Concept Albums and Album Rock Operas, while present to some extent within virtually all subgenres of Rock music, were particularly popular among the Progressive Rock, to the point where it almost became a running joke. This is not exactly surprising, as the format proved an ideal vehicle for both Prog-Rock’s characteristic ambition and its practitioners’ fervent wish to be seen as serious artists. After the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the Alan Parson Project’s I Robot, and ELO’s Eldorado, just to name a few of the most celebrated examples, even Frank Zappa, the least pretentious and yet most genuinely Avant-Garde artist in the Prog-Rock genre, seems to have felt the need to jump on the bandwagon with his 1979 two-part album Joe’s Garage.
Zappa had already attempted a sort of miniature Rock Opera structure on two of his earlier albums, Absolutely Free and Apostrophe. The first of these, a seven-minute series of song fragments entitled “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”, told the story of an unfulfilled middle-class worker drone who secretly fantasizes about having sex with a 13-year-old girl implied to be his own daughter, which should tell you something about the nature of Zappa’s sense of humor. The second was a completely incomprehensible suite of songs about an Eskimo named Nanook, where each song led into the next, but by the time it ended no-one had any idea how we had gotten from jokes about yellow snow to a religious pancake breakfast event (which is also a good indicator of what to expect on this album).
The honest truth is that most of Zappa’s ‘fans’ are either fans of his trademark filthy comedy songs or of his virtuosic Jazz-Rock noodling…surprisingly few are really enthusiastic about both, which is why most of his albums focus primarily on one or the other. Joe’s Garage is one of the few Zappa albums that makes heavy use of both, a somewhat risky move given his demographic’s divided loyalties.
I’m not sure Zappa’s heart was really into the ‘Concept’ part of this Concept Album: he seemed more interested in using the album’s “story” as an excuse to have fun and make pretty music than in actually creating a cohesive whole. The premise was something of a tired cliché by then within the Rock culture (a dystopian society that has outlawed Rock music), and the plot fell apart in the third ‘act’ in favor of extended instrumental sequences.
Also, the second of the piece’s three ‘acts’ has aged much less well than the other two, mostly because of some homophobic humor about prison rape that, while still funnier than most people would care to admit, does make for somewhat uncomfortable listening today. (That said, I don’t think his brutal mockery of Scientology on “A Token of My Extreme” is likely to make him too many enemies, so not all of the satire has dated.)
But for all the project’s flaws, the overall result is still one of the better Zappa albums…perhaps not on the level of We’re Only in It for the Money or Hot Rats or Over-Nite Sensation, but still on the upper tiers of his extensive catalogue. Some of the music was gorgeous, particularly “He Used to Cut the Grass” and “Watermelon in Easter Hay”, two extended solo guitar pieces which rank with the most beautiful melodies of Zappa’s career. Among the vocal songs, “Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt” and “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” are among Zappa’s funniest novelties. Both are much cleverer than they sound: the former is a contemptuous sendup of how stupid the very idea of a “wet t-shirt contest” really is (“Our big prize tonight is fifty American Dollars to the girl with the most exciting mammalian protruberances!”). Meanwhile, the latter features lyrics quirky enough to liven up its sophomoric subject matter into something genuinely creative (“my balls feel like a pair of maracas/oh, god, I probably got the gono-co-co-coccus”).
Other highlights include the relatively Pop-friendly title-song, a surprisingly sweet tribute to amateur garage bands, and a biting satire of the record industry called “Packard Goose” that makes no sense whatsoever in the context of the album’s story but is so much fun that almost no-one ever complains about it. Many of the songs on the album (including the uncharacteristically touching ballad “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” and most of the songs in the second ‘act’) are drawn from material he had written years ago but never put on an album before, and much of the guitar work was actually overdubbed excerpts from his live concerts.
The most bizarre thing about this album is the uncanny resemblance it bears to the album that would pretty much kill the Prog-Rock Concept Album trend, Kilroy Was Here by Styx. I’m sure you all know Styx…they’re the formulaic Arena Rock band that, prior to their disastrous attempt at Rock Opera, was really only notable for their lead singer’s intensely irritating voice. I would have assumed Zappa was trying to parody that album the way he parodied Disco culture with Sheik Yerbouti, except that Joe’s Garage actually came out a couple of years before Kilroy.
Both albums have almost exactly the same premise (a dystopian futuristic world that has outlawed Rock music). Both are centered around a deliberately generic everyman who functions as a stand-in for all of Rock culture. Both feature robotic-sounding narrator figures that turn out to be someone entirely different than they seem (Mr. Roboto turns out to be the titular hero Kilroy at the end of the first song, and the Central Scrutinizer turns out to be Frank Zappa himself at the end of the album). And of course, both get bored with their Concepts partway through and just start performing the kind of songs that the act in question was generally known for, with only the barest attempts to tie them into the supposed plot.
The difference between the two albums, apart from the obvious fact that Zappa was an infinitely better musician, is that Styx’s album is laughably earnest, with the band giving no impression that they have the slightest idea how silly they sound. Meanwhile, Zappa seems to be completely conscious of how ridiculous and trite his story is, and appears to be playing that fact for deliberate laughs. This is a story that requires a robust sense of irony to make it work, and that’s something that Styx just didn’t have, but that Zappa possessed in spades.
As I said, the album, despite its ambition, isn’t really the best work Zappa’s ever done, and the way it blends the two elements of his music that are usually kept largely separate may limit its appeal somewhat. Still, if you’re not easily offended and have a taste for both complex Jazz-Rock Fusion and crude comedy, this album is well worth picking up. In fact, I’d actually recommend it over several of the more famous Concept Albums to come out of the Prog-Rock genre, and I’d certainly recommend it over Kilroy Was Here in a heartbeat.