Joe's Garage: Acts I, II & III

Frank Zappa

Rykodisc Records, 1979

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


For a good portion of his career, Frank Zappa was obsessed with writing plays based around his songs. I can count three that immediately come to mind: the God-awful Thing-Fish, the decent Civilization - Phaze III and today's review subject, Joe's Garage. Originally split into two releases, Zappa's label Barking Pumpkin combined the two albums, as did Rykodisc when Zappa arranged to have them re-issue his entire catalog.

But after several listenings spanning several years, I still can't understand why people consider this disc to be a masterpiece. Sure, it has some great songs, but the ridiculous "play" that ties the songs together is more of a distraction.

Zappa's main role on the album is as the narrator, "The Central Scrutinizer," who leads the listener into an examination of the damage music can do in the world of the future (one undoubtedly run by Tipper Gore). and what the pursuit of music does to the "hero" of the story, Joe. The title track is a throwback to the '50s sound that inspired Zappa to become a musician and which he often worshipped in his music (check out the album my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Cruisin' With Ruben And The Jets).

But the story quickly dissolves into a diatribe against organized religion ("Catholic Girls"), the seedy side of the music industry ("Crew Slut") and how the music industry screws artists ("Keep It Greasey"). Were the diatribe not so personal, it would be humorous.

I won't deny there are some great songs on this album. "Keep It Greasey" has proven itself to be a good track through repeated live performances - though I could have lived without the jazz-like diddling that took up over half the track. The instrumental "Watermelon In Easter Hay" is some of Zappa's best work, and features a controlled guitar solo from one of the best guitarists ever.

But Zappa, who ran afoul of the PMRC for some of his sexual and scatological lyrics, shows why he was singled out on Joe's Garage. From the humorous look at the result of obtaining a STD ("Why Does It Hurt When I Pee") to a description of scoring with a robot and enjoying gay sex with another ("Sy Borg") to getting "plooked" as payment for crimes ("Dong Work For Yuda," "Keep It Greasey"), there are times that Zappa pushes the envelope too far.

And the rest of the album is not able to maintain a level of excellence that would set it apart from other works by Zappa. His album Sheik Yerbouti is one that can rise above occasionally weak performances to stand out among the best. Unfortunately, Joe's Garage can't make the same claim. Songs like "Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt," "Packard Goose" and "A Token Of My Extreme" do not rank among Zappa's best. (And to this day, I'll never understand why Zappa chose to look like a mechanic covered in motor oil on the album covers - it made me think the album was about what happened at a car repair shop at first.)

Once again, I commit heresy by dropping the curtain on the spot-free image of an album that diehard fans of an artist consider to be among their best work. If you're one of those who consider Joe's Garage to be one of Zappa's best albums, then I'd say you haven't been listening to most of Zappa's backcatalog.

Rating: C-

User Rating: A



© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rykodisc Records, and is used for informational purposes only.