Saturday, February 13, 2010

Jones Crusher!

The 1977 Halloween show produced a number of bootlegs, including this one, which erroneously states on the cover that it is from the 1977 show at the Felt Forum. The show was at the Palladium, as documented here and here; Zappa played a Halloween show at the Felt Forum in 1976, which I’ve already reviewed.

Much of this material has appeared on official releases, such as “Baby Snakes,” both on the CD release and the movie release. “Black page #2” and the title track, “Jones Crusher,” appear in both the movie and the CD release of “Baby Snakes,” while “San Ber’dino,” “City of Tiny Lites,” “Camarillo Brillo,” and “Black Napkins” were only on the movie release. “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin,” was released on YCDTOSA Vol. 6.

While most of this material was later officially released, it’s worth noting that with this boot, you’re getting the raw performance. The 1995 CD edition of “Baby Snakes” uses a new master made from the remixed version of the album release, for example.

This boot begins with an intro from “Flakes,” followed by Zappa introducing the band. They launch into “San Ber’dino,” which on this recording sounds a bit thin and pinched, but the playing is really fabulous. The tempo is also much faster than the studio release on “One Size Fits All.” Adrian Belew’s guitar on this is stinging, as are Terry Bozzio’s vocals. Bozzio continues with vocals on “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin,” and he’s just as guttural and frenetic as he is on “Sheik Yerbouti.”

“City of Tiny Lites” has always been one of my favorites, and not just for the guitar solo this song is built around. But when Zappa and Belew start trading licks, it is positively scintillating. A minor disappointment, however, is this performance lacks the typical extended guitar solo normally associated with it.

We do get a solo out of Frank in the next track titled “The Squirm.” This also appears as “Bowling on Charen” from “Trance-Fusion.” Although from the same tour, the version released on “Trance-Fusion” was recorded Oct. 28, 1977. This solo begins similar to other Zappa solos found on his guitar solo albums, but his playing soon transitions into an ethereal quality that literally lifts the listener skyward. It’s even reminiscent of “Watermelon in Easter Hay” in some respects. There are also some musical themes that reach back to “Burnt Weeny Sandwich.” It’s really quite beautifully composed.

After that solo, the band drops into “Big Leg Emma,” or rather devolves into the song. While “Emma” can be a fun song, coming after “The Squirm,” it comes off as odd and jarring.

“Invocations” is an audience participation routine that serendipitously includes allusions to previous material with a couple of women who say their names are Janet the Planet and her friend, Donna Youwanna, who has a bottle of Yoohoo. (Interestingly, in this routine, the word “fuck” is bleeped out, as are other expletives). The routine is another one of Frank’s pointless attempts at mocking Warner Bros. It transitions into “Dance Contest,” which was a common routine in Zappa’s tours. It’s set against “The Black Page #2,” a rhythmically complex song that would be a challenge to any dancer. It must have been a joy to watch the contestants try to find a beat in that number.

The band gets to jamming with the next song, “Jones Crusher,” a song about a woman who has a love so strong that she crushes penises. After all, “she can push, she can shove, until it’s just a nub.”

It becomes obvious with the next song, “Camarillo Brillo,” that the song sequence on this boot bears little resemblance to the actual set list. At the show, the song was followed with “Muffin Man,” as it almost always was. Instead, it is followed with “Black Napkins,” which was, in fact, the last song of the show. But while the boot opens with “San Ber’dino,” that song was played just before “Black Napkins.” The intro at the start was actually followed by “Peaches En Regalia.”

Despite all that, the solo in “Black Napkins” on this boot is really amazing, one of the best solos for this song Zappa ever performed.

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


1. San Bernadino
2. Grow Me a Chin
3. Tiny Lights
4. The Squirm
5. Big Leg Emma
6. Invocations
7. Dance Contest
8. Black Page #2
9. Jones Crusher
10. Camarillo Brillo
11. Black Napkins


Frank Zappa: guitar, vocals
Adrian Belew: guitar, vocals
Roy Estrada: guest vocals
Patrick O’Hearn: bass
Terry Bozzio: drums, vocals
Ed Mann: percussion
Tommy Mars: keyboards, vocals
Peter Wolf: keyboards

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Baby Snakes

One of the fascinating things about Frank Zappa’s career is all the musicians he worked with and how many of them went on to form significant groups of their own. And with the album “Baby Snakes,” we have three musicians on the album that went on to form a major New Wave band in 1980, albeit a short-lived one.

Those three were Terry Bozzio, Warren Cuccurullo, and Patrick O’Hearn. The band they formed was Missing Persons, which presented an image that comingled punk, New Wave and glam. Their almost-eponymous album, “Spring Session M,” was an outstanding debut for a full-length album. I played the hell out of that album, as every song was fresh and exciting. But alas, they were to be a flash in the pan and by 1984 everyone was going their own way. Still, Bozzio, Cuccurullo and O’Hearn didn’t disappear from the music scene, as their talents carried them forward. Bozzio went on to play with Jeff Beck (was he there when I went to see the Beck/Stevie Ray Vaughn tour?), Cucurullo to join the 80s supergroup Duran Duran, and O’Hearn to continue recording instrumental New Age albums.

