Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I-III Page 4

Bongo Fury: A roadhouse blues album infused with the spirits of William S. Burroughs and Howling Wolf, this (mostly) live-in-Austin 1975 album features Captain Beefheart on vocals, harp, and shopping bags. Probably the funkiest LP FZ ever made, Bongo Fury is the "road album" Chunga tried---and failed---to be.

Beefheart makes much of the difference. The unassailable authority of his voice and harp lend a dark, bitter sincerity generally lacking in Zappa's work. Also, the Beefheart pieces---"Sam With the Showing Scalp Flat Top" and "Man With the Woman Head"---are two of his better psychoto-beat ruminations. Zappa himself rises to the occasion with "Debra Kadabra," a tune I thought for years was Beefheart's, so exactly does FZ ape the Good Captain's style (besides, Beefheart sings it).

"Advance Romance" is a long, slow blues about light-fingered road ladies, and was still a concert standby as late as '84. The band has a great time, George Duke and Napoleon Murphy Brock trading off licks from a bottomless well of call-and-response blues cliches, and stuttering out an absorbing stop-action chorus. Then there's "Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy," a noble paean to S&M shoe fetishing, and "Muffin Man," Zappa's rave-up, concert-closing riffer for years and years. But perhaps the most important aspect of this album is drummer Terry Bozzio's debut. Bozzio set the tone for Zappa drummers to this day: melodic, endlessly creative fills and counterrhythms, and equal ease in rock and jazz settings. Listen to his rolls on "Advance Romance," his fills on "Man With the Woman Head." Denny Walley's slide guitar, too, enriches the already full blues mix throughout.

The main difference between the DiscReet and OM versions is the latter's added clarity and air in the highs, making vocals, horns, and background band and audience sounds easier to distinguish. For once, the OM version adds a little to and takes away nothing from the already quite acceptable original. Zoot Allures: When this one came out sometime in 1976, it had been at least a year since Bongo Fury, itself a bit of a disappointment after the stellar One Size Fits All. There had been rumors of problems with manager Herb Cohen's DiscReet label and/or distributor Warner Bros., and these rumors seemed confirmed by the long delay from the usually prolific Zappa and the fact that the standard Warners Bros. label, not the DiscReet logo, appeared on Zoot Allures. The music, too, sounded tired, dispirited, bloodless, a stopgap measure---in hindsight, it still does.

FZ tried for a different sort of sound on Zoot Allures; where the previous two albums had a full, fat, punchy rock-band sound, Zoot sounded desiccated, over-filtered, harsh and flat at the same time, with very artificial-sounding treble and foofy, indistinct bass. And the record just plodded along, eight of the nine tracks being medium-slow in tempo, the lyrics uninspired, the tunes (with two exceptions) the same. Much of the album was FZ on all instruments except drums (Terry Bozzio) and background vocals; was this what happened when Zappa was left to his own studio devices? Easy to think so when the two best cuts, "Black Napkins" and the title track, are the only actual "band" tracks.

"Black Napkins" has since become an FZ standard, and rightly so---this elegant, simple, lonely melody is a quintessential guitar lament. "Zoot Allures" is a study in sustained tones and surprising chord changes, with always-interesting bass lines by Dave Parlato, while "Friendly Little Finger" blends middle-eastern-style guitarro metallico with a touch of "Bringing In the Sheaves." But it's when FZ begins to sing that Zoot Allures begins its downhill slide. This is one of Zappa's most misogynistic LPs, with what sounds like prolonged sexual torture of a young woman in the 10-minute "The Torture Never Stops," the paean to a $69.95 sex doll in "Ms. Pinky," and the greasy wars of sexual conquest described in "Disco Boy" (which closes with a riff borrowed from the Beatles' "You Never Give Me Your Money"). True, FZ focuses on the male perpetrators, who come out looking anything but admirable, but the whole thing leaves a foul taste in the mouth, Zappa's tired humor trying to sound thoroughly nasty but succeeding only in sounding forced and self-serving.

