Joe's Garage is a three-part rock opera recorded by American musician Frank Zappa in September and November 1979. Originally released as two separate studio albums (a single album and a double album) on Zappa Records, the project was later remastered and reissued as a triple album box set, Joe's Garage, Acts I, II & III, in 1987. The LPs initially received mixed to positive reviews, with critics praising its innovative and original music, but criticizing the scatological, sexual and profane nature of the lyrics. Since its original release, Joe's Garage has been reappraised in a better light by some critics.
Zappa described the album as a "stupid little story about how the government is going to do away with music." The story is told by a character identified as the "Central Scrutinizer" narrating the story of Joe, an average adolescent male who forms a garage rock band, has unsatisfying relationships with women, gives all of his money to a government-assisted and insincere religion, explores sexual activities with appliances, and is imprisoned. After being released from prison into a dystopian society in which music itself has been criminalized, he lapses into insanity.
The album encompasses a large spectrum of musical styles, while its lyrics often feature satirical or humorous commentary on American society and politics. It addresses themes of individualism, free will, censorship, the music industry and human sexuality, while criticizing government and religion, and satirizing Catholicism and Scientology. Joe's Garage is noted for its use of xenochrony, a recording technique that takes guitar solos from older live recordings and overdubs them onto new studio recordings. All of the guitar solos on the album are xenochronous except for "Crew Slut" and "Watermelon in Easter Hay", a signature song that Zappa has described as the best song on the album, and according to his son Dweezil, the best guitar solo his father ever played.
After being released from his contractual obligations with Warner Bros. Records, Frank Zappa formed Zappa Records, a label distributed at that time by Phonogram Inc.. He released the successful double album Sheik Yerbouti (1979, recorded 8/1977-2/1978), and began working on a series of songs for a follow-up album.:370 The songs "Joe's Garage" and "Catholic Girls" were recorded with the intention that Zappa would release them as a single. Throughout the development of Joe's Garage, Zappa's band recorded lengthy jams which Zappa later formed into the album.:331 The album also continued the development of xenochrony, a technique Zappa also featured on One Size Fits All (1975), in which aspects of older live recordings were utilized to create new compositions by overdubbing them onto studio recordings, or alternatively, selecting a previously recorded solo and allowing drummer Vinnie Colaiuta to improvise a new drum performance, interacting with the previously recorded piece.
Lyrical and story themes
Midway through recording the new album, Zappa decided that the songs connected coherently and wrote a story, changing the new album into a rock opera.:149 Joe's Garage was the final album Zappa recorded at a commercial studio. Zappa's own studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, built as an addition to Zappa's home, and completed in late 1979, was used to record and mix all of his subsequent releases.
The lyrical themes of Joe's Garage involve individualism, sexuality, and the danger of large government. The album is narrated by a government employee identifying himself as The Central Scrutinizer, who delivers a cautionary tale about Joe, a typical adolescent male who forms a band as the government prepares to criminalize music.:150 The Central Scrutinizer explains that music leads to a "slippery slope" of drug use, disease, unusual sexual practices, prison, and eventually, insanity.:150 According to Scott Schinder and Andy Schwartz, Zappa's narrative of censorship reflected the censorship of music during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, where rock music was made illegal.:370
The title track is noted as having an autobiographical aspect, as the character of Larry (as performed by Zappa himself) sings that the band plays the same song repeatedly because "it sounded good to me".:150 In real life, Zappa said he wrote and played music for himself, his sole intended audience.:150 The song also takes lyrical inspiration from bands playing in bars like The Mothers of Invention once had, and shady record deals Zappa had experienced in the past.:150 In "Joe's Garage", Joe finds that the music industry is "not everything it is cracked up to be".:151 The song refers to a number of music fads, including new wave, heavy metal, disco and glitter rock, and is critical of the music industry of the late 1970s.:151
"Catholic Girls" is critical of the Catholic Church, and satirizes "the hypocrisy of the myth of the good Catholic girl.":151 While Zappa was in favor of the sexual revolution, he regarded himself as a pioneer in publicly discussing honesty about sexual intercourse, stating
"American sexual attitudes are controlled as a necessary tool of business and government in order to perpetuate themselves. Unless people begin to see through that, to see past it to, what sex is really all about, they're always going to have the same neurotic attitudes. It's very neatly packaged. It all works hand-in-hand with the churches and political leaders at the point, where elections are coming up."
