I want to say more or less the same thing about Frank Zappa now that I did in a 2007 review of Hot Rats, so I may as well not bother rephrasing it, and just quote:
I must say right off that I had never taken very seriously Zappa’s ambition to be taken very seriously as a musician. Maybe “ambition” is the wrong word, since the general air of dadaist clownishness with which he invested his work certainly encouraged one to treat it as a joke. That was my original difficulty. Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were essentially a musical comedy act, and when albums like Lumpy Gravyand Hot Rats came out, people didn’t know what to make of them. I think I heard each of them approximately once. I have a faint memory of hearing them in the company of friends, all of us waiting for the jokes to start, puzzled and bored when they never arrived.
Subsequently I heard Zappa’s music praised often enough, but usually by the sort of people who think songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” are tremendously funny, so that the commendation of the music came across as an unpersuasive afterthought, a bit reminiscent of an old-timePlayboy reader praising the magazine’s journalism. Nor did Zappa’s general air of angry cynicism—which seemed, on the basis of occasional media reports, to harden over the years, along with his liking for crudeness and obscenity—suggest that I should reconsider his music.
I went on to be pretty positive about Hot Rats (I'm not linking to the review because it seems somehow not to have made it over to this blog and is still on the old one, which is going to be taken down Any Day Now).
Zappa's more dedicated fans remind me a little of dogmatic libertarians: intelligent in a constricted, rationalistic sort of way, a little deficient in understanding of the totality of the human. (Dogmatic Thomists can be somewhat the same way.) And Zappa's music seems similar: in the realm of pop music you couldn't get much further away from the emotional power of, say, Van Morrison.
One thing the fans always insist upon is that he was a great guitarist. Other than "Willie the Pimp" on Hot Rats, I had never encountered much evidence of that. But it's true. I don't hear anything in any of the three clips that follow that reaches down into the emotions the way, for instance, a much more technically limited blues guitarist can do. But his playing is certainly interesting.
"Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar":
"Chunga's Revenge": This is one of the best Zappa solos I found on YouTube, but embedding is disabled, so click here. This is a live performance, and there are embeddable copies of the album version, but it's not nearly as guitar-centric and generally as appealing as this one.
And here's an interesting case study of what I said above about the head-vs.-heart contrast. I was very surprised to find Zappa playing the Allman Brothers' intense classic "Whipping Post". Zappa's solo (a couple of minutes in) is not very bluesy, and is very--here's that word I can't seem to avoid--interesting, but overall, in spite of the singer's earnest effort, this just doesn't touch the emotions in the way the Allmans' original does (click here if you don't know it).
More than twenty-five years ago I lent someone my original 1967 copy of the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out album, and never got it back. I wish I had. What a fascinating curio from that time it is.