Sun Ra

Sun Ra

The man born Herman “Sonny” Blount, better known to his colleagues, fans and disciples as Sun Ra, would have turned 100 today. Or rather, he is turning 100 today. He’s just doing it somewhere on Saturn, after the end of time.

More than any other jazz artist, Sun Ra created a whole cosmology around his music. Dressed in his flowing gold robes and Egyptian headdresses, he presided over a cacophonous blend of hard bop, New Orleans stride, free jazz, African-inspired polyrhythms, squiggly synth excursions and psychedelic jazz-rock fusion that still sounds otherworldly today. He claimed to be from Saturn, which was revealed to him in a vision he had as a young man of aliens with “one little antenna on each ear” and “a little antenna over each eye,” who told him it was his mission to speak to the people of Earth through his music. And speak he did.

Sun Ra’s recording career spanned five decades and a bewildering array of styles, from early masterpieces of comparatively straightforward, Thelonious Monk-style bebop like 1959’s Jazz in Silhouette to more abstract but still very jazzy late-period works like 1990’s Purple Night. In between, he pioneered the use of the electric piano and synthesizer in jazz, released an Afro-futurist sci-fi film and a string of groundbreaking, space-themed jazz fusion albums, and built up a stage show so elaborate that his Sun Ra Arkestra became, according to his official online bio, “the only jazz orchestra that brings a tailor on tour.”

It’s hard to know where to start with Sun Ra’s prolific output—so much so that iTunes, which just began releasing digitally remastered versions of his catalog this week, has created something called the “Explore the Cosmos” series that breaks up his oeuvre into more easily digestible, thematically linked chunks (for example, you can download the “Outer Space” section of the Sun Ra catalog, or the “Hard Bop” section, or even just the “Percussion” section, if you’re really into the parts where it’s basically just a bunch of people chanting over bongos). But probably the best-known work from his golden ’60s/’70s era is his 1972 album Space Is the Place, which later also became the name of that sci-fi film we were telling you about. The title track became the Sun Ra Arkestra’s theme song over the years.

Here’s a fantastic clip of them performing “Space Is the Place,” along with one of their peppiest numbers, “Face the Music.” (Plus, at the six-minute mark, an excerpt of an interview with Sun Ra talking about his visit to Saturn and how “music can wash clothes.”) I’m not sure what year this is from, but Sun Ra’s band is really at the peak of their powers here, a Parliament/Funkadelic (one of many bands they influenced) for the jazzbo set:

And here’s another of Sun Ra’s most famous numbers, from the 1982 album Nuclear War, which asks the immortal question, “Whatchu gonna do without yo ass?”

Here’s a complete list of the albums that were just issued in iTunes, complete with downloadable PDF liner notes by our hero, outsider music guru Irwin Chusid. It’s our understanding that many of these titles have been out of print or hard to find for many years, although we haven’t researched the Sun Ra catalog deeply enough to confirm this. Some of them contain previously unreleased or bootleg-only bonus material; 1966’s The Nubians of Plutonia, for example, has four bonus tracks, including a previously unreleased studio version of “Spontaneous Simplicity,” a flute-fueled meditation best known from its live version on 1968’s Pictures of Infinity. If you’re willing to live with downloads instead of physical product, it’s a potential treasure trove of Sun Ra ephemera.

Supersonic Jazz  (1957)
Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth (1958)
Angels and Demons At Play (1965)
Interstellar Low Ways (1966)
Jazz in Silhouette (1959)
Nubians of Plutonia (1966)
Sound Sun Pleasure (1970)
We Travel the Spaceways (1967)
Fate in a Pleasant Mood (1965)
Holiday for Soul Dance (1970)
Bad and Beautiful (1972)
The Invisible Shield (1974)
When Sun Comes Out (1963)
Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (1967)
Monorails and Satellites, Vol. 1 (1968)
Other Planes of There (1966)
The Magic City (1966)
Strange Strings (1967)
Atlantis (1969)
Astro Black (1972)
Universe in Blue (1972)

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Moondog

Moondog
Photo by Peter Krabbe (lifted from Moondog’s Corner)

