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Frank Zappa

+ {The Mothers Of Invention} + {The Mothers}

The bete noire of America’s moral majority and a ferociously articulate proponent of freedom of expression, FRANK ZAPPA bequeathed a recorded legacy as satirically obdurate and creatively misunderstood as it was stylistically eclectic. By the time of his sad death late in ‘93, he had amassed a back catalogue of almost sixty studio/live albums, encompassing contemporary composition and dada-ist jazz, highbrow art and lowbrow humour; and one can add to that, the numerous compilations, collections, boxed sets, etc., issued before and even more so after his death.
From psychedelic doo-wop pastiche with his MOTHERS OF INVENTION crew in the flower-power era, to his gamut of avant-garde jazz-rock and classical albums, humour did indeed belong in music – well, at least among his own loyal fraternity. A cultural and social commentator par excellence, ZAPPA’s unique world view was cannily disseminated through the rock idiom, even if his guiding influence was French composer Edgar Varese and his broader frame of reference more European than American (Stravinsky and Stockhausen were particular favourites).
Born Frank Vincent Zappa, December 21, 1940, Baltimore in Maryland, USA – from Sicilian and Greek parentage – he moved to California at the turn of the 50s. In 1956, Frank formed his first post-school band, The Blackouts, notable for including school chum Don Van Vliet (aka CAPTAIN BEEFHEART). After marrying Kay Sherman in 1960, ZAPPA wrote his first movie soundtrack for the cult Timothy Carey B-movie, The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962); his score for the even more obscure western, Run Home Slow (1965), generated the cash for his own Studio Z, anticipating the man’s doggedly self-reliant ethos; fast forward a few years to 1964 and he was divorced. In and around his forays into celluloid, the guitarist/singer also initiated local groups, The Masters (he penned B-side `Breaktime’ for Paul Buff’s outfit), The Persuaders (he penned B-side `Grunion Run’ for the Mexican `Tijuana Surf’ hit in 1963), Mr. Clean and The Soul Giants; the latter didn’t quite get to the recording stage.
In March 1965, Frank was arrested and sentenced to ten days in prison and put on probation for three years, having made a pornographic tape. He duly moved to Los Angeles and re-formed The Soul Giants, a loose collective that soon settled into The MOTHERS OF INVENTION, now featuring Ray Collins (vocals, percussion), Elliot Ingber (guitars), Roy Estrada (bass, guitarron, soprano vocals) and Jimmy Carl Black (drums, foreign language vox).

Early in ‘66, after a residency at the Whisky A Go-Go, the quintet were signed up to M.G.M. Records by producer Tom Wilson. Their hour-long debut album (a double!), FREAK OUT! (1966) {*8}, peaked at No.130 in the States, an avant-garde, satirical piece, that combined psych-pop/bubblegum-rock of songs such as `Hungry Freaks, Daddy’, `Who Are The Brain Police’, `How Could I Be Such A Fool?’, `It Can’t Happen Here’ and `Any Way The Wind Blows’. The most interesting aspects of the record was it’s three longer efforts, the Watts riot protest `Trouble Every Day’, `Help, I’m A Rock’ and the 12-minute side-long `The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet’.
The following year, Frank and his expanded MOI (on drums Billy Mundi, on keyboards Don Preston, on wind Bunk Gardner and on guitar Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood for FRATERNITY OF MAN and CAPTAIN BEEFHEART-bound Ingber), the ensemble unleashed another set of weird but wonderful songs by way of the ABSOLUTELY FREE (1967) {*8} album. This contained seminal work with equally bizarre titles: `Call Any Vegetable’, `Son Of Suzy Cream Cheese’, `Big Leg Emma’ and `Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’, the album nearly scratching the surface of the Top 40; the highlight had to be `Why Don’tcha Do Me Right’. It would be at this stage he married Gail Sloatman, soon-to-be mother of his first-born, daughter Moon Unit Zappa (a week later); DWEEZIL ZAPPA was born two years on (he became a solo act in the 80s); son Ahmet Emuukha Rodan Zappa and daughter Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen Zappa were born to the couple in 1974 and 1976 respectively.
