I can’t think of anything close to Joe’s Garage outside the Zappa catalogue. To describe it as a Rock Opera brings all sorts of slightly yukkie stuff to my mind so I will resist the temptation to categorise it at all. Yes, lyrically it’s smutty, a bit embarrassing at times, certainly crude, explicit and likely not entirely suitable for kids or those of a woke nature. Yet, nothing in comparison to the music that carries an ‘Explicit’ warning on the Tidal streaming service. It’s all the politically charged things that Frank intended it to be and every so often I feel the urge to revisit it. It’s hard to dip in and out of so I usually play it front to back in its entirety and I always come away with a reinforced admiration for it and Frank himself. There’s never been a musician/composer like him and I have doubts that there ever will be. It was originally released back in 1979 as a two-parter on vinyl but after digitisation found itself marketed as a triple album box set (Acts 1,2 and 3) in ‘87.
A musical laser
You will never hear a bad musician on a Zappa album. No matter how weird or controversial the material, Zappa was a musical laser and absolutely demanded the very best from those he played and recorded with. Check out Steve Vai’s YouTube clip of his audition for the band. Anybody who thought Frank was some sort of comedy figure would be very wrong. He was a fiercely committed musician, composer and arranger with a huge breadth of accomplishments and an opinion on just about everything. It’s this level of musicianship and sheer complexity that drove him from the early days and in all its guises and has helped give his music such breadth and longevity. He sadly died in 1993 but his whole unique style and all round musical abilities have endured.
Joe’s Garage is one of his best for me, very possibly because I am a sucker for concept albums where one song runs into another to build the unfolding story. One must always remember to use the American pronunciation of the word Garage though. To say it in the accepted U.K. English form just sounds so wrong. Weird but very true.
I could hardly say that the premise of the album is simple. Very little of what Frank did ever was. In fact, he seemed to often delight in complication. But, just about everything he played, even his noodling, was recorded and his cut ‘n paste style was way before its time. As for the recording? Well, it was remastered digitally and this is the CD version I have been listening to. Actually, I think it is a remarkable piece of work technically if little ‘sudden’ tonally. A little bright perhaps but it matters little.
The story of Joe
The story will be broadly recognisable to anyone who ever joined an electric band as a youngster. It is presented in three acts. Joe’s Garage is the Canoga Park, Los Angeles location for this particular band to practice and where Joe’s story begins. Hours of thrashing about, showing off, laughing hysterically, having arguments, making-up and being constantly harassed by parents and irate neighbours screaming “Turn it down!”. It’s all part of what, particularly in hindsight, seems like it must have been fun. I was lucky enough to walk that road with a bunch of loveable crazies who used to rehearse wherever they could find space, including Dave’s dad’s garage in south London. We made a lot of noise, had a great drummer and Sax player who was reluctant to show just how excellent he was, became seriously and embarrassingly over-indulgent and ludicrously extravagant doing Santana covers and of course went nuts and had a lot of fun. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
The story of Joe is crazy when viewed in the cold detachment of today and his part is played by the fantastic Ike Willis whose vocals are brilliantly and soulfully expressive and plaintive throughout. From humble rehearsals in the garage, Joe, a lead guitarist who plays a “Stratocaster with a whammy bar” and his band slowly move up the ladder of the club scene where they fully indulge themselves in the freedoms that existed at that time. The story is told (by Zappa) in the guise of The Central Scrutinizer, a rather creepy character who slips in and out to narrate Joe’s rise and obvious and inevitable decline. The establishment finds Joe guilty of indulging himself rather too graphically with a computerised sex-machine after giving all his money to L. Ron Hoover the leader of the First Church Of Appliantology (yes, I know). He learns German for some unexplained reason and discovers that he is nothing less than a Latent Appliance Fetishist. He indulges his condition rather too freely on Sy Borg, with disastrous consequences during one of the best pieces on the album and is subsequently arrested among wailing Police sirens for his grotesque misdemeanours.
Sentenced to jail, Joe finds all sorts of strange stuff going down. The Central Scrutinizer assures us that music is a very bad influence on mankind and Joe’s story is an object lesson of the slippery slope that all who tread the musical path must surely eventually suffer. While in prison he spends time with other convicted musicians, learns to snort detergent and other explicit horrors. Joe is abused by music executives while in prison and sinks into The Twilight World Of `his Own Secret Thoughts “ while “ Dreaming of guitar notes that would irritate an executive kinda guy”.
Joe, some might say, learns his lesson and Outside Now (another triumph for Ike Willis’ really sensational vocal performance throughout the album), shows his utter desperation at the path he has chosen as he lays on his cell bed. Being Zappa, this is all very political of course. Frank was vehemently anti-establishment though I am sure he just considered himself anti-stupidity.
The finale and Joe’s fate is left hanging but the story just about culminates in Watermelon In Easter Hay, a truly splendid and grand instrumental that Dweezil, Frank’s son, believes to be his greatest guitar solo, extended through the song as it is. It certainly features a great guitar sound, presumably from his Strat and is covered in reverbs and echo which give it a kind of epic feel with plenty of the depth and scale appropriate to end what has gone before. Harmonically, I would describe it as bitter-sweet and rather ordered, conventional even, for a Zappa solo. It’s very clean so listen to it loud is my advice. The very last and some might say, odd number is A Little Green Rosetta. Make of it what you will.
A unique guitarist
Zappa, who was, in my opinion a rather unique type of guitarist himself, rarely seemed interested in a wall of sound or thick, heavy-duty rock chords and oppressive character recordings. He was often about lightweight translucence and clarity, interjected with obscure bursts of edgy distorted machine-gun speed riffs. He loved great playing, always, always featured fantastic vocalists and intriguing arrangements and that’s what he produced. Joe’s Garage is an object lesson in that. It’s just not like any other music outside the Zappa catalogue, as truly extensive as that is.
The whole of Joe’s lunatic journey is bizarre, but there are some killer tracks on there and some of the best playing right through the band that I’ve ever heard with depths of musical complexity and interwoven arrangements that are intriguing and certainly challenging. It must be said that it is not always easy listening. As we step into 2022 it seems both interesting and somewhat quaint to me. No doubt Frank would have smiled rather cynically at that description but I will listen right through yet again a few times this year.
Whether you are a Zappa fan or not I’d urge you to take an hour, turn it up and give it a go.