When I was a kid, my Dad worked in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. My Mom and I went into the city to visit him pretty regularly, mostly because my dentist’s office was in the same building. This would have been from about 1972 to 1980, which means I was around for the tail end of the illustrious busking career of Moondog, whose favorite venue was the corner of 6th Avenue and 54th Street, just a few blocks from my Dad’s office. Did I ever get to see Moondog in action? Sadly, I can’t remember. I’d say odds are good that I did, and odds are even better that my mother hurried me, mouth agog with freshly scrubbed pearlies, past the blind, white-bearded man dressed up like a Viking, telling me that it wasn’t polite to stare.

For over two decades, millions of New Yorkers and tourists stopped to stare at the man born Louis T. Hardin, most of them having no clue that the crazy, hairy guy in the leather helmet, playing what looked like a shoeshine box with a cymbal attached to it, was actually an accomplished musician and composer who hung out with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Charlie Parker. As street musicians go, Moondog was both as eccentric and as accomplished as they come.

Before he became Moondog, Hardin was a Midwestern farm kid, born in Kansas and raised in Wyoming and Missouri. He lost his eyesight at age 16 when, as he tells it, “I picked up a dynamite cap on a railroad track after a flood and pounded on it. It exploded in my face.” Already a drummer in his high school band, Hardin was accepted into the Iowa School for the Blind, where he picked up some formal musical training on various other instruments, including the pipe organ, which enabled him to start composing his own works.

In 1943, while he was in his late twenties, Hardin decided to move to New York City, hoping to connect with the city’s great classical composers and conductors. From hanging around outside Carnegie Hall, he met and befriended the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Artur Rodzinski, who invited the young blind man with the flowing black beard to sit in with the orchestra’s rehearsals. But Hardin, who wasn’t yet dressing like a Viking but did favor long, hooded monk’s robes, was a little too leftfield to hit it off with the buttoned-down classical musicians of the New York Phil. Soon, he was back on the street, where he instead began busking, reciting poetry and playing music on a growing collection of homemade, portable instruments.

As Hardin’s peculiar sidewalk performances attracted more notice, he began getting write-ups in the press. But as the estranged son of an Episcopalian minister, he was unhappy that many journalists described his berobed, long-bearded appearance as “Christ-like.” By the mid-’50s, he had transitioned to Viking garb for a more pagan look. He had also started calling himself Moondog and making more references to the Native American influences in his music, particularly in the syncopated rhythms that he liked to call “snake-time.”

We could end Moondog’s story right here and still make a case for including him on the Weird List. But it gets better. From his preferred street corner, midway between Carnegie Hall and the jazz clubs of 52nd Street, Hardin began attracting a cult following among many of the city’s best-known musicians. Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman were fans; so were Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini. By the ’60s, he was hanging out with such counter-culture luminaries as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. When he performed indoors—which he did on occasion—he shared stages with the like of Lenny Bruce and Tiny Tim. He even lived for a time with the minimalist composer Philip Glass, who cites Moondog’s spare, percussive fugues, rounds and minuets as a strong influence on his own work. (Moondog is often described as “homeless,” but this is somewhat misleading—only occasionally did he not have an apartment of his own, and when he didn’t, he usually stayed in fleabag hotels or with friends.)

Moondog’s music is, if anything, even more intriguing than the man himself. A mix of cryptic poetry, slinky jazz and stately, classical chamber pieces, it achieved an improbable level of popularity during his New York years, culminating in 1969’s Moondog, released on Columbia Records and produced by James William Guercio, whose other credits included Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The cover photo of Moondog, with his snow-white beard and glaring Viking’s visage, remains an iconic image of the ’60s alternative music scene.

By the time he left New York for Germany in 1974, Moondog had released six albums, four EPs and, of all things, an album of children’s music with Julie Andrews. His song “All Is Loneliness” had been covered by Janis Joplin. He had been interviewed and profiled by everyone from Collier’s to the New York Times. He even successfully sued DJ Alan Freed for the rights to the Moondog name.