This view inspired the lyrical content of "Crew Slut", in which Mary, Joe's girlfriend, falls into the groupie lifestyle, going on to participate in a wet T-shirt contest in the following track, "Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt"
"Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?" was written in the summer of 1978. Zappa's road manager, Phil Kaufman, alleged, that the song was written after Kaufman had asked that very question; within the context of the album's storyline, it is sung by Joe after he receives a sexually transmitted disease from Lucille, "a girl, who works at the Jack in the Box". The Central Scrutinizer continues to express the hypothesis that "girls, music, disease, heartbreak all go together.":155 Halfway through the album's libretto, Zappa expressed the belief, that governments believe, that people are inherently criminals, and continue to invent laws, which gives states the legal grounds to arrest people, leading to the fictional criminalization of music, which occurs towards the end of the album's storyline.:155
"A Token of My Extreme" satirizes Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard, as well as new age beliefs and the sexual revolution.:155:114 It describes an insincere religion, which co-operates with a "malevolent totalitarian regime." "Stick It Out" contains lyrical references to Zappa's songs "What Kind Of Girl", "Bwana Dik", "Sofa No. 2", and "Dancin' Fool". "Dong Work For Yuda" was written as a tribute to Zappa's bodyguard, John Smothers, and features Terry Bozzio imitating Smothers' dialect and speech. "Keep It Greasy" is a lyrical tribute to anal sex.:157 Following Joe's imprisonment and release, the libretto describes a dystopian future, accompanied musically by long guitar solos, which Joe imagines in his head.:159 The penultimate song, "Packard Goose", criticizes rock journalism, and features a philosophical monologue delivered by the character Mary, who had been absent since the first act.:158–159 In the epilogue song "A Little Green Rosetta," Joe gives up music, returns to sanity, hocks his imaginary guitar and gets "a good job" at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen Facility (a self-reference to Zappa's own personal studio). The Central Scrutinizer sings the last song on the album in his "regular voice", and joins in a long musical number with most of the other people that worked with Zappa around 1979.
Music and performance
The music of Joe's Garage encompassed a variety of styles, including blues, jazz, doo wop, lounge, orchestral, rock, pop and reggae. "Catholic Girls" makes musical reference to Zappa's controversial song "Jewish Princess", as a sitar plays the melody of the earlier song during the fadeout of "Catholic Girls". "Crew Slut" is performed as a slow blues song, with slide guitar riffs and a harmonica solo.:152–153:333 According to Kelly Fisher Lowe, the song is "more Rolling Stones or Aerosmith than it is Gatemouth Brown or Guitar Watson".:152–153 The extended three and a half minute, two-part guitar solo in "Toad-O-Line" is taken from Zappa's earlier song, "Inca Roads."
"A Token Of My Extreme" originated as an instrumental song played during improvised conversations by saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke on keyboards. It typically opened Zappa's concerts in 1974; a recording of this version of the piece was released under the title "Tush Tush Tush (A Token of My Extreme)" on You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 2.:155
"Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up" first appeared on Jeff Simmons' album of the same name, on which its writing is credited to "La Marr Bruister", one of Zappa's pseudonyms. The Joe's Garage arrangement is radically different, and is played in a reggae style. "Stick It Out" originated as part of the Mothers of Invention's "Sofa" routine in the early 1970s.:120 The Joe's Garage version is musically influenced by funk and disco, with its lyrics performed first in German, and then in English.:156:270 "Sy Borg" derives from funk, reggae and R&B.:154, 156
"Keep It Greasy" had been performed by Zappa since 1975; the Joe's Garage album version features a guitar solo from a March 1979 live performance of the song "City of Tiny Lights". Another March 1979 guitar solo from "City of Tiny Lights" is incorporated into the song "Outside Now" using the same recording technique. "Packard Goose" also uses xenochrony, with its guitar solo taken from a March 1979 performance of "Easy Meat".
The album concludes with a long guitar instrumental, "Watermelon in Easter Hay", the only guitar solo recorded for the album, in 9/4 time; every other guitar solo on the album was xenochronous—overdubbed from older live recordings.:154:381 In their review of the album, Down Beat magazine criticized the song,:376 but subsequent reviewers have championed the song as Zappa's masterpiece. Lowe called it the "crowning achievement of the album" and "one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever produced".:159 Zappa told Neil Slaven that he thought it was "the best song on the album".:376 The songs' title is thought to have come from a saying used by Zappa while recording the album: "Playing a guitar solo with this band is like trying to grow watermelon in Easter hay". After Zappa died, "Watermelon in Easter Hay" became known as one of his signature songs, and his son, Dweezil Zappa, later referred to it as "the best solo Zappa ever played".:90–91
The song is followed by "A Little Green Rosetta", a song that was originally intended to appear on Zappa's shelved Läther album, but rerecorded with different lyrics for Joe's Garage.:159
Joe's Garage was initially released in separate units, beginning with the single LP Act I in September 1979. For the album artwork, Zappa was photographed in makeup, holding a mop for the car grease garage theme.:381 The gatefold sleeve of Act I was designed by John Williams, and featured a collage, which included a naked Maya, vague technical drawings, pyramids and fingers on the fret of a guitar.:381 The lyric insert featured similar illustrations, which related to the content of the songs and storyline. The title track was released as a single, with "The Central Scrutinizer" as its B-side. It did not chart.
Act I peaked at #27 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. It was followed by the double album Acts II & III in November. The gatefold of Acts II & III featured collages taken from a medical journal, while the cover for Acts II & III featured a makeup artist applying makeup to Zappa's face.:381 Acts II & III peaked at #53 on the Pop Albums chart.