On the 23rd of September ‘67, The MOTHERS OF INVENTION played London’s Albert Hall with a 15-piece orchestra, an arrangement he would take further on future albums. His third album, WE’RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY (1968) {*9} – Ian Underwood superseded Collins – was an obvious swipe at The BEATLES and their sleeve design for “Sgt. Pepper’s”. This was certainly Frank and the band’s most inventive work to date, the concept album taking a uniquely anti-drug/hippie stance. The tracks `Let’s Make The Water Turn Black’, `Mom & Dad’, `Who Needs The Peace Corps?’, `Harry, You’re A Beast’, `Mother People’ and the “Hey Joe”-on-speed pastiche `Flower Punk’, being his swipe at America and the 60s counter-cultural establishment.
ZAPPA’s subsequent solo work continued apace; the conceptualized “We’re… Money” accompaniment LUMPY GRAVY (1968) {*7} – parts 1 and 2 filling both sides – was the man’s answer to modern and experimental composition and the art of spoken word, recorded with a 50-piece billed as The Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. Not surprisingly, it failed to reach out to his MOI fanbase as it stalled at No.159, 100+ places behind his Top 50 status predecessors.
Before the year was out, FZ and his usual MOI suspects produced yet another diverse set of wacky, deranged doo-wop dirge in Cruising with RUBEN & THE JETS {*5}, an ill-conceived attempt at recreating the 50s (and some previous Mothers cuts penned with Ray Collins) in some mind-numbing melange of mimicry. Frank subsequently diversified into acting, reuniting with Carey in the freewheeling Bob Rafaelson-directed MONKEES vehicle, `Head’ (1968).
The following year saw the release of UNCLE MEAT (1969) {*8}, a largely instrumental double-set nothing less than a sprawling, overdub frenzied reinvention of the rock album format, cutting and pasting everything from avant-garde composition and dada-ist jazz to louche dialogue, satirical skits and mutant doo-wop. While conceived as the soundtrack to a film of the same name, the ZAPPA-directed screen version and extended double-CD of “Uncle Meat” didn’t see light of day until almost two decades later.
On one’s first listen, the discs were a bit of a shambles, going in all directions but the right one. However, pieced together – much like the movie itself – probably fitted into the scheme of things when recorded in a five-month spell between October 1967 and February 1968. In some respects, one could say, this was the MOTHER OF INVENTION’s “Trout Mask Replica”, although many Beefheart fans would be up in arms for suggesting such a connection; and anyway, as the saying goes: “One man’s Uncle Meat, is another man’s Uncle Poison”.
The main title theme kicks off the Top 50 set, the xylophone and harpsichord (probably more at home in a score for TVs Columbo) right in the firing line of this jazz-fusion ditty; the “Suzy Cream Cheese”/funhouse interludes give the set that characteristic comedy that only ZAPPA was capable of. But “Does Humor Really Belong In Music?” – with `Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague’, `The Dog Breath Variations’ and `The Uncle Meat Variations’, the answer is clearly yes. Live at the Royal Albert Hall in London, ZAPPA & The MOTHERS, with Don Preston on tuba, take on – in full-blown R&B-meets-BONZO DOG BAND-pastiche, `Louie Louie’ – Richard Berry would indeed turn in his grave. Ditto `God Bless America’ – live at the Whisky A Go-Go – for Irving Berlin. `Sleeping In A Jar’ was more or less another part of `Mom & Dad’, while `Our Bizarre Relationship’ was pure dialogue by Phyllis Altenhaus, a lady with very colourful language and that goddamn awful Noo Yoik drawl. 50s doo-wop is always there or thereabouts for ZAPPA, and the Chipmunks-styled `Electric Aunt Jemma’ and `The Air’ were no exceptions. The listener is treated to the first jazzy instalment of `King Kong’ on track 13, `Prelude To…’, while the `Uncle Meat’ theme continues in the guise of `A Pound For A Brown On The Bus’. With all the conceptual weirdness behind us – not! – the more conventional `Mr. Green Genes’, is a culinary trip around the eating of beans, celery, grapes, etc. With `Cruising For Burgers’ – “…in daddy’s new car”, ZAPPA gets the moral message across to the self-inflicted phoneys of the day.
