Thing-Fish

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Thing-Fish
Studio album by Frank Zappa
Released December 21, 1984
Recorded 1976, 1980-1983
Genre Rock opera
Length 90:58
Label Barking Pumpkin
Producer Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa chronology
Them or Us
(1984)
Thing-Fish
(1984)
Francesco Zappa
(1984)

Thing-Fish is an album by Frank Zappa, originally released as a triple album box set on Barking Pumpkin Records in 1984. It was billed as a cast recording for a proposed musical of the same name, which was ultimately not produced by Zappa, but later performed in 2003, ten years after his death.

The album's storyline is inspired by Broadway theatre, AIDS, eugenics, conspiracy theories, feminism, homosexuality and African American culture. It involves an evil, racist prince/theater critic who creates a disease intended to eradicate African Americans and homosexuals. The disease is tested on prisoners who are turned into "Mammy Nuns" led by the story's narrator, Thing-Fish. The story within a story is a satire of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple, Harry and Rhonda (actually played by Italian-Americans), who attend a play performed by the "Mammy Nuns", and find themselves confronted with their pasts: Harry presented as a homosexual boy, Rhonda presented as a sex doll brought to life.

The story was constructed during the recording sessions, which included producing new overdubs for recordings which previously appeared on Zappa's albums Zoot Allures, Tinseltown Rebellion, You Are What You Is and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch. The release of the album was delayed when Barking Pumpkin Records' previous distributor, MCA, refused to distribute the album. It was instead released by Capitol Records in the United States, accompanied by a "Warning/Guarantee" written by Zappa himself. Thing-Fish was initially received poorly by critics, who criticized the use of previously recorded material, but has since been reappraised for its highly satirical content.

Background[edit]

Before leaving for London to record with the London Symphony Orchestra, Frank Zappa was home during Christmas season in 1982, and kept busy by writing, producing treatments for three films and a Broadway musical called Thing-Fish.[1] Between 1981 and 1982, Broadway theatre had shifted from conservative musicals to experimental plays that were viewed as either being pretentious or vulgar.[2] Thing-Fish satirized statements made by theater critics at the time, as well as arguing against the "dumbing down" of American culture.[2] Previously, Zappa unsuccessfully attempted to stage two musicals on Broadway, Hunchentoot, which formed the basis for the compact disc reissue of Sleep Dirt, and a musical adaptation of William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch.[2] Thing-Fish also drew conceptual themes from AIDS, feminism, gay chic, conspiracy theories and issues of class, greed and race.[2]

The script was developed by recording songs beforehand; much of the songs in the play were previously recorded for other albums, including Zoot Allures, Tinseltown Rebellion, You Are What You Is and Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch.[3] New vocals were combined with previously released tracks and new Synclavier music. In addition to the new songs, the previously recorded songs include new overdubs moving this storyline forward.[4] As the recording process continued, Zappa brought in revised scripts and improved the work by editing or changing aspects he was unsatisfied with.[3]

Zappa attempted to produce Thing-Fish as a Broadway production.[1] In promotion of the planned musical, a photo sequence based upon the "Briefcase Boogie" scene was shot for the pornographic magazine Hustler, accompanied by plot excerpts from the scene.[5] The sequence was 28 pages long.[6] While the album was released, Zappa was unable to raise the $5 million budget in order to produce the play, and shelved the project.[1] Subsequently, Thing-Fish dialogue appeared on the album Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, during the piece "Porn Wars".[7] The album was adapted for a limited stage production that took place in England in 2003. Many elaborate details were changed due to the small scale of the production.[8]

Style and influences[edit]

Lyrics and story themes[edit]

"The simple thought behind Thing-Fish is that somebody manufactured a disease called AIDS and they tested it. They were developing it as a weapon and they tested it on convicts, the same way as they used to do experiments on black inmates, using syphilis. That's documented. They used to do these experiments with syphilis on black inmates in US prisons. That's fact. So we take it one step further and they're concoting the special disease which is genetically specific to get rid of 'all highly rhythmic individuals and sissy boys.' So I postulate that they do this test in a prison and part of the test backfires and these mutants are created."[3]
- Frank Zappa

The Thing-Fish characterization was performed by Ike Willis, who helped shaped the dialogue himself using African American Vernacular English[3] According to Willis, "in my family, we sort of joke around with dialects, and what it sounded like to me was [the poet] Paul Laurence Dunbar. [...] I asked Frank if he had ever heard of this guy, and he said, 'No,' so I started giving him examples of Dunbar's work, and eventually, that ended up being a big influence on the Thing-Fish dialect."[3]

