Sunday, February 22, 2009

Amougies, Belgium, 1969

After the success and notoriety of Woodstock spread around the world, someone got the idea of doing something similar in Europe. It became known as the Actuel Festival. Some of you may be wondering what this might have to do with Frank Zappa, while others are thinking, “Ah yes, Actuel, I remember it well.” Actually, remembering it well seems to be a problem for many, even for those who were there, like Frank Zappa. Ironically, Zappa doesn’t talk about the festival in Amougies, Belgium, in his autobiography, and when he did talk about it with journalists, his recollections were not just unfavorable, but potentially erroneous as well. Nonetheless, the festival in Amougies was a significant event in Zappa’s life for a number of reasons, and while this blog has been devoted to official recordings in his catalogue, this event gets an entry because of a particularly fascinating bootleg to come out of it.

That bootleg is a jam with Pink Floyd. It has cropped up on the Internet primarily under two titles: “Pink Floyd Meets Frank Zappa,” which is the more prevalent version, and “Inter-Zappa Overdrive.” It was recorded by a listener in the crowd at the Actuel Festival, Oct. 24-28, 1969. Originally, the promoters wanted to host this concert festival in Paris, but that wasn’t going to happen for a number of reasons, so they settled on a turnip field just the other side of the border in Amougies, Belgium. I managed to track down a copy of the latter to listen to. The track listings for this bootleg are as follows:

1. Aynsley Dunbar's Retaliation: unknown title (7:08) [October 24] Victor Brox (vocals, harmonica); John Moorshead (guitar); Alex (Erroneous) Dmochowski (bass); Aynsley Dunbar (drums)
2. Pink Floyd: Interstellar Overdrive (20:25) [October 25] David Gilmour (guitar); Richard Wright (organ); Roger Waters (bass); Nick Mason (drums)
3. Caravan: If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You (7:55) [October 26] Pye Hastings (guitar & vocals); David Sinclair (keyboards); Richard Sinclair (bass & vocals); Richard Coughlan (drums)
4. Blossom Toes: unknown title (26:10) [October 26] Brian Godding (guitar, vocals & keyboards); Jim Cregan (guitar & vocals); Brian Belshaw (bass & vocals); Kevin Westlake (drums)
5. Sam Apple Pie: unknown title (6:04) [October 27] Sam Sampson (vocals & harmonica); Danny Barnes (lead guitar); Andy Johnson (slide guitar); Bob Renny (bass & vocals); Lee Baxter Hayes Jr (drums)

As is noteworthy by the personnel identified in the first track, this is where and when Zappa met Aynsley Dunbar. After this encounter, Dunbar joined Zappa to play drums with Zappa from 1970-74, including those albums associated with Flo and Eddy. But also worthy of note is the fact that playing bass with Dunbar at the time was Erroneous, who later appeared with Dunbar on three Zappa albums as well.

What became the most notorious of the jams was the one with Pink Floyd, so significant an event that both bootlegs make a reference to the connection by either referring directly to Pink Floyd or to the song “Interstellar Jam.” With the other subsequent jams, in which Zappa’s guitar playing, while notable, is subordinate to the guitarists of the bands he accompanies, Zappa’s playing with Pink Floyd is prominently featured in “Interstellar Overdrive.” You can hear David Gilmour’s guitar, but Zappa’s playing is distinctive and comes out front and center. The entire composition sounds like Tim Burton and David Lynch, after dropping huge doses of LSD, collaborated for a new soundtrack and sound effects for the 1963 movie, “The Haunting.”

About two minutes into the song, Zappa starts playing guitar (a borrowed one) with his very distinct, staccato style that includes a couple licks that sound like something from “Hot Rats." I actually think that Zappa’s playing here is what motivates the band to slip into a bit of avant-garde, atonal playing just before returning to Richard Wright on the organ. Then follows some unmistakably Zappa guitar playing before the song concludes.

How did all this happen? Zappa originally attended the festival as a road manager for Captain Beefheart, something that showed up as a brief mention in a Rolling Stone article Oct. 18 that year. You can see Zappa in this YouTube video of Beefheart performing.