Later in 1969, Frank released his first solo album proper, HOT RATS {*8}, a recording which gave him deserved widespread critical acclaim, hitting Top 10 in Britain, but surprisingly only a lowly No.173 in the States. The record forsook doo-wop and sardonic pastiche for a more jazz-rock-based guitar extravaganza; the tracks `Peaches En Regalia’ (a classic instrumental) and the CAPTAIN BEEFHEART-sung `Willie The Wimp’ becoming future ZAPPA jewels. Retaining multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, the set was also notable for the inclusion of LOWELL GEORGE, JEAN-LUC PONTY and Don “Sugarcane” Harris; the 16-minute `The Gumbo Variations’ absorbing with every subsequent listen.
To mark the end of the first phase of The MOTHERS OF INVENTION, 1970 saw the release of two posthumous group LPs, BURNT WEENY SANDWICH {*7} and WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH {*7}. While the first of these sets was bookended by a couple of doo-wop ditties in `WPLJ’ (procured from The Four Deuces) and `Valarie’, plus a hotchpotch of diversions such as `Igor’s Boogie’ (his homage to hero Stravinsky) and the 18-minute free-form of `The Little House I Used To Live In’, the follow-up was a strictly live and studio out-take mixture jazz-rock affair. Many Beefheart aficionados will recognise “Trout Mask Replica” piece `The Blimp’ in the `Didja Get Any Onya’, while LITTLE RICHARD fans might’ve been struck by the team’s bluesy attempt to re-tread `Directly From My Heart To You’; check it out also for `My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama’, `Oh No’ and `The Orange County Lumber Truck’.
FRANK ZAPPA’s third solo piece, CHUNGA’S REVENGE (1970) {*6}, completed a hectic release schedule for the musician. It also marked the introduction of the Phlorescent Leech & Eddie (aka former TURTLES Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) and George Duke on keys. Featuring elements of jazz-rock (`Transylvania Boogie’), hard-rock (`Tell Me You Love Me’), horizontal lounge (with the `Twenty Small Cigars’ instrumental), self-indulgence (`The Nancy & Mary Music’) and of course doo-wop (`Sharleena’), the record was one-part transitional to two-parts schizoid.
Following on from the rather humour-fuelled, hit-or-miss “The MOTHERS” live-in-concert LP, FILLMORE EAST: JUNE 1971 {*6} – beware of the TURTLES smash `Happy Together’, the year also presented his fans with another cinematic entrée, FRANK ZAPPA’S 200 MOTELS (1971) {*6}. A discordant montage of impenetrable weirdness from the movie mogul, the film ostensibly follows ZAPPA and his Mothers Of Invention in a gratuitously gonzoid portrayal of touring life, the almost complete absence of any plot and profusion of oblique humour renders any semblance of storyline secondary to the impressive (mostly live) musical performances. The partly orchestrated (courtesy of the Royal Philharmonic) soundtrack was a typically disjointed melee of classical gas, pyrotechnical smut and redneck baiting. The MOI were featured heavily, as were the real-life antics in-song of stalwart Jeff Simmons, who’d departed before the record’s release. ZAPPA frantically see-saws between rock, neo-jazz and classical idioms, while liberally anointing the whole with wacked-out snippets of dialogue and libidinous humour. Jimmy Carl Black, George Duke, Aynsley Dunbar, Ian and Ruth Underwood and Jim Pons concoct a real mothership of a record, musically like something resembling a Marx Brothers movie or a Dada-ist opera. With augmentation from THEODORE BIKEL (the narrator) and RINGO STARR (of some weird dialogue who incidentally mentions a train!), the music on its own needs the film so badly. The straining orchestra gets in the way… a lot, while “proper” songs struggle to the surface, and when they do its mostly down to the lewdness and crudeness of Messrs FLO & EDDIE. The highlights – and there ain’t many – are faux country number, `Lonesome Cowboy Burt’ – vocalist Black wishing a waitress to “sit on his face” – was boyish, unadulterated humour. `Mystery Roach’ carried off ZAPPA’s approach to standard R&R, while `Magic Fingers’ and the psychedelic `She Painted Up Her Face’ play to a different tune.
