YOU ARE WHAT YOU IS - THE DUB ROOM SPECIAL: ROCK 'N ROLL
"You are what you is" (fall 1981) is a continuation upon the commercial success of "Sheik Yerbouti" and "Joe's garage, act I".
Much of the album has to do with familiar chord progressions and stylistic conventions. All is done
with productional craftsmanship regarding sound quality and vocal harmonies. It's pleasant listening to this music and
especially the various extras that go beyond conventions indicate that there's someone with a high musical
capacity behind this album.
Former Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black made a guest appearance in a traditional country song "Harder than you husband"
with hypocrite standard break up lyrics ("it's better for you"). More complex country based Zappa songs are for instance "Truck driver divorce" on "Them or us" (1984),
and, regarding thematic variety, "Rhymin' man" on "Broadway the hard way" (1988). A section of the latter song is included in the "Parodies" section.
"Harder than you husband" is segued by rock 'n roll in "Doreen". This one is pure conventionalism, in text and
chord progression: I-IV-V in E. What's less conventional is that the sung melody doesn't try to be a part of the chords,
but is moving freely through it.
The following example is the opening of Doreen, here transcribed from the version on "You can't do that on stage anymore, vol. V" (1992).
Doreen, opening (midi file)
Doreen, opening (transcription).
One of the extras on "You are what you is" is for instance how the melody of "Doreen" returns
at the second half of "Goblin' girls". It's sung over one of the "Goblin' girls" themes vamping while a
third voice joins in with horny fantasies about the girls in the green goblin' suits.
"You are what you" is a rock song with a syncopic movement from the 2nd to the 3rd bar. It's build around two
alternating bass notes/chords along a fast reggae rhythm, at that time called ska.
They can be seen as I-V of Bb Mixolydian when you take the first Bb as key note. When you consider the lower F of
the second bar to be the key note it becomes IV-I of F Dorian (the instrumental opening ends on F, so it has something
of a cadence). The chorus is excellent poetry:
"Do you know who you are
You are what you is
And you is what you am
A cow don't make ham
You ain't what you're not
So see what you got
You are what you is
And that's all it is"
You are what you is, opening (midi file)
You are what you is, opening (transcription).
"Beauty knows no pain" is complex rock 'n roll, using changing metres and scales. The odd 18/16 metre is a difficult figure,
subdivided as 5+5+2+2+2+2. You can learn it by counting through it as one-two-three-four-five one-two-three-four-five
one-two one-two one-two one-two and then speed up the pace. Or listen to how it sounds on record, get it in your recollection and
reproduce it. The song starts in G Dorian. Bar 1 has the bass note going from Bb to G to C, leaving it in the middle what
the key note might be. Only in bar 4, when the progression comes at a rest on G, a choice is made for G.
Bar 8 is chromatic,
containing a series of parallel minor thirds. Regarding its lyrics "Beauty knows no pain" forms part of a sequence of songs about society people (tracks 6-10
from "You are what you is").
Two other sequences of textually related songs follow on this album (see below).
"Stevie's spanking" from the "Dub room special"/"Them or us" on the other hand is regular rock 'n roll in 4/4.
It served as a vehicle for both Zappa and Steve Vai playing solos, either alone or simultaneously. Below are the opening bars from the "Dub room special"
version with Steve "pounding" the chords
of the main theme along with the rhythm guitar and the keyboard, whereas Zappa is playing a few solo bars.
It opens in A Mixolydian with in staffs 2-4 a VII-I progression in bar 1 and VII-I-IV-II-I in bar 2. Bars 3-4 are alternating I and VII
again. Staff 1 is moving freely over it, not necessarily following the pattern in the same way. Zappa begins
playing with the C# altered to C natural over it in bars 5-6, then continuing with C# in bar 7. Thus in bars 5-6 he's briefly mingling A Dorian of his solo
with A Mixolydian of the accompaniment.
In Guitar player, August 2006, Steve Vai comments about soloing with Frank Zappa during "Stevie's spanking": "When you are
improvising with another musician, you get to enter a private place with that person and share an intimacy that you don't
have in any other kind of relationship. For a 20-year old guitarist like myself, entering that space with Frank Zappa represented
a very challenging process. At first I had to get over the fact that it was really happening. Then I'd be afraid to step on his toes,
and I'd worry about things like "Am I in tune? Is he listening to what I'm doing? Does he think it's good, or am I crap." In a short while
I got over that, and I just started jamming - hard. Then, that space became some sort of sanctuary. I learned how to listen and speak
at the same time. It's about relaxing and spontaneously creating, and having fun doing it. I believe that's one of the things Frank was
looking for. If it wasn't happening for him musically, he would have shut it down in a minute. But it turned into a special moment
in the show."
