This is another album that many people are fanatical about, but it has never been one of my absolute favorites. Act One (which ends somewhere around the Scrutinizer Postlude track) is mostly song-oriented with the occasional bit of fantastically difficult music, and is pretty good. But after that the album starts to stretch every track out with generally decent but usually overlong guitar solo sections. Some people really go for the guitar solos on this album, but for some reason tracks like Outside Now and He Used To Cut the Grass have never appealed to me very much. The exception is the fantastic Watermelon in Easter Hay (probably the most emotional guitar piece Frank ever wrote), which whould have made a good ending for the album, but unfortunately it's followed up by the absurd finale A Little Green Rosetta, which goes on waaaay too long.
Most of the tracks on the album were individually conceived and had been performed in concert well before this album was put together. Then one day Zappa got the idea to create a concept album about a future where the government makes all music illegal. He took the existing songs and created a plot line that would string them all together, and then added the Central Scrutinizer narrator to explain that this is a cautionary tale about the evils of music, and the terrible things that happened to a boy named Joe when he decided to become a musician.
The album starts out with the Scrutinizer delivering that message, and then the first real song begins with Joe reminiscing about his musical beginnings in a garage band. The title track is a relaxed rock song with lyrics that should appeal to anyone who has ever been in (or hung out with) a low-budget rock band. Of course, the trouble starts before we even get to the end of this first song, with the neighbors calling the cops on Joe's noisy band.
Catholic Girls is tied in as a song about groupies, but it's pretty clear that Zappa wrote this song just to show that he wasn't in the least apologetic to those who slammed him for Jewish Princess. In fact, just to make the point totally clear, he even quotes a bit of the melody of JP towards the end of CG.
The rest of the first act is also comprised of shorter, poppish sounding songs with lyrics about sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Joe's girlfriend Mary is introduced, and goes from being a good, religious girl to being a dirty, slutty groupie, eventually competing in a wet t-shirt contest just to get bus fare to go home. Joe in the meantime meets up with a girl named Lucille, from whom he gets an unpronounceable disease that makes it hurt when he pees.
The thing that impresses me the most about the Act One songs are the backing tracks. Underneath the goofy lyrics about sex and rock, the band is playing some complex stuff that manages to be both unusual and catchy at the same time.
Strangely, two of the track titles were changed for the CD release. On the original vinyl, they were called Wet T-Shirt Nite and Toad-O Line, but on the CD they're called Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt and On the Bus. Makes for confusing discussions between vinyl fans and CD listeners.
When the album was originally released, Act One came out as a single vinyl album, and then Acts Two and Three were later released as a double album. The CD reissue puts the whole thing on two CDs, and kind of blurs the line about where the different Acts begin and end. I think Act Two actually begins with the Scrutinizer Postlude and ends somewhere around Outside Now. Act Three would then begin at He Used to Cut the Grass and go to the end of disc two.
The last two Acts feature something that Zappa called "xenochrony". What this meant was that Frank would take two pieces of music from two different sources, recorded at different times, and put them together to make a new track. In the case of Joe's Garage, he took guitar solos that had been recorded live in concert and pasted them over new studio backing tracks that had been created specifically for the album. The results are interesting, and don't sound like a cut and past job for the most part - the solos are surprisingly integrated with the backings. My problem is that I think Zappa's enjoyment of experimenting with xenochrony caused him to make most of the tracks much longer than they needed to be.
The story line slows down after Act One, as the album shifts more towards long instrumental sections, but the basic plot is that Joe, having had one girlfriend leave him to become a groupie and another girlfriend give him a nasty case of VD, decides to give up women and find religion. Unfortunately, what he finds is Appliantology (a thinly disguised twin of Scientology). In this religion, people are encouraged to have sex with machines. Joe goes a little too hard on one particular device, and destroys it. Unfortunately he can't pay for it because he gave all his money to the head of the church, L. Ron Hoover. So, it's off to jail for Joe, where he gets thrown in with all the other musicians and music industry types. The song Packard Goose seems to be Joe's response to the music critics he meets, but it also represents FZ's counter-criticism of reviewers who "push punk like some new kind of English disease". The lyrics of that track are possibly the best on the album.
Eventually, Joe starts to live a fantasy life inside his head, reacting to imaginary bad reviews of his music and finally performing one last imaginary guitar solo (the beautiful Watermelon). In the end, Joe gets out of jail and goes to work in the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (Zappa later used the name for his own home studio), putting little green rosettas on top of muffins.
Overall, the plot is fairly silly but does make some good points about freedom of speech and ironically foreshadows Zappa's real confrontations with the government in the 1980s, when they wanted to pass legislation to "censor" rock and roll albums.