Recorded eight months prior to its release, The MOTHERS’ live instalment JUST ANOTHER BAND FROM L.A. (1972) {*6} was an interesting artefact of sorts, containing re-hashes of a few older nuggets (`Call Any Vegetable’ and `Dog Breath’), plus the side-long rock-opera `Billy The Mountain’ – the childish adventures of Greggary Peccary.
Blighted by the honour of being thrown off a stage by a “fan” and, in turn, stuck in a wheelchair since December 10, 1971, ZAPPA and a few ex-MOTHERS (Don Preston and Aynsley Dunbar among them) went into the studio the following spring/summer, duly emerging with WAKA/JAWAKA – HOT RATS (1972) {*7}. Comprising of two epic-lengthed jazz-rock bookend instrumentals, `Big Swifty’ and the title track, plus the rather short in comparison `Your Mouth’ and `It Might Just Be A One-Shot Deal’ vocal oddities, it seemed to work for many FZ disciples.
THE GRAND WAZOO (1973) {*7}, meanwhile, failed to register any chart position, the first to hit this low point since time and memorial. Alienating even the most ardent of his loyal fanbase, one could probably sympathise that the five self-indulgent jazz-rock instrumentals were one push too far – if you can forgive the pun. On reflection, the slow-burning embers of the 8-minute `Blessed Relief’ (sounding a tad “Odd Couple” theme for some) and the 13-minute opener `For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers)’ engaged an ageing fanbase rather than any under the 30-mark.
Commercial fortunes declining aside, The MOTHERS – who’d re-united once again while signing to Warner Bros. through offshoot, DiscReet Records – came back with the almost instantly successful but explicit, OVER-NITE SENSATION (1973) {*8}; prime porno-pop examples coming through squealer `Dinah-Moe Humm’, `Camarillo Brillo’ and `Dirty Love’. Back to his best on lead vocals, ZAPPA almost Beefheart’s `I’m The Slime’, while side-by-side with the uncredited TINA TURNER and her Ikettes, `Montana’ is the undisputable champion track here, suggesting the weirdness of a dental-floss rancher who’s into poodles.
The solo APOSTROPHE (‘) (1974) {*8} gave ZAPPA his first Top 10 album, the goatee-man taking his comedy-rock’n’roll banter to new depths on `Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow’ (good cautionary advice for any Nanook, the Eskimo in narrative roll here) and the soulful `Cosmik Debris’. But for co-scribed pieces with JACK BRUCE and Jim Gordon (on the title track) and George Duke (on `Uncle Remus’), everything nonsensical is down to the American master of the absurd, ZAPPA. The double-live ROXY & ELSEWHERE (1974) {*8} proved the enigmatic genius could upstage anybody, even his powerful and visual band which comprised of George Duke (keyboards), Napoleon Murphy Brock (vocals), Chester Thompson (drums), Ruth Underwood (percussion), the Fowlers: Tom, Bruce and Walt (on respective bass, trombone and trumpet).
Yet another Top 30 progression for ZAPPA’s MOTHERS OF INVENTION (Johnny “Guitar” Watson had been added), ONE SIZE FITS ALL (1975) {*8} saw Frank at the top of his game. The seminal `San Ber’dino’ (featuring a certain Bloodshot Rollin’ Red, aka Beefheart on harmonica), `Po-Jama People’, the harmony-addled `Inca Roads’, `Can’t Afford No Shoes’ and `Florentine Pogen’. The combined schizoid efforts of ZAPPA, BEEFHEART and The MOTHERS was the lip-smacking fusion that awaited buyers of the collaborative live LP, BONGO FURY (1975) {*6}. Fans of both parties could lay claim to everything on board here, the most lasting though came in closing piece, `Muffin Man’. Reconciled in their egotistical differences, opener `Debra Kadabra’ and `Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy’ came a close second.