But as New York City took a turn for the seedier in the ’70s, Moondog grew disenchanted with his adopted hometown. While on a tour of Europe in 1974, he decided to stay, eventually settling in a small city in West Germany called Recklinghausen. His move was so abrupt that many people back in New York assumed he had died. (Actually, many New Yorkers tend to assume this of anyone who leaves the Big Apple, it being the center of the universe and all.) But he lived on in Germany for another 25 years, continuing to compose and record and occasionally perform.

He rarely returned to America, though a welcome exception happened in 1989, when he came back to New York to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra at the New Music America festival. Treating him as though he had risen (Christ-like?) from the dead, the New York press fawned over him for a week. “Maybe it takes New York 15 years to miss you,” he quipped.

Moondog’s later works grew far more ambitious: Among them was his first complete symphony, a 25-part canon, and a nine-hour piece for 1,000 musicians called “Cosmos” that, for obvious reasons, has still never been performed. Oddly, his best-known work nowadays is probably a tribute to Charlie Parked called “Lament 1 (Bird’s Lament),” mainly because it was sampled in a popular jazz-house track by Mr. Scruff.

One of Moondog’s final works was among his weirdest. Released in Europe in 1994 and in the U.S. in 1997 (the final Moondog album released here before his death in 1999), Sax Pax for a Sax is a tribute to both the inventor of the saxophone and the great city Louis T. Hardin called home for three decades. Most of the music was performed by an all-sax-and-drums ensemble called The London Saxophonic, with occasional touches of piano and a solemn male chorus.

We’ll leave you with some classic Moondog from his NYC street-busking days. As far-out and eccentric as Moondog and his music could sometimes be, there’s also a simple, childlike beauty to a lot of it that stops you in your tracks. Almost as much as the sight of a white-bearded Viking hanging out on a street corner in midtown Manhattan.

Also, one final quote, from a 1953 magazine article. This is Moondog explaining to a bemused journalist why he liked performing on the streets:

I like to flaunt convention. In commercial music, I’d have to conform. But so long as I stay on the streets, people take this* because they think I’m a harmless eccentric. Maybe I am. But I do as I please. That’s more than most people can say. So far as I’m concerned, I’ve arrived.

(*By “this,” the journalist seemed to assume Moondog was referring only to his unusual manner of dress. We like to think he was referring to his music, as well.)

All hail the Viking of 6th Avenue!

P.S. Thanks to the magnificently named reader Eustaquio Habichuela Irsuto for first suggesting that we write about Moondog, well over a year ago. Sorry it took us awhile, Eustaquio.

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Koenjihyakkei

Koenjihyakkei

Way back in 2009, when we were still a little ankle-biter of a blog, we wrote a post about a French band called Magma that spawned (the band, not the post) an entire genre of hyper-bizarre prog-rock/space-jazz/freak-fusion called Zeuhl. “Next time you hear a bunch of French dudes chanting nonsense lyrics over music that sounds sort of like Pat Metheny on acid,” we wrote, with that casual air of snark that only comes from having no idea what the fuck you’re talking about, “you’re probably listening to a Zeuhl band.”

Well, it’s taken us four years, but we’ve finally a.) admitted that, to this very day, we often have no idea what the fuck we’re talking about and b.) gotten around to writing about another Zeuhl band. Except this bunch is neither French nor, entirely, dudes. They’re from Japan and they’re a coed ensemble by the name of Koenjihyakkei, which translates to something like “The Hundred Sights of Koenji.” Koenji is a neighborhood in Tokyo, but does it really have a hundred sights? Beats me. Like I said, we often have no idea what the fuck we’re talking about.

Here’s what little we do know: Koenjihyakkei (also sometimes transliterated as “Koenji Hyakkei”) was started in the early ’90s by a drummer named Tatsuya Yoshida, whose previous band, Ruins, did a pretty fair approximation of Magma’s original Zeuhl insanity rendered down to just a bass/drums duo. Having apparently exhausted that format, Yoshida expanded his list of collaborators with Koenjihyakkei, adding a rotating cast of musicians to an increasingly epic and noisy take on Magma-esque jazz-prog mayhem. The band’s most recent lineup, seen in the above photo, features a lady who just goes by AH on vocals, Keiko Komori on reeds, Kengo Sakamoto on bass and Taku Yabuki on keys.

