The Second Disc

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Practice, Practice, Practice: Frank Zappa, Flo and Eddie Get to Carnegie Hall

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Eddie, are you kidding?

Is the Zappa Family Trust finally liberating Frank Zappa’s October 11, 1971 concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall from the vaults?  What’s that?  Four discs, you say?  Remastered in mono?  Yes, it’s all true.  When Frank Zappa and his Mothers of Invention took the stage at Carnegie Hall forty years ago, the performances were recorded for future release on Warner Bros. Records, the label with which Zappa was often at war.  Well, forty years later, that release is here.  The ZFT promises a “warts and all” ticket to both complete shows performed on that date.  The simply-titled Frank Zappa – Carnegie Hall will take the form of a 4-CD box set, due on October 31 and currently offered exclusively at the Barfko-Swill store for $42.00.

Before that evening in 1971, had Carnegie Hall ever before seen the likes of Frank Zappa?  Though the hall periodically hosted rock shows, Zappa’s oeuvre defied such simplistic description.  Perhaps a more “typical” Carnegie Hall debut was made the same year as Zappa’s, that of Yo-Yo Ma.  But nothing about the man born Frank Vincent Zappa was typical.  In his short 52 years, Zappa furiously broke down the walls between rock, pop, jazz and classical music, releasing some 62 albums during his lifetime.  A passionate defender of freedom of speech and denouncer of censorship of any kind, Zappa melded intricate, experimental melodies and arrangements with incisive, forthright lyrics that were often humorous and frequently off-color.

By 1971, Zappa had already made his mark on the industry with a number of revolutionary records.  The Mothers of Invention’s 1966 Freak Out! was a radical answer to the pop music of the day, combining experimental sound collages with R&B and doo-wop pastiches and absurdist elements.  It still sounds like no other rock album, but it was just a portent of things to come from Zappa.  Absolutely Free (1967) not only targeted the authority but the counterculture as well; Zappa beat to the sound of his own drummer.  Lumpy Gravy (1968) was credited to Zappa solo, and took things a step further.  It was an ambitious mélange of orchestral arrangements, spoken word and electronic experiments; through his use of the Synclavier, Zappa would be a pioneering musician in the latter field right up to the time of his death.  Two more albums from the same year, We’re Only In It For The Money and Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, saw the auteur both expanding his sound palette and referencing the beloved music of his youth, respectively.  The former was a wicked parody of flower power, complete with Sgt. Pepper-spoofing cover, while the latter was a spot-on doo-wop homage that showed Zappa fully understood the rules of pop music before breaking them.

The original Mothers of Invention disbanded in 1969, with the prolific composer and songwriter continuing to record solo works (such as the jazz-inflected Hot Rats) and tackling his first major symphonic work, conducted by Zubin Mehta.  When Zappa reformed the Mothers in 1970, three alumni of the Turtles joined him: bassist Jim Pons and vocalists Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, a.k.a. Flo and Eddie.  Ian Underwood, Don Preston and Aynsley Dunbar completed the line-up that joined Zappa that evening at Carnegie Hall.

Hit the jump for more on this immortal incarnation of the band!

The Kaylan/Volman line-up of the Mothers made its debut on 1970’s Chunga’s Revenge and appeared in Zappa’s ambitious 200 Motels film project alongside such musician friends as Ringo Starr and Keith Moon.  (And Theodore Bikel!)  The band could also be heard on the albums Fillmore East – June 1971 and Just Another Band from L.A. (1972).  Extended, irreverent, theatrical set pieces were the order of the day for this band.  “Billy the Mountain” was a roughly half-hour long rock opera parody about a talking mountain named Billy and his wife Ethell (a tree “growing off of his shoulder, natch).  Zappa spoofed one of his favorite targets, Los Angeles, as well as American society and culture in general.  The intricate piece combined dialogue and song as well as recurring musical motifs including references to “The Tonight Show Theme,” “Over the Rainbow” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”  (Talk about diversity!)

Even more infamous than “Billy the Mountain” was “The Mud Shark.”  Based on the famous story of a rock band bacchanal that needn’t be repeated here, Kaylan, Volman and Zappa were at their most outrageous.  (It emerged from the same explorations of “a rock band’s life on the road” as 200 Motels.  Zappa revisited certain themes numerous times, an example of his “conceptual continuity” that enabled smaller pieces to be viewed as part of a larger whole.)  The complete “Mud Shark” sequence, in which a band negotiates with some groupies for an evening of pleasure, included such pieces as “Bwana Dik” (no excerpts necessary) and even a reprise of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” that might make you reconsider the classic pop hit each time you hear it blaring from the radio!  These Mothers had perfected the art of juxtaposing the high and the low, the sophisticated and the puerile.

Yet by the end of 1971, The Mothers of Invention were, once again, no more.  Zappa suffered critical injuries when an audience member pushed him into the orchestra pit of London’s Rainbow Theatre, leaving him wheelchair-bound and unable to perform for nearly a year.  Flo and Eddie struck out on their own, and eventually began touring once again under the Turtles moniker for audiences eager to hear “Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be With Me” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” revisited.  Today, Flo and Eddie occasionally participate in Zappa tribute shows and still fondly recall their time in the wildest band on earth.  Zappa, for his part, used the Mothers name on and off until abandoning it for good in 1976.  The workaholic producer,composer, activist, writer and individualist would continue to entertain his dedicated audience, infuriate his critics, speak out against censorship in music, and break new ground in any number of musical idioms until his untimely death in 1993.  He even scored a Top 40 hit single in 1982 with “Valley Girl.”  Had the underground finally become mainstream?

The track listing for Carnegie Hall hasn’t been revealed, but that won’t stop ardent Zappa fans and collectors from pre-ordering at Barfko-Swill.  These legendary concerts promise to show a band at its intricate musical peak, taking chances and delivering laughs, great playing and great singing on one of the world’s great concert stages.  The 4-CD Carnegie Hall box set, remastered in glorious mono, is due on one of Frank Zappa’s favorite days of the year, Halloween.  (For some, Zappa’s double entendre-laden “Goblin Girl” is a veritable Halloween tradition, after all.)  Does humor belong in music?  You can decide for yourself.

Written by Joe Marchese

October 14, 2011 at 13:11

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