Mark on Music Classic: Frank Zappa’s Road Tapes, Vol. 1

It’s an exciting time for a Zappa fan. The long-awaited Roxy and Elsewhere movie is on its way; a soundtrack album is too. And, just a couple of weeks ago, The Zappa Family Estate released the second volume of their Road Trips series, capturing the 1973 band over three shows in Finland. It seems as good a time as any for me to re-run this Mark on Music post reviewing the first of the Road Tapes series, capturing the original Mothers of Invention in 1968.

When a band spends a lot of time of the road gigging, especially if they thrive on improvisation, their best music will inevitably be performed on the road, not on their albums. That’s just a fact: some bands were much better live than in the studio.

But not every group could afford to record every show: magnetic tape was expensive and some groups that recorded their shows didn’t always save the tapes: the Grateful Dead used to re-use theirs and Frank Zappa was known for splicing parts out he liked and recording over the rest.

Indeed, Zappa was often dismissive of his bands performances, even with his most talented groups. When he released a live album, it was usually heavily overdubbed in the studio: Roxy and Elsewhere had new vocals, Zappa in New York had new solos and Sheik Yerbouti has more or less re-recorded in the studio. They were nice listens, but not really representative of his live shows. Hence a large bootleg market.

Later, he released a series of live albums, free from overdubs, the six-volume, 12-CD You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series. But Zappa filled them with tape edits and splices: in the same song, Zappa would cut between performances recorded a decade apart. Some songs contained as many five different performances. They were a nice start, but hardly ideal.

It took years after Zappa’s death for full concerts to start making their way out of his vault. The first was FZ:OZ, a 1976 concert in Sydney, Australia. Later came Wazoo, a show from Boston in 1972 and Buffalo, originally recorded in 1980. A little over a year ago, the estate released Carnegie Hall.

The thing to keep in mind with those releases is their sonic quality: by and large, they were recorded under ideal circumstances: Buffalo on Zappa’s mobile studio, Wazoo by a professional mobile studio. Even Carnegie Hall, which comes from a mono recording, used recorded two, linked tape machines, meaning there wouldn’t by anything lost during a tape flip. These are all good sounding recordings, free from any large defects.

But what about everything else? Zappa used to play gigs all around the US, Canada and Europe. A bunch of these shows were by Zappa himself. After all, these guerrilla recordings (as he once called them) have briefly popped up on live albums. They don’t sound as good, but they have some of his best moments. And they’ve never appeared as a whole. Until now, anyway.

Road Tapes is a new series of concerts being released by the Zappa Estate through their Vaulternative label. They promise to capture what was “impossibly out there on the road in some of the worst audio terrain imaginable.” And the first volume is certainly out there: it’s a live recording of the original Mothers of Invention, live in Vancouver in August 1968.

The concert starts with Zappa talking to the audience and conducting them in the same way he’d conduct his band, through a series of yells, grunts and chants. Soon the band kicks into gear on Help, I’m A Rock, a cut from Zappa’s first album and one of his more experimental numbers. And this segues directly into Transylvania Boogie, a guitar-led number that’d only see release a couple of years later. Let’s recap: in the first 10 minutes of this gig, the band roared from one of the oldest and oddest numbers into full-on rock, barely missing a beat, as we’re treated the first of many guitar rockouts.

It’s more than that, though: Zappa taunts the crowd, asking “Ten dollars to any hippie who’ll cut his hair right here on stage tonight. Do we have any desperate hippies who wanna take it off?” and conducts the band through an Edgard Varese-esque improvisation, titled here as Flopsmash Musics. It’s a showcase for Don Preston and his early synthesizers, which  sound like a pissed-off electric piano.

After a quick run-through of Hungry Freaks, Daddy, Zappa pauses to tune his guitar and introduces the next tune, The Orange County Lumber Truck, as some familiar music plus “some other stuff you won’t recognize.” It’s a whole suite of music long familiar to long-time Zappa fans, consisting of four songs, stretched with some extended soloing from Zappa, Preston and some of the other Mothers, winding down with more fooling around: snorks and Bunk Gardner talking about childhood piano lessons.

