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Music / Thing-Fish

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"This is a complete and utter disaster, Harry! A complete and utter disaster!"

"I'll say it's disgusting, atrocious, and dull
I'll say it makes boils inside of your skull
I'll say it's the worst-of-the-worst of the year,
No wind down the plain, and it's hard on your ear
I'll say it's the work of an infantile mind
I'll say that it's tasteless, and that you will find
A better excuse to spend money or time
At a Tupper-Ware Party, so do be a smarty!"
— "The Torchum Never Stops"

"'Thing-Fish' is best summed up by the character Harry. When Rhonda asks him: 'Is this entertainment?', he replies: 'This is a disaster, a complete and utter disaster.'"
Barry Miles, quoted from Zappa: A Biograpy, Grove Press, 2005, page 330.

Thing-Fish is a Rock Opera concept album by Frank Zappa, released in 1984.

A right-wing aristocratic theater critic creates a disease to wipe out gay and black people and tests them on prisoners led by the titular character Thing-Fish; they are mutated into potato-headed, duck-mouthed creatures called "Mammy Nuns". The resulting disease is interpreted by many as a "punishment of God", which helps Moral Guardians climb up the government's ranks. Meanwhile, the Mammy Nuns put on a Broadway musical which is attended by Harry and Rhonda, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple that Thing-Fish eventually holds captive. The musical causes the pair to confront their pasts, which results in Harry coming out as gay and Rhonda (who is a blow-up doll brought to life) having sex with a briefcase out of sexual frustration.

Of all of Zappa's albums from The '80s, Thing-Fish is generally considered his absolute worst. The plotline, as described above, is so far-fetched and pointless that the general message is ultimately lost and difficult to take seriously. Most of the comedy comes from Ike Willis' vocals as Thing-Fish, doing an impression of George "Kingfish" Stevens from the 1951-1953 sitcom Amos 'n' Andy.note  Amos 'n' Andy has not been shown in American TV since The '60s due to its extremely dated anti-black overtones and has rarely been shown outside the United States, so the joke was completely lost on most audiences.

Musically, Thing-Fish is Zappa at his least inspired. Most of the album is cobbled together from instrumental tracks recycled from past Zappa songs, and some are completely recycled earlier songs with new lyrics to fit whatever story the album has, sung by Ike Willis in his obnoxious Kingfish impression. The only stand-out track is the comedy novelty song "He's So Gay", which was often played at Zappa concerts.

Despite its Broken Base and many fans not acknowledging its existence, Zappa often called Thing-Fish "one of his most essential albums because of its political message." Some very forgiving Zappa fans still like it as an underappreciated satirical masterpiece.


LP One

Side One
  1. "Prologue" (2:56)
  2. "The Mammy Nuns" (3:50)
  3. "Harry & Rhonda" (3:56)
  4. "Galoot Up-Date" (5:29)

Side Two

  1. "The Torchum Never Stops" (10:32)
  2. "That Evil Prince" (1:17)
  3. "You Are What You Is" (4:31)

LP Two

Side Three
  1. "Mudd Club" (3:17)
  2. "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing" (3:14)
  3. "Clowns On Velvet" (1:38)
  4. "Harry-As-A-Boy" (2:51)
  5. "He's So Gay" (2:48)

Side Four

  1. "The Massive Imrpove'lence" (5:07)
  2. "Artificial Rhonda" (3:30)
  3. "The Crab-Grass Baby" (3:48)
  4. "The White Boy Troubles" (3:35)

LP Three

Side Five
  1. "No Not Now" (5:50)
  2. "Briefcase Boogie" (4:10)
  3. "Brown Moses" (3:02)

Side Six

  1. "Wistful Wit A Fist-Full" (3:53)
  2. "Drop Dead" (7:56)
  3. "Won Ton On" (4:20)

CD reissues are across two discs; disc one contains sides 1-3, disc two contains sides 4-6


  • Frank Zappa: guitar, synclavier
  • Steve Vai: guitar
  • Ray White: guitar and voice of Owl-Gonkwin-Jane Cowhoon
  • Tommy Mars: keyboards
  • Chuck Wild: Broadway piano
  • Arthur Barrow: bass
  • Scott Thunes: bass
  • Jay Anderson: string bass
  • Ed Mann: percussion
  • Chad Wackerman: drums
  • Steve De Furia: synclavier programmer
  • David Ocker: synclavier programmer
  • Ike Willis: voice of Thing-Fish
  • Terry Bozzio: voice of Harry
  • Dale Bozzio: voice of Rhonda
  • Napoleon Murphy Brock: voice of the Evil Prince
  • Bob Harris: voice of Harry-as-a-boy
  • Johnny "Guitar" Watson: voice of Brown Moses.

