What does it sound like?:
Frank Zappa famously liked to perform in New York over Halloween, and these late October concerts became legendary for their congenial ambience. Mad-keen fans up for a night of scintillating music encompassing long sets, new and reinterpreted songs, intricate instrumentals, inspired covers, challenging solos, irreverent stage comments to offend at least one person in the audience, and yet further madness would attend, delighting then man himself, who thrived on an audience that understood, and didn’t just want “Dynamo-Humm”. The latest release from Zappa’s archive is a 6 CD set of the three concerts performed in October 1981, two on Halloween itself (an early and late show), and one from the day after. These were the last New York Halloween shows Zappa performed. The 1981 shows were filmed and simcasted (which must have terrified TV producers fearful of too spontaneous a bit of “audience participation” or stage irreverence). Some of the footage was released on the DVD, “The Dub Room Special”. Doubtless, bits can be seen on YouTube. The CD set comes with a Count Frankula mask and cape (not available with the download).
The three concerts (some of which may have been heard in circulating bootlegs of the shows for the past few decades) are now pristine in their sound; as Frank liked to say, he “put his music in his ears rather than up his nose”, and as a result his fantastically tight and accomplished band playing on the best equipment are heard impeccably. Not only is the band hugely adept and sympatico to every nuance of the music adding the “eyebrows” required by Frank Zappa to make it ironic (can YOU play a musical instrument so it sounds ironic?), but they also learned a huge repertoire of music, a fair bit of which would not be released officially until 1986. That’s two sets with barely an overlap in an evening; coming on for five hours of music for the band to be fluent in performing. The subsequent show on the following day is marginally more relaxed (as not being filmed) and a mix of the two former shows, plus probably an hour of material that neither of the Halloween shows had. As his t-shirts said at the time “we don’t mess around”.
Personally, I love the late 70s and 80s Zappa sound and band. The songs and attitude perfectly capture the hip-cynical, horny and irreverent attitude of those young men (and it WAS mostly young men) “living in their secret black-light bedrooms”, of whom I was definitely one, and if you are still reading this, you probably were, too. “Turning Again”, “Cocaine Decisions”, “Dumb All Over”, and “Tinseltown Rebellion” belie the idea that Zappa had lost his edge, when he was simply talking to the next generation of fans. For every song lampooning something deserving the piss ripped, there were fabulous instrumentals showing off the band’s polyrhythmic skills in a time when to be musically adept had become extremely infra-dig, and perhaps this was even more audacious. Young ears heard complex chord sequences and sounds that would make regular popular music seem very tame in comparison, and invited exploration of new possibilities. Then they would be released (and I use the term advisedly) by a showbizzy, swinging “Broken hearts for Assholes”, raps referring to evangelism, “The Gilded Grape” (a gay bar Terry Bozzio allegedly took Frank Zappa to for strictly research purposes and may well explain Bobby Martin’s shorts), and, for those still too young to realise dance music was actually OK even if commercial disco wasn’t, “Dancin’ Fool”.
I suspect anyone who likes 80s Zappa will have the albums and other (official and otherwise) live recordings by him of the time already, but this is a nice package that brings everything together if you have the surplus income to afford it. Those who have this on bootleg (or at least parts) can become legal and support the artist’s family. For those who just want the highlights, a highlights disc is also available (of course it depends on what you call a highlight; I would see a long and to some, toe-curling, Zappa preamble to “I have been in You” a highlight, but then I lost my taste well before coronavirus was in a pangolin stir-fry). Whilst the mask and cape are amusing, I feel a DVD of the available footage of the shows, along with any missing content, would have been a better added value element, but I expect there are licensing or technical issues that precluded this. Too bad.
What does it all *mean*?
We are rapidly approaching the 30th anniversary of Frank Zappa’s death. As I’ve said before, how he would have responded to Donald Trump, “Woke”, global fundamentalism, LGBT+, and many other social developments one can only imagine. I like to think he would have remained an equal opportunity critic of all that he saw, making people think and laugh, and provoking new thoughts the way he enabled people to hear new chords and rhythms, so creating novel neural pathways that can then be consolidated into new ways of thinking. The Halloween recordings also remind me of a time when a musician and their vision could take over a theatre for a night and create a diverse world that took you everywhere so there were so many interesting or colourful bits, you are overwhelmed with possibilities. I don’t think we get that any more. I wish we did.
Goes well with…
Fun-size Mars bars, apples, gingerbread, cinder toffee, small bags of Haribou chewy sweets, cheap wine, black coffee, cigarettes (if you nust), and the sound of a bass saxophone.
Might suit people who like…
Frank Zappa. Captain Beefheart, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Primus, Carla Bley, Jazz rock, smart cynical intricate music