Due to legal wrangles with manager Herb Cohen, The Mothers of Invention were put to bed by March 1976; although some past and present alumni duly graced the subsequent albums billed as FRANK ZAPPA. Long, lengthy world tours from Los Angeles and Europe to Australia and Japan, left a nice legacy for such a great band; ZOOT ALLURES (1976) {*8} bridged the gap between hard-rock and comic-mirrorball music; example the classic `Disco Boy’. Although they were pictured alongside Frank on the front album pic, newcomers Eddie Jobson (ex-ROXY MUSIC violinist/keyboardist) and Patrick O’Hearn (bass) didn’t perform on the set; Roy Estrada, Terry Bozzio, Andre Lewis, Ruth Underwood and others did. From the HENDRIX-styled solo axe-playing of ZAPPA on the live `Black Napkins’ and the almost laid-back title track, to the studio-cracking `Friendly Little Finger’, the (tongue-in-)cheeky `Ms. Pinky’ and the 10-minute `The Torture Never Stops’. Note too, at this stage, FZ was behind the production of an album (`Good Singin’, Good Playin’’) by GRAND FUNK RAILROAD.
Uneasy with his apparent masters at Warner Brothers, he duly delivered four albums to the label in March 1977, demanding the quadruple advance figures quoted in his contract; the titles would surface during the next few years under his own DiscReet imprint but under the wing of Warners. Recording material that would constitute material that would appear in his later “Baby Snakes” movie project, the first in this long line of shelved LPs came out as double-set, ZAPPA IN NEW YORK (1978) {*7} – originally titled “Live In New York”, one of the aforementioned four. Offending track it seemed (Terry Bozzio had the hots for ANGEL’s Punky Meadows), `Punky’s Whips’ was the main stumbling block. Removed by Warner Bros, it was later included on the CD version of the set, a set that drew controversy in fresh titles such as `Titties & Beer’, `I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth’ and `The Illinois Enema Bandit’, all contained within disc one.
Whether it was the tacky graffiti-like of the sleeve design or just the lack of enthusiasm by Warner Brothers protagonist ZAPPA (PRINCE would also soon feel their wrath), the second shelved work STUDIO TAN (1978) {*5} was hardly “instrumental” in bringing about a post-new wave renaissance for the richest punk in town, FZ; `The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary’ – all 21 minutes of it – aside. SLEEP DIRT (1979) {*6} – number three on Warner Bros hit list – only just scraped into the Top 200, as did the last of unwanted foursome boxed set “Lather”, ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES (1979) {*5}; the latter actually consisting of instrumentals recorded way back in September ’75.
If fans felt a little cheated, squeezed somewhere in between the latter two LPs, the arty double-set SHEIK YERBOUTI (1979) {*7} restored the faith somewhat and commercial approval through a near-Top 20 placing. Distributed by Mercury in the States and C.B.S. throughout the rest of the world including Britain, the set contained the Grammy-nominated Top 50 entry, `Dancin’ Fool’, a sort of satirical follow-up to `Disco Boy’. Controversy was never far from the bawdy bard, whose un-PC `Bobby Brown Goes Down’ (about a gay S&M exponent), `Jewish Princess’ (raising an action from the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith) and `I Have Been In You’ were just three choice picks among the establishment-baiting songs.
Prolific to the point of saturation, JOE’S GARAGE, ACT I (1979) {*6} and quick-fire double-LP JOE’S GARAGE, ACTS II & III (1979) {*5}, found Frank in concept mode once again. While the former drew in the odd road tales of ethnic stereotypes (`Catholic Girls’) and possible trips to the VD clinic (`Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?’), the latter delivered nothing outstanding ‘cept for his stylised jazz-prog sensibilities.
