Sunday, April 26, 2009

Imaginary Diseases

Why the Zappa Family Trust hasn’t been more energetic in re-mastering and releasing the plethora of live material it undoubtedly has is beyond me. There have been a few posthumous releases, but not nearly as many, in my opinion, that could be potentially released. One that allegedly was pressed into a limited CD release (I question the “limited” designation because it can be readily ordered from online retailers) is “Imaginary Diseases,” a musical quilt of outstanding live performances that included some of the musicians from a “big band” Zappa had assembled, composed of players primarily associated with the “Grand Wazoo” through “Apostrophe(‘)” era. If you don’t have this one in your Zappa collection, you’re really missing out.

Some interesting background on this recording in light of the fact it was dubbed the Petit Wazoo tour, a 10-piece band that Zappa toured with that was a smaller version of the 20-piece Grand Wazoo band that had also briefly toured.

That era of recordings and the sound it produced is primarily exemplified by the albums “Waka/Jawaka” and “The Grand Wazoo.” However, the Petit Wazoo tour really only had a few of the musicians from either album. Slide guitarist Tony Duran shows up in the credits on “Waka/Jawaka,” “The Grand Wazoo,” and “Apostrophe(‘),” but not “Over-nite Sensation.” Jim Gordon (more on him in a moment) shows up only on “Apostrophe(‘)”, while horn player Malcolm McNabb appears on “The Grand Wazoo.” Bruce Fowler’s trombone debuts on “Over-nite Sensation,” and appears as well on “Apostrophe(‘).” Many of the other musicians that appeared on these recordings, particularly the jazz-fusion albums, don’t show up at all on “Imaginary Diseases.”

What did show up consistently is the sound that had its genesis on “Waka/Jawaka,” and which fully flowered on “The Grand Wazoo.” The latter album was released at the time “Imaginary Diseases” was recorded. This sound had in many ways influenced almost every composition Zappa did from then on.

The recording opens with the curious “Oddients,” a bit of avant-garde inviting Zappa’s signature audience participation. But the curiosity quickly vanishes with “Rollo,” an instrumental that also appears on some bootlegs with vocals.

“Been to Kansas City in A Minor,” is classic 12-bar blues with some ripping great guitar work by Zappa. This is also when Jim Gordon’s drumming becomes very noticeable. His beat keeping is outstanding, sounding very basic and yet filled with a soaring personality that gives his drumming a character I have heard very few times from others. Why then, with such skill, does Gordon not play on more recordings with Zappa? His background as a session drummer is vast, having played with Delaney & Bonnie, which then led to a gig on Eric Clapton’s first solo album. He’s banged skins with Traffic, Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy, Joan Baez, George Harrison … the list goes on and on.

But alas, Jim Gordon had a dark side that included battles with mental illness, some think schizophrenia, that eventually rendered him incapable of sticking in the music business and which led to him murdering his mother in 1983. Gordon already had reportedly established a somewhat erratic pattern within the music business, and with Zappa’s low tolerance for musicians who require too much management, Zappa probably saw a glimpse of Gordon’s demons and likely decided he didn’t want anything to do with them.

While the next track’s title somewhat resembles the song from “Apostrophe(‘),” the song “Farther O’Blivion” has very little to do with the suite that ends with “Father O’Blivion.” But this little gem, which Zappa announces at its start has a tango in the middle of it, is an excellent jazz smoothie that features, of all things, a tuba solo! And an outstanding one at that. This song also contain musical themes and set pieces that Zappa later incorporated into future items, such as “Gregerry Peccary.” Gary Barone’s trumpet work during the tango section is excellent. The frenzied horn section as well during the latter part of the second third of the song is again excellently accentuated by Gordon’s flawless drumming. Gordon’s drum solo is equal parts fascinating and thrilling; it’s almost as though he is telling Ginger Baker, through his drumming, to take a break. You can hear people in the background cheering him on, as he is seemingly possessed – yet he doesn’t forget himself. He finishes right on cue for the rest of the band to come in and complete the song.

