Sunday, May 9, 2010

Them or Us

Some consider “Them or Us” Zappa’s last studio album, inasmuch as a typical rock studio album. But “Thing-Fish” was released just a month later and it, too, is largely a studio album. Both albums contain live elements as well, despite the material being predominately recorded in a studio. However, with Zappa, it’s difficult to find any “studio” album that didn’t have some live material in the mix. If one wants to differentiate between “Them or Us” and “Thing-Fish,” the former is Zappa’s last mostly-studio release general song material, whereas “Thing-Fish” is a studio release of a themed, concept album reflecting a failed attempt by Zappa to produce a Broadway show.

But a lot of that is just blah-blah-blah.

“Them or Us” presents us with a wide variety of material, from the doo-wop cover opener “The Closer You Are,” to the hard-rock blues cover of The Allman Bros. “Whippin’ Post.” There’s even some of Zappa’s more complex material, such as “Sinister Footwear.” Originally released as a double album, it goes all over the place. Not a bad release, as it has some gems, but not a great one among Zappa’s releases either. Unless you’re a collector and must have every Zappa release possible – such as with my curse – you can easily skip this one. Most every tune on it, including the really good ones, can be found on other releases and compilations, often with better arrangements and performances. Except, perhaps, “Ya Honza,” and “Marque-son’s Chicken.” But more on them in a moment.

The opening cover song by Earl Lewis and Morgan “Bobby” Robinson, for example, can be found on YCDTOSA Vol. 4, and the second song, “In France”, shows up as well on YCDTOSA Vol. 3. Of course, the difference being with the version of “In France” on this release you get Johnny “Guitar” Watson along with Napoleon Murphy Brock, who are not in the YCDTOSA version.

Then along comes “Ya Honza,” which is “Sofa” from “One Size Fits All” with the lyrics backwards, as well as backward fragments of “You’re a Lonely Little Girl” from “We’re Only In It For The Money.” Among Zappa’s studio tracks, this is one of his best. This interesting twist on two of his earlier songs is accompanied by a hard-driving guitar rhythm and ends with a searing shred of a guitar solo that knifes through your brain like a sonic scalpel. You aren’t going to find this track any where else.

This arrangement of “Sharleena” is better than the performance on YCDTOSA Vol. 3, even if it does have Dweezil playing on it, but it’s not a reason to buy this release.

While “Sinister Footwear II” shows up in many places, this particular performance – mixed from two shows – is really interesting. The first half comes from a Nov. 15, 1981 performance at the Painter’s Mill Music Fair in Owings Mill, Md. The guitar solo is taken from a June 23, 1982 performance at Sporthalle, Boeblingen, Germany. It is a huge, soaring solo with frenetic picking and maniacal string bending driven by Chad Wackerman’s relentless drumming.

There’s nothing particularly exciting about the next track, “Truck Driver Divorce,” other than the segue guitar solo, which is actually a solo from a performance of “Zoot Allures” from the Nov. 17, 1981 show at The Ritz in New York City. It’s an odd splice of the tape, as it appears to me that these two songs share nothing in common musically.

Next comes one of Zappa’s best straight-up hard rock songs, “Stevie’s Spanking.” Zappa takes a back seat on this one, playing rhythm guitar while Steve Vai – of whom the song is about – plays the first solo and Dweezil performs the second solo. This song also demonstrates how pointless it is sometimes to call a Zappa album a studio album. This performance is pieced together with at least three segments from shows in Minneapolis, New York City, and Munich, Germany.

Zappa throws in a prurient song with “Baby Take Your Teeth Out,” from which we are thankfully relieved with the instrumental “Marque-son’s Chicken,” which, unfortunately, doesn’t turn up anywhere else.

“Planet of My Dreams” is a curious number from Zappa’s never-produced “Hunchentoot,” a play that went nowhere. But it’s a throw-away, nonetheless. “Be In My Video” doesn’t excite me much either. It’s a rip on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance!” and the music videos of the era, and not a very sophisticated one at that. The title track gives us a decent guitar solo taken from the Stadio Communale show in Bolzano, Italy, from July 3, 1982.