The Mammy Tropes

  • Album Filler: This record is padded out to a double album with a lot of songs that appeared earlier on other and better Zappa albums, with the only thing that makes them slightly different the vocal delivery and a few extra lines here and there to fit the loosely constructed narrative.
  • Album Title Drop: "The Mammy Nuns"
    ... and I is your host: the Thing-Fish!
  • Alliterative Title: "Drop Dead" and "Briefcase Boogie".
  • All Women Are Lustful: Rhonda desperately tries to get Harry's sexual attention after he turns gay, but despite her attempts he is not interested and she eventually decides to have sex with a briefcase:
    These are my tits, HARRY! I have tits! Look! Look at me! Look at my wonderful tits, you fucking wor-r-r-r-r-mmmmmmmm! I'm going to pretend I'm squirting them on you! Whoo! Wheeeee! Almost gotcha! (...) This is my pussy, HARRY! Look! See it? You know what I'm gonna do with it, you worm? I'm gonna make it fuck something! That's right! You won't get any of it, because you're disgusting! An' I don't need you, MR. FIRST-NIGHTER! My wonderful, wonderful pussy doesn't need you! I have my briefcase, HARRY! I'm going to fuck my briefcase! I'm going to... look! Look at this! I got it right over here! There! See it? My big, brown briefcase! My briefcase! It's big, HARRY! It's full of business papers, from my career! I'm gonna put my glasses on, HARRY! I'm gonna put my hair up in a bun! Then, I'm going fuck, fuck fuck! Ha-ha-ha-hahhhhh! Look! See me? See how I got my hair up? Whooo! I'm really doing it! Unngh! Unngh!
  • Ambiguously Gay: Harry turns gay near the end of the album, as described in "He's So Gay". He also explains why:
    It was pretty simple, really. I lost all desire for intercourse with females when they started carrying those briefcases and wearing suits 'n ties. Let's face it: that would be like fucking a slightly more voluptuous version of somebody's father! 'N I'm far too sensitive for such a traumatic experience!
  • As the Good Book Says...: "Brown Moses" where an Afro-American character compares himself to Moses.
  • Ass Shove: Rhonda does this to herself with her fountain pen.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Harry is quite impressed with the genitals of "The Crab-Grass Baby":
    Look! Look! Look at the pecker on him, would ya?
  • Call-Back and Continuity Nod:
    WARNING/GUARANTEE: This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress. In some socially retarded areas, religious fanatics and ultra-conservative political organizations violate your First Amendment Rights by attempting to censor rock & roll albums. We feel that this is un-Constitutional and un-American. As an alternative to these government-supported programs (designed to keep you docile and ignorant). Barking Pumpkin is pleased to provide stimulating digital audio entertainment for those of you who have outgrown the ordinary. The language and concepts contained herein are GUARANTEED NOT TO CAUSE ETERNAL TORMENT IN THE PLACE WHERE THE GUY WITH THE HORNS AND POINTED STICK CONDUCTS HIS BUSINESS. This guarantee is as real as the threats of the video fundamentalists who use attacks on rock music in their attempt to transform America into a nation of check-mailing nincompoops (in the name of Jesus Christ). If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us.
    • Ike Willis imitates Kingfish from Amos N Andy, a character Zappa referenced before during the Title Track from You Are What You Is (1981). Willis would play the character again on "The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life" (1988).
    Now he talks like the Kingfish, from Amos 'N' Andy
    • The mutations caused by the failed government plan bring the United Mutations concept from Absolutely Free back in mind.
    • "The Mammy Anthem" mentions the lines "Dominus Vobiscum et cum spiritu tuo", a Latin phrase used before in "St. Alphonso's Pancake Breakfast" from Apostrophe (') (1974) The phrase "Did ya get any on ya down there?" is a callback to "Did Ya Get Any On Ya?" from Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970).
    • The character Sister Potato-Head Bobby Brown is a callback to Potato-Head Bobby, who appeared earlier during "San Ber'dino" from One Size Fits All (1975) and "The Illinois Enema Bandit" from Zappa in New York (1978) as well as "Bobby Brown Goes Down" from Sheik Yerbouti (1979). Sister Anne De Devine is a pun on actor Andy Devine, who was namedropped earlier during "Andy" from One Size Fits All (1975). Sister Ob'Dewlla 'X' is a nod to Zappa's pseudonym when he played guitar on two pieces of George Duke's album "Feel" (1974).