Things return to a meatier audio treat with “D.C. Boogie,” which starts out in a very soporific (and by that I mean morphine-like rather than sleep inducing) bluesy style that reminds me of something that The Velvet Underground wished it could have done, or something that Can would likely have done, except that Can would recognize Zappa’s genius and brilliant playing and just sit back and enjoy the damn thing. This groove is good, and it contains some guitar work by Zappa that truly is something different. He ventures into a musical and tonal realm in this song that I, frankly, haven’t heard out of him that often. The Muse captured Frank that night, and thankfully wouldn’t let go for 13 minutes. Again, Gordon’s drumming is beautifully subdued, yet right on target. The song is called a boogie largely because of its second half, when Frank calls upon the crowd to offer its input as to how the song ought to end. The crowd’s choice was a boogie, although one has to wonder if Frank had already had his mind made up. But when the song resumes after this brief respite, a freaking awesome boogie it is. And again, I cannot comment enough about Gordon’s drumming here, because it sounds like two drummers, in the style, for example, of The Grateful Dead. The final guitar solo in this would make Duane Allman weep.

The title track is full-blown Wazoo-ness. And, I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, but when Zappa takes off in his searing guitar solo, Gordon is right there keeping tempo perfectly. The guitar solo is very “Apostrophe(‘)” as well. While Zappa supposedly never played this jam live that he recorded with Jack Bruce, this track comes closest to what I think it might have sounded like. And incidentally, Gordon was on “Apostrophe(‘),” so he would have been keenly familiar with Zappa’s style on that song.

The CD closes with “Montreal”, which probably has my favorite guitar solo on the entire album. My favorite, again, because of Gordon’s drumming. It’s almost like Zappa and Gordon are sharing musical brains. It’s a very basic rhythm, but soooo effectively delivered you can hear the crowd getting into the jam. I really think that Zappa and Gordon connected musically on this tour in a way Zappa hasn’t been able to do with a drummer very often. He mentions in his autobiography that it was difficult to find a drummer that would keep up with what he was doing on the guitar. But somehow, I feel that Gordon does more than keep up with Zappa on this set. Listen closely. I think Gordon anticipates Zappa.

I rate this recording with five out of five stars. Leave your rating below.

Recorded at various live gigs Oct. 27, 1972 to Dec. 15, 1972; Released Jan. 13, 2006 on Zappa Records (limited release).

All tracks by Frank Zappa.

"Oddients" – 1:13
"Rollo" – 3:21
"Been to Kansas City in A Minor" – 10:15
"Farther O'Blivion" – 16:02
"D.C. Boogie" – 13:27
"Imaginary Diseases" – 9:45
"Montreal" – 9:11


Frank Zappa – Conductor, Guitar, Vocals
Malcolm McNabb – Trumpet
Gary Barone – Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Tom Malone – Tuba, Saxes, Piccolo Trumpet, Trumpet
Earl Dumler – Woodwinds
Glenn Ferris – Trombone
Bruce Fowler – Trombone
Tony Duran – Slide Guitar
Dave Parlato – Bass
Jim Gordon – Drums
Composed/Produced/Performed/Edited/Mixed/Tweaked by Frank Zappa

Vaultmeistered by Joe Travers/Mastered by Doug Sax & Robert

Hadley/Liner notes by Steve Vai.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bongo Fury

“Bong Fury” was a decent live recording representing some shows Zappa did while paired up with Captain Beefheart. But like some of Zappa’s other projects, was spoiled by Frank’s impulsive need to re-mix material in the studio, even adding tracks that were entirely studio produced at the expense of removing live tracks.

Zappa’s relationship with Beefheart was never an easy one. He spends considerable time in his autobiography discussing his encounters with the avant-garde musician nee Don Van Vliet. That relationship went back to the days not only prior to Beefheart’s Magic Band and before the Mothers as well, but back to the two men’s school days. It’s worth mentioning what went on during the production of “Trout Mask Replica,” as Zappa’s description of this project provides an excellent vignette on Van Vliet’s manic persona.