Minstrel shows served as a source of satire within the storyline.[9] The Thing-Fish characterization is also seen as satirizing Amos 'n' Andy, a successful radio series and controversial television series which drew protests from the NAACP, who perceived the dialect spoken by the main characters and supporting character Kingfish as being portrayed as being "too dumb to speak English."[2] Additionally, Zappa satirized the Mammy archetype; the AIDS-like disease in the storyline turns prisoners into "Mammy Nuns" which are round and dress like Aunt Jemima.[2] The Mammy archetype derives from the fictional character Mammy, as portrayed by Hattie McDaniel in the film Gone With The Wind.[2]

Thing-Fish is delivered as a story within a story, focusing on a spoiled White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple, Harry and Rhonda, who attend a play that initially begins as being about and starring the Mammy Nuns. The story ultimately ends up following these characters through a series of ideological fads.[2] It is revealed that Harry had become a homosexual as a result of the women's liberation movement, which caused him to lose all sexual desire for women; the younger versions of the characters are portrayed in the characters "Harry-As-A-Boy" and "Artificial Rhonda", with the young Rhonda being portrayed as a rubber sex doll, while her older counterpart becomes increasingly fascistic and feminist towards the end of the story.[2]

Music and performance[edit]

The concept of Thing-Fish satirized minstrel shows. "Mammy Nuns" resemble blackface performers.

The prologue is delivered as a spoken monologue over an instrumental piece with a heavy rock guitar riff.[10] It is followed by the song "The Mammy Nuns", which originated as a hard rock instrumental, which appears in a live recording as "The Mammy Anthem" on You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1, and opened performances in June and July 1982.[9] "Galoot Up-Date" is an altered version of the recording "The Blue Light", which appeared on Zappa's album Tinseltown Rebellion.[11] As Harry and Rhonda express admiration for the "performance" of the Evil Prince, an early version of Zappa's Synclavier composition "Amnerika" is heard.[12] "Clowns on Velvet" was performed live as a "spirited, playful instrumental".[13] A recording of the instrumental version featuring guitarist Al Di Meola was planned for release on the album Tinseltown Rebellion, but DiMeola refused its release.[13]

Johnny "Guitar" Watson, appearing as the character Brown Moses, delivered running commentary in the song "He's So Gay",[14] and sang the song "Brown Moses", which was influenced by soul and gospel music.[15] The play's first act is concluded with "Artificial Rhonda", a rewrite of the song "Ms. Pinky", which appeared on Zoot Allures.[16]

The next track begins with early Synclavier music by Zappa, and the computerized voice of "The Crab-Grass Baby",[17] followed by the Mammy Nuns singing "The White Boy Troubles".[18] The Evil Prince, defeated at his own hands, delivers a soliloquy in the form of a Broadway piano ballad, "Wistful Wit a Fist-Full".[19]

Release[edit]

The Thing-Fish album was identified as an "original cast recording". Barking Pumpkin Records prepared to release the album with distribution by MCA Records.[1][20] MCA produced a test pressing of the triple LP set, but withdrew their distribution after a woman in their quality control department became offended and upset by the album's content.[1][20]

A deal was quickly made with EMI Records, which would allow Them Or Us and Thing-Fish to be distributed by Capitol Records in the United States.[1][20] Zappa wrote a "warning" which appeared on the inner sleeves of these albums, as well as Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, which stated that the albums contained content "which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress", and a "guarantee" which stated that the lyrics would not "cause eternal torment in the place where the guy with the horns and pointed stick conducts his business."[1][20] Thing-Fish was reissued in 1986 as a double compact disc by Rykodisc[4] and then as a remastered edition in 1995 (with a different vocal take on "Wistful Wit A Fistful" and vocal overdubs on "He's So Gay") also by Rykodisc.

Reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 3/5 stars[4]

Thing-Fish was poorly received by critics upon initial release; a common thread of criticism was that many of the songs on this album derived from previously released recordings, and some detractors considered it to be nothing more than a compilation album.[4] Barry Miles found it to be one of his "least substantive" works.[1]

More recently the album has been reappraised, described by Kevin Courrier in Dangerous kitchen: the subversive world of Zappa as "a compendium of Zappa's most explicit attacks on political and sexual hypocrisy in American culture collected together in one huge volley."[21] In Frank Zappa and musical theatre: ugly ugly o'phan Annie and really deep, intense, thought-provoking Broadway symbolism, Thing-Fish is described as "an extraordinary example of bricolage".[22] As reviewed by François Couture for the website Allmusic, Couture described Thing-Fish as Zappa's "most controversial, misunderstood, overlooked album", stating that it was not a masterpiece, but "more than rehashed material".[4]

Track listing[edit]

Side one
No. Title Length
1. "Prologue"   2:56
2. "The Mammy Nuns"   3:50
3. "Harry & Rhonda"   3:36
4. "Galoot Up-Date"   5:29
Total length:
15:51
Side two
No. Title Length
1. "The 'Torchum' Never Stops"   10:32
2. "That Evil Prince"   1:17
3. "You Are What You Is"   4:31
Total length:
16:20
Side three
No. Title Length
1. "Mudd Club"   3:17
2. "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing"   3:14
3. "Clowns On Velvet"   1:38
4. "Harry-As-A-Boy"   2:51
5. "He's So Gay"   2:48
Total length:
13:48
Side four
No. Title Length
1. "The Massive Improve'lence"   5:07
2. "Artificial Rhonda"   3:30
3. "The Crab-Grass Baby"   3:48
4. "The White Boy Troubles"   3:35
Total length:
16:00
Side five
No. Title Length
1. "No Not Now"   5:50
2. "Briefcase Boogie"   4:10
3. "Brown Moses"   3:02
Total length:
13:02
Side six
No. Title Length
1. "Wistful Wit a Fist-Full"   3:53
2. "Drop Dead"   7:56
3. "Won Ton On"   4:20
Total length:
16:09

Personnel[edit]

The libretto which accompanied the album only credits "cast members".

Cast
Credits
  • Frank Zappa - Book & lyrics, music, arrangements
  • Mark Pinske & Bob Stone - Recording engineers
  • Mark Pinske - Engineering mixer
  • Ladi Von Jansky - Cover Photo
  • Robert Fletcher - Costumes

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Barry Miles (September 2005). Zappa: A Biography. GROVE/ATLANTIC Incorporated. p. 317. ISBN 978-0-8021-4215-3. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kelly Fisher Lowe (2007). The Words and Music of Frank Zappa. U of Nebraska Press. p. 188. ISBN 978-0-8032-6005-4. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Niel Slaven. Electric Don Quixote: The Definitive Story Of Frank Zappa. Music Sales Group. p. 338. ISBN 978-0-85712-043-4. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c d e "allmusic ((( Thing-Fish > Overview )))". www.allmusic.com. Retrieved 2009-12-23. 
  5. ^ Peter Buckley (2003). The Rough Guide to Rock. Rough Guides. p. 2244. ISBN 978-1-85828-457-6. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  6. ^ Allan MacDonell (2006). Prisoner of X: 20 Years in the Hole at Hustler Magazine. Feral House. p. 79. ISBN 978-1-932595-13-0. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  7. ^ SPIN Media LLC (January 1986). SPIN. SPIN Media LLC. p. 11. ISSN 0886-3032. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  8. ^ Thing-Fish – The Return of Frank Zappa, The British Theatre Guide . Retrieved on December 11, 2007.
  9. ^ a b The Mammy Nuns | AllMusic
  10. ^ Prologue | AllMusic
  11. ^ Galoot Up-Date | AllMusic
  12. ^ That Evil Prince | AllMusic
  13. ^ a b Clowns on Velvet | AllMusic
  14. ^ He's So Gay | AllMusic
  15. ^ Brown Moses | AllMusic
  16. ^ Artificial Rhonda | AllMusic
  17. ^ The Crab-Grass Baby | AllMusic
  18. ^ The White Boy Troubles | AllMusic
  19. ^ Wistful Wit a Fist-Full | AllMusic
  20. ^ a b c d Zappa, Frank with Occhiogrosso, Peter (1989). The Real Frank Zappa Book. New York: Poseidon Press. pp. 278–279. ISBN 0-671-63870-X. 
  21. ^ Kevin Courrier (June 1, 2002). Dangerous kitchen: the subversive world of Zappa. ECW Press. Retrieved July 22, 2013. 
  22. ^ Carr, Paul; Hand, Richard J. (2007), Frank Zappa and musical theatre: ugly ugly o'phan Annie and really deep, intense, thought-provoking Broadway symbolism, Studies in Musical Theatre 1 (1): 44–51., doi:10.1386/smt.1.1.41/1 [dead link] Full article available by free login only. Retrieved on July 28, 2008.