Beauty knows no pain, opening (midi file)
Stevie's spanking, opening bars (midi file)
Beauty knows no pain, opening (transcription).
Stevie's spanking, opening bars (transcription).
Right: Frank checking out Steve Vai's blue hair during "Stevie's spanking". Source: Dub room special DVD.
The 1981 Halloween concert was broadcasted by MTV with the title "You are what you is" and sections are included in Zappa's
"Dub room special" DVD as well. Recently the ZFT has made 10 of the 15 tracks from the "Dub room special" available on CD,
with two tracks from the MTV show, whereas various other tracks from this concert - not on the DVD/CD - are
included in the YCDTOSA series. A friend of mine was advertising Zappa at that time and at the age of 19 I watched the MTV
concert. It made me decide to buy a Zappa record, "Drowning witch" it became. It was not the music, but Zappa's stage
behaviour that made me try it out. Here was someone not shouting and dancing all the time, but sincerely performing music. His
music never appealed to me at once and it took me more than a year to understand most of "Drowning witch". At first I thought the solos
were album fillers, but at the time I got to buying "Shut up 'n play yer guitar", I was forced to listen more carefully. Well, as long as you can learn
from your mistakes.
"You are what you is" contains a sequence of three songs about Zappa's views about religion. Their inclusion got triggered
by the popularity of some TV evangelists, that particularly irritated him. The songs are a mainstream pop song with
country elements, called "The meek
shall inherit nothing", a rock piece with a rap sermon against religion in general, called "Dumb all over", and next the
piece below. "Heavenly bank account" is his only attempt at gospel, following all the stereotypes of this genre. It opens
with a "preacher" singing to the community with a choir and keyboard backing him up. The chord progression in rock terms is
G-G-C-C#-5 -G-G-Em-Am-D (bars 1-16). The main part of the song starts
in bar 18 with the central theme in G Lydian. Between these two blocks you've got Zappa talking in bar 17 without a meter.
"Heavenly bank account" is another example of Zappa adapting the speed of a song. In this case
the frequencies got right between keyboard frequencies, thus creating all quartertones. When you're listening
to it normally that's no problem, but when you're transcribing it with the aid of a keyboard, that's really nasty. It's
transposed a quartertone down in the transcription.
Heavenly bank account, opening (midi file)
Heavenly bank account, opening (transcription).
The third sequence of songs with related subjects are tracks 17-20, this time about people who fail socially. It's
part of the Zappa folklore that Moon Zappa entered her dad's business by writing him a letter about the idea of impersonating
a Valley girl (included in the "Drowning witch" CD booklet). Actually she made her debut on "You are what you is" and probably
Frank had asked her. She's the one doing the high vocals of Jumbo in the transcription below, like "feed me". "You are what you is"
uses a wide range of singers, nine in total. As done more often, Zappa doesn't use the singers here to sing identical parts, but lets them sing in parallels
and/or some devious lines. In the pick-up bar for instance you have four times a Db over the main melodic line, F-G-Ab-Bb. Next you've got staff
1 and 2 moving on via parallel thirds. In bar 11 you've a lead melody with the other singers forming two accompanying chords.
Examples of the use of vocal parts in this way are numerous. The subject already came by in the examples sung by Flo and Eddie. Other
examples in this study with creative ways of using vocal parts are for instance "Flakes" (2nd example), "I have been in you" (opening bars),
"Doreen" (example above, bar 7), "Heavenly bank account" (opening with the gospel choir) and "The mammy nuns". The construction of "Jumbo go away"
goes as follows:
- 0:00 Theme I with a I-II chord alternation in Eb Mixolydian (if you would take the G-Ab bass notes as leading
it would lead to an obscurity, G Locrian, so I don't think that's a good idea here).
- 0:16 Theme II in Bb Dorian with the guitar chord progression I-IV-I-IV-III.
- 0:27 Theme I. The transcription below starts at 0:31 with this theme.
Jumbo go away, 0:31-1:02 (midi file)
Jumbo go away, 0:31-1:02 (transcription).
- 0:41 Theme II.
- 0:50 Chromatic passage with a constantly descending melody (bars 9-10 from the transcription).
- 0:55 Theme III in G Dorian with the guitar chord progression I-IV. The transcription ends here.
- 1:13 Theme III some more, now transposed up a minor second.
- 1:30 Instrumental interlude. A highly irregular section, not specifically related to the other parts of this song.
This interlude used to be available via Barfo Swill.
- 2:20 Theme I.
- 2:35 Theme II.
- 2:47 Theme I.
- 3:01 Theme II.
- 3:10 Postlude ("wash up your pie"), making the transition to the next song as it comes to the lyrics.
- 3:43 End.