What does that song mean?

Ruth Underwood and the “Zappa sound”

Posted Apr 17th 2023, 11:47 by Penguin Pete

If you appreciate music made on the xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, and other tonal percussive instrumentation, then you should know the name Ruth Underwood. She played as part of the Mothers of Invention years ‘68-’77, as well as on-again / off-again collabs with Zappa alumni since. But perhaps it’s best to let Ruth Underwood introduce herself, and how she played Zappa’s music.

Ruth Underwood was the backbone of the Zappa sound

In the video there, Underwood explains the unique chord structure that produces the pronounced but slightly off-kilter sound of some of Zappa’s most famous tunes. She pecks out a bar of “The Idiot Bastard Son” before showing us the complex, wonderfully flowing tune from the “Rollo Interior interlude” amid “St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast.” Underwood played on more than 30 Zappa albums, pretty much every time you hear a xylophone or other percussive instrument, which was all the time.

Try to imagine an album like, say, my very favorite in the world, Piquantique from the Beat the Boots label, without Underwood’s percussion section. That entire stage performance has Ruth hammering away throughout “Dupree’s Paradise” and “Father O’Blivion,” neither of them junior-league tracks.

How Ruth Underwood and Frank Zappa Met

As if being such a long-standing core member of Zappa’s band wasn’t credential enough, Underwood was also a graduate of Ithaca and Julliard, a classically trained musician playing at the Garrick Theater in New York City – at the age of 21, mind you – in 1967 when Zappa’s band also had an engagement and the two’s paths crossed. How’s that for a heady discovery story?

But here she is again to tell you herself. Not only was she at Julliard, but she also describes the confrontation between herself and an officer of the school, who told her off for playing music (a Zappa piece she was practicing) that was so different from typical Julliard fair. That gave her the epiphany that directed her away from a life of being orchestra member #57 (triangle) and join Zappa’s indescribable jazz-fusion cacaphony.

Here she is in documentary again, talking about how she feels a sense of belonging with Zappa’s pieces:

Zappa himself railed against conformity

Anybody with a copy of the Official Frank Zappa Book – lord knows I throw mine around a lot on here – can tell you that Zappa railed against near-*everything*, but stuffy thinking in the classical training of music students was just pet peave #95 with him. Really, it’s easy to mis-read him as arrogant if you just read him straight through. When you hear Zappa speak in interviews, he was actually a humble person whose standards were born of stratospheric levels of talent.

So, it kinda begs the question, were Zappa and Underwood kindred souls, or did they perhaps have a crush on each other? Certainly, you could argue that Zappa’s professional standards were justification enough for their long-term co-careers. Good musicians who made his cut were hard to find. In any case, they each had their own marriages (notably Ruth to keyboardist Ian Underwood, also in the Zappa line-up) and home life and seemed pretty settled with their respective lots.

Or you could just as easily project your crush onto Zappa, witnessing him onstage with Underwood for a performance of “Apostrophe”:

You can see Underwood’s sheer love of what she’s doing with her animated performance. Making faces on cue to the audience at specific notes, jamming along with the beat during the breaks, and doing all this in a bikini top, no less.

That was your Zappa-focus band member for the day. Perhaps we’ll focus on other notable Mothers in posts to come.



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