    • "The Torchum Never Stops" re-uses the instrumental track from Zoot Allures (1976). "Artificial Rhonda" re-uses the instrumental track from "Ms. Pinky".
    • In "The Torchum Never Stops" cologne is injected directly into the duodenum of the unsuspecting victim, a reference to "Duodenum" from Lumpy Gravy (1968).
    • "You Are What You Is", "Mudd Club" and "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing" re-use the instrumental track from You Are What You Is (1981).
    • "No Not Now" from Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982) appears twice on this album. Once under its original name, second as "Won Ton On" (which is the same track played backwards). "No Not Now" also mentions a "hobby horse", which appeared before during "Mudd Clubb" from You Are What You Is (1981). "Won Ton On" mentions "whyn'tcha go on 'n' cornhole ya' some evil prince". Cornholes were described earlier during "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes" from Sheik Yerbouti (1979). The song also mentions the line "not the stuff that freckles lets out", which was used before during "Dong Work For Yuda" on Joe's Garage (1979).
    • Potato-Headed Bobby appeared before on "San Ber'dino" in One Size Fits All (1976).
    • The character Opal, who appeared earlier during "Lonesome Cowboy Burt" from 200 Motels (1971) and "No Not Now" from Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982) appears as a character on this album.
    • The character Quentin Robert DeNameland from "The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary" from Studio Tan (1978) reappears during "Mudd Club" and "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing".
    • Harry on this album is voiced by Terry Bozzio, who also voiced the teenager in "Teenage Wind" from You Are What You Is (1981). Both characters are described as The Grateful Dead fans.
    • Eau de cologne, pronounced as "Avon Cologna", appeared before during "Debra Kadabra" from Bongo Fury (1975) and "The Blue Light" from Tinseltown Rebellion (1980). It's an inside joke by Zappa, referring to his friend Captain Beefheart who once put Avon on his hair and skin during their shared teenage years. As a result parts of his hair fell out and his skin got a rash that made him look like an alligator.
    • During "Artificial Rhonda" Thing-Fish says: "Muthafucker barf me right on outta here, an' gag me with a spoon!", which is a callback to "Valley Girl" from Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982). He also says: "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?", which is a line that appeared many times before in Zappa's lyrics: . Artificial Rhonda also has a pie made out of plastic, which has been a conceptual continuity word in Zappa's lyrics since "Who Are The Brain Police?" from Freak Out (1966).
    • In "Harry-As-A-Boy" the women's liberation movement is mentioned again, who appeared earlier during "Bobby Brown Goes Down" in Sheik Yerbouti (1979).
    • The word "blobulent" in "The Massive Improve'lence" appeared earlier in "The Radio Is Broken" from The Man from Utopia (1983).
    • Kingfish' questioning to the audience would be re-used during "Porn Wars" on Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (1986).
    Well, les' jes' have a test: How many o' you nice folks think I knows what I's talkin' 'bout? Raise y'hain up!
    Uh-huh! An' how many thinks my potato been bakin' too long? Raise yo' mizzable hain up! ... Uh-huh!
    • "Clowns On Velvet" mentions the bell-boy taking a job at the gas station in New Jersey, which brings "At The Gas Station" from Lumpy Gravy (1968) and "Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station" from Zoot Allures (1976) in mind.
    • When women starts wearing ties and having sex with briefcases Harry decides to turn gay. Ties were referenced before in Zappa's lyrics, most notably "Bow-Tie Daddy" from We're Only in It for the Money (1968).
    • "He's So Gay" is similar to "Bobby Brown Goes Down" from Sheik Yerbouti (1979) in that it references a golden shower. It also references leather, a Running Gag in Zappa's oeuvre. Leather is referenced again in "Drop Dead".
