Saturday, December 6, 2008

Chunga's Revenge

You know right away with the opening guitar riffs of “Transylvania Boogie” that “Chunga’s Revenge” is gonna be a keeper! The first of the Flo & Eddie recordings featuring former Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, Chunga’s Revenge is by far the best of the group, both in terms of its down and dirty, nitty gritty style and its compositional excellence. While the remaining releases of the series – “Fillmore East – June 1971,” “200 Motels,” and “Just Another Band From L.A.” – are worthy in their own right, only “200 Motels” can be counted as truly exceptional. And despite that, “200 Motels” isn’t nearly as accessible as “Chunga’s Revenge.”

Yet, like so many other Zappa releases, the “experts” didn’t like it. In his 1970 review of the album for Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs writes: “Zappa can go on putting out dull records like these indefinitely and always find somebody who’ll buy them, out of respect for his name if nothing else…But these diddlings are not only insignificant, not only do they suggest that one genius is not at present working towards anything in particular, but they also smack of a rather cynical condescending attitude towards a public that may be getting ready to pass Zappa by.” Bangs even dismisses in the same review another Zappa recording that is often voted by fans to be among Zappa’s best – “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.”

Was Frank copping an attitude toward his listeners? Was he being condescending as suggested by Bangs? Or do we take to heart Zappa’s own words regarding his perception of the fallibility of record reviewers, that most in fact didn’t know a lot about music to begin with, despite the fact that they made their living writing about music, and frequently dismissed as garbage music they didn’t grasp?

The two reviews at Ground and Sky are positive, but in different ways: The one penned by Bob Eichler is warm, but not quite glowing, while the one by Matt P is tersely succinct in its mention that “Chunga’s Revenge” is “perhaps the most underrated album in the Zappa catalog.” That review was posted in 2005.

Regardless, “Chunga’s Revenge” tickles my musical ear from start to finish. And as I state at the beginning here, what a start it has!

What strikes me most about “Transylvania Boogie” is that the guitar solo, to me, marks a point in Zappa’s evolution where his playing makes a quantum leap in both style and execution. It’s just really damn good and while it holds his essential style, he’s introducing new playing techniques and a new sound that takes more traditional rock guitar to great places. Zappa can play avant garde with his axe, but he can brilliantly play hard core rock with it as well. This is much more evident in “Road Ladies,” a kick-ass blues tune that has Frank playing in a more traditional electric blues style that must surely be the envy of every blues guitar player to have emerged out of Texas and the Mississippi Delta. His style is point on, the riffs are classic, and hold a ragged razor edge that thrills me. Not sure why some reviewers have called “Road Ladies” a soul style tune, because it is plain as day a basic 12-bar blues piece.

Road Ladies” also has other historical significance for Zappa in that the road theme is introduced for the first time with Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, a theme that was carried on throughout the Flo & Eddie years with the following recordings: “Fillmore East - June 1971,” “200 Motels,” and “Just Another Band From L.A.” An interesting side note is that Nazareth was one of the few bands to cover this tune.

For most people who have taken the time to comment on this album, “Twenty Small Cigars” routinely comes out as a favorite. A jazzy instrumental built around a distorted guitar and harpsichord, it has a very “Hot Rats” feel.

Then comes “The Nancy & Mary Music,” another tune that gets mixed reviews. Some label this live instrumental track as filler. It opens with a cacophony of seemingly chaos with Ian Underwood’s saxophone shrieking atonally and Aynsley Dunbar’s frenetic, jazz style drumming, which introduces another Zappa guitar solo. The abrupt transition to more percussion is punctuated with some shrieking by Kaylan and Volman, which, in my opinion, fits perfectly in a musical sense with the impassioned drumming that is followed by a “big finish” that includes some great electric piano work by George Duke, who joined with Frank for the first time, a musical relationship that would last for years. George does some great scatting in the song as well that is somewhat reminiscent of the vocal style found in the song “Hocus Pocus” by Focus. However, “Moving Waves” was recorded and released by Focus a full year after “Chunga’s Revenge.”

“Tell Me You Love Me” eventually became a concert favorite, particularly during the 1980s tours. In many ways, the later live versions of this song are tighter, such as the one on “Tinsel Town Rebellion.” “Would You Go All The Way” is a silly, but enjoyable, interlude leading into the title track.

With “Chunga’s Revenge,” we get hard core guitar rock and seemingly anomalous jazz segues. Ian Underwood’s opening saxophone solo, performed with pedal volume, is tortuous and chilling, and I mean that in a good way (that’s right folks, the opening solo instrument is an alto saxophone, not a guitar with a fuzzed wah-wah). Here’s a video of a 1973 recording of the song from an Austin, Texas, concert.

The video below is a live performance of the song from 1980 in Paris.

I don’t like the transition much on the album into “The Clap,” as it is clumsy and technically flawed; the piece itself is fine, I just don’t care for the way it was brought into the album.

A musical and lyrical theme found in “Rudy Wants To Buy Yez a Drink” is repeated again in “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” on “200 Motels.” And the closer, “Sharleena,” was another song that got frequent live play, particularly by Dweezil.

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

Album release date: Oct. 23, 1970, Bizarre/Reprise

Track listings:

Album release:

Side one
"Transylvania Boogie" - 5:01
"Road Ladies" - 4:11
"Twenty Small Cigars" - 2:17
"The Nancy & Mary Music" - 9:30
part 1 - 2:42
part 2 - 4:11
part 3 - 2:37

Side two
"Tell Me You Love Me" - 2:43
"Would You Go All the Way?" - 2:30
"Chunga's Revenge" - 6:16
"The Clap" - 1:24
"Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink" - 2:45
"Sharleena" - 4:07

Compact Disc:
"Transylvania Boogie" – 5:01
"Road Ladies" – 4:10
"Twenty Small Cigars" – 2:17
"The Nancy and Mary Music" – 9:27
"Tell Me You Love Me" – 2:33
"Would You Go All the Way?" – 2:29
"Chunga's Revenge" – 6:15
"The Clap" – 1:23
"Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink" – 2:44
"Sharleena" – 4:04


Frank Zappa – guitar, harpsichord, percussions, drums, vocals, Condor
Max Bennett – bass
George Duke – organ, trombone, electric piano, sound effects, vocals
Aynsley Dunbar – drums, tambourine
John Guerin – drums (only on Twenty Small Cigars)
Don "Sugarcane" Harris – organ
Howard Kaylan – vocals
Mark Volman – vocals
Jeff Simmons – bass, vocals
Ian Underwood – organ, guitar, piano, rhythm guitar, electric piano, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, pipe organ

1 comment:

Strange Jason said...

Nice clue-in on the Lester Bangs review (Bangs, to me, is really hit or miss.)

It's strange to me to see how criticism dismisses both 'Weasels' and 'Chunga,' considering they're important in determining the shift away from the original Mothers into a different period of FZ's life.

Good work. Keep it up.