It's interesting to see how Beefheart and his band reacted to the festival, as revealed in a post at Floppy Boot Stomp. Guitar player Bill Harkleroad has this to say about the event:

"All I can remember is playing in front of thousands of people huddled together in sleeping bags at three in the morning in this huge circus tent. It's 27 degrees out, and there's frost on my strings! It was Don, Victor, Mark, me and Jeff Burchell on drums. Frank was sitting in with us, because he was supposed to be the festival MC - a difficult job when he spoke no French and most of the audience spoke no English. Having Frank play with us made me a little more nervous than normal. I think we played 5 tunes - the five tunes Jeff knew and that was it. Pretty weird flying us all the way over there and playing one gig!"

Compare that with Van Vliet's comments about the show:

"We had a good time. I don't know, what they were doing; they were throwing what looked like birds nests at us, and then one fellow out of the audience - between one of the compositions - said my name was Captain Bullshit, and I said: "Well, that's all right baby, you're sitting in it." You know what I mean? I don't know if he was an American; I'm not sure, because he was using early Gary Cooper movie talk. Like "yep", things like that. I think they did well in five days and moving it from France to Belgium. But it was awfully cold... the people in the audience, I don't know how they did it. I think it was probably pretty nice for them to leave their bodies... but the amplifiers were blown out by the time we got to them, and we need clarity for that, and there wasn't any. I don't know. I hope they enjoyed it. I enjoyed it."

While it seems that this festival carried some significance, not much has turned up in legitimate recordings since, largely because the promoters were disorganized and no one seemed to have secured the proper copyrights necessary to release any recordings from the performances. Pink Floyd, in particular, objected to anything being released. Even a video from the festival managed only brief television play in France before being yanked from the airwaves. This 19-minute documentary on the festival shows a date of Nov. 17, 1969, which is most likely the date the documentary was aired. Despite its limited play, the documentary has an entry on the Internet Movie Database.

Another reason there were no LP releases from the festival may include Zappa’s unkind memory of the event, as revealed in this 1973 interview at the Web site Kill Ugly Radio. Zappa was asked to be a master of ceremonies for the festival, but that didn’t work out so well because he couldn’t speak French and most of the audience couldn’t understand English. So instead, he was cajoled into playing with some of the bands. This was problematic as well because he had traveled there as Captain Beefheart’s manager and had none of his guitars.

Zappa makes no mention of the festival in his autobiography, and there’s scant information out there about the event. This Web site provides some information, identifying Zappa as the “master of ceremonies,” as well as describing the bootleg recording that was titled “Inter-Zappa Overdrive.” Zappa also mentions in the previously cited interview posted on Kill Ugly Radio that he was there as a sort of MC for the event. This bootleg was mostly intended to be a recording of Beefheart’s performance at the festival, with side 1 devoted to Zappa and Pink Floyd, and side 2 covering the Beefheart songs “My Human Gets Me Blues,” “When Big Joan Sets Up,” and “Who Will be the Next?” Zappa apparently joins Beefheart on the last number to jam and help out a bit.

Interestingly, during a 1989 interview, Zappa denies (although hesitantly) that he jammed with Pink Floyd, a denial that the interviewer appears to confirm. He does provide a lot of other information about the festival, however, during this portion of what was a more-than four-hour interview, which was later published in the June 1990 edition of Society Pages. This interview was transcribed and reprinted on the Wiki Jawaka, as well as other information about the festival, including an itinerary.

Where are the master tapes from this festival? No one seems to know. And if they did turn up, it is dubious as to whether anyone would have legitimate rights to re-master and release them. Which means for the time being, we are stuck with these interesting, but dirty, recordings.

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

A new link was added to this post on April 4, 2009. New content was added May 10, 2009.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Uncle Meat

Whenever I think of the double-album recording “Uncle Meat,” two things immediately come to mind: the extraordinary composition “King Kong,” and the thought, “What is this monster movie garbage?”

I am perplexed by some of the praise that is heaped upon this album, but I suspect that is the result of my limited background in some of the technically arcane aspects of music composition. For example, Nick Paluzzi writing for Ground and Sky calls “Uncle Meat” a “Rosetta Stone in experimental progressive rock.” Bob Eichler, also writing for Ground and Sky, calls the recording “a cornerstone of the Zappa catalog,” an interesting metaphor because it implies that without “Uncle Meat,” Zappa’s catalog would collapse without having the benefit of the musical techniques and thematic concepts that were developed during the album’s recording. The moniker “Rosetta Stone” is also interesting because it, too, heaps a ton of responsibility on “Uncle Meat,” suggesting that one cannot properly decipher, understand or interpret any other experimental progressive rock by any other artist without first mastering an understanding of “Uncle Meat.”

