REVIEW: Frank Zappa – Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar (1981)

 

FRANK ZAPPA – Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar (1981, 2012 Universal/Zappa remaster)

This is the first time I’ve ever seriously tried to write a Frank Zappa review; a daunting task indeed. I rely heavily on the excellent booklet inside the 2012 Universal/Zappa Record reissue of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. For example, an advertisement for the album tells me that it was originally issued (in 1981) as three mail order records. You could buy them at once or separately, and they were individually titled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More, and Return of The Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar.  Then they were later re-released as a 3 LP box set.

ZAPPA_0006I also like how the spines of this series of remasters are all numbered, so you can easily file them in chronological order. That’s how I file my albums (alphabetically by artist, then chronologically by album). These three records were 31, 32, 33. For shits and giggles, I separated the tracks from this 2 CD release into the original 3 LP running order. My logic was, this gave the listener (me) a more “original” listening experience, as I took coffee breaks between “records” to collect my thoughts.

The whole Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar set is a collection of instrumental guitar solos.  Many of these are taken from live performances of other songs, but presented on their own, sometimes with humorous dialogue sprinkled in between.  All solos are by Frank, although giants such as Steve Vai and Warren Cuccurullo are behind him on rhythm guitar.  Frank’s playing is diverse (it better be if your album is an hour and three-quarters long) and interesting at all times.  I’m not a guitar head, I can’t sit here and tell you, “Oh right now he’s playing the such-and-such mode in the key of whatever.”  I can just tell you when my jaw hits the floor (frequently).

Rhythmically, “five-five-FIVE” (the opener) is one of my favourite tracks.  The internets tell me that the time signature is a repeated sequence of 5/8 + 5/8 + 5/4.  On top of that are some exotic and mindblowing Zappa tones.  I was hooked on the first time.  The next one, “Hog Heaven” is slower, a respite.  Zappa remains the architect of electric guitar sounds you just don’t get to hear every day.  I also love the aptly named “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression” which does indeed have a vaguely Santana vibe.

Other highlights included “Ship Ahoy” which I’m not even sure how to describe so I won’t.  “Pink Napkins” is a jazzy jam session with Eddie Jobson on keyboards that hits just the right notes.  The 10 minute closer “Canard Du Jour” is remarkably by being sparse, without wasting precious playing time by being boring.  It is aided and abetted by Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, a treat indeed.

I think I’ve said enough.  I paid nine freakin’ bucks (Sunrise) for almost two hours of Frank Zappa playing guitar.  How is that not one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made?

4.5/5 stars

44 comments

  1. Zappa is one of the hardest artists to write/talk about, and it’s even difficult to recommend his music to others. He doesn’t have one or a handful of albums that are generally recognized as classics by critics & fans, so a lot of people are scared off by the diversity & number of releases. I got into Zappa slowly starting in high school, and by college I was really into Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar and Zoot Allures, what I consider to be his most accessible albums for fans of rock & jazz (and the fusion of the two). Glad to see you also got the sequel, Guitar, and hopefully you’ll review that in the not-too-distant future. It’s nearly as good as this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll certainly give it a shot. All I can do is listen and hope the words come to me. Believe it or not that’s pretty much my entire method there. Listen and hope the words come. If they don’t, forcing it usually doesn’t result in something I’m proud of.

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  2. I mail ordered these original LPs in 1981 and (thankfully) still have them in near-mint state. Copied them immediately onto cassette when they arrived and put away the vinyl. The “Are You Hardcore?” advertisement was the inner sleeve of my Tinsletown Rebellion LP and the little corner order form was manufactured so you could pull it off while still leaving behind a thin layer of paper to keep the inner sleeve intact. All three original album covers had the same picture on the front, the one above with Frank holding his cigarette, while the inner sleeves were advertisements/order forms for transcriptions of all the songs on the three albums — described as “not a fan club item” but solely for serious musicians, I understand much of the transcription work was undertaken by Steve Vai. Even more than three decades later, I still share your “jaw drop” response to these tunes.

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    1. Thanks for the awesome background info Victim! It’s details and anecdotes like this that I love. I suspect that’s why many of us read the same blogs.

      I’m glad you still have these in near-mint state. As much as I enjoyed my CD, I sat there thinking, “How cool would it be to be one of the people who ordered this through the mail? Even better if the records are still in great shape?” I’m assuming you’ve since discarded that cassette and upgraded to a CD?

