Sunday, November 30, 2008

Just Another Band From L.A.

Much of the material released during the Flo & Eddie years was criticized for being juvenile toilet humor. Some refer to many of the compositions as “stupid stories.” And others proclaim that it just isn’t funny. Zappa was well aware of this and his response was, “So what?”

“I don’t have any pretensions about being a poet,” Zappa said in his autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book.”

“My lyrics are there for entertainment purposes only – not to be taken internally. Some of them are truly stupid, some are slightly less stupid and a few of them are sort of funny. Apart from the snide political stuff, which I enjoy writing, the rest of the lyrics wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the fact that we live in a society where instrumental music is irrelevant….”

The last of the Flo & Eddie recordings was “Just Another Band from L.A.,” which Zappa put together while recuperating from severe injury sustained during an encore performance at the Rainbow in London. Zappa succinctly describes the winter of 1971 in his autobiography.

“(Excluding an experience in Stockholm), the 1971 European winter tour gets the award for being the most disastrous,” Zappa wrote. The was the Dec. 4 show at the Casino de Montreux in Geneva, Switzerland, during which a fire started during “King Kong” that burned the casino to the ground and destroyed all of the band’s equipment. Perhaps to Zappa’s chagrin, the event was immortalized in Deep Purple’s hit, “Smoke on the Water.” But alas, perhaps it was due to the fact that Deep Purple had arrived that day to record “Machine Head” using the Rolling Stone’s mobile studio.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Zappa’s group found itself in the “middle of a sold-out tour with ten more dates to go,” he writes in his autobiography. A week’s worth of shows was canceled and the band prepared for a London gig, rehearsing with new equipment. The band made it through one show; as they returned to the stage for an encore, a man from the audience attacked Frank, pulling him off the stage to the concrete floor of the orchestra pit 15 feet below. “…(M)y head was over on my shoulder, and my neck was bent like it was broken,” he writes in his autobiography about the incident. “I had a gash in my chin, a hole in the back of my head, a broken rib and a fractured leg. One arm was paralyzed.” His larynx was also crushed, causing his voice to drop a third.

Wheelchair-bound, Zappa put together the last of the Flo & Eddie recordings (until “Playground Psychotics”) taken from a show at the Pauley Pavillion at UCLA, recorded Aug. 7, 1971. Side A of the recording consists solely of the epic “Billy the Mountain,” viewed by many as a parody of the rock opera genre that had become common at the time, most notably with the Who’s “Tommy.” Other than perhaps “Dinah Mo Humm,” “Billy the Mountain” was probably Zappa’s most widely known and famous composition. It was, and remains, legend. Zappa’s son, Dweezil, performed the opus with the entourage Zappa Plays Zappa during three shows at the Morse Theater in Chicago on Oct. 17, 18, and 19, 2008. Sadly, I was unable to attend any of these shows.

Like the other recordings of this era, it was met with mixed reaction. As Mark Prindle points out in his review of the album, what “promising” musical themes the piece has are quickly supplanted by the narrative, the tale of a draft-dodging mountain sought by a geeky superhero. It’s worth turning, once again, to Zappa’s autobiography for his explanation on how lyrics play a role in his compositions.

“Some of the stuff I write is in the ‘musically uncompromising boy-is-this-ever-hard-to-play’ category. Then there’s the other category – songs in which the ‘intrigue’ resides in the lyrics, rather than the music,” he writes. “If a piece intends to actually tell a story, I don’t build an elaborate accompaniment because it gets in the way of the words.”

This, however, has led to Frank performing various pieces at times with his, I must admit, annoying sing-sing presentation style, exemplified by “The Dangerous Kitchen,” which I endured during the show I saw in Tucson in 1980. It was enjoyable and amusing at the time, but doesn’t bear up well under repeated listens. But I digress.

“Billy the Mountain” is filled with not only local lore referencing real places in the Los Angeles area, but also references to Zappa’s personal life (such as the “pools of old poison gas,” which is a reference to his father’s work with the military as well as his father having agreed in the past to volunteer in nerve gas tests, not just a real military dump). There are some really cool set pieces in the larger work, such as the bit when Studebaker Hoch is introduced or when the nerdy superhero goes through his preparations to fly. And you can find here some rather amusing discussion on the “origins” of Billy the Mountain (not the song, that’s why it’s not in quotes).

As memorable as “Billy the Mountain” is, the B side of the release has the real gems. The version of “Call Any Vegetable” here is wonderful. A brief transcription is below.

That’s followed by “Eddie Are You Kidding,” and “Magdalena,” the latter of which has an intense and prurient climax leading into the awesome rendering of “Dog Breath.” A brief transcription of “Magdalena” is below as well.

Check out this site for some musical analysis of some of the songs on this album.

As was common with many of Zappa’s recordings, there are references to other recordings notated on the album cover, particularly in reference to “Uncle Meat.”

Some other sites you might want to look at regarding this recording and other Zappa releases include this one by Robert Chrisgau, although I’m not sure how someone can call himself, as Chrisgau does, the “Dean of American Rock Critics” when he rates “Hot Rats” with a C. At the History of Rock Music, the reviews are written in Italian. And despite the fact this site has nothing on Zappa, Reason to Rock is a really fascinating site.

I rate this recording four out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album release date: March 26, 1972, Bizarre/Reprise.

Track listings:

Side one
"Billy the Mountain" (Zappa) – 24:47

Side two
"Call Any Vegetable" (Zappa) – 7:22
"Eddie, Are You Kidding?" (Kaylan, Seiler, Volman, Zappa) – 3:10
"Magdalena" (Kaylan, Zappa) – 6:24
"Dog Breath" (Zappa) – 3:39


Frank Zappa – guitar, vocals
Mark Volman – lead vocals
Howard Kaylan – lead vocals
Ian Underwood – woodwinds, keyboards, vocals
Aynsley Dunbar – drums
Don Preston – keyboards
Jim Pons – bass guitar, vocals

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