Friday, April 22, 2011

London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I & II

If we are to listen to what Frank Zappa said, we are not supposed to like the London Symphony Orchestra recording. But Frank’s castigation of the recording is largely based on what he describes as his less-than-enjoyable experience in working with the orchestra, an experience that tainted his perspective on orchestras in general for nearly all of the rest of his life.

To get a grasp on this, it’s worth reviewing the process, because it not only reveals all the work that goes into producing and recording symphonic music, but the composer’s ego as well, an ego just as big as the egos he criticizes.

In his autobiography, Zappa talks about how he used to get a great thrill writing music on paper, largely because as he wrote the notes on the paper, he could hear the tune in his head, which, he noted, is “a completely different sensation from the ordinary listening experience.”

It is time consuming work, particularly when it comes to writing the entire score. “One page of full orchestral score that takes 45 seconds to play can take 16 hours to draw,” Frank says in his autobiography.

When the score is written, the next step is copying each individual part so that sheet music can be provided to the appropriate musician. A copyist is hired to do this and is paid a lot of money to do it. And who pays for the copyist? The composer and it doesn’t take long while reading anything about Zappa for you to learn that he didn't like paying people a lot of money.

By the time he encountered the LSO, he had already had a series of negative experiences with various orchestras in the Netherlands, Vienna and Denmark. Those experiences cost him several hundred thousand dollars, all for naught. To gather the money needed for a copyist and all the other production costs for recording and editing, Zappa used income from the songs “Dinah Moe Humm,” “Titties and Beer,” and “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.” That provided him with enough cash to complete the LSO project, the finished product of which he describes as “performances which come off like high-class ‘demos’ of what actually resides in the scores.”

Kent Nagano, who conducted the performances, recognized the complexity of the music, but thought the orchestra performed it well given the short period they had for rehearsing. In Barry Miles’ book, Nagano said: “I think it’s fair to say that the London Symphony, when they heard they were doing Frank Zappa’s music, had no idea what that really meant in terms of the complexity. But I will say that they were really quite phenomenal; they worked so hard and I really fell in love with the orchestra, just as a group.”

Any friction between Zappa and the orchestra might be attributed to the way he rearranged musician seating, often making changes from one rehearsal to another, an action he was cautioned against because musician seating is a fairly standard and established item among orchestras. To disrupt this without any meaningful explanation put Zappa in a position of leading with his chin, as he was wont to do far too frequently.

And while Zappa complains in his autobiography of musicians drinking during the recording breaks, Nagano and others do not corroborate his description of events. Interestingly too is the fact that while Zappa was essentially uninterested in the live performances – he thought of them as rehearsals prior to the recording – and criticized them, Nagano and others thought the performances went exceptionally well. And something that Zappa fails to mention, the orchestra itself gave Zappa a standing ovation. You don’t see an orchestra do that very often.

Despite Zappa lambasting his final product, when you read what others say at Kill Ugly Radio about the two-CD set, you find comments that reflect that just maybe this vile recording actually contains some very enjoyable music and pretty cool interpretations of more familiar pieces.

As ‘jim” mentions at KUR, the orchestral version of “Envelopes” becomes “so drastically mutated” from the release on “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch” that “it trumps it.” Despite that, jim and I both love the version on SATLTSADW.

“Bob in Dacron” almost takes on a story-like quality to the music, although one must remain dubious about this as often the titles Zappa gave to some of his more serious compositions were so absurd and irrelevant to the material that it seemed he was intentionally giving them nonsensical titles to diminish their sincerity.

Paul Semptschi describes the recording as one that grows on you and certainly one that has a rightful place in Zappa’s repertoire. And I agree with Marco J who opines if there is really something wrong and disappointing about the LSO sessions it’s the recording itself. I, too, thought it was a bit cold and stretched. While I agree with the assessment that “The Yellow Shark” is a much warmer recording more skillfully performed, I do think the LSO’s performance is on par with those on “Orchestral Favorites,” despite the latter also being better recorded and mixed.

True, as Marco J points out, the LSO sessions lack humor in any sense. Even with “Strictly Genteel,” one has a sense of a well-played piece that nonetheless fails to express any humor or satire to the listener. In fact, it comes off like a nice piece of sentimentality, one that you can enjoy over brandy with your grandmother.

But should these pieces, particularly the ones finishing the recording, be “humorous?” When you think about it, aren’t “Strictly Genteel” and “Bogus Pomp” more than just tangentially associated with “200 Motels”? For many of us, our first experience with these compositions occurred while listening to that soundtrack, which was filled with prurient humor. I don’t know. Perhaps someone can weigh in on this.

I rate this with three of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Two-CD set released April, 1995, Rykodisc; Recorded Jan. 12, 13, and 14, 1983.