Recorded between November 1968 and April 1969, the production of “Trout Mask Replica” presented some interesting challenges, Zappa writes in his autobiography. For example, Zappa got the idea of recording the tracks at the house where the band lived, placing the various instruments in different rooms to take advantage of the unique acoustics offered in each room. But Beefheart apparently accused Zappa of trying to produce the album “on the cheap,” and demanded that they finish the project in a real studio.

Now, if you’re familiar at all with Beefheart’s voice, you know he sounds like a crazed Howlin’ Wolf amped up on handfuls of amphetamines and on the verge of his vocal cords exploding.

“Ordinarily a singer goes in the studio, puts earphones on, listens to the track, tries to sing in time with it and away you go,” Zappa writes in his autobiography. “Don couldn’t tolerate the earphones. He wanted to stand in the studio and sing as loud as he could – singing along with the audio leakage coming through the three panes of glass which comprised the control-room window. The chances of him staying in sync were nil – but that’s the way the vocals were done.”

Van Vliet and the Magic Band loved the final product, and it became the group’s quintessential recording. The album was released in June 1969, and later in the year, Zappa accompanied Van Vliet and his group to Europe as their road manager for the Amougies festival. “Trout Mask Replica” at the time and to this day remains highly regarded as a masterpiece of avant-garde and blues despite its at times atonal and rhythmically difficult delivery. Matt Groening’s comments about the album demonstrate that it was not an easy one to grasp for many listeners. I also admit that while I did not hate the album on its first listen, it kind of bugged me. Nonetheless, it really is a brilliant recording because of both Van Vliet’s incredible lunatic genius and Zappa’s outstanding recording and mixing.

Despite that, and despite the continued influence the album has had on the pop music world, Beefheart always remained on the far extreme of the business. He recorded many other albums, some of which came close to the brilliance of “Trout Mask Replica,” but as Zappa described it, Van Vliet was in continual contractual bondage with record companies and couldn’t make a dime. Zappa re-connected with Van Vliet in mid-1970s for the “Bongo Fury” tour, at a time when Van Vliet, as Zappa described it, was “just about destitute.” (A note here: Zappa states in his autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book,” that Van Vliet joined him for the Bongo Fury tour in 1976. Yet the album “Bongo Fury” was released in late 1975, having been recorded earlier that same year. This curious error should be evidence to anyone who wants to develop any expertise on any subject that even the subjects of such investigation occasionally have mistaken memories and sometimes muff the facts.)

“Life on the road with Captain Beefheart was definitely not easy,” Zappa relates in his autobiography. “He carried the bulk of his worldly possessions around in a shopping bag. It held his art and poetry books and a soprano sax. He used to forget it in different places – just walk away and leave it, driving the road manager crazy. Onstage, no matter how loud the monitor system was, he complained that he couldn’t hear his voice. (I think that was because he sings so hard he tenses up the muscles in his neck, causing his ears to implode.)”

Which brings us to the opening track of “Bongo Fury.” This live performance from the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, launches with the track “Debra Kadabra,” complete with Van Vliet’s raucous vocals and guttural beat poetry style delivery. Things get a bit more melodic with the next track, “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy,” a song that shows up frequently in Zappa’s live shows. Great guitar solo here; pure jam. Beefheart returns with a spoken-word piece, “Sam with the Showing Scalp Flat Top,” that has an intriguing story line that is made all the more interesting by Van Vliet’s alliterative delivery. This is followed by Beefheart’s vocals on the country-esque ditty “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead.” The bluesy “200 Years Old” is an added studio track that on first listen might sound like it’s still part of the live show.

