Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Reacquaintance: Frank Zappa

I don't know how most children spend their pre-teen years, but mine were dominated by two intimidating fellows: Frank Zappa and his best friend Don Van Vliet, AKA Captain Beefheart. I lived them. I wanted to grow up and be just like them, make crazy shit and a lot of it and confound people. One Christmas, my parents, through a hook-up at Rykodisc, got me a copy of nearly every fucking Zappa album. Ever. (For free.) The feelings of joy and profound intimidation mingled equally in my prepubescent being at the sight of the stacks of those CDs.

Ten years later - I've found it hard to believe, but I can recall that I did indeed listen to almost every one of those fucking albums at least once. I guess most parents would feel weird about letting their child listen to music that was often so sexually charged - and most certainly obscenity-laden, but I suppose by the time the gift was given they figured it was too late. Not only that, I had no idea what most of that shit meant anyway. I just loved Frank.

Since then my taste has further expanded - not necessarily "matured," but definitely moved beyond these two giants. Big discoveries were made, like how overrated the fucking Beatles
are, and how great albums have been recorded in people's closets. But I've often thought to myself, "When am I gonna listen to those fucking Zappa albums again?" I uploaded a few to my iTunes before running off to college, sure, but they were the things I'd heard over and over, and it was kind of a courtesy nod to my past making the gesture in the first place.

At some point in the last month or so, the floodgates opened. Maybe because I haven't really felt like buying much lately (last purchase = TVT-Record-Store-Day-cash-in vinyl copy of GBV's Hold on Hope), maybe because I rewatched the Beefheart BBC doc, or maybe because it was just time. The box under the bed got opened, and the past weeks have been infiltrated by Zappa's idiosyncrasies once more. But what do I think of them after my taste has had so much time to "mature," one might ask? Well, one, lemme tell ya:

Bongo Fury (with Captain Beefheart)
When I first heard this I was epic-ly disappointed because I thought the songs were stupid. I liked Zappa's One Size Fits All (featuring most of the same players), I loved Beefheart but this album fell way flat except the obvious and hilarious "Muffin Man," which I'd heard before. Beefheart's poems sounded like the band was making fun of him and the songs Zappa had him sing were inane.

Ten years later I realize all the above is true and the album is fucking great, one of Zappa's best and an absolute triumph for Beefheart. Recorded at the end of a turbulent tour that saw the old best friends at odds (reportedly over Van Vliet's incessant Zappa portraiting on sketchpads), the set has some standout performances from Beefheart that bring out his ability to completely and wholeheartedly sell any song he put his mind to - check the deranged and unhinged delivery in the last two minutes of "Debra Kadabra." The poems are spinetingling despite - or perhaps because of? who knows - Zappa's derisive musical settings. Zappa on the other hand, while pursuing perhaps a more lowbrow direction in his own writing, does well with the incredible LA sunset groove and three-part harmonies of "Carolina Hard Core Ecstasy," which was on repeat in the car for a while; the aforementioned "Muffin Man"; and playful "Advance Romance" - the latter enhanced by the interplay of Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke, not to mention Beefheart's catcalls in the middle of solos. Even the dumb studio tracks ("200 Years Old," "Cucomonga") come out sounding OK on second review.

This is a underrated album - don't let the iffy reviews steer you wrong. It's a keeper.

200 Motels
Weird movie. Strange album. This is an album that's not quite all there - partly because it is indeed a soundtrack album - in some cases the backing to parts of the movie which were never made. Let me explain:

It is a somewhat mind-boggling concept that any part of 200 Motels got finished, and therefore, a true testament to Zappa's ungodly work ethic. The film featured performances by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who were often backing up The Mothers of Invention, live to tape - many of which were filmed as they were taped. OK. While the band - as "actors" - played parts in the movie alongside Thedore Bikel, Ringo Starr, and some other people that weren't actors at all. OK? The filmed enough for a 2-hour feature but ignored two-thirds of the original, very surreal, script. And this all took place in a week. Add to this madness the fact that the band's bassist Jeff Simmons quit a week before production and was replaced by Ringo Starr's chauffeur, Martin Lickert, who was not, in fact, a bass player in the true sense, and naturally did not know how to play any of the band's music. Shit, I feel tired just thinking about it.

Alright, alright, so about the fucking album. It's a combination (as you guessed) of Zappa's orchestral and band sides. The orchestral stuff is OK - nothing surpassing the work on Lumpy Gravy but some interesting themes here and there. The band shit is hit and miss. "Lonesome Cowboy Burt" is a Zappa classic, featuring original MOI drummer Jimmy Carl Black on redneck lead vocals, "Mystery Roach" is a pretty good early 70s boogie, "Daddy Daddy Daddy" is a pretty stellar groupie song. But then the heavier, plot driven stuff like "She Painted Up Her Face," "Penis Dimension," and "Dental Hygeine Dilemma" often get so self-referential I can feel myself turning inside out. It's alright. The only problem is I can recall my 12-year old self listening to this, thinking he understands it, and memorizing the fucking words. How embarrassing for my 22-year old self.

Chunga's Revenge
Aaa-ight. This is where the Flo and Eddie band enters the picture, but Zappa's still having too fun a time playing with competent musicians to fully kickstart phase 2 of the Mothers of Invention yet. Credit the guy for having the cajones to lead the set with the one-key instrumental vamp of "Transylvania Boogie." Who the fuck did stuff like that in 1970? Like most things released around this time, this is supposed to have conceptual continuity with 200 Motels. Well, not really - but songs like "Rudie Wants to Buy Yez A Drink" and "Sharleena" display the initial power of the Turtles-enhanced Zappa band; Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan definitely created their own desirable flavor of FZ-dom during their time with the band. The instrumental jams can be a bit much but often display ambition, the songs are pretty good. Like a Weasels Ripped My Flesh-lite. And that ain't bad.

