The Mothers Of Invention
Burnt Weeny Sandwich

(Zappa Records)

While, at the time, it was maybe still possible to perceive Freak Out! (1966), the debut album by that strange and repugnant group called The Mothers Of Invention, as nothing more that a repellent weirdness - but a weirdness with substance, which could beat "protest" at its own game, while at the same time extending the "protest" element to the musical side, and widening the musical palette of the best "rock music" of the time - starting with the following album, Absolutely Free (1967), one could have no doubts about the ultimate value of what can nowadays be called "the Zappa catalogue/canon".

And while a skilful use of the recording studio had made it possible for Zappa to beat The Beatles at their own game - here the albums to check are obviously the avant-gardism of Lumpy Gravy and the fantastic manifesto which goes under the name of We're Only In It For The Money (both released in 1968) - the amazing technical skills and the prodigious performing versatility of the players who had augmented the core of the original group had made it possible for Zappa to widen the timbral palette of the music, which could now be presented in written form: all elements that make Uncle Meat (1969) a gigantic work.

While it was easy for anybody to regard Hot Rats (1969) as "a magnificent specimen of instrumental music", it was with Chunga's Revenge (1970) that opinions started to differ, sometimes violently (readers are invited to take into account the "political" dimension implicit in those debates from distant times; a dimension that is nowadays quite difficult to appreciate, since times have changed; but a little effort - in moderation, of course! - sure won't hurt).

I can't really say what's the amount of the Zappa discography that's contained in most people's minds, but I suspect it to be not a lot larger than zero. It's quite strange, so, to examine two albums which were originally released after the "change" announced by Hot Rats but before Chunga's Revenge. Both Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh feature works recorded by the "large" Mothers Of Invention line-up which Zappa hoped to release in the form of a big box (an ambitious idea that Zappa toyed with more than a few times in the course of his career) before having to admit defeat by economic constraints (this, too, happening more than a few times in the course of his lifetime).

While it has definitely less variety than Weasels Ripped My Flesh (an album that in a way is a manifesto for fragmentation), Burnt Weeny Sandwich offers a great deal of diverse material, which are assembled to form a kind of fresco whose elements illuminate each other. Quite peculiarly, all this variety is book-ended by two tasty doo-wop episodes, two covers called WPLJ and Valarie: the former working as an introduction to the "chamber music" episode called Igor's Boogie, Phase One, the latter taking the album to an appropriately "simple" resolution after the monumental Little House I Used To Live In and the spoken exchange between Zappa and the audience (there are not too many sentences that can say such a great deal in just a few words like "Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform, don't kid yourself", are they?).

Burnt Weeny Sandwich lives inside a framework so full of grace in both composition and performing that's still there to be appreciated, starting from those delicate guitar episodes - a quality that's always implicit in Zappa's electric work, but that on this album appears to come to the surface a bit more often (by the way, this is an album where the acoustic guitars, so clearly recorded, play an orchestral role - a side to be re-discovered, were the other sides of Zappa's work discovered already).

I could also mention the incredible violin solo played by Don "Sugar Cane" Harris on Little House I Used To Live In, a solo people still kept mentioning a few years after the album's original release - a fact which should make two things clear: that this is really a fantastic solo; and that a thoughtful appreciation is not as likely to happen in an era where "zapping" rules ("zapping" is so nice, but its consequences are not as nice! Wonder whether the kids will ever get this).

The album's first side offers a fine symmetry: coming after the lively WPLJ, the solemn fragment called Igor's Boogie, Phase One takes the listener to the multi-timbral and thematically unforgettable Overture To A Holiday In Berlin, which goes straight into Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich, where the main part is played by an electric guitar solo whose timbre always changes; the conceptual high point of the track is having the guitar solo placed under an ever-changing percussive panorama (one could maybe draw a parallel with Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution, off Uncle Meat, a track whose emotional quality is quite different).

