant of Carolla’s is the executives–the studio guys and program directors–who wouldn’t know funny if it bit them on the ass but just have to assert their shitty opinions regardless. Those guys are clearly a curse to performers like Carolla and Zappa, whose distinct voices and perspectives make them hard to pigeonhole. On the other hand, having somebody around whose judgement you trust and thus can help you sort the good material from the bad is clearly a good thing. Think of that person less as an idiot executive and more as a head writer in the writers’ room.

But Zappa didn’t have that, and as a result those 62 albums that he released during his lifetime include a lot of bad to mediocre material, some of it downright unlistenable. That problem has been compounded over the last 25 years by a never ending stream of unreleased material from the Zappa archives. The Zappa estate has released 49 albums since Frank died, and then there are the bootlegs. There’s a huge amount of Frank Zappa music floating around: I personally own 136 Zappa albums. I am exactly the kind of guy that Carolla is talking to when he rants that nobody actually likes Zappa, they’re just posing.

And again, Adam Carolla is right: There is a huge amount of junk in Frank’s catalog. Zappa’s legacy suffers from a lack of curation, from the absence of a trusted voice who could persuade him that not everything he laid down in the studio deserved to be released.

Compare the Zappa discography to the Police, for example, a band that released five perfect albums. Five and done–that’s how you do it. And then there’s Sting’s post-Police career, a few good songs hiding among a lot of forgettable filler. Let history remember you as a Police, not a Sting. Come to think of it, the same holds true for those 53 Rolling Stones albums. Would anybody care if Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge was stricken from the collective human memory? There’s a lot of junk in the Stones’ catalog, too, but there’s an awful lot of gems.

But there’s a big difference between “there’s a lot of crap in the Zappa discography” and “nobody can show me a good Zappa song because no such thing exists.” Prune away the suckers and pull the weeds and there’s enough material left to compile a few perfect Zappa albums.

I don’t think there’s much hope of convincing the Ace Man of that, though. That guy seems to prefer absolutes–potato salad that tastes like potato salad–and even at his most accessible Zappa is not standard potato salad. His music is rarely a four-piece band churning out verse/verse/chorus/verse in 4/4 time, and he rarely settled for yet another cliché guitar solo when there was a perfectly good marimba sitting in the corner. Then there’s the lyrics: Zappa simply refused to take life, love, and teen angst–the main ingredients of pop music potato salad–seriously. Better to sing about yellow snow, Willie the Pimp, and Jesus thinking that you’re a jerk.

But I’m going to try anyway, because it baffles me that a bright, funny, and proudly iconoclastic guy like Carolla misses the mark so wildly when it comes to Zappa. Not every day on the podcast is a home run, and the same goes for Uncle Frank’s time in the studio he called the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, but in both cases when these guys are good, they’re really good.

They have so much in common, too. I have a strong feeling that if Frank was still kicking around Los Angeles, he’d be a favorite guest on the Adam Carolla Podcast. That’s beside the point, though: The Ace Man’s criticism isn’t of Frank the man but rather of Zappa’s music.

So let’s get to the songs, but first back to the “potato salad” problem: Due to the hair, the guitar, and the reputation, people who have never heard him expect to hear rock and roll when someone serves up a dish of Zappa. While there are certainly rock elements in Frank’s music, the closest genre for the bulk of his work is jazz. Getting smacked with jazz when you’re expecting rock is like getting a fork full of lobster and goat cheese potato salad when you’re expecting traditional potato salad. Maybe that lobster mess would’ve been tasty if you hadn’t set my palate to potato salad first, but you did so now it’s disgusting.

After thinning out the cruddy songs, the next step toward introducing a new listener to Zappa is setting the appropriate expectation. Jazz might be Zappa’s most common genre, but it certainly wasn’t his only one. He loved doo wop and R&B for example. Set your ears to ’60s R&B, and “Tears Began To Fall” is a great  song:







Set your palate to “early ’70s rock,” and you can’t go wrong with “Apostrophe:”






But what about that verse/verse/chorus/verse pop song? “Camarillo Brillo” and “Dirty Love” get the job done:






As for jazz-flavored Zappa, you can’t go wrong with the trifecta of “Black Napkins,” “Peaches En Regalia,” and “Watermelon In Easter Hay:”




And then there’s the “serious” music. Zappa’s classical work wasn’t always difficult and atonal. If you can handle Tchaikovsky you can handle “Original Duke of Prunes:”

So there you have it, Ace Man: Eight genuinely good songs from the Zappa catalog. They might not suit your palate but they’re tasty nonetheless, and hopefully the acknowledgement by a true Zappa fan that Frank (and his estate) released a lot of shitty material makes them go down a little easier.

I can’t help you feel any better about growing up in the suburban wasteland surrounding Los Angeles, though, which is good for me. That’s my favorite topic to listen to you rant about.

8 replies »

  1. I wish I had the energy to be the one who rants about growing up in the suburban wasteland of L.A. – but I was there too long, and it sucked the life right out of me. Part of my brain is forever “Sunny SoCal” fried. So….I gotta listen to this guy. I am not embarrassed to say I have never heard of him – because yes, I really have been living under a rock for about a year.
    ( The only light that manages to get in sometimes is vomit-orange 😳)


  2. Thanks for sharing this with us, James. Zappa has never been part of the soundtrack of my life, but your introduction has me intrigued. Your reference to the necessary adult in the room brings to mind something I’ve often thought about. It’s a given that only a microscopic percentage of musicians hit it big. Have you ever wondered how much really stellar music (of any genre) never made it out of somebody’s basement studio? Sad, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Have to agree with Adam. It this was samples of his best, well they suck. Not much of an audiophile. And my taste are not nearly as broad as yours. But I did not like any of them.


    • I get “I don’t like them.” That’s cool. Taste is a very personal thing.

      I don’t get “they suck,” that’s more of a quantifiable thing, sort of like saying that NFL running back Joe Blow sucks. His demonstrable talent is greater than 99.99 percent of the population. If he sucked, he never would’ve made the roster.

      Maybe it’s just a semantics issue.


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