Home Read Albums Of The Week: Frank Zappa | Funky Nothingness

Albums Of The Week: Frank Zappa | Funky Nothingness

Recorded in 1970 at L.A.'s Record Plant, the late meastro's latest posthumous Vault offering features long-lost recordings that could have been the sequel to Hot Rats.

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “In 1969, after The Mothers of Invention disbanded, Frank Zappa released his groundbreaking solo debut Hot Rats. Fusing jazz and rock, the innovative album became one of the artist’s bestselling releases, thanks to classic tracks like Peaches En Regalia and Willie The Pimp. Over the following year, in between various projects (including producing Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and hosting Belgium’s Festival Actuel, where Zappa met British drummer Aynsley Dunbar), he assembled a core group to lay down tracks at L.A.’s recently opened Record Plant.

The sessions, which took place primarily in February and March 1970 at the studio, featured Zappa once again in the producer’s chair and joined by several of the musicians that played on Hot Rats, including Mothers member Ian Underwood (keyboard, saxophone, rhythm guitar), violinist and vocalist Don “Sugarcane” Harris, and Wrecking Crew bassist Max Bennett. The band was rounded out by Dunbar, who had just relocated to Los Angeles and moved in with Zappa following his invite to join the band. Together the group recorded hours 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 Zappa identified his favorite takes and mixed the tracks for eventual release, the wildly prolific musician’s insatiable curiosity pulled him in other directions as the year wore on. It’s not known exactly why this material was never released but it’s possible that upon meeting Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) shortly after the sessions, Zappa was inspired to work with them and assembled a bigger band and moved away from instrumental compositions and more toward vocally oriented material. Flo & Eddie would join The Mothers for Chunga’s Revenge, recorded mostly that summer and released in October of that year. By the end of 1970, Zappa was well into writing and developing his film, 200 Motels and the accompanying soundtrack. All the while this incredible material was put on the backburner.

Listening back to the tapes from these sessions, unearthed from Zappa’s massive Vault more than five decades later, Vaultmeister Joe Travers and Ahmet Zappa knew they had something special. Working with the tracks that Zappa had produced, mixed, and worked on over the years, they compiled an 11-track album, naming it Funky Nothingness after a bluesy, stripped-down piece that the artist had recorded in 1967 at the end of one of the sessions for Uncle Meat. Originally intended to open an early version of Chunga’s Revenge, the short, unreleased track “sets the tone for the album,” explains Travers. Although the track was recorded a few years before most of the music presented here, Zappa eventually connected it a build reel, signaling he was planning a release. While a couple recordings from these sessions have been released over the years (fans may remember the 12-minute version of Sharleena from 1996’s posthumous collection Lost Episodes), Funky Nothingness introduces these recordings as a cohesive collection for the very first time. “Funky Nothingness, as an album, is special in that it features at least three written compositions, two cover versions and multiple instrumental jam-oriented segments, all previously unreleased,” Travers explains. “It’s very rare to find that amount of music from one set of sessions that has gone unheard for such a long period of time.”

An accompanying 28-page booklet includes photos from the recording sessions by photographer John Williams, plus illuminating liner notes and an individual track-by-track by Travers. Disc 1 features Zappa’s vintage mixes alongside several modern mixes by Craig Parker Adams, who also mixed the bonus material. All audio was mastered by John Polito at Audio Mechanics. In all, the 25-track collection includes 23 unreleased tracks totaling nearly three and a half hours of never-before-heard music.

As a preview, fans were treated to the previously unreleased track Work With Me Annie / Annie Had A Baby, which marries two 1954 hits by Hank Ballard & The Midnighters. The medley of Work With Me Annie, written by Ballard, combined with its answer song, Annie Had A Baby, written by Henry Glover and Sydney Nathan, features vocals by Don “Sugarcane” Harris, who rose to fame in the ’50s as one-half of Don & Dewey. Zappa, who was a fan of the R&B duo, seized the opportunity to perform classic tunes from the genre with Harris during these sessions.

Harris also takes center stage as a vocalist on Love Will Make Your Mind Go Wild, which delivers classic soul balladry with a standout violin solo at the end. Zappa takes lead vocals on the 12-minute rendition of Lightnin’ Slim’s I’m A Rollin’ Stone. This recording would go on to serve as the genesis for the iconic Stink-Foot that closes Zappa’s 1974 album Apostrophe(’) as he would eventually wipe his vocals from the multi-track master, save the drum, violin and bass track, and overdub new guitars, vocals and sound effects to create something entirely different.

Meanwhile, Underwood’s talents on the organ can be heard on the swinging soul-jazz instrumental, Khaki Sack, a tune that The Mothers occasionally played on tour. While live versions have previously been released (most notably on the Beat The Boots! II box set as w̃hät) this marks the only known studio recording. Fans may also recognize the oft-bootlegged Twinkle Tits, which the band sometimes worked into concerts.

Another awe-inspiring jam is Tommy / Vincent Duo II, showcasing the magic between Zappa and Dunbar in their earliest days together. An unedited version, which stretches to nearly 22 minutes long, appears on Disc 3. Travers writes, “By 1970, Frank had worked with some great drummers between The Mothers and the L.A. studio scene… (but) Aynsley took things to another level. It’s easy to understand how Frank would be excited to see where their chemistry would take them musically. Here is audio proof.”

All three discs include takes of Chunga’s Revenge, which would serve as the title track to Zappa’s actual followup to Hot Rats, released in October 1970. The Basement Version, found on the main album, was recorded in Zappa’s basement at home in Laurel Canyon using a four-channel quad setup, nearly three years before the format was available to the consumer. Zappa then created a stereo mix down from the quad track, which is what is included here.

Fascinating versions of Sharleena, Transylvania Boogie and the percussion-based The Clap are included as well, with the latter providing an opportunity to hear for the first time the full, unedited recording released in truncated form on Chunga’s Revenge. Another gem of the bonus content is Halos & Arrows, an experimental guitar piece discovered at the end of a multi-track reel.

The multi-track master tapes for these recordings were found on a variety of formats. It seems they had a 1” 8-track recorder, a 2” 16-track recorder, and a 2” 24-track recorder at their disposal. Travers notes, “If indeed the 24-track existed in March 1970, that would place it even earlier in FZ’s orbit than at first assumed. It’s a head-scratcher for sure, but it does make sense as Frank was embracing audio technology as soon as it became available.” He continues, “The amount of post-production and overdubs are on the minimal side, but what we do find demonstrates Zappa’s everpresent ability to experiment with effects and tape manipulation, producing signature sounds akin to much of Zappa’s ’60s studio album output.”

Perhaps most importantly, these recordings were an unusual find, reveals Travers. “With archival releases from the vault, it is normal to find different arrangements of past tunes featured in live concerts and studio settings with other bands, but actual NEW compositions are few and far between, especially from within Zappa’s golden years of the ’60s and ’70s. Funky Nothingness delivers on all fronts, showcasing Zappa’s love for rhythm and blues, picking up where Hot Rats left off with extended instrumental work-outs fusing rock, jazz, and classical elements into music that can only be described as Zappa. The guitar work and virtuoso musicianship are in full effect.”