Perhaps the most frustrating moment for an admirer of any period of Frank Zappa's considerable output comes as one of the bonus features to the Frank Zappa Classic Albums DVD (Eagle Rock Entertainment). In "Welcome to the Vault," we're taken on a tour through the Zappa musical archives – shelf after shelf of recordings in every possible format, going back to before the Mothers of Invention, all preserved with anal retentive diligence – and the Zappahead can't help but cry out, "Why aren't we hearing so much more of this undoubtedly cool stuff?"
The prime focus of Classic Albums, though, isn't on what we haven't heard, but on the man's two biggest commercial successes: the early seventies jazz-rock long-players, Over-nite Sensation and Apostrophe ('). Both albums, we're told, were essentially made at the same time with much of the same personnel – keyboardist George Duke, percussionist Ruth Underwood, drummer Ralph Humphry, bassist Tom Fowler & trombonist Bruce Fowler, etc. – many of whom get to show us how much they've aged by appearing on-camera to talk about the experience of Working for Frank. No big surprises here: we learn that Zappa had a knack for hiring "amazing musicians" (a phrase repeated several times, including by Zappa admirer Billy Bob Thornton, who is also filmed rhapsodizing about "Dinah-Moe Humm") and for writing difficult parts for 'em to play. There's a charming moment where Ruth Underwood, thirty years after the fact, attempts to replay a difficult marimba passage from Apostrophe(') and makes three barely discernible mistakes: "one for each decade that I've been away from the music and the instrument."
Though the documentary attempts to place Zappa's Big Hit Albums within the context of his long and frustrating career, it makes no attempt at answering what I've long considered the big dilemma for many of us first attracted to the man as a musical satirist: the point in his career where he shifted so much of his lyrical emphasis from strong cultural/political satire to soft-porn comedy. Though they both focus on sexual themes, there's a major intelligence gap between "Harry, You're A Beast" from the MoI years and Sensation's "Dinah-Moe Humm," yet unfortunately it was the latter that brought Frank his biggest coterie of fans. Talking about the "Humm," widow Gail Zappa notes that "the horror is that it's like the most madly requested" song (there's even a moment on one of the concert discs where we hear an obviously drunken fan ask for it), yet that was the story realm where Zappa increasingly spent his time. Small wonder, perhaps, that the man would later state that he much preferred writing the music to the words.
That fannish bone-of-contention aside, Classic Albums does contain some tantalizing pieces within it: pointlessly sped-up film footage of Zappa in the studio; sequences where son Dweezil sonically deconstructs the sound of a cut, pointing out the "eyebrows" used as atmospheric embellishment to the song; snippets of concert footage and some muy blurry home movie footage; an interview with Valley Girl Moon Zappa where she confesses how, as a kid, she found the subject matter of Frank's songs "to be embarrassing." As bonuses, the DVD includes a live Roxy performance of "Montana" (arguably the best song from Sensation) and the original Saturday Night Live recital of the anti-teevee screed, "I Am the Slime," wherein SNL announcer Don Pardo performed the song's central monologue and later gleefully announces that he is the Slime. There's also a version by Dweezil Zappa and friends of "Camarillo Brillo," which is respectfully performed and thoroughly unexciting.
One thing that this doc – especially in the Dweezil studio segments – makes clear, though, is that Zappa packed a lotta musical information into his studio albums: so much so that even a lesser album like Sensation stands up to decades of repeated playing. While I'd have liked to hear more about the actual process of compiling and editing which built to a work like Apostrophe(')'s extended Eskimo fantasia, "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," that's a process that is lost in time. All we can do is sit back and marvel at the man's ability to balance so many sonic elements in his head.
But if Classic Albums provides no true keys to Zappa's conceptual continuity (outside of a coupla interview snippets of the man himself telling that it's all connected), it still works as a tribute to a rock composer who made sounds like nobody else – despite countless attempts at emulating his music by his followers. May not've ultimately learned much from this DVD, but it inspired me to go back to the originals (and wonder, why no mention of "Uncle Remus"?) Had a good time with 'em both, but I've gotta admit I still prefer One Size Fits All as an example of this particular studio configuration at its best. For one thing, the songs're consistently funnier …