Good stuff so far, but it all gets spoiled by the frustrating fade out at the end. I mean, why? That’s followed by another studio track, “Cucamonga” that really sounds out of place. It just doesn’t fit in with the mood that was established by the prior tracks. Placed in different context (like maybe on “Zoot Allures”), “Cucamonga” might have sounded much better, but stuck on “Bongo Fury,” it sounds like crap.

Eliminate that song, extend the harmonica and guitar at the end of “200 Years Old,” and the rest of the album would seamlessly return with “Advance Romance.” I would even accept wholeheartedly the fact that “200 Years Old” is a studio intrusion and was not part of the show. You got to love Denny Walley’s slide guitar on “Advance Romance,” it is sweet stuff. And Zappa’s guitar work on this track is brilliant as well, as usual. The spoken-word “Man with the Woman Head,” reminds me of a smoky cafĂ© straight out of the 1950s Beat scene.

But what really makes this album memorable is “Muffin Man.” It represents one of Zappa’s most recognizable melodies.

Despite the other gems on this recording, I’m only rating this album as OK, largely because of the two studio tracks. Those items, in my view, should have been left off to allow more room for other songs out of the Bongo Fury tour. Interestingly, those two studio tracks apparently were never performed live.

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

Released Oct. 2, 1975, DiscReet Records.

Track listing:

Side one
"Debra Kadabra" (live) – 3:54
"Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy" (live) – 5:59
"Sam With the Showing Scalp Flat Top" (live) – 2:51
"Poofter's Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead" (live) – 3:03
"200 Years Old" – 4:32

Side two
"Cucamonga" – 2:24
"Advance Romance" (live) – 11:17
"Man With the Woman Head" (live) – 1:28
"Muffin Man" (live) – 5:34


Terry Bozzio – drums
Michael Braunstein – engineer
Napoleon Murphy Brock – saxophone, vocals
Captain Beefheart – vocals, harmonica
George Duke – keyboards, vocals
Bruce Fowler – trombone, dancer
Tom Fowler – bass, dancer
Frank Hubach – engineer
Kelly Kotera – engineer
Kerry McNabb – engineer
Davey Moire – engineer
Cal Schenkel – design
Bob Stone – engineer
Mike Stone – engineer
Chester Thompson – drums
Denny Walley – vocals, slide guitar
John Williams – photography, cover photo
Frank Zappa – vocals, guitar

About bootlegs

From time to time in this blog I will be reviewing bootlegs. Initially, I wanted to stick with Zappa’s “official” catalog, but as devoted a fan as I am, I realized that I couldn’t ignore these “illegitimate” recordings. However, unlike other bloggers, I do not provide any direct download links to any of his recordings, bootlegs or not. Some of the links I do include provide access to downloads, but that is the decision of that Web site. If someone really wants a bootleg, they’re not hard to find.

Obviously, not everyone is interested in obtaining bootleg recordings. I’m a fan of a lot of musical artists, but I’m not terribly interested in getting bootleg recordings of every artist I like. Bootlegs, by virtue of the fact that they are often recorded with substandard equipment, often have terrible sound quality. Why would I want to listen to a shitty recording of the Grateful Dead, for example, even though that band had no qualms with audience members making their own bootlegs? (It’s worth pointing out here that the Grateful Dead’s benign attitude toward audience bootlegging played an integral role in the band’s marketing strategy, undoubtedly contributing to the fact that the Dead’s franchise was among the most profitable in rock-and-roll)

But Zappa is a different situation for me. And it’s not just the fact that with all the touring he had done, and the wide variety of musicians he performed with, there was a subsequent enormous variety in the performances of his music. Other rock musicians often shared the stage with other stars. In Tucson, Ariz., (in 1979 I think) I saw the Rolling Stones share the stage with Linda Ronstadt and Etta James. Zappa certainly shared the stage with others in legitimately released recordings, as he did with Captain Beefheart in “Bongo Fury,” or John Lennon and Yoko Ono on “Playground Psychotics.” And he also shared the stage in many bootleg recordings, such as that from the Amougies festival when he played with Pink Floyd and others, or as he did during a bootleg recording from one of the many Halloween shows in New York City, like the 1978 show at The Palladium when Lakshminarayana Shankar played some blistering violin with Zappa.

