Saturday, September 22, 2012

It's Frank Zappa Day

September 19th is officially designated as Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore, the city where Frank grew up, before his family moved to the west coast of the US and he eventually settled in Los Angeles.  Two years ago, I happened to be in Baltimore on business and as usual I checked to see what was on while I was there. The announcement of a statue unveiling grabbed my attention straight away:

"FREE Outdoor Festival and Tribute Concert Featuring DWEEZIL ZAPPA AND ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA.
On September 19th, the city of Baltimore will dedicate a monument to the memory and cultural impact of the legendary Frank Zappa".

To me, Frank Zappa is a complete one-off; a man whose unique musical vision was formed by early exposure to obscure and, to most ears, impenetrable sounds at the extremes of classical and jazz - with a garnish of doo-wop.  I'm pretty sure that from an early age he would have been seen, and seen himself, as an outsider. His family lived in a series of small towns and this sense of cultural isolation contributed to his singular vision. He remained a maverick throughout his life, which is why I think he deserves greater recognition, not just for the enormous catalogue of music he created, but for the purity of his vision. He was driven to create and although he understood the 'business' of music very well, his music was unaffected by commercial considerations. He did what he did and some of it was successful, artistically and commercially. Some of it was only successful artistically and, yes, some of it was artistically and politically questionable. But musically, the proof of his worth as a composer and his skills as a band leader are the sheer number of virtuoso musicians who have come through his ranks. Only Miles Davis could beat him in that regard.

Percussionist Ruth Underwood
said of Frank, "there was always more music..". He never stopped working and writing out manuscripts for the band to work on. If you are a musician and you want a fuller appreciation of Frank's oeuvre, it is essential to read 'The Real Frank Zappa Book', his autobiography. In it, he details the unusual inspiration he found in the music of Varese and Stravinsky and of his early musical efforts in cahoots with schoolfriend Donny Vliet (Captain Beefheart).  Frank also writes about how the Mothers of Invention evolved their act, via a 6-month residency at a club in New York. The book provides the cointext and a greater understanding of how Frank came to create those early Mothers records - the arrangements, the little filligree passages, the tape looping, the orchestral interludes. There is so much in there.

Here is Ruth explaining the richness of her relationship with Frank:

So anyway, on that sunny Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, I grabbed a cab out to the Highlandtown suburb. My driver was a lovely Nigerian guy who played Fela Kuti and explained the stories behind each of the songs.  Highlandtown is an ordinary featureless suburb, but for this day at least it got a spruce-up. The sidewalk bushes had been fitted with larger than life dental floss containers. Pictures of FZ were hanging from all the lamp-posts, and best of all, the main street running through the town had been renamed 'Frank Zappa Way'.
The official bit was mercifully short. Gail Zappa, Frank's wife, made a speech reminding everyone that Frank had stated ‘if you want to get laid, go to college, but if you want an education, go to the library’. So it was fitting that his bust would be unveiled outside the community library in the place of his birth.

Gail, Ahmet, Dweezil, Diva - and Frank
Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made the official proclamation, then invited Gail to unveil the statue topped by a bust of FZ. Curiously, the bronze bust was donated by artists from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where apparently Zappa was a beacon of freedom of expression during the Soviet occupation.
Over by the denil floss bush

The other members of the Zappa clan included daughter Diva and son Ahmet. All were openly moved by the honour and respect being shown to Frank. Then Dweezil and the band paid their own respects with a two hour set that ran as follows:

Stinkfoot / Florentine Pogen / Broken Hearts Are For Assholes / Easy Meat / Keep It Greasy / City Of Tiny Lights / Echidna's Arf For You / Don't Eat The Yellow Snow / Blessed Relief / Big Swifty / Apostrophe / RDNZL / I'm The Slime / Dinah Moe Humm

You want some more? Well here's some more.....The following clip starts with the unveiling of the statue and continues with highlights from the set by Zappa Plays Zappa

Spooky - Frank's ghost appears front centre

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Tubes - how they conquered London, 1977

Without doubt, the most spell-binding rock show I have ever seen was staged by The Tubes at the Hammersmith Odeon in November 1977.  The group were not all that well known in the UK, having never played there before. But they caused a sensation by booking a week’s residency at the famous London theatre and putting on an outrageous, hilarious and sexually explicit show that blew everyone’s mind. 

