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 café 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


Anonymous said...

Good site, I'm am now in the process of getting every Zappa release I can as I've been listening to about 13 good ones for the past 3 years (off of hearing Apostrophe and Overnite relentlessly since I was 13) and I need a change up as I'm learning music theory and think Zappa is about as good as it gets. My other favorite group of all time is Immolation, have a look at them. I always wondered what Zappa would have thought of the more refined "unshitty" side of death metal had he been around long enough to be exposed to it. There's so much bad in the genre, by the thousands, that it buries the 2 or 3 truly great bands but they're there. I think Beefheart's Safe As Milk is his best! Check it out, its really great from start to finish. Trout Mask and the follow up Lick My Decals Off Baby are great but I hardly listen to them. I think the more forward follow ups Clear Spot and Spotlight Kid are a bit better. Good blog I will continue reading.

Anonymous said...

It's not quite true that the studio tracks were never performed live. Cucamonga was played instrumentally as part of the Farther (or Further) O-Blivion suite in 1972-3. And 200 Years Old was inserted into improvisations at least once on the Bongo Fury tour.
V. funny to see the Spanish translation of "poofter's froth, wyoming, plans ahead" - do they not know it's a paody of an American small-town name?