That performance with Shankar is reason enough for me to want to collect Zappa bootlegs, but it’s not my primary reason. The real reason is regardless of how shitty a bootleg recording may be, the opportunity to listen to as many of Zappa’s live guitar solos is thrilling. Hearing some of these solos, their variety of technique and pacing, more than makes up for the fact the recording was dirty, substandard or marred by crowd noise. For example, as I write this, I am listening to a bootleg recording of Captain Beefheart from Amougies. It’s a piece of crap recording, the sound is awful, and yet at the same time, it’s really quite thrilling for me to be listening to this little gem. Beefheart’s harmonica playing is just plain sizzling; you can feel its scintillating energy despite the lousy recording. It’s a snapshot from the past, albeit a very poor snapshot, that elicits a special emotional response in much the same way a prized photo from a memorable event or trip can instantly recall a past experience.

Clearly, the Zappa Family Trust saw an opportunity when it released “legitimate” bootlegs through the Beat the Boots series. This was truly an ironic move; releasing authorized bootlegs for sale. After all, is it still a bootleg if it’s legitimately released by the artist or his or her representatives for sale? And frankly, releasing the Beat the Boots series as is was quite lazy, in my opinion. No effort, as far as I can tell, was made to clean up and remaster the recordings. It seems that all the ZFT managed to do was acquire the original boots and press them into compact discs to sell for profit.

What harm do bootlegs pose to musicians? On the opening track of “As An Am” from Beat the Boots I, Zappa offers his thoughts about bootlegs: “As far as my material goes, it’s (bootlegging) a very big business. I don’t think it’s the work of a couple of individual guys who went out to make a record for fun. It’s one or two people who are releasing vast quantities of material…They’ve already got the stuff recorded live in concert before I can even release it on a record and that makes me mad.”

In this quote, Zappa is referring to the business of bootlegs, and that is a legitimate concern for any artist. Bootleggers who make unauthorized live recordings and then sell those recordings are stealing from the performer. And bootleggers who make pirated versions of authorized recordings to sell are also stealing from the artist. But what of the bootleg recording of a live show made by an audience member and which is made available for free? Where’s the harm there? If no official release of the material was made, the potential royalties and sales from the recording are not lost. And no one is passing off the material as their own, so how is any copyright violated?

I am continuing to look for more quotes by Zappa that have him commenting on bootlegs and what harm they present, but all I am presently aware of is the quote above from “As An Am.” And if that is the only representation on record of his opinion regarding bootlegs of his shows, then it is clear his primary concern was loss of income. If that is the case, free distribution of bootleg recordings from shows that Zappa showed no inclination of officially releasing should present no problem because such recordings lack any potential for leading to a loss of income. If it’s distributed for free, where’s the harm other than to someone’s ego?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Roxy & Elsewhere

Roxy & Elsewhere is one of Zappa’s recordings that consistently shows up at or near the top of the ubiquitous lists of favorite albums within his catalog. It’s not surprising, as this live recording qualifies as being labeled with the term “fun,” along with many other superlatives. Also not surprising, is how Rolling Stone panned the album, essentially saying it was a recording for fans only.

Zappa was always known for mixing studio and live material together, but he didn’t often mix bands. When a live recording was released, the band lineup was, with very few exceptions, consistent for the entire recording, even if the material came from multiple nights or even multiple locations during the same tour. But Roxy not only includes material from different nights, but from different tours that had different band members: hence the “Roxy” tour and the “Elsewhere” tour.

