Yet another Zappa 50th Anniversary celebration. This time, it’s the turn of Overnite Sensation, the definitive ‘Gateway to Zappa’ album.
Release Date: 3rd November 2023
Label: Zappa Records / UMe
Formats: 4CD+Blu-Ray Audio Super Deluxe Edition / 2LP / 3LP Vinyl / Digital
Well – it’s been almost a year since the last Frank Zappa super-deluxe reissue rolled off the production lines. Back then, the celebrations were all about the 50th Anniversary of Frank’s “Electric Orchestra” project, The Grand Wazoo, and now it’s the turn of the 1973 album, Overnite Sensation, to have a bask in the spotlight.
I guess that, by now, Zappa afficionados are fully familiar with the attention to detail lavished upon this latest sequence of reissues; after all, we’ve had Golden Jubilee repackages of 200 Motels and Fillmore East – June 1971, as well as the aforementioned The Grand Wazoo to establish some firm expectations and it will probably surprise nobody when I confirm that Zappa Records/ UMe have worked their magic once again. This time around, fans have a choice of four formats for their Zappa fix – CD/Blu-Ray, 2LP vinyl, 3LP vinyl and digital options.
The core package offers 88 tracks, spread across four CDs and a Blu-Ray audio disc. As well as the 2012 Bob Ludwig remix of the original album, there’s a plethora of session masters and out-takes, many of which are previously unreleased. The Blu-Ray disc includes 5.1 surround sound, the original 1973 4-channel quadrophonic mix and hi-res stereo versions of the original album. But, perhaps most excitingly, the package also includes previously unreleased recordings of two complete concerts – from shows at The Hollywood Palladium on 23rd March 1973 and Detroit’s Cobo Hall on 12th May 1973. And it all comes packed into an attractive box, complete with a 48-page booklet with unseen photos from the album cover shoot and extensive liner notes and new essays from audiophile journalist Mark Smotroff.
Overnite Sensation is a particular favourite of mine. I’d dabbled and dallied with Zappa before 1973 – I’d been alternately baffled, amused and intrigued when an older friend had sat me down and played me Uncle Meat a few years earlier and, like many, I’d been enticed by the ubiquitous Hot Rats, but Overnite Sensation was the album that drove me from the Zappa periphery into the heart of that fast-flowing stream. After hearing its jazzy flavours and imaginative (sometimes over-the-top) lyrics and being dazzled by the fluency of Zappa’s guitar, life would never be the same again. And, it seems that my experience wasn’t a unique one. Overnite Sensation is commonly recognized to be the definitive “Gateway” album; the album that has provided the entry point for many Frank Zappa devotees.
Frank had spent much of 1972 conjuring up the jazz-fusion of Waka/Jawaka and recording and touring with his 20-piece ensemble, The Grand Wazoo Orchestra. As 1973 dawned, it was time to bring things back to a smaller scale with a new line-up of The Mothers. Mothers Mk.7 was a fantastically strong line-up: Keyboardist George Duke, trumpeter Sal Marquez, trombonist Bruce Fowler, woodwind player Ian Underwood and percussionist Ruth Underwood were all retained from The Grand Wazoo Orchestra and were joined by famed violinist Jean-Luc Ponty (he’d previously appeared with Zappa on the Hot Rats album), bassist Tom Fowler (Bruce’s brother) and drummer Ralph Humphrey. With experience in jazz, serious composition and mainstream music, this lineup would be responsible for the fluid, virtuoso sound that would help make Overnite Sensation such an enduring listen.
And then, of course, there’s Frank’s own contribution. He’d decided that he was to be the sole guitarist in the new Mothers line-up and his guitar definitely takes centre stage on the album – in my opinion, he plays some of the strongest and most satisfying solos of his career on tracks like I’m the Slime, Dirty Love, Zomby Woof and Montana. Frank also decided that he’d be the principal vocalist on the album and his singing – whether he adopts his default droll voice for songs like opening track Camarillo Brillo or the bestial Dirty Love, a semi-rap style for the uncomfortably pornographic Dinah-Moe-Hum or his spoken growl for I’m the Slime and the epic Montana – is a particularly enjoyable feature of the album.
Frank doesn’t quite hold the monopoly on vocal duties on Overnite Sensation, though. Guest Ricky Lancelotti makes his sole appearance on a Zappa album, sharing the vocals with Frank on Zomby Woof and taking a superbly manic lead on the funky Fifty-Fifty. There are some interesting vocal contributions too from Kin Vassy (a member of Kenny Rogers’ First Edition!) including the joyous chant of “Yippee-Yi-Yo-Ty-Yay” in the coda to Montana and, perhaps surprisingly to some, from Tina Turner and The Ikettes (uncredited on the original release), who provide lush backing vocals throughout the album.
Overnite Sensation is, indeed, a fine album. The songs are jazzy, funky, amusing, sometimes off-colour and the music is thoroughly enjoyable, enduring and, ultimately, highly accessible, and I still recommend Overnite Sensation whenever a curious Zappa-dabbler asks which album they should listen to first.
So – that’s the original album, but what, I hear you ask, about the rest of the material in this extensive package? Well – perhaps the most interesting scraps for Zappaophiles will include the cuts of the songs that were recorded for Overnite Sensation but failed to make the cut. There’s an early instrumental version of Inca Roads, a track that was to emerge, fully formed and complete with lyrics, on Zappa’s 1975 One Size Fits All album, and recordings of RDNZL and Wonderful Wino, both of which would eventually appear on later albums. But, as I’ve already inferred, it’s the two live concert recordings that hold the greatest interest for me, and, I suspect, for the army of Zappa disciples too.
The new lineup of The Mothers spent much of 1973 on the road, on a world tour that criss-crossed the USA between February and March before moving on to take in shows in Australia, Scandinavia, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium Holland and the UK and then returning to North America with more shows in the US and Canada. Typically for Frank, the setlists were fluid over the duration of the tour with new material continually seeping in to sit alongside older songs. The Hollywood Palladium set, included here, is particularly eclectic, with selections that would appear later in the year on Overnite Sensation slotted in between songs like Dupree’s Paradise and Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing? that wouldn’t emerge on record for several more years. And, despite the fact that it took place one month before the release of Overnite Sensation, the Detroit concert is dominated by material from Frank’s 1974 Apostrophe(‘) album – such was the modus operandi of our favourite genius.
Overnite Sensation certainly opened new commercial doors for Frank Zappa and this 50th Anniversary reissue is a fine tribute to a splendid album. As the press release for this deluxe package so insightfully points out: “Overnite Sensation put its stamp on all the visceral, tall-in-the-saddle tales recounting the finer points of of dental floss farming, mindless video drones and poncho-wearing lotharios – all of it acting as a pretext for what was to come, not to mention cementing the odds that Zappa still had lots more to say.”