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        1. I didn’t know these came on a 3 disc Ryko set! Cool.

          I am working on a Record Store Tale for 2014 about the time I gave away all my cassettes, a move I regret today.

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  3. I really wish I ordered these when they came out-Thanks for reminding me of this musical mistake and void in my collection. :) And also a small void in my soul that is partly filled by seeing him live a couple times.

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  4. Yeah, how to put Frank into words…the phrase dancing about architecture fits pretty well in my estimation. The Guitar stuff i just the tip of the iceberg, I would put Trance-Fusion ranked a bit higher, but not as high as these discs. There are four solos here taken from the same song, Inca Roads, done at 4 separate gigs on that Hammersmith run and no single idea is repeated or even hinted at. To me this truly defines the breadth of this mans guitar genius. Yikes that was a long sentence. ;)

    This guy, I don’t even know where to begin. Been only listening to his music for about 20 years and nearly every day of my life I giggle at some reference or am reminded of some musical passage, no matter what in the world I am doing.

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    1. I feel like I’m a little late to the Frank party. I didn’t pick up my first Zappa until about 1998, and it was Strictly Commercial. (Why not start there right?) I’d heard plenty of stuff from friends, probably the entire Lather album more than once, but my Zappa CD collection is still just growing.

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  5. Realized later that I hadn’t actually commented on the album, just my desire to hang its artwork near my guitar. Le sigh.

    You see, here’s the thing. Zappa. I want to get there. I really, really do. But I realize that if I buy one CD (just one!) I will need to buy them all! And this is a scary thing because he has so many. I’m talking financial ruin, here. I’m talking lack of discrimination and relentless pursuit of a discography. Because I know i would love it. I know I would get lost in there.

    So I hesitate to open the door.

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    1. I truly get that. I have opened that door with many artists a few times. I’ve eaten nothing but Kraft Dinner for a week in order to fund various musical addictions… (when I was a single man, that is. The wife wouldn’t tolerate Kraft Dinner all week.)

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      1. mmmmm KD…

        You know what’s awesome, I STILL haven’t commented on the album. First comment was about the cover’s inspirational message, second comment was about how I’m afraid to strt buying Zappa’s records because it’d be a slippery slope… No mention of the contents of this record…

        …and I got nothin’. Never heard it. But the thought of an instrumental album pleases me greatly, especially with those players. Hey, here’s an idea: all you readers of LeBrain, who surely have knowledge in abundance, I would take your Top 5 suggestions for records of Zappa’s to get (for a noob like me). A way to ease my way into the discography without buying them all up at once… Then, on our next Mike And Aaron Go To Toronto trip, I can use those suggestions as a shopping list. Any takers? All album suggestions welcome!

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        1. I’ll bite, Aaron — but I must admit up front that I lean more toward the song-based Zappa and less to the experimental compositions. Even so, I feel confident that one could not go wrong with the following five:

          Apostrophe(‘)
          Zoot Allures
          Over-nite Sensation
          Hot Rats
          Just Another Band from L.A.

          Honorable Mention if you want to laugh your arse off while listening to some incredible, crazy, tight live playing: Fillmore East – June 1971

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        2. I second Victim’s recommendation of Zoot Allures and Hot Rats, which are in my Top 5. Roxy & Elsewhere. Sheik Yerbouti and Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar would probably be the other three, but you can’t go wrong with Apostrophe, Overnight Sensation. Joe’s Garage or Waka/Jawaka. I’ve always said that Zappa might be the hardest artist to recommend because he covered so much musical ground and doesn’t have one or two definitive albums that everyone agrees on. I could name five others that would probably be just as good an introduction to his music. Hope you enjoy whichever albums you check out.

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        3. Hey thanks, Victim and Rich! Those are all titles I recognize and would not hesitate to grab. I’m thinking the only way to do it is just dive in, go with what I find cheap. Dammit, it happened again. I come to Lebrain, I hear you guys all talking, and I wind up on another quest! Ah, it’s a good problem to have.

          I was checking out Wiki, and this is what daunts me:

          “During his lifetime, Zappa released 62 albums. Between 1994 and 2012, the Zappa Family Trust released 32 posthumous albums, making for a total of 94 albums.”

