Frank Zappa - You Are What You Is (1981)

 Total Time: 69 min, 6 sec
Teen-age Wind 3:01
Harder Than Your Husband 2:28
Doreen 4:44
Goblin Girl 4:06
Theme From the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear   3:31
Society Pages 2:26
I'm a Beautiful Guy 1:56
Beauty Knows No Pain 3:01
Charlie's Enormous Mouth 3:36
Any Downers? 2:08
Conehead 4:18
You Are What You Is 4:23
Mudd Club 3:11
The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing 3:10
Dumb All Over 4:03
Heavenly Bank Account 3:44
Suicide Chump 2:49
Jumbo Go Away 3:43
If Only She Woulda 3:47
Drafted Again 3:06

This is probably my favorite 80s Zappa album. Originally a double album (released on one CD), each of the four album sides works well as a suite of songs. The album has such massive overdubbing that it seems like there's always at least three or four things going on at any given moment. And often one or more of those things are references to other songs on the album, or even other albums entirely. You Are What You Is is a jigsaw puzzle of an album.

Side one begins with the parody protest song, Teen-age Wind. Its chorus of "Free is when you don't have to pay for nothing or do nothing, we want to be free!" sums up the impossibility of being truly free. The next track is the country music parody Harder Than Your Husband ("I'll be harder than your husband...to get along with"). Doreen is a rockin' love song. Goblin Girl is a not-so-subtle double entendre about oral sex, but at the end of the track Doreen makes a comeback, and the two tracks battle it out while all sorts of other vocal tracks are dubbed on top - this part can make your head spin. Side one ends with a wonderful instrumental, ...3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear. This is the final section of an orchestral piece that was never released as such, but rock band interpretations of two thirds of it exist (the other part is on Them or Us).

Side two contains mostly social criticism set to rock/pop music. Society Pages is about an old lady who's family runs a town, so she puts herself in the newspaper's society pages every day. Her son is the Beautiful Guy, who seems to have little worth other than his looks. But it's OK, because Beauty Knows No Pain. The son's girlfriend is Charlie, who uses her enormous mouth both on the guy, and on various chemical entertainments. The name Charlie was lifted from a perfume of the same name, the commercials for which included the "kinda young, kinda wow" line. Eventually, Charlie's drug habits kill her, but at the funeral her unrepentant friends ask each other Any Downers? Finally the side ends with Conehead, based on the Saturday Night Live characters. It's a decent song, but it sounds out-of-place with the rest of the songs on side two, and smacks of Zappa sucking up to NBC for some reason. Maybe he was trying to get his own TV show. Or maybe he was just thanking them for letting him appear on SNL twice (once in a Conehead sketch that was brought to a screeching halt when Frank couldn't deliver his lines due to a mouthful of food).

Side three starts out with the title track, which warns about the dangers of trying to be something other than what you are. It's also one of the catchiest, most upbeat songs in the Zappa catalog. Mudd Club is sort of a documentary track, about a punk rock club that existed (exists?) in New York. Zappa played there, and there's even a track on the Stage series that was recorded there. After that, the remainder of side three is given to criticism of religion. The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing is about how the rich really rule the world, keeping the poor in line with promises like "The meek shall inherit the Earth". Dumb All Over is one of Frank's most controversial songs - it blasts organized religion full force, blaming it for most of the world's wars and problems.

The first song of side four continues the attack on religion - Heavenly Bank Account rips into phony evangelists who take people's money in the name of God. On the initial Ryko CD, this song segued directly from the last chorus of Dumb All Over, but on the original vinyl album Dumb ended with a lengthy guitar solo (over vocals that keep repeating the title phrase) which eventullly faded out and blasted back in on side four, then segued into Heavenly. Fortunately, in the late 90s Ryko started issuing "fixed" CDs that restored the guitar solo and fixed a bunch of other problems like dropouts and phase cancellation. The problem is that there's no way to tell from the exterior packaging which version of the disc you might find in a store. If you buy the album and find a bunch of annoying dropouts and no long guitar solo at the end of side three, you've got the old version and should take it back and ask them to order you a current copy.

The rest of side four has a little something to offend nearly everyone. Suicide Chump actually tells people considering suicide that they should make sure they get it right the first time, or else they'll survive and look stupid (the basic message seems to be to point out how lame it is to threaten suicide as a way of getting attention). Jumbo Go Away is about a fat groupie who wouldn't stop pestering a band member. This song has come under fire for the line "No Denny, don't hit me!", although the song itself is not saying that it's OK to hit women. This song also contains an insanely difficult keyboard solo - I pity the keyboardists who had to perform that live. If Only She Woulda is a great Doors parody - the line "Hey, let's jam!" followed by a spot-on imitation of a cheesy Doors solo cracks me up every time. The album ends with Drafted Again, a semi-serious but still very funny protest song against the draft.

This was one of the first dozen or so Zappa albums I bought, and I quickly became obsessed with it. I listened to it again and again, trying to dig out all the references from one song to another. The dropouts and other audio glitches annoyed the hell out of me though, so when I found out that the vinyl sounded better I went out and tracked down a used copy in good shape for $20. Worth every penny. And now I've finally got a fixed version of the CD too, so all is right with the universe.

Album Cover

Image of the You Are What You Is album cover