Frank Zappa: Hot Rats - Album Of The Week Club review

Frank Zappa's Hot Rats was both a pinnacle of the jazz-rock fusion boom of the late 60s and one of the first albums to be dubbed (or cursed) ‘progressive’

Frank Zappa: Hot Rats
(Image: © UMC)

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Frank Zappa: Hot Rats

Frank Zappa: Hot Rats

(Image credit: UMC)

Peaches En Regalia
Willie The Pimp
Son Of Mr. Green Genes
Little Umbrellas
The Gumbo Variations
It Must Be A Camel

Frank Zappa’s first proper solo album, Hot Rats was a clean break from the cut-ups and sneering comedy of the Mothers. It was also Zappa’s first (almost) completely serious album.

Consisting of six tracks that range from the disciplined instrumental opener Peaches En Regalia to the rambling, extended jam The Gumbo Variations, the album was both a pinnacle of the jazz-rock fusion boom of the late 60s and one of the first albums to be dubbed (or cursed) ‘progressive’. 

One key factor went into the making of this record: Frank needed a hit. He’d entered the 70s virtually penniless and had to change tack. The Mothers’ music was so impossibly complex the public simply couldn’t digest it. And it was a nightmare to perform.

The effect was extraordinary. Everybody played it. Hot Rats was jazz you could handle and mass-market rock that made you look arty and sophisticated, a left-field notch above other big albums of the year by Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Santana, the Stooges and Mott The Hoople. “You haven’t heard Hot Rats? Don’t worry, mate [hollow laugh]. Get back to yer Sabbath and yer MC5!”

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in October 1969

  • Juicy Lucy - Juicy Lucy
  • Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) - The Kinks
  • In the Court of the Crimson King - King Crimson 
  • Captured Live at the Forum - Three Dog Night
  • Wedding Album - John Lennon and Yoko Ono
  • Led Zeppelin II - Led Zeppelin
  • Ummagumma - Pink Floyd
  • Basket of Light - Pentangle
  • Second Winter - Johnny Winter -
  • The Battle of North West Six - Keef Hartley
  • Keep On Moving - The Butterfield Blues Band
  • Clear - Spirit
  • The Deviants 3 - The Deviants

What they said...

"Hot Rats' genius lies in the way it fuses the compositional sophistication of jazz with rock's down-and-dirty attitude - there's a real looseness and grit to the three lengthy jams, and a surprising, wry elegance to the three shorter, tightly arranged numbers (particularly the sumptuous Peaches En Regalia). (AllMusic)

"This recording brings together a set of mostly little-known talents that whale the tar out of every other informal “jam” album released in rock and roll for the past two years. If Hot Rats is any indication of where Zappa is headed on his own, we are in for some fiendish rides indeed." (Rolling Stone)

"In the work of avant-garde musicians such as Bill Frisell and John Zorn, the schematic laid out by Zappa is present. His ideas in abstract jazz composition also brought rock sounds and symphonic writing styles into direct collision with the ideologies of free jazz and fusion - and that is why this often overlooked record deserves so much acclaim. And above and beyond its conceptual innovations, Hot Rats remains a true masterpiece from one of the greatest geniuses of modern music." (All About Jazz)

What you said...

Alex Hayes: I guess in some ways I had this one coming. One week there I am, mouthing off about how much I admire the wide variety and range of rock music. The next, I find myself presented with an album so godawful to me that I actually find it physically difficult to sit through. In a way, I guess I asked for this.

I still stand by last week's comments. I mean, give me a break, I'm someone that can happily sit through the entirety of Tales From Topographic Oceans without complaining (well, maybe a little). I can usually engage with rock's more esoteric moments and get it, no problem. Hot Rats though? Bloody hell, I found this nigh on unlistenable. It was so unpleasant that it could have filled an entire swear jar if I owned one. I can't abide jazz fusion you see. That kills this album for me.

This was the first, and last, time that I've ever sat through an entire Frank Zappa album. I know Sheik Yerbouti was featured last year, but I happened to be ill that week and didn't participate. It says something about my distaste for this kind of music that those severe intestinal pains now almost feel like a lucky escape, or even the lesser of two evils. I am being facetious there, but only just.