Track listing:

Disc One
Bob In Dacron
• First Movement (5:36)
• Second Movement (6:32)
Sad Jane
• First Movement (4:47)
• Second Movement (5:02)
Mo 'n Herb's Vacation
• First Movement (4:47)
• Second Movement (10:04)
• Third Movement (12:50)

Disc Two
Envelopes (04:04)
Pedro's Dowry (10:25)
Bogus Pomp (24:31)
Strictly Genteel (06:56)


The London Symphony Orchestra
Kent Nagano, conductor
Frank Zappa, composer and arranger
David Ocker, solo clarinet
Chad Wackerman, drum set
Ed Mann, featured percussionist

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Captain Beefheart, Jan. 15, 1941 – Dec. 17, 2010

Despite this blog being about Frank Zappa’s catalog, and despite I haven’t devoted any previous posts to other musicians who have played with Zappa or were founding members of the Mothers of Invention, I thought it appropriate to write something about Don Vliet, a.k.a Captain Beefheart. In keeping with the subject matter of this blog, however, I will stick with information about Vliet connected with Zappa.

Their relationship was an amazing collaborative effort that goes back to their high school days; it was also an at times awkward and strained relationship that, based on some key comments made individually by each, hit patches of mutual alienation.

“I spent more time with Don (Captain Beefheart) Van Vliet when I was in high school than after he got into ‘show business,’” Zappa writes in his autobiography. “Life on the road with Captain Beefheart was definitely not easy … The last time I saw Don was 1980 or ’81. He stopped by one of our rehearsals. He looked pretty beat … I suppose he is still living in Northern California, but not recording anymore. He bought some property up there – someplace where he could see whales swim by.”

Vliet was more terse. Speaking to Musician Magazine for an article published in February 1994 about Zappa’s passing, Vliet said, “I knew him for 35 years, and in the end the relationship was private.”

Beefheart was also connected with one of the biggest myths about Zappa, the shit-eating event that allegedly occurred during a fabricated gross-out contest between Zappa and Beefheart on stage.

According to Neil Slaven, author of the Zappa biography Electric Don Quixote: The Definitive Story of Frank Zappa, Vliet’s unique way of interacting with the rest of the world began very early. He told interviewers that his parents were his “gas station,” as well as that his musical interests began quite early at age 3 when he first learned the harmonica. A truant most of his school life, Vliet’s artistic talents developed early as well, an avocation that occupied him in his later years until his death.

Probably the most significant collaboration between Zappa and Vliet was the production of the album “Trout Mask Replica,” which became the quintessential recording of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. Vliet was adamant about not being marketed as a “freak” (or being marketed at all for that matter), which seemed a bit ironic at the least, if not downright “disingenuous” as Slaven writes in Electric Don Quixote.

“I was told by Frank that I would have, if you want to call it, special treatment, that I would not be advertised or promoted with any of the other groups on the label,” Vliet told Slaven. “But somehow, I guess he (Zappa) got hard-pressed for cash, and decided that he’d round me up and sell me as one of the animal crackers. I didn’t like the idea of being labeled and put aside as just another freak.”

Labeled as a freak? As Slaven notes, given the rather curious attire Beefheart and his band wore and “marketed” themselves as, Vliet’s fear of being labeled a freak comes off as a stretch.

If there were any true animosity between the two musicians, the bulk of the evidence suggests that Zappa was the cause. Still, there continued to be collaborative efforts, everything from Vliet’s vocals on “Willie the Pimp” on “Hot Rats,” the live recording “Bongo Fury,” and even more arcane and hidden contributions such as Vliet’s harmonica in “San Ber’Dino” from “One Size Fits All,” where he is identified in the credits as Bloodshot Rollin’ Red. Zappa also went with Beefheart to help manage the Magic Band for a performance in Amougies, Belgium at a festival where Zappa played with Pink Floyd, among other groups (Zappa denied having ever played with Pink Floyd at Amougies despite recorded evidence).

Having said that, Vliet had his own issues as well, particularly when it came to signing contracts, something that Zappa noted that Vliet did without even remotely considering what he had been obligating himself to via his signature.

I’m not familiar with what happened to Vliet following the Bong Fury tour. He dropped out of the music scene for the most part to take up his painting. I had no idea that he had developed multiple sclerosis until much later. When I learned that he had died, my first thought was of “Ella Guru.”

If you’re interested in some live recordings of Beefheart and the Magic Band, you might want to visit here. The album art displayed with this post comes from this live recording.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Vitamin Deficiency

This surreptitious recording is a compilation of a few rather poor quality audience recordings of shows Zappa did with the Mothers of Invention circa the Flo and Eddie years. The performances include one from the Ahoy, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, from Nov. 27, 1971; another from the Santa Monica Civic Center on Aug. 21, 1970; and some studio material.

