50 Years Ago: Frank Zappa Goes Solo With ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’
After guiding the Mothers of Invention to significant critical respect and even modest commercial success over the second half of the ‘60s, Frank Zappa welcomed 1970 as a newly minted solo artist. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it based on his recently disbanded group’s lingering presence all over Zappa’s first album of the new year, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, which arrived in stores in February 1970 and was credited to the defunct group.
Named after one of Zappa’s favorite snacks in times of hunger emergency, the burnt weeny sandwich essentially consisted of flash-roasting a hot dog over an open flame, sticking it between two slices of bread, and snarfing it down while expediently returning to work, which, in Zappa’s case, entailed filling endless pieces of paper with little black dots called notes.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich in many ways mirrored the recipe for the snack in that it somewhat hastily and haphazardly threw together songs of radically diverse style and origin, as was aptly represented by artist Cal Shenkel’s chaotic collage adorning the LP cover.
As such, two doo-wop covers -- the Four Deuces’ "WPLJ" and Jackie & the Starlites’ "Valarie" -- book-ended the other musical contents like thin slices of white bread. They may have harked back to Zappa’s earliest musical influences, but they had pretty much zero in common with the musical condiments they surrounded.
These included a dazzling display of the Mothers' ensemble virtuosity in "Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich" (complete with blazing lead guitar and found sound effects), a mutant sea shanty named "Aybe Sea" (named after its A-B-C chord progression) and a quartet of bite-sized avant-classical pieces in "Igor’s Boogie, Phases 1 & 2," "Overture to a Holiday in Berlin" and "Holiday in Berlin, Full Blown." Though consistently stimulating, and typical of Zappa’s fearless genre-hopping tendencies, many of these songs were essentially leftovers from previous recording sessions with the recently unemployed Mothers, and mostly an exercise in closet cleaning.
The biggest single ingredient packing this savory musical hoagie was a near-20-minute concert performance entitled "The Little House I Used to Live In." Recorded at London’s Royal Albert Hall in June 1969, the song's extended improvisations provided an epic send-off to the beloved Mothers, in all of their eclectic audaciousness under the leadership and in the service of Zappa’s singular vision. The recording even contains a snippet of heated repartee between Zappa and an audience member that spawned his famous critique of all the flower children present: “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform.”
Everyone, that is, except for Zappa, who would almost finish clearing out his vaults of Mothers material later in the year with the release of Weasels Ripped My Flesh. In October, Zappa released Chunga's Revenge, which introduced the first of many new Mothers lineups that would back him over the decade ahead.