The only song that I was previously familiar with here was Peaches En Regalia. It's a pleasant little opener and the only track here that doesn't make me feel like stuffing my ears full with Q-Tips/cotton buds. The remainder of the album, which is mostly instrumental based, is composed of the very worst kind of free-form, jazz-rock style noodling though. To be frank, it's interminable. At times it just resembles noise, and it gradually wears me down the longer it drones on.

I didn't like Side 1 of the album, but it's Physical Graffiti compared to Side 2. Those last two tracks in particular (The Gumbo Variations and It Must Be a Camel) almost felt like torture by caterwauling. The former is possibly the biggest endurance test of them all. It bombards the listener right from the outset with long-winded, not to mention increasingly erratic and dissonant, saxophone, violin and guitar solos that drag on for nearly thirteen minutes. It's just relentless and feels never ending. Apparently, the CD version rambles on for another four minutes or so. Oh God, I surrender. Make it stop, please. I'll confess to anything, anything!

The lowest score that I've ever dished out to an album here is the 3/10 that I 'awarded' the cluttered mess that is Van Halen III. Hot Rats will be equalling that at least. It's awful to me for different reasons though, and is admittedly a much more thoughtfully planned out and executed album than VHIII. It ultimately suffers through it's jazz leanings being repellent to me.

I can see jazz aficionados turning their noses up at this review, and dismissing me as some kind of cultural ignoramus. I will toast that sentiment by having a bacon and egg butty and digging out my copy of Back In Black. Salut!

David Longman: A masterpiece - so much in the Frank Zappa discography that leaves me cold but this album has been with me since its release. An album that deserves careful attention - not for the casual listener.

Happs Richards: Sorry guys, I tried but like every time I listen to Zappa’s back catalogue I just don’t get it..

Is he a talented musician/ singer songwriter? No doubt!!

Did he do some genre challenging stuff? Without a doubt.

So I’ve often wondered why his stuff does nothing for me & I think I finally found my answer in the way this album was described "jazz rock".

I have never got or enjoyed jazz, once again incredibly talented musicians one and all, but the musical wandering of “improv’” (or musical wanking, if you’re a Commitments fan), means I ether switch off listening after a while or worst still start thinking of Spinal Tap during their Jazz Odyssey period.

So at the risk of being shot down or not being bright enough to understand ether Zappa or Jazz, this isn’t one for me I’m afraid.

Adam Ranger: For people who think of Frank Zappa as the outrages zany musician he became known for (rightly or wrongly) this album May surprise.

Some superb instrumentals here with solid playing from all involved. For me personally it gets a bit boring after a couple of tracks, but that is more down to the fact that I am not a great lover of Jazz fusion. But I certainly appreciate the musical skills involved. If you like that style of music this is an album you could happily play all day.

Justin Edward Griffin: Zappa has good moments throughout his discography but this is the only record that I love front to back. 10/10

Gus Schultz: Fantastic album. Always lifts my spirits. Goes well with The Grand Wazoo and Waka Jawaka.

Kevin Miller: I tried. This is just not for me. The production is so tinny on Peaches that it hurts my ears. And then Willie The Pimp started on the “weird thing” Zappa loves so much. I’ve never been able to listen to Zappa and those two songs were a strong reminder of why

John David: My first thoughts on seeing a Frank Zappa album come up for review were ‘ oh no, not again’. I’ve never gotten into Zappa’s music despite many attempts and I found the satire on Sheik Yerbouti to be about as much fun as Weird Al Yankovic.

However, on Hot Rats Zappa sets aside the scatological humour and absurdist lyrics in favour of a more progressive jazz rock style.

The album is mostly instrumental, with only a short vocal section on Willie The Pimp which is performed by Captain Beefheart in suitably earthy tones.

With only six tracks, Zappa leaves plenty of room for extended jams and improvised (and occasionally rambling) solos .

The soloists work over the top of a really tight rhythm section who are at once fluid and stable enough to provide a platform for the other musicians.

Zappa’s guitar work is superb, as are the violin and keyboards. I’m less keen (in general) on the saxophone and other brass/wind instruments, as these tend to drift into discordancy far too easily.