There’s not a lot of difference in the two lineups. For example, Ruth Underwood is in the Roxy band, but absent from Elsewhere. While Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson command the drums for Roxy, Thompson is banging the skins solo for Elsewhere. Don Preston shows up for Elsewhere, but the Roxy band performs sans Preston. And as far as what material on the release comes from where, it’s not an equitable division, as all but three tracks come from the Roxy show. Interestingly, those three tracks, “Dummy Up,” “Son of Orange County,” and “More Trouble Everyday,” that came from the other show are the only tracks that weren’t overdubbed during post production.

When compared against Zappa’s “live” recordings up until the Roxy release (I have to put quotations around the descriptor “live” because almost every studio album included live material), Roxy is by far the best for so many reasons. But some key elements that make Roxy superior to anything live Zappa had previously released are the sound and recording quality. When you combine that with the brilliantly performed material, some of Zappa’s most complex, the result is a truly outstanding album.

Yes, Zappa had recorded live some very complex material in the past. But there’s no doubt that with the quality of Roxy’s recording, it all just sounds so much better than any of the Flo and Eddie recordings like “Fillmore East,” or “Just Another Band from L.A.”, or even the live tracks within such classics as “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” or “Weasels.”

I will refer you to the excellent exposition explaining the album’s material, found in the posting for the album at Kill Ugly Radio. In reading this, you will note the thematic focus on Roxy is predominantly about drug use. Zappa always made fun of stoners, but starting with Roxy, his material takes on this theme with increasing frequency and with increasing heat. Not only did drug use distort a user’s perception of reality, it also turned the user, in Zappa’s mind, into a feeble-minded automaton that allowed corrupt officials to hijack the country’s constitutional values to stuff their pockets. Drug use also caused problems with his bands, rendering musicians incapable of playing his music the way he wanted it to be played. And there were also the rapacious record executives who did what they could to rip off musicians so they could feed their own cocaine habits (later expounded upon with “Cocaine Decisions”).

And if you’re interested in some excellent musical analysis of Roxy, then you ought to check out this site, which I’ve linked to in previous posts on occasion as well.

As accomplished as this band lineup was for Roxy, you should hear them on Vol. 2 of “You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore,” which presents a full concert of the Roxy group, but after they’ve been playing together long enough that they blister through some of the songs at an even faster pace than they did on the Roxy release.

I rate this 4.5 out of 5 stars. Add your own rating below.

Released: Sept. 10, 1974, DiscReet Records

Track listing:

Side One

Preamble (1:24)
Penguin In Bondage (5:24)
Pygmy Twylyte (3:22)
Dummy Up (5:03)

Side Two

Preamble (0:54)
Village Of The Sun (3:24)
Echidna’s Arf (Of You) (3:54)
Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing? (9:47)

Side Three

Preamble (2:10)
Cheepnis (4:22)
Son Of Orange County (5:55)
More Trouble Every Day (6:08)

Side Four

Preamble (1:25)
Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen’s Church) (15:23)

Penguin In Bondage (6:48)
Pygmy Twylyte (2:13)
Dummy Up (6:03)
Village Of The Sun (4:17)
Echidna’s Arf (Of You) (3:53)
Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing? (9:41)
Cheepnis (6:31)
Son Of Orange County (5:54)
More Trouble Every Day (6:01)
Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen’s Church) (16:41)


The Roxy Band:

Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals)
Napoleon Murphy Brock (tenor sax, flute, vocals)
George Duke (keyboards, vocals)
Bruce Fowler (trombone, "dancing!")
Tom Fowler (bass)
Ralph Humphrey (drums)
Jeff Simmons ("makes a guest appearance on stage")
Chester Thompson (drums)
Ruth Underwood (percussion)

The Elsewhere Band:

Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals)
Napoleon Murphy Brock (tenor sax, flute, vocals)
George Duke (keyboards, vocals)
Bruce Fowler (trombone, "dancing!")
Tom Fowler (bass)
Walt Fowler (trumpet)
Don Preston (synthesizer)
Jeff Simmons (rhythm guitar, vocals)
Chester Thompson (drums)