    • In "The Massive Improve'lence" Harry wants to have a nun, a character that appeared in Zappa's lyrics before.
    • "The Crab-Grass Baby" mentions an Oldsmobile, a car brand that was mentioned before in Zappa's songs. The line about "tear up the upholstery, rip the seats completely out" references to Jim Motorhead Sherwood's speech about his car from Lumpy Gravy (1968). The line about "going doody" was referenced before during "Disco Boy" from Zoot Allures (1976). The line "barf me out, gag me with a Volvo" is similar to "barf me out, gag me with a spoon" from "Valley Girl", from Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982).
    • In "Briefcase Boogie" Rhonda sings a twisted version of "Jingle Bells" and mentions "oh, what fun it is to ride to Chicago every night, oh...". This would eventually become a song of its own, "Ride To Chicago", on "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 3".
    • During "Drop Dead" Rhonda says: "While you became lawyers and accountants, and read Playboy and bought a pipe, we planned and dreamed and fucked our briefcases while you weren't looking!". This is a call-back to "Honey Don't You Want A Man Like Me?" from Zappa in New York (1978), which has the line "he was the playboy type, he smoked a pipe". Harry is also criticized for drinking beer, which is a recurring topic in Zappa's lyrics ever since "America Drinks And Goes Home" from Absolutely Free (1968).
  • Camp Gay: "He's So Gay"
    He's so gay! He is very very gay!
    He's so gay! And he likes to be that way
    With his keys on the right
    He's into rubber every night
    He's so gay! He's almost everyone today
    He's okay! He's got a role he wants to play
    He's just a cowboy for a day
  • Concept Album: As described in the introduction.
  • Creepy Child: The Crab-Grass Baby. Not only is it a borderline Eldritch Abomination, concieved through intercourse between a little boy and a rubber sex doll, but the song it is introduced in is played in a shuffling, droning rhythm with ditto chanting, and the baby itself psychobabbling in a computerised voice that is terrifying.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: The disease that the government manufactured in a lab and turned people into hideous mutations is never given a name.
  • Distinct Double Album: The CD version is a double album, with the first act on disc one, and the second act on disc two. The original vinyl version, however, is a triple LP set with act one on sides one through four and act two on sides five and six.
  • Drugs Are Bad: "The Torchum Never Stops"
    And after this deadly review hits the paper,
    In will come "Roper, Bender & Raper"
    To legally execute all that remains
    Of this tragic amusement for drug-addled brains
  • Evil Prince: The evil prince is a character on this album and described as a part-time theater critic.
  • Flat "What": Rhonda's reaction to the reason why her husband Harry has turned gay.
  • Henpecked Husband: Rhonda only nags and complains to Harry.
  • Intercourse with You: Harry has gay sex, while Rhonda has sex with a briefcase.
  • Is the Answer to This Question "Yes"?: Thing-Fish mixes two well known questions like this into this funny line:
    Whoa, do the Pope shit in the woods?
  • Mammy: Mammy Nuns are characters on this album.
  • The Musical: The album spoofs Broadway theatre.
  • Music Is Politics: In "Briefcase Boogie" Rhonda decides to have sex with a briefcase. As the documents fall out Harry complains: "Those are the Warner Brothers files, aren't they dear? Don't you think there'll be some questions about the condition of the blue paper?" Warner Brothers was Zappa's previous record label, whom he sued for breech of contract near the end of the 1970s, a trial he eventually would win.
  • Name and Name: "Harry & Rhonda".
  • Nightmare Face: The face of the "Mammy-nuns".
  • One-Word Title and Pun-Based Title: "Thingfish", a pun on "Kingfish", the character from Amos N Andy.
  • Overly-Long Gag: Ike Willis' imitation of Kingfish from Amos N Andy goes on throughout the entire album.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Evil Prince engineered the disease that created the Mammy Nuns because he intended to wipe out gay men and black people.
  • Product Placement:
    • "Harry & Rhonda" mentions Woolite, a cleaning product.
    • "The Torchum Never Stops" mentions "a Tupperware party".
