Frank Zappa was a hugely prolific artist, but it’s still worth marveling at the fact that 1976’s Zoot Allures was his 22nd album. The record saw Zappa once again welcoming Captain Beefheart into the fold. Donnie Vliet added his harmonica to a pair of cuts – “Ms. Pinky” and “Find Her Finer.” As always with Zappa, there’s a bit of strangeness to grapple with. The album artwork pictures Zappa sidemen Patrick O’Hearn and Eddie Jobson, though they don’t play here. Zoot Allures also has a typically punning Zappa title, parodying the hackneyed exclamation “Zut alors!” while also – intentionally or not – referencing the post-war zoot suit.
Though Zappa felt at home recording in his favored Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles where mixing also took place, legend has it that a different mix of the album was forged in Jacksonville, Florida. Whatever the truth in that, the end results were Zappa personified: progressive, veering towards fusion and funk, and with lashings of hard metal on the fringes – not forgetting his trademark scabrous lyrics.
The opening “Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station” sets the mood, sending up the notion that smart people still end up doing menial jobs. Zappa and engineer Davey Moiré handle the lead vocals (sung live for a time by Bianca Odin, aka Lady Bianca), with Frank proving the bass, guitars, and synthesizers while trusty drummer Terry Bozzio nails the backbeat. Short and very sharp, the song really is a send-up with Zappa adopting a faux German accent. Needless to say, it was a firm live favorite. “Black Napkins” ups the ante, thanks to a brilliant extended guitar part that also became a fixture on subsequent tours. Here it’s culled from a February 1976 live show in Osaka, Japan.
The album’s key track is perhaps “The Torture Never Stops”: pre-dating ambient music, it allows Zappa to sing up-close and personal, lending a creepy, malignant texture to a lyric that is crooned, night-club style, albeit by the kind of performer you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark dressing room. Side One of the original vinyl pressing judders to a halt with “Ms. Pinky,” which concerns an, ahem, sex doll and starts with the line, “I got a girl with a little rubber head/Rinse her out every night before I go to bed.” Beefheart blows in, Ruth Underwood adds more synths, and the motif follows a standard garage hard rock tempo with unsettling side trips.
Flip the record over and you get stuck into the quirky world of “Find Her Finer,” a song that suggests men are well-advised to act dumb, since it will further their nefarious desires. Bassist Roy Estrada (an original member of both The Mothers and Little Feat) adds a comic falsetto so that the bizarre tone gets a doo-wop makeover. For that reason, “Find Her Finer” was released as a single, but the general public didn’t get the joke.
The instrumental “Friendly Little Finger” (whose original sessions date across 1973 and 1975) modulates between Zappa’s supple bass-driven Middle Eastern drone and a classic metal arrangement augmented by horns and marimba, before giving way to the revisited (from 1972 and ’73) “Wonderful Wino,” where the fusion groove percolates around a savage homage to drunkenness. This is also where you’ll find a reference to that aforementioned zoot suit.
To which: Zoot Allures’ title track is more instrumental and was apparently a late addition to the album, though Zappa was in a rush to perfect it for immediate live dates. In terms of sales, however, the album’s calling card was the closing “Disco Boy,” a satirical swipe at the prevailing dance trend, with added laughs that made it into the charts. A neat slice of hand jive. The flipside to the single was “Ms. Pinky,” now tagged as “Ms. Pinky, Bird Walk.”
Overall, Zoot Allures satisfies on every Zappa count. The man himself remastered it for CD later at his home studio, UMRK (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen), while the Zappa Family Trust’s arrangement with Universal Music Enterprises later found it a new home – on both CD and vinyl, no less. Over 40 years later, Zoot Allures still shines.