Joe's Garage was reissued in 1987 as a triple album, combining Acts I, II & III into a single box set, and as a double album on compact disc. The song "Wet T-Shirt Nite" received two alternate titles, when the album was released on CD: the libretto referred to the song as "The Wet T-Shirt Contest", while the back cover referred to the song as "Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt". In an interview, Zappa explained that the "fembot" was the name given to a female robot in an episode of the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man. The instrumental "Toad-O Line" was renamed "On the Bus". The Central Scrutinizer monologue at the end of "Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up", which concludes the story's first act, was indexed as its own track on the CD reissue, under the title "Scrutinizer
AllMusic writer William Ruhlmann gave 3 out of 5 stars for the individual releases Act I and Acts II & III. Ruhlmann wrote of Act I, "although his concern with government censorship would see a later flowering in his battles with the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), here he wasn't able to use it to fulfill a satisfying dramatic function." Ruhlmann also felt that Acts II & III "seems so thin and thrown together, musically and dramatically".
Don Shewey of Rolling Stone magazine wrote, "If the surface of this opera is cluttered with cheap gags and musical mishmash, its soul is located in profound existential sorrow. The guitar solos that Zappa plays in Joe's imagination burn with a desolate, devastating beauty. Flaws and all, Joe's Garage is Frank Zappa's Apocalypse Now." The collected Acts I, II & III release received 4.5 out of 5 stars from Allmusic's Steve Huey, who wrote "in spite of its flaws, Joe's Garage has enough substance to make it one of Zappa's most important '70s works and overall political statements, even if it's not focused enough to rank with his earliest Mothers of Invention masterpieces."
For his performance on Joe's Garage, Vinnie Colaiuta was named "the most technically advanced drummer ever" by Modern Drummer, which ranked the album as one of the top 25 greatest drumming performances of all time.:58 On September 26, 2008, Joe's Garage was staged by the Open Fist Theatre Company in Los Angeles, in a production authorized by the Zappa Family Trust.
All tracks written by Frank Zappa.
Act I, Side one
No. Title Length
1. "The Central Scrutinizer" 3:28
2. "Joe's Garage" 6:10
3. "Catholic Girls" 4:26
4. "Crew Slut" 6:31
Act I, Side two
No. Title Length
5. "Wet T-Shirt Nite" (a.k.a. "Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt") 4:45
6. "Toad-O Line" (a.k.a. "On the Bus") 4:19
7. "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?" 2:36
8. "Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up" 5:43
9. "Scrutinizer Postlude" (unlisted) 1:35
Total length: 39:32
Act II, Side three
No. Title Length
1. "A Token of My Extreme" 5:30
2. "Stick It Out" 4:34
3. "Sy Borg" 8:56
Act II, Side four
No. Title Length
4. "Dong Work for Yuda" 5:03
5. "Keep It Greasey" 8:22
6. "Outside Now" 5:50
Total length: 38:15
Act III, Side five
No. Title Length
1. "He Used to Cut the Grass" 8:35
2. "Packard Goose" 11:34
Act III, Side six
No. Title Length
3. "Watermelon in Easter Hay" 9:09
4. "A Little Green Rosetta" 8:15
Total length: 37:33
Frank Zappa – lead guitar, vocals
Warren Cuccurullo – rhythm guitar, vocals
Denny Walley – slide guitar, vocals
Ike Willis – lead vocals
Peter Wolf – keyboards
Tommy Mars – keyboards
Arthur Barrow – bass, guitar (on "Joe's Garage"), vocals
Patrick O'Hearn – bass on "Outside Now" and "He Used to Cut the Grass"
Ed Mann – percussion, vocals
Vinnie Colaiuta – drums, combustible vapors, optometric abandon
Jeff (Jeff Hollie) – tenor sax
Marginal Chagrin (Earle Dumler) – baritone sax
Stumuk (Bill Nugent) – bass sax
Dale Bozzio – vocals
Al Malkin – vocals
Craig Steward – harmonica
Frank Zappa – Central Scrutinizer, Larry, L. Ron Hoover, Father Riley & Buddy Jones
Ike Willis – Joe
Dale Bozzio – Mary
Denny Walley – Mrs. Borg
Al Malkin – Officer Butzis
Warren Cuccurullo & Ed Mann – Sy Borg
Terry Bozzio – Bald-Headed John
The Utility Muffin Research Kitchen Chorus – Al Malkin, Warren Cucurullo, Dale Bozzio, Geordie Hormel, Barbara Issak & most of the people who work at Village Recorders
Ferenc Dobronyi – Cover Design
Steve Alsberg – Project Coordinator
Joe Chiccarelli – Engineer, Mixing, Recording
Norman Seeff – Photography, Cover Photo
John Williams – Artwork
Steve Nye – Remixing
Mick Glossop – Remixing
Stan Ricker – Mastering
Jack Hunt – Mastering
Thomas Nordegg – Assistant
Tom Cummings – Assistant
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