For American Independence day I thought I’d review something by some truly independent Americans, so I’ve gone for Cruising With Ruben & The Jets by Ruben & The Jets / aka The Mothers of Invention, all the way back from 1968. It’s the only Zappa record I own, my parents own all the classic early ones and I’ve never bothered to duplicate them, as they didn’t own this one (we had a taped copy) I blew quite a bit of my hard-earned on this original copy in October 2007; the front cover has a bit of wear and tear but the vinyl is absolutely perfect – not bad for 45 years on.
Now I love Doo-Wop, always had a bit of a thing for it, clearly not as much as Zappa and the boys though. They cut this LP during their hairiest, most dissonant, freak days and the juxtaposition is brilliant, all these clean-cut 50’s-sounding radio-friendly cuts tracks from the same hideous dudes who graced the cover of We’re Only In It For The Money. Despite the notice on the cover, there were stories of conservatively minded US DJs seizing on this LP and playing it out, not realising who was behind it all; I like to think that’s true.
Opinion seems divided as to whether Cruising With Ruben & The Jets is a tribute to Doo-Wop or a straight parody of it all, me? I think it’s a straight mix of the two, an affectionate parody. Let’s face it Zappa and singer Ray Collins were raised on collecting it and grooving along to it. I’d also argue that there was always elements of it in their sound, what is ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ off the Mothers’ debut Freak Out, if not mutant Doo-Wop? As the back cover has the fictional Ruben salo quote ‘I would just give everything just to sing the songs that was turning me on in high school’. Mutant Doo-Wop by Doo-Wop Mutants.
These songs crackle with nostalgic 50’s girlfriend fodder, girls who do (Cheap Thrills), girls who won’t (Later That Night) and a whole host of girls who don’t reciprocate your love (How Could I be Such a Fool); we’re missing some songs about some really swell cars, but apart from that we’ve got all the bases covered here. We’ve got lots of ‘duh-duh-duh’s in the background and some awesome high-pitched stuff going on from Collins.
Getting towed along by the melody it’s only with a start you realise that there’s some pretty dman weird stuff going on here. First up we have ‘Cheap thrills’ with all its never-would-have-got-away-with-it-in the-50’s naughtiness, it’s my favourite track here too.
Cheap thrills in the back of my car
Cheap thrills, how fine they are
Cheap thrills up and down my spine
I need it, I need it, ’cause it feels so fine
What more could you want? spoken bits in the songs? check! we’ve got 4 separate ones here.
Give it all a close listen however and it soon becomes a very, very strange LP indeed. By the time you get to the second track ‘Love of my Life’ you realise that the melody and the chords are just unusual, they’re a semi-tone or two away from where they should be, which is a bit disconcerting. There is reputedly a melodic line or two piched from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring squirrelled away in here too, it’s just I’m not musical enough to spot it. I like the way they pinched two tracks from Freak Out for a Doo-Wop remix, they work too.
Then read the lyrics. We have songs about how best to take rejection (Stuff Up The Cracks – ‘Ooo oo-ooo, 00-000, oo-ooo / Stuff up the cracks, turn on the gas’) and lyrics which lay bare all the insecurity beneath each and every one of those teen dreams out there (Anyway The wind Blows – ‘I’m gonna stick with her till the day I die / She’s not like your baby, she would never lie’), as well as just wallowing in the calculated vacuousness of some of the lyrics, without playing it for laughs; maybe with the exception of ‘Later That Night’*. It’s clever stuff and despite the teen gloss, always leaves me feeling pleasantly melancholy.
It is one of the stranger stories that this fictional band, Ruben and The Jets actually became real in the early 70’s when a real Ruben approached Zappa, who ended up allowing his band to use the name, writing a song for and producing their first LP, For Real. They supported The Mothers of Invention and Motorhead Sherwood from MOI joined them. I think its a great story, like Ziggy Stardust freeing himself from Bowie and striding stack-heeled into the room, or Benny & The Jets flipping Elton the bird and going out on the road to support Coldplay.
So there you go – weird posing as normal, but letting the weirdness percolate through (as it always does). I like this LP a lot, in the words of ‘Deseri’,
I will never be untrue
I will never ever make her blue
She’ll never sigh, cry, sit and pine
We will share a love divine.
*You threw my best sharkskin suit right out on the lawn, on top of some dog waste.