    • "The Crab-Grass Baby" mentions an Oldsmobile and a Volvo.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The plot was inspired by the AIDS hysteria of the 1980s and Zappa's concerns about the dominance of the religious right in the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
  • Repurposed Pop Song:
  • Satire: The album is both a satirical parody about the conspiracy theory that AIDS was manufactured by the US government as well as Broadway musicals. The lifestyle of homosexuals is also spoofed in "He's So Gay".
  • Shout-Out:
    • Ike Willis imitates the voice of the character Kingfish from Amos N Andy; this is also where the album title gets its name from. Another character, Sister Owl-Gonkwin-Jane Cow-Hoon, is based on the "Amos 'N' Andy" character Algonquin J. Calhoun. Willis has also explained in an interview that he based the accent on the writings of the Afro-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906).
    • Sister Anne De Devine is a reference to cowboy actor Andy Devine, who was referenced before on One Size Fits All (1975).
    • Kingfish says "one-Adam twelve", a reference to Adam-12, and "Book 'Em Dano", a reference to the catchphrase from Hawaii Five-O.
    • In "Harry & Rhonda" Rhonda wonder "what happened to Broadway" and mentions it "used to be you could come to one of these things and the wind would be rushing down the plain". This is a reference to the Title Track of Oklahoma!, which starts with the line "where the wind comes sweeping down the plain". The change in verb was probably done to avoid getting sued for copyright infringement. She also says there used to be "a fairy on a string", referencing Peter Pan where the title character was indeed also
    • "That Evil Prince" mentions actor Jack Palance
    They're all dead, dear; Zombies, I believe; the "Walking Dead"; Jack Palance did a show on them once.
    • "Won Ton On" also parodies the famous opening line from Dragnet
    What y'all have witnessed here tonight were a true story. Only the names o' de potatoes have been changed to protect the innocent.
    • "He's So Gay" ends with a quote from "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?", a 1984 hit by Culture Club.
    • Harry in "Harry-As-A-Boy" says he wants to go to a The Grateful Dead concert.
    • "The Crab-Grass Baby" mentions "the white man's burden", which is a reference to the poem The White Man's Burden by Rudyard Kipling.
    • "Briefcase Boogie" quotes a few lines from "Jingle Bells".
    • "Wistful Wit A Fist-Full" namedrops Little Orphan Annie.
  • Special Guest: Johnny "Guitar" Watson plays the role of Brown Moses.
  • Synthetic Voice Actor: The crab-grass baby is voiced by a computer.
  • Take That!: Zappa provides a middle finger to his previous record label Warner Brothers during "Briefcase Boogie", where Rhonda has sex with a briefcase, while Harry complains about the documents that are falling out:
    Those are the Warner Brothers files, aren't they dear? Don't you think there'll be some questions about the condition of the blue paper?
  • Take That, Audience!: The evil Prince in "The Torchum Never Stops" pretty much sums up Zappa's attitude about bland music in the charts:
    He thinks he knows something about the Great Plan
    How ultimate blandness must rule and command
    (...) Only the boring and bland shall survive
    Only the lamest of lameness will thrive
    Take it or leave it, you won't be alive if you are overtly creative
  • Take That, Critics!: The evil prince is described as a "part-time theater critic".
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Rhonda explains that all women have a secret:
    We learned how to hide secret stuff, wrapped up in the middle of those severe terminal buns we wear! Little transmitters, HARRY, little receivers! Oh, don't pretend to be surprised, HARRY! We even had room left over in there for all of our most favorite little, embroidered, delicate, secretly feminine, child-like, helpless, pathetic, sentimental, totally useless, personal "girl-things" that smell like the stuff they put in the toilet paper.
  • Villain Song: A proper villain song doesn't appear on the album proper, however The Evil Prince's section from The Torchum Never Stops would be expanded in a 1984 live performance in Vancouver into a full-on, stand-alone example of this trope titled "The Evil Prince".