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.


Weisser Elefant - Edda Sörensen said...

Oh there are much more then only 19 Minutes Video about the Amougies Festival: There exists a 4 hour film, made by the best cameramens of France in two parts of 2 hours each. It was released in early 1970, but disapeared quickly due to copyright-problems. A shame, cause that is an incredible film, I was at the festival and the premiere as well, yes, its a shame, because it is a real document of the time... I just entered a post in my blog about.

Richard Harrold said...

Thanks for that information about the film!

Jean-François Renard said...

I doubt Frank didn't remember. He just didn't want to talk about it. As for the festival, I knew people who had gone there and Captain Beefheart impressed them. Zappa played well with everybody but particularly well with Don and Bill Harkleroad. I also heard a tape of that. Bill and Don clearly thought it was pretty good, too. Pink Floyd wasn't as good as Captain Beefheart. It's that simple, and this was the Trout Mask Beeffheart, the best of all time. And yes, there is a film out there somewhere... un film français ! People who speak English have the misfortune to understand Zappa's words post 1969... dommage pour eux !