It’s difficult to believe but today marks 30 years since the release of FZ’s final ‘rock’ album, Broadway The Hard Way. After that, there were just a few more official live collections, and then he was gone.
Posthumous Zappa books seem to have mainly focused on his status as a countercultural hero (though Ben Watson’s incisive works deserve a special mention) and the musicians around him.
Even the entertaining 1989 ‘autobiography’ (ghosted by Peter Occhiogrosso) propagated most of the myths and featured only one chapter about music.
Charles Ulrich’s ‘The Big Note’ redresses the balance. This is the book Zappa fans have been waiting for. It’s an alphabetical album guide (Ulrich rightly eschews the chronological approach, reasoning that nothing in FZ’s life or music was ever chronological) featuring everything you’ll ever need to know about his songs, musicians and concerts.
The title comes from Zappa’s theory that all of his recorded, live and written work formed a kind of ‘Big Note’, with overlapping themes and recurring motifs. The book features very little – if any – critical appreciation of this work, just detailed notes on the lyrical and musical references alongside many explanatory quotes from FZ himself.
Ulrich’s approach works a treat. The book functions as both a meticulously-researched reference guide and a ‘gospel according to FZ’. For example, it’s been bugging me for nearly 30 years what the band plays after Frank’s exclamation: ‘…who was strictly from commercial!’ in ‘Nanook Rubs It’ – I found out in an instant.
I was also pleased and amazed to read that ‘Rat Tomago’ from Sheik Yerbouti was nominated for a 1979 Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy (but lost out to Wings’ ‘Rockestra Theme’!).
There’ll never be anyone else quite like Zappa. This is the book his music deserves.
‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich is published now by Newstar Books.