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 Review archive:  # a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Charles Ulrich - The Big Note: A Guide to the Recorded Work of Fran [New Star Books - 2018]

Frank Zappa officially released over 60 albums during his career (1966-1993), if we take into consideration official bootlegs, and posthumous releases – and Ulrich does – that number rises to over 100 releases. Frank Zappa was prolific, of that there is no doubt, he gave himself over to his music right up until his death in 1993 from cancer.

This book is a massive undertaking, Charles Ulrich has taken one of the most prolific musical careers and created the definitive encyclopaedic tome on the works of Frank Zappa, he should not only be applauded for his amazing efforts but for the sheer epic scale of the project. Until you read it and see the amazing detail within you simply can’t understand the nature of this undertaking.  Ulrich collates/gathers/curates every scrap of information available on these recordings, from dates to personnel, to technical details about the recordings to a host of fascinating stories that shine new light on various aspects of the recording sessions and the processes behind them. This is undoubtedly set to become the definitive Zappa text for many generations to come.

Anyway, let’s get down to the book at hand. After an introduction in which Ulrich sets out where he plans to take the reader and how his book differs from previous books about Zappa, The Big Note is then divided up into chapters, one for each album release of his career. There have been a number of books written about Frank Zappa in the past, that have tended to focus on his personal life, his socio-political position or his lyrics, this is the first book to go beyond that and instead get to the crux of what made Frank Zappa such a hero to so many, his unique and boundary shattering music.

Ulrich’s research as already mentioned is completely exhaustive, he has left no stone unturned in his desire to create the ultimate account of these recordings. He writes with the scholarly knowledge of the definitive expert in the field, perhaps only Frank himself could have known more. One thing that always shines through despite the scholarly approach is that you always get the feeling that this was a labour of love, and from what I have read 15 years of labour appears to be the general consensus.

Each chapter highlights the personnel involved in the album, the recording session information, every possible detail you can imagine even down to recording and promotion budgets. Each tracks receives its own section within the chapter, highlighting who played what role in the recording and recanting stories about how the song came about or stories about the recording of the track, many from the mouth of the man himself. The book also includes a number of sidebars providing biographical details of the various members of Zappa’s touring band, as well as those whose influence can be heard in Zappa’s music. These are a great way to gather information on those incredible musicians who Zappa worked with time and again, and also provide an insight into the great man’s musical influences.


The Big Note is a book that I will continue to dip into at various times over the coming years, the level of knowledge involved in voluminous and each reading can bring to light even more amazing information that one perhaps passed over or missed on previous readings. There are a great many superlatives that can be accurately attributed to The Big Note, and each and every one of them would be completely justified. This is the most important book on Frank Zappa’s music ever written, and utterly inexhaustible tome that can be read from cover to cover or dipped into whilst listening to your favourite Zappa classics. I have found myself going back to the chapters dealing with my favourite albums and reading them whilst listening it provides a fascinating and exciting way of engaging with the music.

If you are a fan of Frank Zappa, or just a complete music nerd (I fit both of those terms) then you will adore this book. It is one of the finest music books ever written and its attention to details blows my mind every time I pick it up. The breadth of knowledge available here is astronomical. This is the definitive volume on Zappa’s musical output and an essential for all music fans, this does for Frank Zappa what Tim Lucas’s astonishing volume All the Colors of the Dark did for Mario Bava. Thank you Charles for your astonishing attention to detail and your massive undertaking.

Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5

Darren Charles
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