Roxy & Elsewhere
I can't understand why I thought this album was good, even in a ten-year-old memory. It's just kind of lifeless and the songs aren't that good. "Dummy Up," which I guess I thought was funny, isn't. It gets "funky" but not so's you'd care. There are two drummers on this set, allegedly, but I can barely hear one. Zappa later said this ensemble was under-rehearsed. Go figure.

Playground Psychotics
Tapes 'n tapes (some hidden in hotel rooms, some recording the band onstage) of the 1970-1971 MOI featuring Flo and Eddie - but, conveniently, there's nothing mentioning Zappa's alleged underage mistress at the time. Bet those PMRC cunts wish they had had their hands on that closeted skeleton when FZ was stirring up so much trouble for them in the mid-80s.

Some inferior performances of songs that ended up on Just Another Band From L.A., along with, I won't lie, a pretty cool jam with John Lennon and Yoko Ono that got left off the Fillmore album. The impromptu dressing room tapes are pretty dumb but feature the band saying "man" a lot. Interesting "anthropological field document," not really meant to be a cohesive album so I can't judge it as such.

The Lost Episodes
The liner notes on this one are pretty damn good. Not fully immersed in Zappa ephemera any longer, I don't know how well I feel the music holds up. The Beefheart tracks "Alley Cat" and "Tiger Roach" are amusing paeans to, I suppose, metaphorical felines and definitely among the set's highlights. In fact, anything Beefheart's involved with on this set, including scratchy early blues jam "Lost In A Whirlpool," is great. It's amusing to hear "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" in that delicious lounge version. And the sea-shanties, performed by late 60s Mothers, are great. Other than that, I can't fully appreciate this one the way I used to. It's OK.

The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life
Never quite knew what to make of this one as a youngin. Only now do I realize how Zappa's self-destructing 1988 ensemble was one of the best he ever had, capable of lampooning anything FZ set his sights on, sprucing up the old songs and - shock of shocks - being a great cover band. Of sorts. This is the best set I've heard from them, even though Make A Jazz Noise Here (which I know too peripherally to say anything intelligent about) shows FZ & Co flexing their more musically ambitious muscle, with more debut compositions.

Check it out - no overdubs?! This is intricate, dense sound - theatrical, the kind the conjures up a real live band onstage. When they're having a good time, the feeling is infectious. Check out those Johnny Cash and Jimmy Swaggart jokes! Great players abound, including vocalist Ike Willis, guitarist/vocalist Mike Keneally and bassist Scott Thunes. The incessant reggae vamps, while not that funny, are actually effective in Zappa's music. Whodathunk? Recommended.

You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, Vol. 2: Helsinki
Are you getting tired yet? I can only really re-review disc 1 since I forgot to upload disc 2 of this set. Yes, it's a two-disc set. Great band on this one, as well, featuring Ruth Underwood (one of Zappa's few dork-hearthrobs, check her playing marimba in a bra in footage from KCET around this time), Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke. Brock and Duke make the set fun and play their asses off, and the whole band has gelled to the point of kicking up almost every
song up to double speed. Most of the Roxy & Elsewhere album tracks are here - sounding much better than they did on that album, as the band playing 'em has some fucking energy. When Brock gets to blather, like on the opener or "Room Service," things get funny. I'd say recommended - but only if you're really into Zappa already.

Zoot Allures
Sucks. Really, sucks. Opener "Wind Up Working In A Gas Station" is okay for having a bit of chutzpah despite how annoying it is, and instrumentals "Black Napkins" and the title track are enjoyable. But the rest is just Zappa double-tracking himself singing real low over tracks that are mainly him overdubbing himself. Sure, original MOI bassist Roy Estrada and Beefheart show up, peripherally, but this is mainly FZ dicking around in the studio. Proof positive that he needed interesting, strange people around him to make truly great work. "The Torture Never Stops" is appropriately titled and the orgasm noises on it are embarrassing. That song and another one on this set showed up in altered forms on the Thing Fish album eight years later; they sucked then too.

One Size Fits All
Bravo! This is probably the best album in the 70s Zappa came out with. Great band (same Helsinki personnel generally), and some amazing songwriting from FZ: "Inca Roads," "Florentine Pogen," and "San Ber'dino" spring to mind as fucking classics. The production is super-compressed and spot on, this time - not always the case with Zappa, who tended to incorporate the latest, biggest and bestest technology regardless of how shitty it might have actually sounded. This is the one you discover after digging a little deeper into the man's career, and it's definitely well-worth the trouble. The secret classic in the Zappa catalog.

Non-Zappa recommendations:
"Consolation Prizes," "Kill City" - Iggy Pop & James Williamson
"Doodoo Rock" - Molesters
"I Don't Ever Want To Come Down" - 13th Floor Elevators
"Calm Before The Storm" - The Bats
"Octopus," "Baby Lemonade," "Dominoes," "Waving My Arms In The Air" - Syd Barrett
"Valentine" - The Replacements


M said...

woowww these are long blog posts! and i cannot believe you are still posting about frank zappa. i remember googling your name when we first became friends (you were like 17) and i came across a comment you made somewhere on the net about frank zappa. i guess true love lasts forever. i can vouch for your loyalty.

Chelsea Maida said...

You just made me insanly happy.
Thankfully, I had a stellar winter filled with Bill having a Zappa attack, so I've been swimming in his cool tunes since.
I need to get a hold of his music for my own computer, but I'm still happy with the records around the house from both Bill and Max.

So, bravo to you. This is a super radical post.
I throughly enjoyed reading! :D