This is the kind of thing that longtime fans are here to listen to: the band in full flight, playing it’s asses off and going straight into chaos onstage, with strange noises and talking over improvised music. It’s the sort of thing that couldn’t happen anywhere but on stage, spontaneously. If it was rehearsed and sanitized for a studio recording, it just wouldn’t work.

The second disc picks up right at the end of the first, as the band segues into another number from their first album, Trouble Every Day. And right away you can see why this tape wasn’t used before: there’s a big, ugly tape cut right in the middle of the song. It’s dubbed over with a door slamming (nice touch) and we come back right in the middle of a harmonica solo. It’s a flawed recording, but I’m glad they kept it in.

Next up is the oddly titled Shortly: Suite Exists Of Holiday In Berlin Full Blown, which isn’t really different from Holiday in Berlin as released on Burnt Weeny Sandwich. It’s another tune with a nice Zappa guitar solo, plus some nice playing by Underwood and Gardner, but it’s not quite as revelatory as one might expect. It already sounds fully formed.

From there, it’s two Zappa tunes that hadn’t seen release at this point: Pound for a Brown and Sleeping in a Jar (Uncle Meat wouldn’t come out until next spring, maybe a reason this gig was so heavy on Freak Out-era material). There’s a short guitar section in Pound, but it’s far from the monster solo launching pad it’d later mutate into. Both songs are actually somewhat restrained by Mother standards: no freeform playing, snorking or other zaniness.  Both are a nice reminder how talented this band was.

The zaniness comes up next, with Roy Estrada singing in falsetto on the cheesy doo-wop tune “Oh, In the Sky.” Sample lyrics: “Oh, in the sky / Oh, in the sky / In the sky.” This song closed off the concert, but Zappa brings the band back for an encore, playing an Edgard Varese composition, Octandre, telling the audience “we’re going to ruin it for you,” in typical sardonic fashion.

Of course, they don’t. Varese was a cornerstone of Zappa’s music, arguably the composer who influenced him more than any other. It’s a muscular, menacing-sounding piece. And it’s not all dissimilar from the bombastic intro section of the final song of the concert, King Kong. This song, one of Zappa’s signature songs, is little more than a vehicle for soloing and improvisation and exactly the kind of place where the Mothers flexed their collective muscle: a monster keyboard solo, wild saxophone playing and a thumping rhythm section. It’s performances like this that gave the Mothers their reputation.

So, is the album worth it? Content wise, there are two songs previously unreleased. And it’s a previously unknown recording: it’s never circulated as a bootleg or in the underground trading circles. It’s not often something this old comes out, sounding this good, that’s never seen the light of day before.

But a glance shows it’s not much different, content-wise, from earlier releases like Ahead of the Their Time (recorded just two months later in England) or the YCDTOSA series. Is it better than those albums, even if you already have them?

Surprisingly, yeah, it is. One wouldn’t really guess by listening, but Ahead of Their Time is full of small edits. Songs were moved around from their original order, a track has been omitted, and the rougher edges were smoothed out; there’s no tuning between songs, for instance.

This is part of the appeal of a series like Road Tapes: it’s a look at the full show, not just the parts Zappa thought sounded best. It’s not only as close as you’ll ever get to seeing this band on stage, but it’s full of the little things that make seeing any live act fun: the occasional dropped beat, the odd bum note. The band tuning while Zappa introduces a new song and an appreciative Zappa thanking a grateful audience.

The live albums released in Zappa’s lifetime showed what he wanted his music to sound like under ideal circumstances. There’s no problem with that. But with the new Road Tapes series, you can hear it like it actually happened. It’s essential for any Zappa fan.

Originally published Dec. 12, 2012 at Flashfact.org




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