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From Chunga’s Revenge to Carnegie Hall: Frank Zappa’s Flo and Eddie years

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A Mark on Music classic, from the Flashfact.org archives. 

In his lifetime Frank Zappa released over 60 albums, a slate ranging from rock to jazz to classical, with stops all over the place: albums recorded by computers, comedy songs, side-long instrumental jams. It’s easy to break his career up into various stages, usually his backing band.

First were the original Mothers of Invention. Later on came the 20-piece Wazoo band, the first of his large ensembles. In between those two came his Flo and Eddie band, maybe the most maligned of his career. If the names sound vaguely familiar, they’ll sound instantly so when listened to: they’re Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the two vocalists from The Turtles. They were joined by multi-instrumentalist (and longtime Zappa collaborator) Ian Underwood, bassist Jeff Simmons, jazz legend George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar, who narrowly missed out on drumming for Jimi Hendrix and King Crimson.

This group released four albums while active, plus another one issued in the early 1990s and a live set released late last year. Most of these albums were recorded live, showing this band at what Zappa must have felt it did best: making jokes and telling stories on stage.

Two of those live albums are Fillmore East, June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A., and each features a long suite of mostly dialogue. Fillmore has the groupie routine, a skit about being in a band and getting action from a local groupie; the other has “Billy the Mountain”, a long story-song about a mountain, his wife Ethel (a tree) and their trip cross-country. They’re both interesting documents of this band, but the jokes haven’t especially aged well. And the best part of this band is hardly shown at all: these guys could play.

For years, the best document of this band was the first album they appeared on: Chunga’s Revenge. It’s sort of a hodge-podge of material, containing a live jam, leftovers from Hot Rats and two scorching instrumentals between a few Flo and Eddie songs.

While the album never exactly keeps a certain feel, it shows a little bit of everything in and shows off everything this band did well: make you laugh, make you scratch your head at how well they interacted on stage and make you play air guitar over some of Zappa’s more ferocious licks.

On the title track and Transylvania Boogie the band rocks out like it’s nobody’s business, while songs like  “Would You Go All The Way” and “Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink” have Flo and Eddie at their funniest: the second is about the musicians union, featuring Rudy (who wants to buy you a drink) and isn’t kidding around (he carries a gun to keep musicians in line). The live cut, an excerpt from a performance of “King Kong” shows the band interacting, playing off each others improvisations and eventually getting the crowd to join in. And “Twenty Small Cigars” is one of Zappa’s most underrated gems: a tidy little fusion number that should be a jazz standard. Despite it’s disparate parts, it’s the most constantly entertaining album this group released.

It’s an album easily lost in the shuffle. Chunga’s Revenge was released in October 1970, the third album Zappa released that year. He’d release two more in 1971 and Just Another Band From LA followed in early 1972. And like most of his albums it was out of print for years, even recently. But as of early this month, it’s been released, with a much better mix to boot: the sound’s a lot dryer, with the drums sounding more crisp and natural and the lower end less muddy than previous CD issues. It’s a great album for those interested in this era of Zappa and it’s finally back in print.

But like I said above, this was only a snippet of this band and mostly studio work, to boot. And this was a band that was best on stage. For those who already know about Zappa and have a bad taste of this era – too many dirty jokes, not enough good music – the Zappa Family Trust put out a four-disc set last winter that does nothing less but revolutionize this band’s legacy.

The set takes its name from the location: Carnegie Hall. It’s a collection of two shows Zappa played there in late 1971, the only time he played (or desecrated, as he says during the recording) this stage. It’s an admittedly long set, but it’s basically two complete concerts and for once, the music’s isn’t limited by a release format.

Two of the songs here are more than 30 minutes long: a “King Kong” that’s stuffed with jamming and solos and an extended “Billy the Mountain”, complete with new passages and solos, that goes for over 47 minutes, a song longer than either live album from this group. Both of these go a long way to showing how talented this band was: they were just as good at improvising for an extended period as they were at a scripted mock-rock opera.

The rest of these shows show this band – Zappa, Flo and Eddie, Underwood and Dunbar were joined by Jim Pons on bass and Don Preston on keyboards and Moog synth – in full flight, from another mock-rock opera (“Divan”, the story of Creation and also a giant couch in the heavens), to precision-level playing on rock passages (the twisting “Sleeping in a Jar”, the jazzy “Peaches en Regalia”) to the poppy “Tears Began to Fall,” a song that should have been a hit for this group (below is a different version of this number).

There’s a few surprise treats, too: an electric blues arrangement of “Who Are the Brain Police”, the early Mothers number “Anyway The Wind Blows” and a grateful Zappa announcing because of union rules, it’ll cost him $600 to play one more song but he’s more than happy to do it before launching into a jammed-out version of “The Mud Shark” from Fillmore East. These may mean little to the non-Zappa fan, but to the converted it’s a big deal: this is an artist who changed how songs were played between nights, let alone bands, and just because you’ve heard one version of “King Kong”, it doesn’t mean you’ve even scratched the surface.

But the best thing about this album is what it does for this era of his music. It’s been long looked over and just jokes and groupie talk. The 1992 album Playground Psychotics did little to remedy this: sure, it had an essential set where John Lennon sat in with the Mothers, but it’s long stretches of dialogue and audio verite marred what should have been an essential release. This doesn’t quite have the same quality as those recordings (it was recorded surreptitiously by Zappa in mono, although it sounds exceptionally good considering the circumstances) and the music isn’t quite as legendary as a Zappa/Lennon jam, but it shows just how good this band could be on any given night.