That just sounds like an awful lot of misplaced hyperbole to me. True, “Uncle Meat” is a significant album in Zappa’s repertoire; there are amazing compositions in this recording, finely polished ones. However, the album could have been even better had Zappa shown more discretion over what was to be released. The lengthy dialogue from the ill-fated movie of the same name is a distraction and detracts from the overall piece. The conversations revealed in the dialogue are lame and repetitive, even more so than what Zappa admitted to in his autobiography. The conversations in “Lumpy Gravy” fit well into the overall composition of that album, but the dialogue from “Uncle Meat” sounds beyond trivial and mundane.

The real gem of “Uncle Meat” is “King Kong” and all its variations. The musical theme of this composition is one of Zappa’s most recognizable melodies. And it must have been one of his and the band’s favorites, as it is among the most ubiquitous songs in his live sets. That is probably attributed to what Francois Couture describes as the piece’s flexibility, allowing a wide range of interpretations in playing what was essentially a very simple musical theme. The band Babe Ruth did a very interesting interpretation of the song on its "First Base/Amarcabellero" LP in 1973. It's worth checking out.

Another song that got frequent live play was “Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague,” which was often credited with the shorter title of “Dog Breath,” such as on the live album “Just Another Band From L.A.” There’s a bit of personal and regional history in this song in its reference to the lyric, “Going to El Monte Legion Stadium.” The photograph of Legion Stadium I provide is of dubious origin. I initially found it with one individual taking credit for snapping the image. However, I found other strikingly similar images on other Web sites without any credit or attribution as to the photographer or date the photo was taken. Having said that, Legion Stadium was quite the famous venue, not only playing host to boxing events, but to such bands as the Grateful Dead, who played a three-night gig there from Dec. 26-28 in 1970, to The Penguins, and even Zappa, who allegedly announces “Welcome to El Monte Legion Stadium” on the bootleg “Safe Muffinz.” I can’t verify that because I have not listened to this bootleg.

The structure was originally built for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles as a wrestling venue, and later it played host to dances and shows by Art Laboe, who may be credited with creating the hackneyed phrase “Be there or be square,” whenever he did a radio spot to promote one of his dances. It was demolished in 1974 and a post office erected in its place. Everything from concerts to roller derby went on in Legion Stadium as it became a well-known local entertainment venue.

By and large, the majority of compositions on “Uncle Meat” defy categorization. Some sites have labeled it as fusion jazz, or avant-garde. Certainly, there are moments of avant-garde, such as the frenetic squeaking of Ian Underwood’s saxophone, but the majority of music seems to be in another realm; not quite jazz, not quite pop, not quite orchestral, and not quite ethnic. There are a few that musically are identifiable by genre, such as “Electric Aunt Jemima,” or “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution,” which represent Zappa’s interpretations of doo-wop and fusion respectively.

And then there is what I call the utter waste of time, the pathetically mundane conversations that were taken from the aborted movie project, including all the idiotic references to “measuring it with a chicken.” It is so out of place that it almost renders the recording unlistenable. At least with the vinyl release, you could skip over this garbage and get right to side four and “King Kong.” But with the CD release, additional effort is necessary to skip over this content. Eliminate this from the recording, and I say it is worthy of four or five stars, but with this tripe included, I can only give it three stars. Interestingly enough, Zappa told Chris Welch for an Oct. 5, 1968, article in Melody Maker that “Uncle Meat” and “Cruising With Ruben and the Jets” were two of his most satisfying albums.

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

New content and a new link were added June 10, 2009.
Released: April 1969, Warner Reprise/Bizarre.

