?Frank Zappa was a gift to humanity. He was so musically brilliant that even if you haven’t heard any of his work I can pretty much guarantee you will find at least one piece of his other that you’ll like. That’s partly because he was eclectic and incorporated a variety of different musical styles into his work, but also because he simply recorded so much stuff that albums of his are still being regularly released to this day, over a decade after his death.
In addition to his musical achievements Frank’s deranged (and often dazzlingly obscene) imagination gave us lots of hilarious and strange creatures, from Potato-Headed Bobby to the Bwana Dik. Frank had a particular thing for “low” culture, which tended to include trashy science fiction movies and bizarre sexual fetishes. As a result, there are several songs of his that feature monsters, mad scientists, and some oddball creations that can’t even be defined that well. For the most nerd-friendly introduction to his music ever assembled, one need look no further.
17) The Central Scrutinizer
The hissy-voiced narrator of the rock opera Joe’s Garage, an arbitrator speaking through a sort of tin megaphone in the near future. Appearing at the beginning of each track (always after announcing his name), it is his mission to warn the public away from “things that are not normal,” such as music, and he presents the story of Joe’s Garage as a cautionary tale of the sort of messed-up things that could happen to budding musicians anywhere. He’s also prone to lapsing into nonsensical phrases borrowed from commercials and airport announcements (“You’ll love it, it’s a way of life!”). He’s hard to listen to over and over again (which is surely the point), but the way his proselytizing nonsense gets incorporated into the album’s title track is a thing of beauty.
16) L. Ron Hoover
The leader of the “first Church of Appliantology”, Mr. Ron appears in the middle of the same album on the track “A Token of My Esteem”, just as poor troubled musician Joe seeks out a cure for his misery (as well as a venereal disease). Hoover’s response is to quickly diagnose Joe as a “latent appliance fetishist” and demand $50 (it’s not specifically stated, but my guess is this is SOP for converting Appliantologists). This leads directly to Joe’s attempts to pick up a pig-shaped robot in German at a club called The Closet and have sex with it. I may be way in left field here, but I think this is meant as an attack on… something.
15 and 14) Billy the Mountain and Ethel the Tree
Billy was a mountain. Ethel was a tree growing off of his shoulder. Thus begins (more or less) the epic silliness that is “Billy the Mountain,” a 24-minute mini-musical from Just Another Band From L.A. about a mountain and his wife that finally get their royalties check and go on vacation, inadvertently destroying everything in their wake. Things get a little noodley in the middle section as we jump from Jerry Lewis telethons to an extended Wizard of Oz in-joke, but things come together brilliantly in the third act, as a Woody Allen-esque government-sponsored superhero shows up to try and draft Billy into the army.
13 and 12) Thing-Fish & The Evil Prince
Performed in an Amos and Andy-type dialect by Ike Willis on the album of the same name, Thing-Fish and his race, the Mammy Nuns, are described as having potato-shaped heads and duck bills and make a living putting on a Broadway show, which also functions as a means to torture middle-class white people and release their inner sexual deviants. They were originally prisoners at San Quentin but were transformed after ingesting the Galoot Cologne formula created by the Evil Prince, racist part-time theater critic and undisciplined consumer of pork innards. The Prince actually first appeared in the Zappa classic “The Torture Never Stops” before it was part of this musical. Here, after his original song is re-done by Thing-Fish (as “The Torchum”), the Prince launches into a stagey (and very long) solo about his plans to kill off all creative people so that he can take over the musical world with his homogenized Broadway zombies. As much as I love vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock I won’t blame you if you skip that part, personally.
11) “Goblin Girl”
It’s unclear if this “Goblin Girl from de Mystery World” is supposed to be an actual goblin or just some chick in a Halloween costume, but the speaker of this song is apparently indifferent on the subject: the one thing we know for sure is that she’s good at fellatio, and that seems to be enough for Frank. Fun fact: Frank was also regularly accused of misogyny.