And this band could be pretty damn good.

(Carnegie Hall is available only through Barfko-Swill. At $42 it’s an expensive album, but when you think about it, it’s about $10 a CD. Not too pricy and a lot cheaper than paying to see Zappa Plays Zappa shamble through similar material.)

Originally published at Flashfact.org Aug 28, 2012

Written by M.

April 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm

When Major Tom Went Post-Punk: David Bowie’s Scary Monsters

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There’s a few clichés in rock journalism: that Bob Dylan’s leftovers are better than most artist’s bests, that the Grateful Dead’s Dark Star is a long song and, biggest of all, that David Bowie is the chameleon of rock, because he’s shifted and changed so much over the years.

David Bowie – Scary Monsters (1980)

In a sense, it’s true: Bowie has refined his looks over the years. If one really feels the need, they can break his career up into several, bite-sized digestible chunks: his Ziggy Stardust period, his Tin Machine period, his mainstream rock crooner period, not to mention a dozen or so more. But the problem with that is how marginalizing it is to his music, which when he was really good, has constantly evolving and changing throughout his most creative period.

After all, he wasn’t always revered in rock circles. After playing in various bands throughout the mid 1960s, Bowie’s solo career started with him trying to hack it in folk circles before he capitalized on the space race with Space Oddity, the iconic song about getting lost in space (even if it’s full of trite rhymes like “Ground control to Major Tom, take your protein pills and put your helmet on”). That song, the best track off his second album, was a hit for Bowie, but what’s often overlooked is what happened next: nothing else from his second album charted, and neither did anything from the next one, either.

It wasn’t really until 1970’s Hunky Dory that his sound started to gel, especially on the hooky pop gem Changes and the crunchy-guitar driven Queen Bitch. He’d continue to refine this sound on his commercial breakthrough Ziggy Stardust and never really left it, even as he flirted with soul, progressive rock and ambient music: all throughout this decade, his albums were good for at least one really good guitar-driven rocker, even the often-overlooked Pin Ups.

So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his creative song swan, the album that capped his most productive period, is dominated by snarling guitars. And make no mistake: Scary Monsters is a great guitar album, with some of the best playing to come out of the late 70s.

Stylistically, Scary Monsters is something of Bowie’s post-punk record. Put it’s raging guitars, screamed lyrics and Tom Verlaine cover right next to a Mission of Burma album and nobody’s really going to bat an eye. It’s got a harder sound than anything Bowie had done in years. The experimentation of his Berlin trilogy – the exotic instruments, slick instrumental tracks, and deconstructed song structures – has been left behind.

This isn’t to say it’s free from tricks. Right from the get-go, it’s got everything from the sound of a needle dropping to frantic Japanese lyrics to Bowie screaming “SHUT UP!” as both Carlos Alomar and Robert Fripp’s guitars careen out of control. And we’re not even five minutes in!

Indeed that opening track sets the tone for this record: it’s Bowie looking back on his career, discarding what he’s finished with and moving on to new things. “To be insulted by these fascists, it’s so degrading,” sings Bowie. Is that a shot at a music press who insisted his best years were behind him? Or is it a sly reference to his Thin White Duke era?

Throughout this record, there’s a feeling of paranoia and anxiety. It goes from talk of suicide (“Put a bullet in my brain, and it makes all the papers”) to madness  (“When I looked in her eyes, they were blue but nobody home”) to alienation (“I really can’t remember last time I saw the light of day”). Even a cover of Tom Verlaine’s Kingdom Come adds to this mood: “Sun keeps beating down on me, wall’s a mile high / Up in the tower they’re watching me, hoping I’m gonna die.” Without a doubt, this is Bowie’s darkest album.

The most memorable track here, and the one that everybody’s familiar with, is his kiss-off to his most famous character: Major Tom. In Ashes to Ashes, Bowie asks listeners if they “remember that guy from space” and spills details about himself, about drug abuse and trying to stay clean. For a guy often seen as hiding behind characters, it’s a startlingly direct song: more than anything else on the album, this is a song about how fucked Bowie had become. It’s easy to forget, but before decamping to Berlin, Bowie had developed both serious cocaine and alcohol addictions.

If Ashes to Ashes was his dismissal of a decade of problems, his re-recording of Space Oddity was the capstone to a decade of success. A track that didn’t make the album proper – it wound up as a B-Side and a bonus track on the Rykodisc reissue – his revisiting of his first hit is more fully fleshed out than the original. It’s more confidently delivered, the work of someone who knows exactly what he can do and how to get it done, and is utterly lacking in the little flourishes that distinguish the original.

The album ends on another version of the title track, It’s No Game. But where the opener is frantic, urgent and driving, the closing track is restrained. The music’s kept in check, the Japanese lyrics translated to English. It’s as if Bowie’s exhausted, his statement made.

Taken as a whole, Scary Monsters can be a little much. But while it’s edgiest album, it’s also one of Bowie’s most powerful: this is him at full power, looking back at a decade’s worth of work, ten of the most creative, productive and successful years in rock. Bowie took a break after this album, waiting three years to release Let’s Dance, and he’s yet to recover the momentum he had here (another rock cliché: every new Bowie album for the past two decades has been his best since Scary Monsters).

But that’s kind of missing the point, too. I wrote above about how Bowie’s career has been divided into sections and chunks. Sure, he changed characters, but the only time he actually stopped something was here. There’s only two Bowie eras: the one that came before Scary Monsters and the one that happened after it.

Originally published at Flashfact.org during July 2012

Written by M.

April 3, 2013 at 9:00 am