Classic Album Review: Frank Zappa – Hot Rats

Frank Zappa, Ekeberghallen, Oslo, Norway
Helge Øverås, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hot rats, released in 1969, is the second solo album by the late American musician, composer and band leader, Frank Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993). It was the first album he released after disbanding his group, the Mothers of Invention, in 1969.

In the mid ’60s, Zappa’s compositional work with his band The Soul Giants began to move away from the R&B and doo-wop roots that had formed the basis of his early work and started to incorporate elements of jazz, musique concrète and experimental sound recordings. Over the same period, The Soul Giants  morphed into The Mothers of Invention, who, by 1969, had released a string of critically acclaimed albums that achieved only moderate commercial success.

By 1969 the sound of the band had evolved and changed considerably. The first two performances below clearly illustrate the direction in which Zappa’s compositional output was moving at that time, and both performances clearly signpost the musical direction Zappa would continue to explore on his second solo album, Hot Rats.

The first  performance is a rough and ready 1968 BBC recording of The Mothers of Invention performing three pieces: King Kong, In the Sky and Apathy. The second is a beautiful 1992 performance by the Ensemble Modern (recorded in Frankfurt) of Zappa’s Dog Breath Variations and Uncle Meat (both taken from the 1969 album, Uncle Meat). I’ve included this later performance as it is an extremely good arrangement and was pretty much Zappa’s final public appearance before he sadly died of cancer in 1993.

By ’69 Zappa was frustrated with the musical limitations and financial implications of being a band leader. Legend has it that he finally decided to disband The Mothers after witnessing Duke Ellington begging his record company for a ten dollar advance. Apocryphal or not, Zappa broke up the band, retreated to the studio, and less than two months later emerged with his second solo album, Hot Rats.

An almost entirely instrumental album (it contains just one track, “Willie the Pimp”, that features the vocals of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart), Hot Rats proved to be Zappa’s first big international success, reaching No. 9 in the UK album chart, selling well in many territories and raising significantly his profile as a musician and composer.

The album opens with Peaches En Regalia, a track that proved to be one of Zappa’s most enduring compositions and one which remained a concert staple throughout his career. The joyful version I’ve chosen below was performed by the Ensemble Musikfabrik and recorded at the festival Acht Brücken – Musik für Köln in 2014.

And here’s the same piece performed live by Zappa and his band at the Palladium Theatre in New York in December 1977.

As mentioned above, the only track on the album with vocals is “Willie the Pimp”, which features the legendary Captain Beefheart on vocals. Vliet had formed what he described as “a mutually useful but volatile” friendship with Zappa and they collaborated sporadically over the years. 1969 was clearly a good year for them both as just a few months before the release of Hot Rats, Beefheart had released the magnificent “Trout Mask Replica”, an album that Rolling Stone would later rank as one of the greatest albums of all time.

Here’s the original recording of “Willie the Pimp” featuring Captain Beefheart in full-on Howlin’ Wolf mode and some of Zappa’s finest guitar work.

Hot Rats is a album that, over the years, has proved to be hugely influential in the jazz rock field. As a piece of work it’s definitely a “game of two halves”, with three long improvised sections and three tightly arranged tracks. However, throughout the album, it is Zappa’s guitar which takes centre stage. His flamboyant virtuosity dominates the album and successfully creates a coherent feel across the mix of improvised and composed pieces. The result is a true classic of the genre that has stood the test of time to emerge as one of Zappa’s most admired and popular albums.

Finally, here’s the original album in full.

This is the original 1969 vinyl mix.

This is the cleaned up digital version.

And for Zappa freaks and completists only – here are the numerous studio sessions that make up the final album.

Hot Rats

  • Released: October 10, 1969
  • Recorded: July 18 – August 30, 1969


  • Peaches en Regalia
  • Willie the Pimp
  • Son of Mr. Green Genes
  • Little Umbrellas
  • The Gumbo Variations
  • It Must be a Camel


  • Frank Zappa – guitar, bass, percussion
  • Ian Underwood – piano, organ, flute, clarinet, saxophone
  • Captain Beefheart – vocals
  • Max Bennett – bass
  • Shuggie Otis – bass
  • John Guerin – drums
  • Paul Humphrey – drums
  • Ron Selico – drums
  • Don “Sugarcane” Harris – violin
  • Jean-Luc Ponty – violin
  • Lowell George – rhythm guitar (uncredited)


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