What’s New in a World of Strange Purple Jello – Recent Frank Zappa in print and CD

2The news that Universal will, over the next however-long-it-takes, be granting a full release to the catalog of hitherto mail-order-only Frank Zappa albums released by the family trust is finally coming to fruition – and then some.  Last month not only saw reissues for the Lumpy Money three disc collection, and the first two volumes of Road Tapes – all previously available only from the Barfko-Swill online store – but also a new live disc that might well be the most enthralling of the lot.

Road Tapes Venue 3 was recorded at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on July 5, 1970, two performances played out early into the lifespan of what remains the most divisive of all Mothers line-ups (it was just their ninth gig together), with Flo and Eddie introducing their inimitable combination of demonic clowning and angelic vocals to the show.

In common with past volumes, the sound quality is less than what might normally be considered stellar… “primitive audio documentary attempts,” as the liners put it.  Recorded live to a stereo 2-track reel recorder, and then subject to sundry other technical gremlins (outlined, again, in the liners), the tape nevertheless represents a holy grail of sorts – “[two] of the only complete shows found in the vault of the 1970 Mothers of Invention.”

It sounds good, though, and besides, the paucity of material never stopped either bootleggers or Zappa himself from squeezing a welter of material out of the era.  The Freaks and Motherf——— and Tengo Na Minchia Tanta boots came from the team’s New York dates, there are odd snatches lurking within Playground Psychotics and You Can’t Do That On Stage volume six, and of course “The Nancy & Mary Music,” from this very show, can be found on Chunga’s Revenge.  (Although not in any familiar form – the finished track was carved from two very separate performances – “King Kong,” at the start of the first show; and “The Clap,” closing the second.)

But now we have the performance in its entirety, and a set that ranges back through the Mothers catalog, and forward as well – “Sharleena” is here, caught halfway between the Flo-and-Eddie-less version included on Lost Episodes, and the masterpiece that also made it to Chunga.  “You Didn’t Try To Call Me” and “It Can’t Happen Here” are reworked (dramatically, in the first instance) from the days of Freak Out; We’re Only In It For The Money throws a few coppers into the hat; and the applause that greets the old favorites makes it clear that the audience is as unsure about the new look line-up as subsequent listeners and followers have proven.

Flo and Eddie were not, after all, “typical” Mothers, even in a band for whom “Invention” was a lot more than merely a part of their name.  Recordings of the original group’s live show – and that includes the first volume of Road Tapes, recorded in Vancouver in August 1968, are as frustrating as they are fascinating, because we know how much of the show we’re missing. The Mothers were not a rock band, after all; they were performance artists, and so much more is taking place on the stage that even the greatest audio document (and Road Tapes 1 certainly falls into that category) offers but a fraction of the full experience.

Volume 3 suffers less from this, simply because the newcomers were still being worked into the show.  None of the magnificent high points of the eighteen months to follow had yet found their way into the show; there are no Sanzini Brothers, no “Mudshark,” no groupie routine, no “Billy the Mountain,” no “Happy Together.”

It was their vocal chops that Zappa chiefly relied on here, and Flo and Eddie do not disappoint.  Even on stage, they capture their familiar studio ability to make two voices sound like a choir, even when the material doesn’t expect them to, but you can only sense glimmerings of what would soon become a full-on modern vaudeville band creeping in around the edges of the band’s full-bore instrumental prowess.

Nevertheless, it’s still – if you are accustomed only to later Zappa – a mildly disorienting experience… but hey, who only listens to later Zappa?  Away from those fans who find this entire period all a little too obvious/novelty for their liking, the year-and-a-half that this line-up remained (more-or-less) together was responsible for some of the most joyous shows, and captivating albums in Zappa’s entire catalog.  Chunga’s Revenge was their sole studio outing.  But the live albums Fillmore East and Just Another Band from LA; Freaks and Psychotics; the Carnegie Hall box set, they add up to some of the most enjoyable Zappa around.  And the funniest, as well.

1The Lumpy Money box is also a part of an ongoing series, in this case the Object/Project collections that focus in on one particular album and … well, make it bigger.  Freak Out (across four CDs) and Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (one disc) have also been given the treatment, and will hopefully see reissue soon.  (Absolutely Free, the band’s second album, has been omitted from the series, apparently because there are insufficient out-takes to make it worthwhile).

The odd thing with these sets – Freak Out’s MOFO Project and Lumpy Money, at least – is, they really don’t tell the story they say they’re going to.  MOFO (the Making of Freak Out, obviously) devotes one disc to the original album, which itself is no bad thing… we hear it now as it sounded in ’66, rather than the remixed, remuddled versions that Zappa approved for CD.

A second disc’s worth of material is largely comprised of percussive excerpts and interview clips, none of which really bear repeated listens unless you really need to hear “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet” boiuled down to its constituent parts; while the other two mix a handful of alternate takes, live cuts, demos and backing tracks, which are essential, with a lot of again less listen-worthy material.

3But one listen to the playful rock’n’roll knock-off “Groupie Bang Bang,” a seething “Trouble Coming Every Day” (sorry, that should be even more seething), and the live “Motherly Love” are more than compensation for sitting through the pointless “Objects,” or “Hold Onto Your Tiny Horsies,” which is effectively a blueprint for the Lennons’s “John… Yoko” extravaganza, with Suzy Creamcheese and a piano replacing the expected heroes.

