The Big Note: A Guide to the Recordings of Frank Zappa
By Charles Ulrich. New Star, 754 pp, softcover
You’d think that with so many books over the years devoted to all things Frank Zappa, anything newly published about the iconoclastic rock musician/composer would merely be covering already thoroughly explored territory.
You’d be wrong.
Up until his death in 1993, Zappa had been the subject of no less than 75 books, according to Avo Raup, an Estonian IT guy and music lover who collects and documents published information on Zappa from everywhere and anywhere, whether newspaper or magazine article, book, fanzine, movie poster, sheet music, et cetera (afka.net). Another 170 Zappa books got published between 1993 and today, for an unofficial grand total of 245.
Make that 246. A bit more than a month ago, small Vancouver publisher New Star Books released author/researcher Charles Ulrich’s monumental The Big Note: A Guide to the Recordings of Frank Zappa. It’s the result of a decade-and-a-half of study: listening to recordings of all types, conducting interviews with dozens of Zappa’s fellow musicians, singers, studio engineers, people he toured with, fans, probably even his guitar tuners.
There is nothing like it in the previous 245 books, and it makes one wonder why—until you crack the cover and start leafing through the monster paperback’s 800 info-crammed pages. Really, who else would have had the patience, the determination—the obsession?—to do so much work, turn over so many stones? And not in a search for dirt or gossip or other sensational material. And definitely not in service of presenting full-colour glossy reproductions of his more than 100 album covers (about 60 of which Zappa produced either solo or with his most famous band, the Mothers of Invention). In fact, there are no photos or artwork of any kind between the covers of The Big Note. Just information, and oodles of it.
Therein lies the book’s appeal to Zappa fanatics, completists, or even just casual fans who are familiar with some of his work and wouldn’t mind hearing about a bit more. Or a lot more. And let’s not leave out the trivia-seeking, minutiae-absorbing rock fans, the types who devour every word of albums’ liner notes and celebrate every reference to obscure session players and background vocalists, the ones who sigh with pleasure to discover that it was a bass harmonica played by Charlie McCoy that made that deep droning sound in two verses of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”.
Ulrich devotes a chapter (there are 105 of them) to each album (vinyl, CD, or DVD–audio) released up to June 2015. They are in alphabetical order instead of being organized chronologically, because some albums’ release dates came years after their recording sessions.
Each chapter contains recording and release dates, catalogue numbers for reference, a list of musicians used, the number and names of tracks, a discussion of the album in general (artwork, guitar solos, studio mishaps and glitches), differences between releases, and a track-by-track breakdown of the recording in question. And here is where some of the most interesting Zappa information can be gleaned. Every obscure lyrical reference is seized upon, explained, and placed in context, with past usage, live or studio, notated in detail. Even grunts and interjections are identified by band member and frequency.
A small, simple sample (from the Fillmore East chapter, “Latex Solar Beef”): “The song contains a musical quotation from ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Richard Strauss (2:32-2:36). Naugahyde is an imitation leather made of vinyl.…FZ performed an early version of ‘Latex Solar Beef’ in concert in summer/fall 1970 (as heard on Tengo Na Minchia Tanta) and the fully developed version in 1971 (as heard here). In the 1970 arrangement, the first section (‘You can hear the steam…’) is spoken rather than sung, and the middle section (‘Acetylene nirvana…’) is missing. ‘Junier Mintz Boogie’, the B-side of the ‘Tears Began To Fall’ single, is a guitar solo from ‘Latex Solar Beef’.”
You get the picture. Some of the musical notations are quite detailed and will thrill dedicated musicians and musicologists alike, and the setup lends itself to both long readings and brief snatches of type. Screened sidebars on session players, recording techniques, arrangements, improvisations, and much more break up the relentless march of text unmarked by graphics of any kind, but it all seems to work just fine.
This book is about information, plain and simple, and—just like Zappa’s incredibly productive musical career as composer, arranger, musician, lyricist, bandleader, and more—it delivers.More