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

1 comment:

Nigel said...

I don't have a rating (I'm still digesting this and lots of other Zappa records that I never got around to in previous bouts of Zappa infatuation), but I did enjoy this blog post and your tying in the history of Missing Persons.