It's not just background music: Frank Zappa's instrumental album, Hot Rats, was the soundtrack of the changing times in America
The title of the late American maverick Frank Zappa’s 1969 album Hot Rats is an enigma, just like the country from which it was produced. After all, America was a terrifying place at the turn of the 1960s. The nation may have just celebrated the Summer of Love but it was ravaged by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the violence of the civil rights movements and the brutal slayings by the Manson Family. That histrionic title sums up and soaks up dark energies from that murky, bloodied and confusing age, which was far from being idealistic.
The content of the first solo album from the leader of cult band The Mothers Of Invention does not evoke those grim feelings. The collection oscillates from the breezy opening track Peaches En Regalia to closer It Must Be A Camel, incorporating jazz, rock and Frank’s favourite, orchestras. Although largely instrumental bar the unconventional vocals by Zappa’s childhood friend Captain Beefheart on Willie The Pimp, the expertise of the musicians involved prevents this becoming an endless number of gratuitous solos.
Let us be clear, it would be dismissive to call this background music. This would undermine the level of musicianship and these are not lazy tunes without direction. This collection of melodic, memorable but complex songs acts as a medicine for America at its time of need and is imbued with passion and soul. Zappa rarely made instrumental music again and would continue to experiment with genres and poke fun at America’s highest powers.
Hot Rats excels by alternating between warm, dense and negative music and satisfies all moods. And a largely instrumental UK Top 10 album? This was the apotheosis of a time when the renowned eccentric was almost a commercial proposition. Presumably nobody, including the outsider figure of Frank himself, saw that coming.