Released simultaneously alongside three instalments of the SHUT UP ‘N PLAY YER GUITAR {*7}, SHUT UP ‘N PLAY YER GUITAR SOME MORE {*6} and RETURN OF THE SON OF SHUT UP ‘N PLAY YER GUITAR {*6} instrumental series to mark the creation of his Barking Pumpkin independent, TINSELTOWN REBELLION (1981) {*6} was a double-live set; although it kicked off with studio track, `Fine Girl’. Sliding between the sheets of funky fun (`Panty Rap’, `Pick Me, I’m Clean’ and `Easy Meat’) or avant-jazz through `Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’, the record could be filed under un-easy listening.
Sales of the satirical YOU ARE WHAT YOU IS (1981) {*7} double-set suffered as a result; suggestive songs such as `Goblin Girl’, `Harder Than Your Husband’ and `Jumbo Go Away’ (about a VD-riddled groupie), showcased Frank’s skewered sense of humour, but with Ronnie Reagan still President and yuppies everywhere, he was clear on what were his main targets.
SHIP ARRIVING TOO LATE TO SAVE A DROWNING WITCH (1982) {*7} focused mainly on simplistic songs, one novelty record in particular, a rare Top 40 hit `Valley Girl’, featured his 14-year-old daughter Moon Unit on “Cali-airhead” monologue; “like, oh my God”, “Barf me out” and “Gag me with a spoon” soon-to-be trademark phrases the world over. `Drowning Witch’, meanwhile, took up a good 12 minutes of the LP; better instrumental statements coming through the rather short in comparison, `Envelopes’.
Finally released on record, the 1979 rockumentary movie BABY SNAKES (1983) {*5} – in which bandleader ZAPPA holds a Halloween concert topped off by comedy sketches and Bruce Bickford’s clay-mation sequences – drew in the collector value for its picture disc format.
Back on fresh terra firma, THE MAN FROM UTOPIA (1983) {*4} failed in both critical and commercial departments, ZAPPA now content to half-sing/half-speak some songs in a free-form deep scat, exampled in `The Dangerous Kitchen’ and `The Radio Is Broken’; opener `Cocaine Decisions’ was the exception.
The mid-80s found the obstinate and anti-commercial FZ returning to his favourite pastime of jazz and classical, avant-chamber manoeuvres coming by way of LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, VOL.1 (1983) {*5}, the (Pierre) Boulez Conducts Zappa set THE PERFECT STRANGER (1984) {*6} and another synclavier piece FRANCESCO ZAPPA (1984) {*4}; the latter via his discovery in a library of an 18th century Italian composer.
Rock’n’roll restored in all its double-disc glory, THEM OR US (1984) {*7} was a pleasant return to his mixed bag of eccentricities; doo-wop/50s pastiche (`Sharleena’, etc.), the downright offensive (`Baby, Take Your Teeth Out’ and `In France’), guitar-addled hard-rock (introducing STEVE VAI on `Stevie’s Spanking’) and a few bookend cover versions (Earl Lewis and Channels’ `The Closer You Are’ and The ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND’s `Whipping Post’).
Released only a month later, the Broadway-styled “original cast” triple-set THING-FISH (1984) {*6} reprised several old ZAPPA masters, while the “Thing-Fish” narrative figure caused (played by Ike Willis) recalled SPIRIT’s “Journey To Potatoland” concept of a few years back. As offensively provocative and explicitly outrageous as ever, choice songs such `Artificial Rhonda’, `He’s So Gay’, `Briefcase Moses’ and `The Mammy Nuns’ celebrated the wimpish Harry and domineering Rhonda, while the plot verged on unreserved ridicule and racism; Frank stated that his intention was bring to light the plight and portrayal of African Americans on Broadway throughout history.
FRANK ZAPPA MEETS THE MOTHERS OF PREVENTION (1985) {*5} was Frank’s conventional dig at the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), a lobby group with a fixation to brand “offensive” records with a warning sticker. Although this set was the man’s last chart appearance (at No.153), it had moments of gesturing grandeur through synclavier-addled `Little Beige Sambo’, the 12-minute `Porn Wars’ and the almost transitional `H.R. 2911’.