The fact that Missing Persons was such a short-lived effort causes me to wonder just how prescient Zappa was when he wrote “Tinseltown Rebellion.” I wonder how much of Missing Person’s sound was their own and how much was concocted by the record company. Bozzio was certainly around Zappa as he ridiculed hair bands, and there was always the song about Punky Meadows. And, ironically, just look at all that hair on those band members in Missing Persons! Zappa always had exceptional musicians playing with him, but for these three to flame out so quickly working together brings me pause.

Cuccurullo’s appearance on “Baby Snakes” is strictly related to the movie, as the opening dialogue on the CD includes him; he didn’t join Zappa’s band until 1978, and the songs in the movie soundtrack that were compiled for this CD come from the 1977 Halloween shows at the Palladium in New York City (coming soon). Interestingly, the bootleg “Jones Crusher” asserts itself to be the 1977 Halloween show at the Felt Forum (Zappa played there the year before).

The movie “Baby Snakes” represents well the dichotomy of reactions Zappa faced regarding his work, a split of opinion that was often clearly marked by the Atlantic Ocean. Recordings that only faired decently in the U.S., or even failed miserably, were frequently better received in Europe, and the movie “Baby Snakes” was no exception. Zappa couldn’t find a distributor for the film in the U.S., even after he had hacked its length from 166 minutes down to 90 minutes. He ended up distributing the film on his own. Barry Miles writes in “Zappa: A Biography” –

“It premiered on 21 December, 1979, at the Victoria Theater in New York to less than ecstatic reviews, probably because of the extended footage featuring an inflatable sex toy. Typical of this criticism was Tom Carson’s piece in Village Voice: ‘Once, Zappa built a satirist’s career on the idea that all of life was just like high school; now it turns out that all he ever wanted, apparently, was a high-school clique of his own – and on the evidence of Baby Snakes he’s found one.’ Zappa was unfazed by the criticism. Foreign critics were more sympathetic and in 1981 Baby Snakes won the Premier Grand Prix at the First International Music Festival in Paris.”

Perhaps what was most amazing about the film was a clay animation sequence by Bruce Bickford, an interesting character who, as described by Barry Miles, speaks like “the people under the piano on Lumpy Gravy.”

Zappa, as told to Barry Miles, describes Bickford: “He talks real slow – as he states in the film he has had some contact with chemical alteration of his consciousness and his speech pattern is probably related to the fact that he’s been chemically modified … For some of the more complex parts (of the film) in there he could shoot only four frames in a day. And remember 24 frames go by in a second. If it takes him one day to shoot four frames of something complicated, it’ll take him six days to shoot one second of complicated stuff. So, what you see in the film is a product of about three years’ work to give you a half hour of animation. But not all the stuff he does is complicated.” Once sequence in the animation, Zappa notes, was shot in one evening.

Cuccurullo’s intro rap at the start of the CD introduces the sole studio track on this “live” recording, the title song, which is from “Sheik Yerbouti.” It’s a fun song to get things going, but the real gems are the concert items, which start with “Titties & Beer.” This is not the same version as what appears on “Zappa in New York,” as those songs were recorded between Christmas and New Year in 1977.

This is followed by “The Black Page #2,” which is really very cool and well played. Ed Mann is outstanding on this. This transitions right into “Jones Crusher,” a rocking song that has one of the oddest lyrics in the Zappa catalogue: “The Wind can’t blow because the sky is gone.”

“Disco Boy” is one of the few direct musical commentaries Zappa made into the realm of disco. Originally from “Zoot Allures,” I’ve always like this song despite its rather shallow description of the disco scene. Granted, the disco scene was shallow, but one cannot always count on Zappa having intimate knowledge of all the topics he writes songs about; one must remember that he is, more often than not, commenting on the musical nature of his target, not the actual social scene. For example, virtually all of his songs reflecting the gay scene are focused on the leather and S&M crowd.

The obligatory performance of “Dinah-Moe Humm” is hardly worth noting. While I really love the album “Over-nite Sensation,” as well as this song, I would never be disappointed at a concert if the song wasn’t played.

“Punky’s Whips” is great performance that is filled with musical variance and Terry Bozzio’s faux-Zappa vocalizations are really spot on; how ironic that he mentions Jeff Beck. And finally, we get a song with a Zappa guitar solo. A delicious solo. Listen to Bozzio’s drumming too, it’s perfectly maniacal.

Overall, I rate this recording 4.5 of five stars. Share your rating below.

Released: March 28, 1983, Barking Pumpkin Records. Recorded Oct. 28-31, 1977, The Palladium, NYC.

Track listing:

1. Intro Rap/Baby Snakes – 2:22
2. Titties & Beer – 6:13
3. The Black Page #2 – 2:50
4. Jones Crusher – 2:53
5. Disco Boy – 3:51
6. Dinah-Moe Humm – 6:37
7. Punky’s Whips – 11:29

Roy Estrada – vocals, voices
Frank Zappa – director, keyboards, vocals, guitar
Adrian Belew – vocals, guitar
Tommy Mars – keyboards, vocals
Peter Wolf – keyboards
Patrick O’Hearn – bass guitar
Terry Bozzio – drums
Ed Mann – percussion