The distinctively chiming guitar sound that FZ developed for this album is well served by the digital remastering, as is all of side 2, which now sounds like an honest-to-god rock band instead of a bunch of tracks laid atop one another. The improvement is most obvious on "Ms. Pinky," in which the heavily reverb'd, deliberately artificial-sounding background vocals are given much greater depth, and the interesting snare drum part is much more clearly audible. "Find Her Finer" is far superior in the remastering, the treble tamed, the bass rounder, fuller, kick-drum more immediate. This is even more true of "Friendly Little Finger," in which bass, drums, and FZ's lead guitar are all gutsier, more like a live band. I could be wrong, but it does sound as if you can hear the studio walls during the closing guitar solo. Lu Ann Neil's concert harp part on the title cut is fully audible for the first time, and the bass synthesizer notes on "Disco Boy" are a revelation! If you're going to listen to Zoot Allures at all, the remastered OM version is by far and away the one to choose; it has lost nothing, and gained much.

Baby Snakes: Not included in The Old Masters, FZ's 36-minute sort-of soundtrack to his 166-minute sort-of music movie, Baby Snakes, previously available as a mail-order-only picture-disc LP, is a perfect example of having to take the chaff with Zappa's wheat. The frat-house humor of "Titties 'n' Beer" is immediately followed by "The Black Page #2," one of Zappa's more exhilarating guitar/percussion etudes. "Disco Boy" is brisker than, and far superior to, the Zoot Allures version, as is the breathlessly fast "Dinah Moe Humm" to the Overnite Sensation original. Listening to this album, I have to keep reminding myself that these are mere human beings playing---I can't even think that fast. This collection of live (and much overdubbed) tracks from the late '70s rivals recordings by the 1974 band in sheer joy of live, no-holds-barred music-making.

Baby Snakes was originally made available through the mail to right a wrong committed by Warner Brothers on the occasion of Zappa Live in New York's release. Those who care about such things noted that side one of that album was only 10 minutes long; at the last moment, Warners slightly edited "Titties" to remove material directly offensive to Warners, and excised entirely "Punky's Whips"---an 11:30 diatribe/sendup of Aerosmith-style groups, describing FZ drummer Terry Bozzio's alleged "crush" on Punky Meadows of rock band Angel---thinking it libelous. They were probably right, but the music is wonderful, as funny as anything Zappa's done. How can you hate a song with this chorus " 'I ain't queer! I ain't gay!' (He's a little fond of chiffon in a wrist array-ee-ay-ee-ay.)"? This is the usual Zappa admixture of (I hope) affected homophobia and, by circuitous implication, gay-rights agitprop, with an FZ guitar solo more inspiredly straightforward than most.

The original picture-disc, in its thick, self-destruct, polyethylene sleeve, had the worst sound and surfaces of any Zappa LP ever released, possibly the result of the picture-disc lamination process itself. Whatever, my stylus had always disappeared in a ball of white scurf by the end of each side---this after carefully cleaning disc and stylus before playing. An LP/CD comparison reverses the received wisdom: the LP is tinny, flat, and dry; the CD is full, with tamed highs and sumptuous, liquid lows. Bozzio's drums, in particular, are meaty, beaty, big and bouncy, pushing the envelope of the soundstage in all directions. No contest at all here: get the CD.

Well. After all these column inches, do I unhesitatingly recommend The Old Masters? A few years ago, I would have, but Zappa has by now released so many of these albums on Ryko CDs that only collectors with the hardest of cores could justify spending an average of $12 an LP for audiophile editions of decidedly non-audiophile recordings. However, as 11 of these discs remain unavailable in any other way (as of the time of writing), it might not seem such a bad deal after all.

Those whose mouths are already watering should know that these are limited editions; as FZ's back catalog continues to be released on CD, it's increasingly likely that The Old Masters will be discontinued. That would be too bad; for once, the well-worn phrase "collector's item" is more than justified. And, as any true collector knows, these boxes are worth it for the covers alone; even those who hate Zappa's music admit that his album-cover art has ranked consistently among the best. But for those who, as Zappa said in 1971, "know what we're doing,...and [are] getting off on it beyond his/her wildest comprehensions," The Old Masters are a fitting, lovingly produced, self-erected monument to one of the most original manipulators of rock media. Congrats, Frank.