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_zappa_discography

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        4. I agree and disagree with you all, but for pure musical quality you just can’t go wrong with..

          Hot Rats/Waka/Wazoo
          Apostrophe/Overnight/Roxy
          and the Big Kahuna…
          One Size Fits All

          You need all of these. Aside from Shut Up That Is.

          Trance Fusion I would rate above Guitar but both are excellent if you just want to hear Frank blaze away.

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        5. Thanks Craig! More titles to add to the list for our next record excursion, for sure. Damn. I’ve been doing some research online (of course) and the Zappa fans are some serious business. Getting the impression I should have been buying the discography all along, actually…

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        6. UPDATERY:

          I was digging through my piles of stuff here, and I do have 3 Zappa vinyls already:

          Apostrophe (‘)
          One Size Fits All
          Orchestral Favourites

          So I have a slight foothold on the mountain of Frank, anyway… Thanks again for chiming in, guys! I knew the Lebrain community would offer suggestions!

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        7. isaacandsophie :
          UPDATERY:
          I was digging through my piles of stuff here, and I do have 3 Zappa vinyls already:
          Apostrophe (‘)
          One Size Fits All
          Orchestral Favourites
          So I have a slight foothold on the mountain of Frank, anyway… Thanks again for chiming in, guys! I knew the Lebrain community would offer suggestions!

          Of those three, Apostrophe is a great starting point. Enjoy.

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        8. Apostrophe was paired with Overnight Sensation on a 2-fer CD. Most Zappa-philes hate the Ryko remasters, including the 2-fers, especially because Frank tinkered with the original recordings. From what I’ve read, some of the recent reissues correct that, but not all of them. I’ve been content with the 30-or-so Zappa CDs I’ve owned since the ’80s & early ’90s, although for the right price I might consider upgrading to newer versions if the general consensus is that they’re major improvements.

          mikeladano :
          I know it was available with another crucial album on a single disc…was it Lumpy Gravy?
          I have Sheik Yerbouti here.

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        9. FURTHER UPDATERY:

          It’s like the music gods heard us talking about this, or something, because just today I just picked up (at $2 each LP, pristine):

          Frank Zappa In New York
          Chunga’s Revenge

          …and Mike, I got another copy of Orchestral Favourites, if you want it.

          Of course, picking through the rest of the bins I also got:

          Doors – The Doors
          Doors – Strange Days
          Derek & The Dominos – Layla (2LP)

          Not bad for $12. Gonna be some good times listening in my house!

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      1. Roxy by Proxy (Roxy and Elsewhere soundtrack from expected DVD release)
        Road Tapes 2 from Helsinki 1973
        Token of His Extreme soundtrack

        There is also another segment of the Joe’s Domage series expected soon.

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  6. KamerTunesBlog (by Rich Kamerman) :
    Apostrophe was paired with Overnight Sensation on a 2-fer CD. Most Zappa-philes hate the Ryko remasters, including the 2-fers, especially because Frank tinkered with the original recordings. From what I’ve read, some of the recent reissues correct that, but not all of them. I’ve been content with the 30-or-so Zappa CDs I’ve owned since the ’80s & early ’90s, although for the right price I might consider upgrading to newer versions if the general consensus is that they’re major improvements.

    I direct you here: http://lukpac.org/~handmade/patio/vinylvscds/2012hotpoop.html

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      1. Oh no!!! Almost all my Zappa CDs are the 1995 Rykodiscs. I never knew the difference and had been completely and utterly content right up until today. Now I know the truth and I am riddled with angst. Darn you, Rich! And you too Craig with your rubbing-it-in-the-face webpage that so specifically testifies of my inadequacies!

        (Of course, I am darning both of you in a positive way…. being angsty and needy is part of what makes a collector, right?)

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  7. FZ:”…But if you want to get beyond music into emotional content, you have to break through that and just talk on your instrument, just make it talk…
    “http://frankzapppa.blogspot.com/2014/02/frank-zappa-about-his-own-solo-playing.html

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  8. Hey there .. i skipped by all of the other recommendations as to not influence my own choices .. My five to “start” with would be (not necessarily my favorite Zappa’s though)

    You are What You Is
    Roxy and Elsewhere
    Bongo Fury (w/ Captain BeefHeart)
    Sheik Yerbouti
    Tinseltown Rebellion

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