Frank Zappa

Rykodisc, 1984

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Of all the discs I've had to re-listen to in this ongoing retrospective of Frank Zappa, I will be honest with you: I was least looking forward to Thing-Fish, the "original cast recording" of a Broadway play that Zappa never got around to producing.

You see, this is easily the most challenging, most demanding disc of Zappa's entire discography, and apparently is still subject to a lot of scrutiny and confusion. When I first heard it, I was disturbed and disgusted by the whole picture painted out in the music (and, in case you missed it, in the lyrics printed with the CD), and filed it away for what I thought would be forever.

Now it is a decade later - and while I can't say I've become a fan of this set, I do understand some of what Zappa was trying to accomplish a little bit more. Still, this is a disc that, if you're not ready for it, will piss you off.

After all, who else but Zappa could take on the stereotypical appearance of Broadway by creating a musical in which the main character, the potato-headed, duck-billed creature Thing-Fish, was African-American and spoke like a character from Amos 'N' Andy? (In all fairness, Ike Willis, who is African-American, voices the character - if this had truly been a racist script, Willis would have undoubtedly said something.) But not only Broadway and its white majority are taken on, but also religion (with the characters of the Mammy Nuns), modern (for 1984) social views (in terms of skewering Yuppies and the women's liberation movement) and the government (all but accusing them of creating diseases to rid the world of "unwanted" aspects of society). Offended yet? Believe me, you have to have skin made of Kevlar not to be offended by something in this.

Had Zappa stuck with one particular theme - such as the slam against how blacks were viewed in the world of Broadway, or the attack on social statuses of the day - then my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Thing-Fish would have been a more cohesive and approachable package. But with several different subplots floating around the story like so much smoke at a concert, it's easy to get lost in the haze - which, unfortunately, does happen to the story.

Interesting to note the performances of Terry and Dale Bozzio (as Harry and Rhonda, two theater-goers who are unwillingly made part of the action on-stage), and the tension that come up between them as Harry falls in love with a rubber Mammy doll and Rhonda gets into, aah, "intimate contact" with her briefcase and fountain pen. (Sometimes it feels like the tension from Dale Bozzio is real; the real-life husband and wife divorced about two years later.)

As much as I dreaded listening to Thing-Fish again, I will admit that the first disc proved to be rather enjoyable, although I did find the dialect of Willis's character to be insulting at times (and I'm a white male - go figure). Musically, this is not so much as a "greatest hits" as these are re-workings of some of Zappa's catalog, especially pulling from more recent times, as heard on "You Are What You Is" and "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing". The newer music often serves as background filler, though "The Mammy Nuns" proves to be unforgettble (though I still prefer the live version known as "The Mammy Anthem" on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 1).

The second act is where the listener's patience is challenged the most, as Terry Bozzio becomes a leather fetishist - his character Harry had become gay "for business purposes" - and Dale Bozzio's Rhonda tries to get Harry's attention by showing off her body (one can almost imagine this happening live in the studio - what the hell, since Dale Bozzio once was a Playboy Playmate) and screwing her briefcase. Listeners who have young children are strongly encouraged to invest in a good set of headphones for this album, as it is most definitely not for little ears. Musically, it's also the weaker of the two halves, rehashing "No Not Now" (and, as the finale, playing it backwards as "Won Ton On") and mixing it in with more originals that try to move the plot along a little bit.

Thing-Fish is still a very difficult set to get through - don't try to do it in one sitting - but I will admit it's not the absolute train wreck I had experienced a decade earlier and was anticipating. That's not to say it's a masterpiece - indeed, far from it. Zappa's indignance at so many groups is spread so thinly that the whole attack is weakened; Zappa could have made a real powerful statement by honing down the plotlines a bit and directing his venom at one or two institutions.

I'm not going to say that Thing-Fish isn't worth your time - indeed, my feelings about this one are a lot more mixed than when I sat down to listen to it again. But I will say that newbies to Zappa's catalog can save this one to almost the end of their shopping sprees.

2005 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 the Zappa Family Trust / record label, and is used for informational purposes only.

Rating: C-

User Rating: A



© 2005 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, and is used for informational purposes only.