Frank Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch: 35 Years Old Today

Barking Pumpkin Records, released 3rd May 1982

Bought: Virgin Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988?

6/10

This is the first Zappa album I ever bought. It was a cheapo Fame Records/EMI cassette edition. Before Ship, I had only heard choice cuts courtesy of a friend’s career-spanning compilation. I was going to say that Ship was not the ideal album to start with, but actually with hindsight it probably was; it’s maddening, brilliant, tawdry, overblown – basically a microcosm of Zappa’s ’80s output.

Ship ditched the lush, multi-tracked sound of 1981’s You Are What You Is in favour of a no-reverb, claustrophobic mix featuring Chad Wackerman’s busy drums, blaring synths, in-your-face bass and loads of wacky guitar processing.

Opening track ‘No Not Now’, concerning the sexual dilemmas of a long-distance truck driver, is a six-minute disaster area that would surely test the patience of even the most diehard Zappa fan. ‘Valley Girl’ placed killer new-wave rock around daughter Moon’s hilarious vocal exclamations. It was a typically bold, spontaneous and very successful career move by FZ resulting in a timely hit single (peaking at #32 in the US).

But we then unfortunately segue into ‘I Come From Nowhere’, a fairly unlistenable track about the inanity of TV personalities with a ghastly vocal performance by Roy Estrada over an uninvolving, sub-Men At Work riff.

But side two of Ship demonstrates all that’s essential about ’80s Zappa. It should really be heard in its totality. The title track is surely one of his career highlights, a unique, surrealistic 12-minute salvo featuring spoken-word, ‘scatting’, a great rock guitar solo over a grinding 9/8 vamp, a blizzard of avant-garde piano/percussion and even a quote from Stravinsky’s ‘Rite Of Spring’ (of course also a piece about ritual sacrifice).

‘Envelopes’ is a brief but brilliant through-composed tribute to Conlon Nancarrow featuring close-interval, player-piano perversions, while ‘Teenage Prostitute’ is the R-rated version of ‘Valley Girl’, a hellish vision of Hollywood’s underbelly complete with ‘Peter Gunn’ riffs, intricate marimba and operatic vocals by Lisa Popeil.

I was in. I would immediately go back/forward and investigate FZ’s career in more detail. Next up was Sheik Yerbouti, the first CD I ever bought and probably my favourite Zappa album.

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Frank Zappa v Corporate America: The PMRC 30 Years On

FZ at the 'Porn Rock' Senate Hearing, 19th September 1985

Zappa at the ‘Porn Rock’ US Senate Hearing, 19th September 1985

Coinciding with the huge success of artists like Prince, Madonna, Sheena Easton, RATT, AC/DC, Def Leppard and Motley Crue in the US, the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC was formed in 1985 by Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius.

They proposed that albums carry a rating system and wanted certain songs – the so-called Filthy Fifteen – to be censored. Frank disagreed vehemently with the PMRC (despite not appearing in the Filthy Fifteen list) and appeared on US TV to argue his case with a journalist and…Donny Osmond. With memorable results. He also included segments of the Senate hearing on his spooky track ‘Porn Wars‘ from the album Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention.

He also spent a lot of the mid-’80s fending off questions from lazy journalists about his ’60s ‘hero of the counterculture’ status. The fact is he was still making some outrageous, important music in the ’80s, but the mainstream media was more interested in asking him about The Mothers and Jimi Hendrix.

This fascinating, mostly uncomfortable interview shows that you’ve gotta do your research if you want to speak to FZ (he’s right up there with Keith Jarrett in this regard), and also you might find that he’ll mention ’embarrassing’ truths about your corporation and the music business in general. He’s much missed.