We also know that, sadly, the band appears to have been pretty inactive since about 2010 or so. Yoshida has been more focused on various new incarnations of Ruins: Ruins Alone, which is just him with a drum kit and electronics, and Sax Ruins, which is him with (you’ll never guess) a sax player. He’s also got a guitar/bass/drums power trio called Korekyojinn and a growing online photo archive called Stones of the World. Not pictures of international Rolling Stones cover bands—though that would indeed be awesome—but just pictures of interesting rock formations, made by both humans and nature. Worth a look, especially if you’re into stony things. Did I just make a really lame pot joke? Why, yes, yes I did. Thanks for noticing.

Koenjihyakkei’s music is difficult to describe, even for us. Is it Magma by way of Naked City? Boredoms by way of Shibushirazu Orchestra? Japanese show tunes as performed by “something so far off Broadway it’s on the moon”? (We didn’t come up with that last one, but it kinda sounds like something we would’ve written in 2009.) Whatever it is, it’s more overtly jazz-based than Magma or Ruins, but still prone to going off on the sort of crazy tangents that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Mike Patton side project.

We’ll leave you with two videos that should give you a sense of Koenjihyakkei’s full range of musical lunacy. The first is taken from their 2010 DVD Live at Koenji High and really showcases them (especially vocalist AH) as a sort of a jazz quintet from Mars. The oddly jaunty gang vocals at 2:50 are my favorite part. Also the part where she growls like a demon over some serious ’70s-style prog-rock synth runs. I’m not telling you where to find that part; you’ll just have to listen to the whole goddamned thing yourself.

Next: We would be remiss if we didn’t include the track that MVR (Most Valuable Reader) Stuart Johnson sent our way to introduce us to the awesomeness that is Koenjihyakkei. Thanks, Stuart! For a band that owes much of its existence to a single other band (i.e. Magma), Koenjihyakkei are about as original as it gets.

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Naked City

Naked City

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but today marks the addition of our 200th band to The Weird List. I don’t think anybody, including us, thought we could keep at it this long…and honestly, without you amazing readers out there in Interweb Land, we wouldn’t have. So thank you. And now that we’ve gotten all that mushy shit out of the way…

We couldn’t make just any band our 200th. We had to go with a classic. And few weird bands are weirder or more classic than John Zorn’s Naked City, the whiplash jazz/punk/surf/lounge/thrash/ambient/noise quintet that blew into the world in the late ’80s and blew out again just five years later, leaving a trail of ringing ears, confused jazzbos and grotesque album covers in their wake.

Naked City grew out of an eclectic downtown Manhattan music scene in the late ’80s that coalesced around the original Knitting Factory. Punks went to see jazz combos; jazz musicians joined punk bands. You could see free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor one night and Sonic Youth the next. Mike Doughty, the future lead singer of Soul Coughing, worked the door. If I had a time machine, right after I killed Hitler, I would go to the Knitting Factory circa 1990.

The ringleader of Naked City was an angry 36-year-old saxophonist named John Zorn, who had been active as an experimental composer and musician for over a decade. A fan of both avant-classical experimenter John Cage and cartoon soundtrack composer Carl Stalling, Zorn spent much of his early career devising what he called “game pieces”: essentially, highly structured improvisations featuring a mix of jazz, rock, classical and unconventional instrumentation. For some reason, most of Zorn’s game pieces had sports-themed names; here’s one, for example, called “Archery,” and another called “Lacrosse.”

To give you the best idea of how weird Zorn’s game pieces could get, here are two different versions of his most famous game, “Cobra”: first, from a 1992 documentary called On the Edge: Improvisation in Music; next, from a 2008 Zorn concert in Tel Aviv featuring Naked City drummer Joey Baron, jazz guitar god Marc Ribot and members of Mr. Bungle. In both clips, you can see Zorn “conducting” the game with yellow cue cards, which he mostly seems to use to whip his musicians into ever greater frenzies of atonal chaos.

