Frank Zappa’s Last Great Record

The 1980s were a mixed bag in terms of output for iconic composer and musician Frank Zappa. While many die-hard listeners may have determined that Zappa’s best days were behind him by 1982, the iconoclast would attract an entirely new wave of fans with the album, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, released in May of that year.

This success came in no small part as a result of the surprise radio hit “Valley Girl,” featuring Zappa’s own daughter, Moon Unit. The attention following a bonafide MTV hit propelled Ship Arriving Too Late to number 23 on the Billboard 200, causing a number of longtime fans to distance themselves from the record due to the implications of its commercial success.

Even today, many tend either to associate Ship Arriving Too Late… with its heavily promoted lead single or simply lump it in with Zappa’s less-than-consistent 80s output as a whole. Nonetheless, a concerted listen might alert the discerning listener to an array of moments throughout the album of genuine musical interest.

The album’s distinct three-track halves are divided in origin, with Side A having been recorded in-studio and Side B having emerged from live performances. Doctoring up live material and releasing it on subsequent records was a practice in which Zappa would indulge heavily throughout the 1980s, though he’d been up to such shenanigans since the days of the original Mothers of Invention.

Comprising six individual tunes, Ship Arriving Too Late… can seem more closely akin to an EP than a full-length album based solely on the tracklist. However, in typical Zappa fashion, many of the album’s tunes are packed with enough content to warrant multiple tracks on their own. In fact, each track averages nearly six minutes individually, with the de facto title track “Drowning Witch” occupying over a third of the album itself at over 12 minutes in length.

Opening number “No Not Now” is one of several throughout the LP featuring a distinct and evocative bass line along with characteristically perplexing lyrics. In separate interviews from 1982 Zappa referred to the tune as, “a straight-ahead Mongolian sing-along song,” and “a mongoloid rock and roll song” with “Roy Estrada singing three-part falsetto harmony with himself,” respectively.

Indeed, the trademark falsetto of the since-disgraced member of the original Mothers would be the first vocal listeners would hear upon dropping the needle on Ship Arriving Too Late To Save a Drowning Witch, much to the chagrin of listeners who’d picked up a copy of the LP based on the success of its preceding single.

“I Come From Nowhere” is similarly dense, instrumentally, and takes lyrical aim at the broad-smiling, air-headed members of society who follow blindly and who were frequently the subject of intense criticism from Zappa throughout his career. Here, the musician makes the most of a sharpshooting 80s ensemble which included Arthur Barrow, Steve Vai, Ray White, Scott Thunes, and others.

The distinct sections of the bass-driven number function as two sides of the same coin. The latter half serves as the more forceful of the two, plowing ahead by way of a driving rhythm section colored by manic lead guitar lines that double down on the already-established musical tension.

“Drowning Witch” begins as a narrative delineating the predicament of the titular character before quickly mutating into a highly complex instrumental suite. Although the track was recorded live, the basic track of the album version was said by Zappa to have been pieced together from recorded performances from 15 different cities, with some included portions having been as miniscule as two bars.

Despite having been recorded live in their basic forms, the latter tunes presented on Ship Arriving Too Late do in fact originate from written music rather from a jam situation. Additionally, further work was done in-studio after the fact. For “Drowning Witch” specifically, Steve Vai – who was credited with “impossible guitar parts” in the album sleeve – overdubbed two guitar tracks in addition to an existing live guitar track.

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save a Drowning Witch is an outlier of sorts in the overall Zappa discography – a transitional record. One can almost hear the final remnants of Zappa’s ’70s approach dissipating into the air while listening, though the distinct aura that would be ever-present throughout his 80s material had not quite been fully established at the time of recording.

Instrumental piece, “Envelopes” has origins dating back to the late 1960s, with both early Mothers of Invention and subsequent “Flo & Eddie” lineups having taken respective cracks at its recording to the dissatisfaction of the maestro. Zappa himself reportedly said of the composition shortly after the release of its parent album, “Envelopes utilizes a new harmonic technique based on seven and eight note chords which generate their own counterpoint as an automatic result of the voice leading.”

While those listening for rock and compositional elements are bound to get their fix by way of the aforementioned tunes, those seeking the controversial stylistic choices that had become something of a trademark for Zappa by this time need look no further than album closer, “Teen-age Prostitute.” The controversial subject matter itself isn’t much to write home about, though the composition is effectively engaging and guest vocals from Lisa Popeil provide an interesting dimension to the number.

The ensuing decade of output from Frank Zappa would be characteristically packed with stylistic twists and turns, including forays into purely symphonic releases, instrumental guitar records, politically charged satire, and more.

While there are flashes of brilliance to be found throughout just about every project Frank Zappa ever released, some might argue the merits of Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch as the final, non-posthumous, full-length project from the guitarist in a rock-centric format to warrant and reward intentional, track-by-track exploration.

-Cameron Gunnoe

Fair use image of Frank and Moon Zappa for “Valley Girl”

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1 comment on “Frank Zappa’s Last Great Record

  1. patriciarmcmillen

    “causing a number of longtime fans to distance themselves from the record due to the implications of its commercial success”–I was married to one of those longtime fans, and omg does this remind me of the PC nature of Zappa fandom. As does the description of the [fictional] “broad-smiling, air-headed members of society” who just didn’t fall into line, and probably still don’t. Poor Frank. So misunderstood.

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