The first 13 tracks are from the Ahoy, and as the notes that came with the boot say, it’s a “worse than live” recording. It was released as the bootleg “Poot Face Boogie,” and misidentified the venue as being in Amsterdam. It’s typical Flo and Eddie fair. The crowd’s clapping along with “Who Are the Brain Police” makes it very difficult to hear the intro and most of the song. This version was decidedly more upbeat than the studio version from “Freak Out!” It has a rollicking guitar solo, but the recording is so poor, it’s a strain to hear it.

With the next song, the recording switches to an early studio version of “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” the 1969 single release. There is a brief interview in which Zappa explains that it’s “better” to explain the band’s various sexual peccadilloes through song rather than to let the stories come out in other forms. This is followed by another studio version of “Dog Breath in the Year of the Plague” from “Uncle Meat.”

With the next track, we’re back live in Rotterdam with the song “Once Upon a Time Sofa.” Zappa announces the song will be sung in Dutch and features Mark Volman. This is similar to the routine recorded from the Rainbow Theater in London from Dec. 10, 1971, and which was released on YCDTOSA Vol. 1 as “Once Upon a Time.” However, the bootleg version has the complete musical number, rendering an early version of Sofa #1 that was to be released later on “Once Size Fits All.”

The song “Stick It Out” is just a bunch of prurient screaming from Howard and Mark, aka Flo and Eddie. “Divan” provides more Dutch vocal porn that was common with the shtick this particular touring group was famous for.

“Lightning-Rod Man” is a 1966 recording of Lowell George & the Factory, produced by and featuring Frank Zappa, officially released on the album Lightning-Rod Man in 1993. Has kind of a Captain Beefheart feel to it.
The next series of songs on this bootleg are allegedly from the Santa Monica Civic Center on Aug. 21, 1970, but the first track, “Call Any Vegetable,” has Frank welcoming the audience to El Monte Legion Stadium. So this recording had apparently been long thought to be a 1971 one show from El Monte Legion Stadium. Notes with the boot, however, suggest “it's clearly the 1970 band on the record, and the recording has been identified as Santa Monica.”

I say hmmm, because this version of “Call Any Vegetable” is very similar to the one released on “Just Another Band From L.A.”, which was recorded from a 1971 show at the Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. It wasn’t uncommon for vinyl boot releases to have misinformation on the album cover, such as incorrectly identifying the venue. This item was no exception, but it remains curious that the cover art, which was based on a Cal Shenkel poster for the 1971 Pauley Pavilion, also asserts that the show was from El Monte Legion Stadium.

This half of the boot is a better recording than the first half, although it is still an audience recording. Zappa’s guitar work comes through more clearly.

Flo and Eddie do a decent job on “Mother People,” and it’s evident the crowd enjoyed it as well. There’s a medley of songs from “Chunga’s Revenge,” with “Would You Go All the Way?”, “Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink,” and “Road Ladies.” I’ve always liked “Road Ladies,” a very basic 12-bar blues tune that Zappa can do some heavy shredding on. Mark Volman, however, is the star on this song.

Frank introduces the next series of songs by telling the crowd to imagine themselves staying at the Holiday Inn in a “dumpy little town” called Traverse City, Mich., and the band members are about to go out to the local bar to get some girls. Pretty funny that they call Traverse City a dumpy little town, which it certainly was back in 1970. This eventually leads into the routine made famous on the Fillmore album.

There an obligatory version of “Happy Together,” but it’s pretty lame.

All in all, this isn’t a very inspiring recording. Besides being a poor quality audience boot, the material isn’t that great. Unless you’re the type that absolutely has to have it, I would skip it.

I rate this with two of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Track listing

1. Peaches En Regalia
2. Tears Begin to Fall
3. She Painted Up Her Face
4. Half a Dozen Provocative Squats/Shove It Right In
5. Who Are the Brain Police
6. My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama
7. Interview
8. Dog Breath in the Year of the Plague
9. Once Upon a Time Sofa
10. Stick It Out
11. Divan
12. Interview
13. The Factory Lightning-Rod Man
14. Call Any Vegetable
15. The Air
16. Dog Breath
17. Mother People
18. You Didn't Try to Call Me
19. Would You Go All the Way?
20. Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink
21. Road Ladies
22. What Will This Morning Bring Me This Evening
23. What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are?
24. Bwana Dik
25. Latex Solar Beef
26. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy [partial]
27. Do You Like My New Car?
28. Happy Together [Bonner/Gordon]
29. What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning?


Frank Zappa, Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan, Jeff Simmons (Santa Monica), Aynsley Dunbar, Ian Underwood, Don Preston (Rotterdam), Jim Pons (Rotterdam) and George Duke