10) “Brown Moses”
One more from Thing-Fish, another Mammy Nun who appears to have something to do with the biblical Moses. Appearing after the notorious briefcase masturbation scene, this “ancient and relijermus” figure (voiced by Johnny “Guitar” Watson) pronounces on the sordid state of affairs of the album in one of its best tracks.
9) The Baritone Women
Frank has quite a few songs chiding career-driven women as humorless and stuck-up, but “Planet of the Baritone Women” is probably less about that and more an excuse for a goofy polka with the amazing Bobby Martin getting a brief Fiddler on the Roof vocal solo.
8) “The Mud Shark”
Alright, this one is a little less “sci-fi”, but I’m including it because a) it’s a type of monster, sort of, b) it is mentioned in a number of Zappa songs and c) this delectable little jam deserves to be listened to. Enjoy this for what it is: you can look up the details of the Vanilla Fudge incident that Frank refers to on your own.
7) “Ms. Pinky”
Frank wrote more explicitly than pretty much any other musical artist ever about sex, the freakier the better. Based on an actual “lonely person device,” Ms. Pinky is presented as a super-realistic futuristic sex toy that “never talks back” and always “looks like she loves it every time I get through.”
As mentioned above, Frank was deep into cheesy movies, and even tried to make one himself (the infamous Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People). “Cheepnis” is a truly crazed celebration not only of those films but of the principles by which they operate. Like a good trash tribute, the song contains not only numerous references to monster flicks but a monster of its own, “a very large poodle dog” named Frunobulax (and, in some versions, Frenchie). In the best B-movie tradition, it is hit by all sorts of weapons, none of which affect it. Poodles in general and the names “Frenchie” and “Fido” (or is that “Fideaux”?) are recurrent in Zappa mythology, but this is perhaps his most memorable.
5) The Brain Police
Who are the Brain Police, exactly? No, really? We don’t really find out, even after wandering through the paranoid Freak Out! dreamscape that is this song, though I think it’s safe to assume they are sufficiently different from the Dream Police.
4) “The Idiot Bastard Son”
Mutants, and especially mutant children, turn up a few times in Zappa’s work, and this classic song recorded with The Mothers on We’re Only In It For the Money is a legendary example. Carried home in a jar, the titular growling creature is raised by a couple of stoners, but what begins as a vulgar joke turns into a surprisingly tender little piece by the end. “The window all covered in green” is supposedly a reference to boogers, but here it seems weirdly poetic.
3) “The Muffin Man”
This classic Beefheart-Zappa collaboration from Bongo Fury gives us the story of the sinister title character, who is not a kindly baker but some sort of deranged kitchen engineer. Frank has a little trouble getting through the spoken prologue here, mostly due to his use of the word “poots”, but pulls himself together in time for the super-neat solo at the end.
2) The “Zomby Woof”
First time my girlfriend heard this number, she thought it was about a zombie wolf. That would have been cool enough, but the being described in this song is so much crazier, an evil spirit from three hundred years ago with an insatiable sexual appetite and several asymmetrical body parts.
1) The Slime
Frank was known for being conspiratorially minded and voiced his belief on numerous occasions that mediocre and mindless entertainment was part of a government agenda to keep the populace dumb. “I’m the Slime” is a satirical musical masterpiece unlike anything else: funny, dark, politically pointed and totally fucking awesome, especially with that horn riff and savage beast Terry Bozzio on drums. The lyrics come from the Slime’s point of view, who boasts that it has been around for a long time and that there is nothing we can do to escape it.
Don Pardo, announcer for Saturday Night Live, was featured briefly on the album version of this song but liked it so much that he joined Frank onstage in New York for live performances, as well as vocalizing during Zappa’s appearance on the show in ’76. This gets pretty crazy: Zappa not only has a blackboard to help us with the words but, during the chorus, the Slime actually makes an appearance, pouring out of TV monitors while Pardo bellows ominously. Fuck and yes.