The review of the show written by the NME’s Paul Rambali said, “If you saw them, you will probably feel conned next time you hand over the notes to watch some other group merely stand there and play.  The Tubes are a spectacle unlike any other. They present a relentless onslaught of humour, outrage, parody, idiocy, music and costume – a feast for the senses.”
How does a band that has never played in the UK, and doesn’t have a hit record, create enough of a buzz to sell out a week of shows?  They had also made plans to record a live album. They must have been damn sure of themselves.  The pre-show hype was a testament to the power of the NME in the 1970s, because without any other publicity, save for a few plays by Capital Radio's Nicky Horne, there was no other way for them to spread the word in those days. The NME was still the bible for rock fans and their coverage of the US scene had always been first-rate.
Here was a good example - the NME writer Mick Farren spent time with The Tubes at their rehearsal studios in LA. He described their act as “satiric mania choreographed with split-second timing. The Tubes may play for laughs but the laughs are delivered according to a spot-on orchestration. They don’t amble into a rehearsal studio, down a few beers, blow a joint and then put down an hour and half of lackluster boogie and call it a day. Both musicians and dancers work out under the uncompromising direction of choreographer Kenny Ortega.” On the Columbia Studios soundstage, the show was going though its full dress run-through and Farren observed:  “It’s nothing short of magnificent. The only words you can use are ones like sensory overkill. The act doesn’t leave you alone. One moment it’s the band in white intern coats playing straight techno-rock. Then it’s a dance troupe on the lam from Star Wars, and then there’s the punk pastiche. Except, pastiche or not, The Tubes can cut harder and deeper than 90%s of the new wave.”

The band’s first two albums in the mid-70s established the template for satirical pieces about show business, consumerism and sex, with titles like White Punks On Dope,  What Do You Want From Life, Don’t Touch Me There and Mondo Bondage. 
Good as those records were, the songs really came alive on the stage, where The Tubes could put their creativity and art skills to work.  Not only that, they could really go to town on the outrage, with bondage, simulated sex, exploding TVs, live chainsaws and a cascade of semi-nude dancers.  Naturally, they were banned from several of the more conservative states of America. And with a group that contained eight musicians and several dancers, this was never going to be a commercially viable operation unless they could take the show to the big venues.  So there was a lot riding on the European tour. Lead singer Fee Waybill acknowledged that The Tubes needed to make it as a headline rock act, to cover the cost of their large touring group: “I think we’re primarily a rock and roll band. We have to establish ourselves as that. We have to convince these promoters that we are not just a visual act – that we can kick ass.”

Well they did that alright. In common with everyone who saw it, the NME’s Paul Rambali was blown away by the London show: “The stage exists in a continual chorus of activity that veers from anarchic chaos to precision orchestration with virtually no breathing space. The band continually assail the senses with extremes of spectacle. After doing their duet ‘Don’t Touch Me There’ from a motorbike, Fee Waybill strapped backing singer Re Styles between two video monitors for ‘MondoBondage’.                  
The finale was the appearance of Quay Lewd, Waybill’s obnoxious glammed-up rock star with three feet high platform shoes. Rambali wrote: “Quay sang a song, fell over, insulted at least half the audience, fell over, did ‘Stand Up And Shout’, fell over, then told us, “this is the audience participation bit. When I say ‘stand up and shout’ you lot all shout…erh…’go down on me you bitch!

“Eventually he settled for having the whole audience shout “you bleedin wankers” on cue, fell over and finally was buried beneath a toppling 50-foot speaker column.”

Rambali concluded his review thus: “I have never witnessed anything remotely like The Tubes. Neither, to judge from the rapturous response and conversations afterwards, had anyone else. Amazing”

It really was, musically and visually remarkable. I saw them again in 1978, at the Knebworth Festival on the bill with Frank Zappa and Peter Gabriel. And again in 1979 at Hammersmith, on the ‘Remote Control’ tour, where they were supported by Squeeze (that’s another story…). But that first time in 1977 was shockingly good.

'White Punks On Dope' performed by The Tubes on the BBC 1977

The NME's review of the Tubes, published on 19th November 1977