Begging the topical question, DOES HUMOR BELONG IN MUSIC? (1986) {*6}, Frank released the album outside his homeland, a CD and separate live video that documented a concerned man and current backing band (Willis, Ray White, Scott Thunes, Chad Wackerman, Bobby Martin and Alan Zavod) in all their razor-edged glory. Meanwhile, his rock fanbase were brought back to earth via Grammy-winning “Best Rock Instrumental Performance” album, JAZZ FROM HELL (1986) {*7}. From opener `Night School’ to the CARLOS SANTANA-esque `St. Etienne’ (aka `Drowning Witch’ in disguise live in France 1982), ZAPPA and his inimitable team of backers pulled out all the stops on this synclavier-biased set.
Politics and humour were never far away from the mind of ZAPPA, and a good example of this was yet another double-live set, BROADWAY THE HARD WAY (1988) {*6}. Name-checking the odd icons (`Elvis Has Left The Building’ opened the show) through establishment figures Nixon, Reagan, Jesse Jackson, etc., there was also room for ex-POLICE-men turned jazzateers STING (and ANDY SUMMERS on TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart-baiting `Murder By Numbers’. The record had a definite 50s feel on several numbers; `The Untouchables’ theme (by Nelson Riddle), `Jezebel Boy’ (incorporating another TV cop theme) and Oliver Nelson’s `Stolen Moments’ were obvious touches.
Something of a hero in places such as Czechoslovakia and other Iron Curtain countries (playwright-cum-President Vaclav Havel was a mighty fan), he was afforded the title of overseas trade representative, although this brief encounter was cut short by US administrators headed by George Bush.
In the early 90s, illness took hold of his impending stage appearances, culminating in late ’91 when his children went public with the dreaded prognosis that he was suffering from prostate cancer. In between releases to “Beat The Boots” (i.e. bootleggers), the obligatory double-live sets found their way to the public: the first to appear THE BEST BAND YOU NEVER HEARD IN YOUR LIFE (1991) {*7} taken from his 1988 world tour. Alongside some of his best re-workings, ZAPPA and his 12-piece combo delivered a handful of covers from JOHNNY CASH’s `Ring Of Fire’ to LED ZEPPELIN’s `Stairway To Heaven’ (the latter released as a single); `I Left My Heart In San Francisco’, `Bolero’, `Purple Haze’, `Sunshine Of Your Love’, `When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’, `The Godfather Part II theme’ and `Bonanza’! among the many other surprises. The overtly instrumental MAKE A JAZZ NOISE HERE (1991) {*6} – also from 1988 – represented his love of the avant-garde genre and not necessarily jazz itself; turn-ons here were epic takes, `Big Swifty’ and `King Kong’.
Somehow finding the energy to cross the seas to Germany on July 13, 1992, in order to work on what would be his final commission (before his death) with the Ensemble Modern, the family of ZAPPA finally issued the collaborative work THE YELLOW SHARK {*6} in November 1993. Looking rather frail and worn on the album cover, the “serious” side of the man came to the fore, his rock persona now a thing of legend. Reprising `Dog Breath Variations’ and `Uncle Meat’, the feel of the double album was almost cinematic, his chamber-group backers effective in raising the bar beyond avant-garde chaos.
Sadly, Frank was to die on December 4, 1993, a mournful day in any fan’s calendar. Countless numbers of posthumous collections came through Rykodisc Records (wife Gail had sold the rights to all his compositions), one in particular was his final recordings, CIVILIZATION PHAZE III (1995) {*7}. Combining synclavier with spoken-word excerpts from 1967 and other years, the double-CD (clocking in at over 113 minutes!) project was a quasi-concept piece of operatic pantomime, all rewarding in their way; `Amnerika’, the 18-minute `N-Lite’ and the equally exhausting but poignant `Beat The Reaper’ were plush and textured as ever. ZAPPA lives on through an engrossing amount of great works, many still to be unleashed no doubt.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Jul2012

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