The fragment called Igor's Boogie, Phase Two links to Holiday In Berlin, Full Blown, which enriches the  previous theme, has a "greasy" tenor sax solo and a sardonic-sounding reed counterpoint, and a fine piano-percussion transition. The second part of the piece, recorded live, features a fantastic guitar solo built with impeccable logic, discretely backed by the rhythm section, with the organ tracing the chord progression.

Cut, and here we are at the side's conclusion: Aybe Sea has Ian Underwood on piano and harpsichord, Zappa on guitar. A memorable theme, an elegant development, the acoustic guitar played with a pick, the grand piano at the end occupying the full stereo spread.

Ian Underwood's piano opens side two, and so Little House I Used To Live In. There's an explosion by the collective, lotsa reeds, a brief solo by Zappa on electric guitar - thin timbre, the instrument going through a wha-wha pedal - then it's time for the long, captivating  violin solo by Don "Sugar Cane" Harris, with fine backing by the rhythm section and a piano - it's Don Preston, who then plays a fine solo with a deep blues flavour. There are those who consider this episode - violin included - as coming from the Hot Rats sessions, which featured Harris. Me, I've always thought this "extrapolation" from the theme to King Kong - the rhythm section does not sound like it features Max Bennett e John Guerin! - to come from the same session that gave us the cover of Directly From My Heart To You, which appears on Weasels Ripped My Flesh.

A brief chamber-like episode - saxophones, bassoon and flute, percussion - takes the listener to that organistic feast of overdubbing and speeded-up tapes that's the end of this track, a kaleidoscope of tempos and layers where Zappa - playing the organ! - appears to mix echoes of folk music from Southern Italy with the spirit of... Terry Riley! Full ensemble, stop, applause.

Right, but how does the new CD sound? A legitimate question, while all those discussions are flourishing on the Web, with Europe - hence, this writer - lagging behind, the release of the second batch from the Zappa catalogue - from Waka/Jawaka (1972) to Sheik Yerbouti (1979) - having been postponed by a month or so. It's already possible for me, however, to say something about the newly re-mastered titles from the original analog tapes appearing in the first batch, covering the territory between Freak Out! (1966) and Just Another Band From L.A. (1972).

I think I can say that, with the only exception of Hot Rats - which was previously re-mastered by Bernie Grundman to appear on vinyl, and later on CD - the compression at the mastering stage is definitely more than the optimum (some colleagues from US tell me that the compression on the second batch is less pronounced, but having no access to said titles I have no opinion about this). While all the new analog-sourced titles appear to suffer from an overabundance of bass (which is not really too severe, but which is a bit too much anyway), when it comes to compression I found those albums mastered by Doug Sax to sound more pleasing to my ears than those mastered by Bob Ludwig (here one could maybe say that the albums in question are really too diverse to make such a comparison possible, but one has only to check two live albums recorded in a similar time frame with the use of similar equipment - Fillmore East, June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A. - to see what I mean).

This version of Burnt Weeny Sandwich was re-mastered by Bob Ludwig. It offers an unprecedented richness of sound - like listening through an acoustic microscope - while at the same time being a bit fatiguing. To those who, quite pragmatically, only want to know if this new version can replace the one on Rykodisc I'll say that the lack of reverb which was annoyingly and heavily featured on the Rykodisc CD makes this new edition more preferable - even though having the piano played by Don Preston for his solo sounding more like an amplified harpsichord than a grand piano is indeed quite surprising. But one has to say that the organ solo played by Zappa at the end of the track sounds quite moving, and this accounts for something.

Did I listen to a vintage pressing of this album in order to compare the two? Of course! A Reprise Made In USA from the early 70s. The album has "less", while the pressing of my copy and the placing of the hole are far from ideal - and it goes without saying that the noisiest part of the album is the beginning of side two, where Underwood's piano appears naked. Sure, one has to take into account my listening to this album on vinyl for forty-one years, while I only had about two weeks to make myself familiar with the new CD, so...

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2012 | Sept. 14, 2012