What does it sound like?:
Eight months after the release of “Hot Rats”, Frank Zappa was on tour in Europe with a new version of The Mothers (not “of Invention”). With him were Aynsley Dunbar, George Duke, and Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, a.k.a. “The Turtles”). The music slightly less outre, the skits sometimes MC’ed by Flo and Eddie. Some of this is recorded on the eternal “Live at Filmore East” album, which acts as something of a bellwether for different types of Frank Zappa fans; it all depends on how you feel about musical parodies and reportage about the groupie scene; for some it is puerile, for others an amusingly salacious satire on the idiocies of fame. Regarding this, call me adolescent and I will say you are SO unfair and slam my bedroom door. The music comprises that time when he was working on “Chunga’s Revenge”, “200 Motels”, and is very music indicative of a transition from his 60s style to that of the 70s.
“The Mothers 1970” brings together 4 CDs worth of officially unreleased studio and live recordings. Some of this has been on the bootleg “Wino Man” (also known as “Schischgebab”) and “Safe Muffinz” from shows in Holland, “Pepperland” (in San Rafael California). The first disc is all studio-based, with early versions of “Wino Man” (which, live, could have a bit of piss-taking regarding Dr John, Zappa during the recording of “Freak Out”, having had to deal with Dr John’s intoxicated irresponsibility in a recording session). There is a tuneful take of “Sharleena” which showed that, contra Lou Reed, Frank Zappa COULD ‘write a hit song’ (even if it wasn’t actually a hit). “Item 1” and an early, piano-led version of “Envelopes” also show the tuneful, if musically complex side of Frank Zappa that would eventually come to official light on 1982’s “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch”, and is probably the most serious composition on that later album. “Giraffe” starts off and finishes well, but there is a bit of noodling guitar which denotes it’s time. I find Zappa’s early guitar solos sometimes a bit one-keyed, and this about 12 bars too long: some people will like it.
The second CD is from shows in Holland and Pepperland, San Rafael, CA and has a fair bit of early material; fancy a brisk run through “Concentration Moon”, “Mom & Dad”, “The Air”, “Dog Breath”, “Mother People”, and “You Didn’t Try To Call Me”, all played pretty straight? Things then stretch out with “King Kong” divided by “Igor’s Boogie” in the middle, and gives the band a bit of a chance to jam. Personally, I think things liven up when George Duke lets rip, as jazzier tropes improved Zappa’s music considerably, inhibiting the snorks and generic 60s-style rock jams for generic 70s-style rock jams. Flo and Eddie (was there ever a better pair suited for playing two-thirds of the “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers”?) then step in with a slight variant of the notorious groupie sequence, with “What Kind Of Girl Do You Think We Are?”, “Bwana Dik”, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy”, “Do You Like My New Car?” and “Happy Together”. As the “…Filmore East” recording was made in August 1971, it is clear this routine was pretty much scripted, as a lot of it is identical to what was performed in June 1970. And there we were, thinking it was some spontaneous madness.
CD 3 is a hybrid concert; CD 4 is a compilation of recordings made by FZ. It has most of the above, and is a cheerful, perky concert with a delta blues version of “Trouble Every Day” which I found the real treasure of the entire set. The recording fits with a typical Frank Zappa concert; a reasonably straight run through of some classics; some clever instrumentals like “Pound for a Brown on the Bus”, some amusing (or annoying as per your views) stage comments, some improvisation and jamming which can go on a bit if you are not into it, but turn-on-a-sixpence changes that can change the mood. There is a 20-minute sequence of musical episodes which, to paraphrase Mr Zappa, might be x-rated depending on your sensibilities, but are not pornographic, just describing intimate human conduct: that’s one way to describe “Road Ladies” and “The Holiday Inn Motel Chain”. An encore of “Gris-Gris” indicates Zappa is STILL pissed at Dr John, and builds into a percussion workout. The spoken word interlude, “Chance encounter in Cincinnati” is a one-off laugh (some audio verité acquired outside a venue in Ohio. where a member of the public thinks, because of Zappa’s long hair, he’s Tiny Tim). How many times can you listen to that without wanting to get back to the music?
What does it all *mean*?
Zappa’s music was still hugely inventive. You can hear him leaving behind the 60s here, though also almost getting trapped in comedy rock routines that probably even then divided audiences. He became a better guitar player, and got an even tighter band with jazzier chops. He did not see himself as a jazz artist, but noted that they could play and improvise better. Some of his musical ideas were being worked on for decades before coming to light, and he could effectively re-work his tunes. The studio work shows a delicacy and melodic approach which belies the idea he couldn’t write a tune to save his life. He had loads of tunes, he just wasn’t particularity interested in popularity except on his terms, being in rock music for the money that could subsidise his experiments in composition. Sometimes this meant performing smutty knockabout routines to amuse the teenage boys in the audience over lengthy tours, so they would also listen to sequences of chords, sounds, and auditory possibilities they would not otherwise sit through. In some ways, this is like having to pass through the tit-and-bum in an art gallery to get to Picasso, Matisse, and Joseph Beuys. Some may stay in the earlier galleries, but others would be drawn to and opened up to new possibilities. I conclude that Frank Zappa, like the best rock artists, was a curator of culture, introducing his listeners to a variety of possibilities in how to perceive experience.
Goes well with…
Bead jobs, knotted nylons. Bamboo canes. Three unreleased recordings of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fighting at the Fillmore East… Two unreleased recordings of the Grateful Dead sitting in with Mel Torme. Or, in my case, flat Clementine-flavoured diet Coca-Cola. Take your pick
June 24th, 2020
Might suit people who like…
Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, The Fugs, Funkadelic, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Gong.