Frank Zappa: Jazz From Hell (Yesterday's Jukebox)

Frank Zappa's complex, electronic masterpiece showed what the late, great maestro could achieve by removing the human element and harnessing the power of a machine.

Frank Zappa

Jazz From Hell

Label: Zappa
Release Date: 1986-11-15

Frank Zappa was, among many other things, a stern taskmaster. The iconic, trailblazing singer/songwriter/guitarist/composer demanded nothing less than perfection from his bands through the years. Not unlike Miles Davis and Art Blakey, his rock ensembles were often a proving ground for young musicians to demonstrate their considerable chops before moving on to greater recognition as solo artists. Adrian Belew, George Duke, and Steve Vai are just a few examples.

Much to Zappa’s chagrin, musicians are only human and thus not infallible. For a perfectionist of his level to be truly satisfied with the result of a complex composition, the best solution is to remove the human element. That’s where New England Digital’s Synclavier came in.

Zappa discovered the Synclavier, a high-end digital keyboard sampler, in the early ‘80s and after purchasing one for his home studio, he began learning the method to its madness. In 1984, he released Francesco Zappa, an album of compositions by an obscure Italian baroque composer (and Zappa descendant), programmed and performed entirely on the Synclavier. It’s an odd, curious entry in Zappa’s discography, and while it sounds pleasant enough (think Switched on Bach), it hardly explored the vast depths of the keyboard’s capabilities.

In 1985, Zappa released Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, which contained a handful of more challenging Synclavier pieces (including the epic “Porn Wars”, which hilariously intersperses audio samples from the PMRC hearings at which Zappa testified). That was followed by Jazz From Hell in 1986, which is really the first full-on example of the maestro putting the Synclavier through the wringer. Seven of the album’s eight songs were programmed and executed on the machine.

Removing the human element from any musical endeavor will always be met with protests from purists who believe the art form must contain the primal forces of improvisation and happy accidents. Zappa himself has certainly benefited from the joy of soloing and other raw, organic aspects of music. But as he has pointed out, if you want it done right, why not let a computer spit out the notes exactly as they were meant to be heard? Hell, he even berated the London Symphony Orchestra for their (alleged) inaccurate performances of his orchestral pieces. Nobody was safe from Zappa’s highly attuned ear.

As a result, Jazz From Hell has a cold, almost antiseptic sound to it. Which isn’t to say it’s not an enjoyable listen. Most of the tracks include the usual hyper-complex trademarks of Zappa’s instrumental music -- jittery clusters of notes, complicated time signatures, dense, meticulous melody lines, and of course, an almost cartoonish playfulness.

The opening track, “Night School”, is an appropriate way of easing into the album, as its breezy pace and relatively safe atmosphere initially suggest a luxurious bullet train at high speed (the song’s title is also the name of a current events talk show Zappa unsuccessfully pitched to ABC in 1987, which may explain its somewhat straightforward, digestible nature). The usual Zappa-isms eventually come out of the woodwork before the song’s end, however: twitchy melodic leads, aggressive percussion patches, unique timbres. Things soon get even weirder as “Beltway Bandits” suggests an interstellar traffic jam with alien car horn samples and relentless computerized melodies.

“While You Were Art II” is arguably the album’s sophisticated centerpiece. An arrangement of an earlier guitar-solo-based song (“While You Were Out”) requested by an orchestral ensemble, Zappa fed the updated arrangement into the Synclavier with dizzying results. Melodies -- notably led by a dramatic woodwind patch -- weave in and out, while a fusillade of percussion blasts away. A random sample of the track may seem nonsensical at first listen, but taken as a whole, the song is a sterling representation of Zappa’s composition skills in full bloom.

One of Jazz From Hell’s most audacious moments comes in the form of “G-Spot Tornado”, a hyper-caffeinated three-minute blast of frenetic melody fueled by relentless, manic energy. It should be noted that when the Ensemble Modern played a series of concerts of Zappa’s music in 1992 (resulting in The Yellow Shark, the last album Zappa released in his lifetime), they defied Zappa’s opinion that it was “impossible for humans to play” by essentially killing it, resulting in a thunderous standing ovation. It speaks volumes not only for the Ensemble’s performance but for the composition itself, one of Zappa’s most memorable.

I mentioned that seven of the album’s eight songs were performed on the Synclavier. Zappa threw his more traditional “rock” fans a bone with the inclusion of the anachronistic yet utterly brilliant “St. Etienne”. The track is a full-band instrumental, a guitar solo extraction from a 1982 Zappa concert in St. Etienne, France. Students of Zappa’s unfiltered guitar soloing (evident on albums like Shut Up’n’Play Yer Guitar, Guitar and the posthumous Trance-Fusion) will not be disappointed. Zappa’s intricate, sinewy guitar soloing provides a respite from the calculated programming of the rest of the album. Ably backed by his seven-piece touring ensemble, Zappa’s playing is fluid and dexterous and moves through the band’s sparse, bluesy backing with grace.

Jazz From Hell went on to win Zappa his first Grammy (the other two, including a lifetime achievement award, were posthumous), and it was by no means the end of his love affair with the Synclavier. He took it on the road for his final full-band tour in 1988 and recorded a slew of additional music with it, including the staggering, brilliant Civilization Phaze III (released in 1994, a year after his death from prostate cancer) and the more recent posthumous albums Feeding the Monkies at Ma Maison (2011) and Dance Me This (2015). As technology improved, the Synclavier’s sounds became richer and more sophisticated. And while he did occasionally make music with human beings during the last few years of his life, the Synclavier seemed to represent how Frank Zappa ultimately wanted his music to sound. At times cold and clinical, Jazz From Hell is still Zappa the way he was intended. The ultimate collaboration between man and machine.


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Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

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In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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