The first three songs Peaches En Regalia, Willie The Pimp and Son Of Mr. Green Gates are all excellent.

Little Umbrellas is good, but the extended jam session that is Gumbo Variations does nothing for me at all while the discordant closing track It Must Be A Camel is borderline unlistenable.

Overall this is just about tickles my “prog rock” bone, but is ultimately too jazzy for my tastes.

Not a bad album, just not for me. 5/5 for side 1 and ⅕ for side 2 . Overall 6/10.

Hai Kixmiller: Wow. All I can say is that this album is about as tasty as a wish sandwich. You know, one of those sandwiches that as soon as you bite into it, you wish you had something else. Anything else!

Listening to Hot Rats is like listening to carnival music while trippin' on drugs. Only problem is I'm sober, and this stuff just comes across as nothing but hubris coupled with an over-indulgence of guitar. The most enjoyable track, The Gumbo Variations, could have ended in 1/3rd the time and still been a good song. Instead Zappa goes all Grateful Dead or Phish on us and drags the song out to nearly 13 minutes.

Hot Rats and Frank Zappa, in general, has a very narrow corridor of fans. If you want something that rocks, this ain't for you. If you want something that's as annoying as getting your teeth drilled, then open up wide.

Marco LG: Now, let’s get serious ladies and gentlemen, I know you came here to see really fine performances, by the really fine Modern Music Ensemble, conducted by a really fine conductor… and if you feel like throwing underpants unto the stage put them over there.

The way Frank Zappa introduces the Yellow Shark concert exemplifies the character of the composer, who was as self-assured as he was goofy. There is something endearing about his symphonic recordings, because as mind blowing and challenging as they are those recordings also show the more personal side of Frank Zappa, they reveal the boy who fell in love with Ionisation to the point of obsession, and the young adult who made a long distance call just to speak to its composer: Edgard Varèse.

The story of how Frank managed to make a living with music is well documented, but if there is anybody out there who still haven’t heard it, I suggest two main sources: the autobiography written in collaboration with Peter Occhiogrosso and the recent documentary directed by Alex Winter. Both portray a trajectory fuelled by the burning desire to write complex symphonic music and realised by shrewdly navigating the music business. The story of a man who did not tolerate mediocrity, who surrounded himself of the best musicians available but chose popular music as the medium to express his sonic ambitions. 

The result is a catalogue filled with insanity and genius in equal measure, where filthy jokes, misogyny and sexual innuendo go hand in hand with some of the finest music ever written, music so special it defies any categorisation and elevates the name Frank Zappa to the same plane as all the greatest composers of the 20th century.

This week’s pick, Hot Rats, belong firmly to the latter category. It is among the best examples of how special the legacy of Frank Zappa is: complex and exciting instrumental music, guitar virtuosity and brass soloing, tight rhythms and wondrous melodies. The whole album is special, all 43 minutes of it, and it always leaves me wanting more. Is it rock? Is it jazz? It’s impossible to categorise it like that, it’s Frank Zappa!

There remains one question to answer, and that question is: what’s the secret word for tonight? The secret word for tonight is 10 out of 10.

Thick House: This was my first taste of Zappa and it mostly did not disappoint. Peaches En Regalia is a great prog song, and Willie The Pimp and Son Of Mr. Green Genes are very enjoyable. On the other hand, no one needed the twelve minutes of aimless noodling that is The Gumbo Variations, and the other two songs on the record went in one ear and out the other. Overall this album has some 10/10 moments; the filler tracks and lack of vocals on the songs keep it from being an absolutely essential album for me. Nevertheless, I have to give Mr. Zappa respect for paving the way for my favourite 70s prog bands like Yes and ELP.

Rocky Taylor: I don't know if this is the best introduction to the world of Zappa, as the only song featuring his unique sense of humour is Willie The Pimp (and he doesn't even sing it!) but it's hard to deny its excellence. The performances and songwriting are immaculate, and are perfectly complimented by the production. I love this album as is, but could listen to eight hours of it.

Final Score: 7.63⁄10 (80 votes cast, with a total score of 610)

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