In addition to his game pieces, Zorn also dabbled in experimental rock music (with Golden Palominos, among others), duck calls as musical instruments (most notably on The Classic Guide to Strategy), traditional Japanese music, and Ennio Morricone. But he was also listening to a lot of punk, speed metal and early grindcore—influences that really began to exert themselves on his music in the late ’80s, first with Naked City and then with even more overtly hardcore-influenced projects like Spy vs. Spy, his album-length tribute to free jazz legend Ornette Coleman, and Painkiller, his jazz/dub/grindcore trio with Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris and bassist Bill Laswell.

But enough about John Zorn’s lengthy CV. Let’s get to Naked City already, shall we?

Zorn founded Naked City in 1988 with fellow NYC jazz players Bill Frisell on guitar, Fred Frith on bass, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards and Joey Baron on drums. Borrowing the Naked City name from Weegee’s notorious book of gritty tabloid photography and the 1946 film noir inspired by it, Zorn seems to have originally envisioned the project as a chance to playfully riff on gangster movie soundtracks; the group’s self-titled debut album (which featured a graphic Weegee photo on its cover) included punked-up versions of the James Bond theme, complete with gunshots, and Jerry Goldsmith’s music from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. But it also featured several hyper-condensed blasts of sheer noise, with titles like “Igneous Ejaculation” and “Demon Sanctuary,” often featuring the banshee-getting-a-prostate-exam vocals of Yamatsuka Eye of the Boredoms.

The band’s second album, Torture Garden, ditched the gangster-soundtrack angle entirely and just crammed 42 “hardcore miniatures” onto a single disc (including a few repurposed pieces from their debut). The shortest, “Hammerhead,” was just eight seconds long. The one that sounded the most like some kind of mission statement was called “Jazz Snob Eat Shit.”

Over the next four years, Naked City would release five more albums, each more bizarre than the last. By the 1992 album Radio, they were skipping with abandon from thrash metal to prog-rock to country to free jazz to Looney Tunes soundtracks, sometimes all in the same song. Their live shows became breakneck tours the last 50 years of popular music, often accompanied by the otherworldly shrieks of Eye or their other favorite live guest vocalist, Mr. Bungle’s Mike Patton.

Alas, it was all too weird to last. After 1993’s moodier, more ambient Absinthe, Naked City broke up and John Zorn went on to other, only slightly less nutty projects like his klezmer-inspired group Masada and the Moonchild Trio, his long-running collaboration with Joey Baron, Mike Patton and Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn.

But for awhile there, Naked City was truly, in the eyes of many, the Weirdest Band in the World. Naked City fans are a diehard breed, even among fans of weird music. This, from a 2005 review of the band’s complete recordings, is only slightly more extreme than usual: “Every time I move into a new place—even before I cart in the boxes—I set up a stereo and blast that [debut] LP in the living room: It cleans out the evil spirits and even clears out bad smells.” I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the guy who wrote that probably moves a lot.

We generally cater to short attention spans around here, and Naked City’s oeuvre offers plenty of material for the ADD crowd. So here’s 55 seconds of Zorn and co., with Eye on vocals:

But believe me when I tell you: To fully appreciate how truly, awesomely insane Naked City was, you need to watch all 93 minutes of this 1990 performance from a jazz festival in Switzerland. Or at least watch until about the 7:05 mark, when it takes Zorn longer to introduce the song “Igneous Ejaculation” than it does for the band to play it.

So to all you Naked City fans who read this blog: Sorry it took us 200 bands to get to them. And now, on to the next 200…

(P.S. Many, many readers have asked us to add Naked City to The Weird List over the years, but we have to give a special shout-out to reader Salvatore Intravaia for answering our call for 200th band suggestions on Facebook. Well-played, Salvatore! As soon as we get around to printing more T-shirts, you’ll get one.)