The next song, “Frogs With Dirty Little Lips,” is one Zappa co-authored with his son, Ahmet. This puerile little ditty uses a Landini cadence, according to the book Cosmik Debris: The Collected History and Improvisations of Frank Zappa.

The real star of this release is the last track, The Allman Bros. classic “Whippin’ Post.” The back story on this song begins in a 1974 concert in Helsinki (see YCDTOSA Vol. 2) when a fan shouts out “Whippin’ Post!” Ten years later, Zappa has a band that can deliver and they learn this rocking blues number that not only keeps true to the Duane Allman composition, but carries Zappa’s unique signature as well. You should also compare it with the performances on “Does Humor Belong in Music” and the bootleg “Frank Zappa’s Best Band,” which covered a show in Binghampton, N.Y.

This is a decent release, but not necessarily a “must-have” for your collection. Unless, of course, you are a complete Zappa geek like I am. By the way, I would like to express my great appreciation for Román García Albertos, whose website Information Is Not Knowledge I have found to be invaluable. Check it out.

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

Released Oct. 18, 1984, Barking Pumpkin Records/Capitol Records.

LP release:

Side One

The Closer You Are (2:58)
In France (3:30)
Ya Hozna (6:26)
Sharleena (4:33)

Side Two

Sinister Footwear II (8:40)
Truck Driver Divorce (9:03)

Side Three

Stevie’s Spanking (5:24)
Baby, Take Your Teeth Out (1:24)
Marque-son’s Chicken (7:34)
Planet Of My Dreams (1:40)

Side Four

Be In My Video (3:39)
Them Or Us (5:08)
Frogs With Dirty Little Lips (2:46)
Whipping Post (7:32)

CD release

1. The Closer You Are (2:55)
2. In France (3:33)
3. Ya Hozna (6:27)
4. Sharleena (4:33)
5. Sinister Footwear II (8:39)
6. Truck Driver Divorce (8:59)
7. Stevie’s Spanking (5:24)
8. Baby, Take Your Teeth Out (1:54)
9. Marque-son’s Chicken (7:34)
10. Planet Of My Dreams (1:37)
11. Be In My Video (3:39)
12. Them Or Us (5:23)
13. Frogs With Dirty Little Lips (2:42)
14. Whipping Post (7:32)


Frank Zappa – guitar, keyboards, vocals, arranger, producer, main performer, assistant
Tommy Mars – keyboards, vocals, soloist
Patrick O'Hearn – wind, bass guitar
Scott Thunes – vocals, Minimoog, synthesizer, bass guitar
Johnny “Guitar” Watson – vocals, guitar
Ray White – guitar, vocals, backing vocals, choir, chorus, harmony vocals, harmony
Moon Unit Zappa – vocals
Ed Mann – percussion
Chad Wackerman – drums, vocals
Ike Willis – vocals, backing vocals, choir, chorus, harmony vocals, harmony
Arthur Barrow – bass guitar
Napoleon Murphy Brock – saxophone, vocals, harmony vocals, harmony
Brad Cole – piano
Roy Estrada – vocals, backing vocals, choir, chorus, harmony, bass guitar
Bob Harris – keyboards, vocals, harmony vocals
Thana Harris – vocals, harmony
Steve Vai – guitar, soloist, fills
Dweezil Zappa – soloist, guitar
George Duke – keyboards, vocals, piano
Bobby Martin – keyboards, saxophone, vocals, falssetist, harmony vocals, harmonica


Christiana Thomas said...

Hi. We're having Gail Zappa and Ian Underwood at out Ojai Music Festival Friday Symposium, and the Ensemble Modern at the Friday Night Concert. Is this something you would be willing to mention on your blog?

Motozappa said...

WOW, I'm surprised to think you never even received a reply to this/your post? I'm sorry Christiana!

Richard Harrold said...

@Motozappa, she did get a response. I posted up at the top of the blog's header a notice about the event back in May for anyone who wished and was able to attend. Your presumption that there was no response is erroneous.