Part II, in which I wrap up the story of Joe’s Garage – Frank Zappa’s 1979 3LP masterpiece.
Joe’s Garage, Acts 2 & 3
Act 1 of Joe’s Garage showed FRANK ZAPPA at his most adolescent. Dirty words and all, this one record release was basically a showcase for the more casual listener. It has lots of funny bits, real solid hooks and catchy songs that you couldn’t help but want to sing along with, though you might wince at singing something like “Catholic girls / with the tiny little moustache… With a tongue like a cow / she could make you go ‘wow’!” The subject matter – young Joe and his induction to the world of rock ’n’ roll – could be one of those After School Specials from the ’70s if it weren’t for the salty language and references to venereal diseases and the like.
Fast forward only a couple of months from early September ’79 and Zappa releases Joe’s Garage, Acts II & III, a 2-record set that continues where Act I left off. Instead of featuring songs that advanced the plot of Joe’s Garage, this lengthy, melancholy set focused on extended excursions into FZ’s guitar soloing. Which is to say, this is the one for those who are primarily interested in how Frank could develop a solo, from a possibly stark beginning to a meaty middle and on to its satisfying conclusion. “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is a great example, a 9-minute instrumental that displays one of the man’s greatest gifts. There are songs you can sing along to, like “Stick It Out,” but the man and the band’s musicality is what’s mostly to be enjoyed here. The plot is secondary, and though you do get to find out what happens to Joe, it is best explained in the libretto that expands on the themes of free will, free speech, the drawbacks of big government and the evils of Big Brother that the author dared explore.
It must have been daunting to the execs at Zappa’s new record label (they gave him his own imprint, called Zappa Records, at PolyGram earlier that year): did they really want to put out a three-record set that could very well lose money as the artist’s first release on their dollar? Well, I’m not sure how it originally went down when Zappa presented the work to the label suits, but we do know that the album was split into two releases (keeping it greasy so it’d go down easy?). The first record served as a good beginning and the second, 2LP set wrapped up the story. Sadly, the Acts II & III release suffered on its own (if you didn’t buy the first one you were highly unlikely to buy this – and you certainly would have no idea WTF was going on), but when, in 1987, the three records were first put together in one set, the whole shebang made a lot more sense. Thematically, musically, plotwise, it turned out that Joe’s Garage wasn’t nearly as indecipherable as The Who’s Tommy after all. (It actually took a poke at Tommy with the line “see the chrome, feel the chrome, touch the chrome, heal the chrome” [from “Stick It Out”]!)
Joe’s Garage, Acts 1, 2 & 3, finally, puts all of what made Frank Zappa so amazing (his guitar playing, witty lyric writing, clever song arranging) into one enormous but approachable package. The sound of the records is gorgeous, the songs on the records are among FZ’s finest and the physical format, in all its double-gatefold glory, is like the icing on a very tasty cock… err, CAKE!
4.5/5 (Zappa Records ZR3861-1, 2016)