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New Little Women album “Lung” comes out this Tuesday

Little Women
Photo by Ben Goldstein

Good news from the Land of Skronk: jazz/noise quartet Little Women is releasing their first album of new material in three years this Tuesday, April 9th. It’s called Lung, which makes sense given that their previous album was called Throat and the one before that was Teeth. We can only assume they’re gearing up to release Bowel in 2016.

Lung features a single, 42-minute composition recorded by the band—saxophonists Travis Laplante and Darius Jones, guitarist Andrew Smiley and drummer Jason Nazary—in a single take. We’ll let them describe the rest:

The main themes/forms of Lung all have the shape of a downfall of something beautiful. We were working with a Shakespearian form from its conception. The main themes that developed organically throughout the process of creating Lung are: the life and death of humans, the inhale and the exhale, the death of earth (both seasonally and ultimately). These themes exist and are encompassed on both the microcosmic and macrocosmic level, meaning they exist simultaneously inside every sound, every phrase, every section, and the entire piece.

Got all that? Roughly translated, based on the sound clips we just listened to on their label’s website, this seems to mean something like: We’re going to use our saxophones to rip your face off and show it to you before you die.

Lung will be available via Little Women’s label, AUM Fidelity, on CD and as an MP3 download. They’re not releasing it on vinyl because, according to the AUM website, “this composition was created to be listened to in its entirety, and LPs require an interruption.” So there.

If you happen to live in the band’s hometown, New York City, you can let Little Women rip your face off in person at the 92YTribeca on April 20th. Tickets and more information here.

Shibusashirazu Orchestra

Shibusashirazu Orchestra

Wikipedia describes this week’s weird band as a “free jazz orchestra,” which is a little like saying that Fight Club was a movie about making soap. Meet the Shibusashirazu Orchestra, and let’s all appreciate, once again, how exponentially more batshit crazy the Japanese are capable of making anything, even something as already batshit crazy as free jazz.

Shibusashirazu, which apparently translates to something like, “don’t be cool,” was founded in 1988 by a guy named Daisuke Fuwa, who outside of Shibusashirazu seems like a perfectly nice, unassuming jazz bassist who makes music like this. Fuwa assembled a group of his fellow jazz musicians to perform music for an avant-garde theater troupe called Hakken no Kai, and that somehow morphed into the insanity that is the Shibusashirazu Orchestra.

Since then, the band has continued to tour all over Japan and Europe with a rotating cast of some 20 to 30 musicians and performers, the most striking of which are the near-naked butoh dancers, covered in white body paint and writhing, climbing the scaffolding and engaging in general freakery. There are also video projections, giant balloon creatures, live action painters and enough all-around sensory overload to make Cirque du Soleil look like C-SPAN.

For awhile, we were starting to think Shibusashirazu only had one song, because every single YouTube video seemed to feature the same giant horn-fueled jam session with the same 14-note refrain that sounds vaguely like the hero’s theme from some ’60s martial arts movie. But eventually we were able to figure out that they have, in fact, released eight albums’ worth of material—some of which even just sounds like conventional modern jazz. It’s almost weirder in a way to watch those eerie butoh dancers gesticulating to a nice Kenny Kirkland-style piano solo.

Oddly, two readers (thanks, Sam and Giovanni!) suggested we add Shibusashirazu to the Weird List within a week of each other—and they both forwarded the same video, which features a particularly over-the-top version of that signature 14-note jam session, taken from a 2002 festival in Fuji. So we present it here for your enjoyment. This is really one of those videos where, just when you think it can’t get any nuttier, it does. Our two favorite parts are the giant mylar balloon dragon and the Caucasian dude at the 2:12 mark shaking his head at the camera in disbelief. Oh, and the dancers dressed like a swarm of bees. And the…oh, just watch it.

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Frank Zappa

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This week marks the third anniversary of the launch of TWBITW. The traditional third anniversary gift, in case you’re wondering, is leather. Thanks in advance.

Actually, we like to celebrate anniversaries around here with two things: The consumption of booze (although let’s face it, we celebrate everything with the consumption of booze) and the addition to The Weird List of a classic artist. Last year, it was Primus; the year before that, it was Parliament-Funkadelic. This year, we’d like to finally make a whole shit-ton of you readers happy by belatedly inducting one Frank Vincent Zappa into our hallowed halls of weirdness. Welcome, Frank! Your arrival is long overdue, we know.

