I Wore Out My Wiki… Bought The Big Note

Excuse me?

I am referring to the fact that I have been to the Frank Zappa Wiki so many times I have worn a digital footpath in the web from all the back and forth. There are so many intricacies in the band members, why is this one with The Mothers and this one solo even thought they are out of time sequence, etc. When you have an obscene amount of Zappa, both studio releases and boots you just really want to find out more.

I have a FZ book but what I really need is a collected listing of albums and songs and info about each. There was a book I had seen a long time ago, but passed on because of the price, but since really really diving in to the FZ catalog and trying to make sense of it all, I decided it was time to take the leap. Behold:

The Big Note: A Guide To The Recordings Of Frank Zappa by Charles Ulrich.

This is a paperback, but a big one. Hand for reference.

There are 750+ pages and about everything you ever need to know about each album and tons of quotes from FZ and company to sprinkle about. There is info about the songs, recording techniques, who plays on what, side digressions about FZ influences and a ton of extras. It is an encyclopedia in essence. This is not a book for the casual FZ fan. It is not a narrative or biography, it’s strictly (in my humble opinion) a reference guide. That is not to diminish it, simply to let you know what you’re getting into should you buy this tome.

Inside as I said, there is endless amounts of info. Each album is broken down with it’s own chapter. General info about the album is presented first.

Then songs on the album are broken down individually.

There is a lot of discussion of how FZ would take disparate recorded tracks and combine them to form a new track. Xenochrony. For more on this if you are interested I direct you to Wiki. Hello old friend.


This book has everything from “Absolutely Free”

To “Zoot Allures”

I’ll give you an example of how the info in this book has really helped me to understand and more fully appreciate FZ’s work. Take for example the album “Cruising With Ruben And The Jets”.

This album is credited to The Mothers Of Invention. I have only listened to it a couple times early in my FZ education, but I was very confused. I knew Frank’s voice and this wasn’t it, was it? Remember I started with “Apostrophe” so of course I thought all FZ albums were FZ singing. Though Frank sings a couple on “Cruising With Ruben And The Jets” Ray White sings the rest. Of course I have become familiar now with Ray and Frank’s habit of trading off vocal duties on his albums, but at the time I was like… “say what”? and coupled with it’s wacky doo wop stylings, I sort of dismissed it. It took me a long time to begin experiment with re-listening to albums such as this one.

It popped into my head the other day and I started listening to it and as I did I looked over The Big Note pages on it. Turns out instead of being goofy, it was really a FZ love letter to the composition and craft of great Doo Wop bands.

It’s important to remember to understand the difference between the serious composer FZ and the “dude who sings Stinkfoot”, though each has it’s rightful place in every FZ lover’s heart. Frank was a composer at heart and made rock records to pay the bills and fund his true desires and orchestral leanings.

The Big Note has quotes from FZ on how he was impressed with the Doo Wop composition and how vocally those groups were doing impressive things that Frank tried to emulate and honor here with his songs. So instead of a goofy joke as I had once perceived it, this was really a form of appreciation. To quote from the book quoting Frank:

“… some of the most adventurous diatonic music that has ever been written… I don’t know how you feel about suspensions and irresolutions, but the quintet vocal harmony of the Fifties is frightening, it’s frightening what’s going on in there. You get a bunch of guys that could really sing that stuff and forget that they are singing about their girlfriend. If you saw it on paper it would be amazing.”

I think this is what makes Frank Zappa such a mystery for some folks and immense road of discovery for others. You may have to strip away some of the garish top layers to get the real meat of it, but once you do… damn. WORTH IT!

So if you’ve gotten past that initial phase and are wanting to learn more about specific albums, and keep finding yourself continuously going to the Wiki… consider getting this as your definitive guide.

Thanks Charles Ulrich!

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