LP Release

Side One
Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme (1:54) - related to Uncle Meat
The Voice Of Cheese (0:27)
Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution (5:56)
Zolar Czakl (0:57)
Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague (5:51) - related to Dog Breath
The Legend Of The Golden Arches (1:24) - related to A Pound For A Brown On The Bus
Louie Louie (At the Royal Albert Hall in London) (2:28)
The Dog Breath Variations (1:36) - related to Dog Breath

Side Two
Sleeping In A Jar (0:49)
Our Bizarre Relationship (1:05)
The Uncle Meat Variations (4:40) - related to Uncle Meat
Electric Aunt Jemina (1:53)
Prelude To King Kong (3:24) - related to King Kong
God Bless America (Live At the Whisky A Go Go) (1:22)
A Pound For A Brown On The Bus (1:29)
Ian Underwood Whips It Out (Live On Stage In Copenhagen) (5:08)

Side Three
Mr. Green Genes (3:10)
We Can Shoot You (1:48)
"If We'd All Been Living In California..." (1:29)
The Air (2:57)
Project X (4:49)
Cruising For Burgers (2:19)

Side Four
King Kong Itself (As Played By The Mothers In A Studio) (0:53)
King Kong (It's Magnificence As Interpreted By Don DeWild) (1:15)
King Kong (As Motorhead Explains It) (1:44)
King Kong (The Gardner Varieties) (6:17)
King Kong (As Played By 3 Deranged Good Humor Trucks) (0:29)
King Kong (Live On A Flat Bed Diesel In The Middle Of A Race Track At A Miami Pop Festival...The Underwood amifications) (7:22)

CD release

Disc One
Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme (1:55) - related to Uncle Meat
The Voice Of Cheese (0:26)
Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution (6:00)
Zolar Czakl (0:55)
Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague (3:59) - related to Dog Breath
The Legend Of The Golden Arches (3:27) - related to A Pound For A Brown On The Bus
Louie Louie (At the Royal Albert Hall in London) (2:19)
The Dog Breath Variations (1:48) - related to Dog Breath
Sleeping In A Jar (0:51)
Our Bizarre Relationship (1:05)
The Uncle Meat Variations (4:46) - related to Uncle Meat
Electric Aunt Jemima (1:46)
Prelude To King Kong (3:38)
God Bless America (Live At The Whisky A Go Go) (1:11)
A Pound For A Brown On The Bus (1:29)
Ian Underwood Whips It Out (Live On Stage In Copenhagen) (5:05)
Mr. Green Genes (3:14) - Remix
We Can Shoot You (2:03)
"If We'd All Been Living In California..." (1:14)
The Air (2:57)
Project X (4:49)
Cruising For Burgers (2:18)

Disc Two
Uncle Meat Film Excerpt Part I (37:34) - Bonus Track
Tengo Na Minchia Tanta (3:46) - Bonus Track
Uncle Meat Film Excerpt Part II (3:51) - Bonus Track
King Kong Itself (0:51)
King Kong II (1:19)
King Kong III (1:45)
King Kong IV (6:18)
King Kong V (0:34)
King Kong VI (7:25)


The Mothers:
Frank Zappa (guitar, 'low grade' vocals, percussion)
Ray Collins ('swell' vocals)
Jimmy Carl Black (drums, 'droll humor', 'poverty')
Roy Estrada (electric bass, 'chesseburgers', 'Pachuco falsetto')
Don (Dom De Wild) Preston (electric piano, 'tarot cards', 'brown rice')
Billy (The Oozer) Mundi (drums 'on some pieces before he quit to join RHINOCEROS')
Bunk (Sweetpants) Gardner (piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, bassoon '(all of these electric and/or non-electric depending)')
Ian Underwood (electric organ, piano, harpsichord, celeste, flute, clarinet, alto sax, baritone sax, 'special assistance', 'copyist', 'industrial relations' & 'teen appeal')
Artie (With the Green Mustache) Tripp (drums, timpani, vibes, marimba, xylophone, wood blocks, bells, small chimes, 'cheerful outlook' & 'specific enquiries')
Euclid James (Motorhead/Motorishi) Sherwood ('pop star', 'frenetic' tenor sax 'stylings', tambourine, choreography, 'obstinance' & 'equipment setter-upper when he's not hustling local groupies')

Pamela Zarubica as Suzy Creamcheese, uncredited (vocals)
Ruth Komanoff (marimba and vibes with Artie 'on many of the tracks')
Nelcy Walker (soprano voice with Ray & Roy on Dog Breath & The Uncle Meat Variations)