Full disclosure: Although I’ve come to appreciate him in small doses, I never was much of a Frank Zappa fan. Way back in high school, I knew a kid who owned a copy of Joe’s Garage, and he would occasionally play it for us with all the usual Zappa-head exhortations: “The guitar on this track will blow your mind,” “The rhythm changes on this part are nuts,” “Check it out—this whole song is about sausage!” I wish I could say he eventually won the rest of us over, but honestly, we all just shrugged and went back to our U2 records.

So despite being the keeper of a weird band blog, I’m not really the best person to expound on the weirdness of Zappa’s colossal ouevre, which encompasses more than 60 albums and a mind-bending mishmash of rock, jazz, funk, doo-wop, classical and avant-garde tape loop and sound collage experiments, sometimes all of the same album and always shot through with a surreal sense of humor that made it hard to tell when he was trying to make a point and when he was just fucking around.

Still, I will endeavor to enumerate just a few of the many, many reasons why Frank Zappa not only deserves to be on The Weird List—he should probably be the patron saint of this whole damn blog:

  • At the age of 22, he played a bicycle as a musical instrument on the Steve Allen Show. Yes, video of this exists.
  • In 1968, at the height of the Flower Power era, he and his band the Mothers of Invention released an album called We’re Only in It for the Money that was basically a giant fuck-you to hippie culture.
  • He is the inventor of a recording technique called “xenochrony,” in which two different studio takes done in entirely different tempos, keys and/or time signatures are merged together to jarring effect. You can hear a good example of it in this track. (Reader Waffenspiel referred us to this later track, which is actually a better example.)
  • He ran a pair of independent record labels called Bizarre and Straight. Among the artists signed to them was this guy. Also this guy. Oh, and Alice Cooper.
  • At a time when most people were too chickenshit to openly criticize Scientology, he openly mocked it with his made-up religion, Appliantology, led by a con artist named L. Ron Hoover, on Joe’s Garage. Had I known all this back in high school, I might have been more inclined to dig Joe’s Garage.
  • This was his only Top 40 hit in America.
  • He helped give the world Steve Vai.
  • His most controversial work was a 1984 rock musical called Thing-Fish, which has been variously condemned as being racist, sexist, homophobic and just in general bad taste. Here, judge for yourself. When he couldn’t get the musical produced on Broadway as he originally intended, Zappa instead partially staged the whole thing for a photo shoot for Hustler magazine. (All of this helped set the stage for Zappa’s anti-censorship campaign against the Parents Music Resource Center, Tipper Gore’s lobbying group that prompted the advent of parental advisory stickers. Zappa’s Senate testimony against the PMRC ranks among the most entertaining performances of his career.)
  • For much of the last decade of his life, he composed and recorded almost entirely on the Synclavier.
  • The same year he released Joe’s Garage (1979), he also released albums called Orchestral Favorites and Sheik Yerbouti. Yes, Orchestral Favorites featured a full orchestra. No, Sheik Yerbouti was not a disco record.

I could go on, but you get the idea. No one colored outside the lines like Frank Zappa.

“I never set out to be weird,” Zappa told his hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, in 1986. “It was always other people who called me weird.” Don’t all the best weirdos say that? (And in case we haven’t made this clear by now: Around these parts, we consider “weird” to be a high form of praise. “Weird” means you’re doing something original and exciting that changes people’s perceptions of what music or art can be. “Weird” should be a badge of fucking honor, not something used to belittle or trivialize an artist’s work. Can someone place explain that to this guy? Thanks.)

I’ll leave you, selfishly, with a song that’s not Zappa’s weirdest by a longshot. It just happens to be my favorite. After all, it’s our anniversary! Crank it up, and don’t forget to air out those python-skin boots.

P.S. As of Aug. 14th, Frank Zappa’s entire catalog is now available on iTunes. Frank would’ve been totally down with it.

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