(Zappa Records/Universal - 5 CDs)
Of all the Zappa live albums out there (and there’s a lot, so we have to be careful what we say), the double album rendering of his December 1976 New York shows has always occupied a prominent position in the fan club’s “best of” ratings.
There are misgivings, of course.The omission of the showstopping “Punky’s Whips”; the mass of edits and rearrangements that went into the final running order; the fact that close to two years elapsed between concert and LP….But, if you stopped worrying about what could have been, and focus simply on what you got, it was a fabulous album.
It still is.Only now, it’s a lot bigger.
The liner notes detail the decisions that went into creating this box - most importantly why, in contrast to other recent releases, we continue to hear only highlights of the shows, as opposed to the entire performances.Read ‘em and you’ll understand.But spread across five CDs, we do get…
The album’s original vinyl mix (as opposed to the new mix Zappa executed in 1990).More than three hours worth of additional performances from the shows. And, finally, 48 minutes worth of mysteriously titled “bonus vault content.”
All of which is wrapped up in a cardboard outer box, within which we find an eight-inch tin, disguised as a New York manhole cover.That was Ahmet Zappa’s idea, based on one of his most prominent memories of his childhood visits to New York - the manholes.“I know they have manhole covers in every city,” he says.But the New York ones stuck in his mind as emblematic of the city.
Open the tin.The five discs are secured within, together with a replica concert ticket and a chunky sixty-page book packed with unpublished photos, band member reminiscences, a “making of” essay and even a history of the song “Black Page” - which Zappa was still perfecting on the day of the first show, and leading us up to the final track on the final CD, a fresh performance of the piece recorded by Ruth Underwood in 2017.But, assuming we play the box set in order, we have a long way to go before we get to that.
His pre-Mothers activities notwithstanding, 1976 marked the tenth anniversary of the birth of Zappa’s recording career - a point he may or may not have intended pressing home by bringing “Big Leg Emma” back into the set and onto the original New York album, too.At the other end of the chronological scale, his latest album was Zoot Allures… which didn’t get a look in on the live LP, and is barely represented among the other discs, either.A nifty “The Torture Never Stops” and a fair “Find Her Finer” are present, but the bulk of the NY engagement looked elsewhere for its kicks, both backwards and forwards in time.(“Any Kind of Pain” would not see an official release until 1988
What amazes is just how vast this band’s repertoire was.There were twenty albums heaped up behind Zoot Allures, and if Zappa didn’t make his bandmates learn every song he’d ever written, he came close.Two months earlier, the tapes rolled for the Philly gig (released ten years ago as Philly 76) and one searches almost in vain for any duplication between that album and this: “Manx Needs Women” and “Purple Lagoon” on the original release; “Torture,” “Honey Don’t You Want a Man Like Me,” “Chrissy Puked Twice” and “Dinah-Moe Humm” among the extras.That’s impressive even by Zappa’s standards.
But wait!There’s more!Across discs two, three and four, we find at least one version of every song performed across the four nights… some 30 different numbers, including alternate versions of the regular album tracks, sundry snatches of dialogue and a few fresh solos.And though one can understand why Zappa so thoroughly reworked the tapes, it’s debatable whether he needed to.
There are some truly transcendental performances here, with even the repetition of a few songs scarcely noticeable.There’s so much going on every night, in every song, that this could as easily have been three separate releases and nobody could have complained.Well, they could, because fans can always find something to moan about.You know what we mean.
Disc five, too, is staggering.It delves deep into the arcana of the project- a 1977 version of “Black Page #2,” featuring pianist Tommy Mars; a bunch more songs from the shows, including the take on “Punky’s Whips” that was dropped from the original LP, and the aforementioned Underwood 2017 reweaving of “Black Page.”
And if all that isn’t enough for you… well, this year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of both Hot Rats and Uncle Meat; next year it’s Chunga’s Revenge, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh.If the rumors are right, there’s a lot more Zappa lurking just around the corner.Zappa In New York will keep us occupied until it gets here.