Just to frustrate things a little more, though, a two CD distillation of the box features seven more cuts that didn’t make the full length box; and to make them even worse than that, there’s an entire disc’s worth of demos that were released separately again, as the Joe’s Corsage collection.  Seven discs, requiring three different purchases, and you could probably boil them all down to a two hour “very best of.”

Lumpy Money suffers likewise.  Again there’s a disc’s worth of material that is altogether absent, an oft-circulated bootleg’s worth of out-takes that is actually worth as much as any of the material that is featured here.

Well, almost anything.  Disc one delivers the prototypical, and in some ways easier to digest Lumpy Gravy that briefly surfaced on a super-scarce 4-Track cartridge on Capitol Records in 1967, before being litigated into extinction by Verve, and re-edited into the familiar album; then follows through with the hen’s-teeth that is the mono mix of We’re Only In It For The Money.  It’s not especially different to the stereo mix, but mono is mono.

Disc two, however, taunts purists with the revised versions of both albums that Zappa created in the early 1980s with compact disc in mind, featuring modern overdubbing and, frankly, a distillation of all that made the originals so magical.  At the same time, though, this version of Lumpy Gravy never saw a full release, while there’s an entire generation out there who discovered Zappa in the CD age, for whom this is the Money they’re familiar with.  So maybe it’s not so redundant, after all. More intriguing, however, would have been to save this disc for some future reissue of Civilization Phase 3, Zappa’s 1992 completion of the trilogy he commenced with the original Money (“phase one of Lumpy Gravy,” as it suggests on the sleeve) and Gravy itself.  But… whatever.  Too late now (and you can always combine the discs yourself).

And so to disc three, the out-takes, and – oh.  Beyond the opening 25 minute “How Did That Get In Here?”, a Lumpy jammy masterpiece that is worth the price of admission almost alone, just two of the tracks here transcend the three minute mark, and the majority barely top a minute, one frustrating and generally unresolved clip after another.

But before you say that’s basically all We’re Only In It For The Money was to begin with, that at least was pieced together with extreme deliberation by Zappa.  These pieces weren’t.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to love, instrumental snips and takes (“Harry You’re A Beast” is even more contagious than usual), and that ensures it’s still an effective package; a crucial purchase if you need to keep tabs on all of Zappa’s most significant albums.

4But an afternoon spent leafing through those books and websites that housekeep Zappa’s output with a collector’s eye for detail let us see how much better both of these boxes could have been.

On the subject of such tomes, what is probably the most exacting of all Zappanic discographical undertakings, Greg Russo’s Cosmik Debris : The Collected History and Improvisations of Frank Zappa (Crossfire Publications – www.crossfirepublications.com) is apparently in the throes of being updated – which is not a task that anyone would envy the author.

A decade has elapsed since the last revision, which means none of the Object/Project collections make it in – the discography closes with Imaginary Diseases.  But still, if you don’t want to wait for the update (which also promises a full investigation of Zappa’s PAL Studio output), this is the key reference guide to the who, what, where and when of it all.

Which means, discographies for home and abroad, unreleased tracks, unreleased projects, covers versions, live routines, a full gigography, video releases, bibliography and so much more.  It’s a riot of facts and figures, together with a lengthy and highly enjoyable biography, an intro by Candy Zappa… oh, you really should just buy it yourself.  Your Zappa “wants list” will love you forever.

6New too is UK author (and musician – he’s also the magnificent Dodson & Fogg) Chris Wade’s The Music of Frank Zappa 1978-1993 – which, as its title implies – is the much-anticipated follow-up to the same author’s The Music of Frank Zappa 1966-1976.  (www.wisdomtwinsbooks.com)The format of both books is the same – a straightforward, but very informative, dive through Zappa’s career biography, interspersed with observations, reviews, and newly conducted interviews with sundry Zappa helpmates – Carol Kaye, Bruce Hampton, Pauline Butcher, Chester Thompson, Dr Demento and Randy Brecker in the earlier tome; Lou Marini, Warren Cuccurullo, Arthur Barrow, Mike Keneally, Scott Thunes and Malcolm McNab in the later one.

Gems litter the interviews, and the text, too – McNab’s description of his audition for Zappa, at which he was handed a piece of music titled “The Malcolm McNab,” is fabulous.  Equally valuable, though, are Wade’s reviews of each album (in order of release, as opposed to recording), entertaining enough to alert you to the ones you need to revisit, but not so overloaded with data that you put the phone directory on the turntable instead.

Great pictures, too.

What’s next in Zappaland, then?  An Object/Project for Uncle Meat may or may not be more-or-less imminent, and every fan probably has a wish list for the next few reissues – Hammersmith Odeon 1978, Philadelphia 1976 and the full set of the Joe’s… collections would be nice.  But who knows.  In life, Zappa turned “keeping people guessing” into an utter art form.  In death, his discography has continued the job.

One thought on “What’s New in a World of Strange Purple Jello – Recent Frank Zappa in print and CD

  1. Great news about Universal granting a full release to the catalog of hitherto mail-order-only Frank Zappa albums released by the family trust. I loved the Flo and Eddie period of the Mothers [saw them at Carnegie Hall]. Hopefully with an advertising push from Universal, Zappa’s music will be bought and heard by many new fans.

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