Frank Zappa, “Willie the Pimp” from Freak Out (1969): One Track Mind

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Frank Zappa has to be the most well-known and influential weird rock star but his campiness played a much smaller role for that vast influence than most people think. Instead, it was his extreme open-mindedness in making modern music. His equal love for Stravinksy, Varèse and doo-wop created concoctions that to this day sound confusing for most but excited more serious rock stars from his time to the present because of the possibilities they presented.

Indeed, while the Beatles, Dylan and the Beach Boys pushed out the boundaries of rock in 1966, Zappa’s debut album Freak Out obliterated those boundaries that same year.

Even Zappa himself was ready to put that notorious penchant for gutter humor aside for the most part when he disbanded the original Mothers Of Invention in 1969 and assembled together some hired guns for Hot Rats. That album became an early classic of jazz-rock, and for good reason. Not only did it contain such perfectly constructed songs like “Peaches En Regalia,” but it was arguably the first fusion album to be recorded decently. Rats was one of the earliest records to use a sixteen-track recorder and being the studio geek that he was, Zappa meticulously mixed and edited the raw tracks. That resulted in a super clean recording that really doesn’t date itself to 1969 or any other particular year.

The whole record was instrumental…well, almost. For the second cut “Willie The Pimp,” Zappa brought in childhood friend Don Vliet aka Captain Beefheart to lend his trademark Howlin’ Wolf growl to some brief lyrics about a “a little pimp with my hair gassed back” while Sugarcane Harris’ violin supplies the song’s riff—actually the riff is the song.

So, why am I pimping it? Because of Zappa’s guitar work, that’s why!

As Vliet is winding down his little bit with hoops and hollers, ZP’s heavily phased axe comes into focus and for the first time, most of the world finds out that not only can the man compose, arrange and record, but he’s a mighty fine guitar player to boot. We’re not talking one of these succinct, thirty-second solo’s either; Zappa starts his flight at around 1:15 mark and goes all the way to the song’s end more than eight minutes later. During that time, Zappa is spewing out all kinds of blues-based licks that are mostly cliché-free (although thanks to so many copycats they are probably considered clichés today) and sounds nasty, aggressive and full of ideas.

I’ve read sometime back an article which held up this solo as an example of overindulgent wankery. That’s just dumb. If a guy has got his mojo going, you don’t stop him. Guitar gods like Steve Vai and Mike Keneally don’t acquire their vast chops transcribing solos from a hack.

That a fella who could compose entire symphonies rip it up like that on guitar helps to explain why Zappa the most singular figure in rock music. All joking aside.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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