FRANK ZAPPA: QUAUDIOPHILIAC

(BARKING PUMPKIN RECORDS/ZAPPA FAMILY TRUST/DTS ENTERTAINMENT; Audio DVD, 2004) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS

To say that Frank Zappa was ahead of the musical curve – WAY ahead of the curve! – is, quite possibly, the understatement of this very young millennium. Recently, FZ’s eldest male offspring (the one titled “Dweezil”) discovered an old tape box, dated March 1, 1970, bearing his name (that would be “Dweezil.” We just went through this – in an earlier parenthetical aside – at the beginning of this impossibly rambling and circumlocutious sentence). The box contained a very early, unimaginably expansive recording of what would eventually become “Chunga’s Revenge,” recorded in an unto then unheard of separation/mix called “quadraphonic”; this recording, in fact, preceded the whole quadraphonic rage (“rage” may not be the best way to describe it, though… the process never really caught on with anyone other than audio geeks of the highest form) by several years and today’s hip new sound, Digital 5.1 Surround Sound by nearly three-and-a-half decades! That recording (in the guise of “Chunga Basement”) is now released in all of its four-channel glory, alongside nine other such experiments recorded by FZ and his various groups (Zappa, the Mothers, and… Dweezil, the proposed name of the new group with which Frank recorded this version of “Chunga… “). Dweezil (the son, not the band), after inquiring as to the existence of other like-minded recordings, has sequenced the ten tracks culled from the vaults of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, not chronologically, but with an eye (an ear?) toward maximum listenability. So, how’d the kid do? Let’s examine, shall we?

Frank and Dweezil Zappa (uncredited photo)

QUAUDIOPHILIAC begins with two of Zappa’s orchestral pieces, the first (“Naval Aviation In Art?”) comes from the much-contested LATHER (an historic four-album set that was whittled up and edited into five separate albums – STUDIO TAN, SLEEP DIRT, the two-record set LIVE IN NEW YORK, and ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES, the latter being the place that this tune eventually saw release); the second is a re-worked, unreleased “Lumpy Gravy” from the same session that spawned the former. The two tracks combined clock in at a robust 2:39. The third track comes from the same source, but features – for the first time here – a signature FZ guitar solo. The previously unreleased “Rollo” is everything that made you fall in love with Zappa’s music (except without the pee-pee and fart jokes): Intriguing time-changes, adventurous arrangements, squiggly guitar leads. This, friends and neighbors, is truly the stuff of which FZ’s legend was made!

Aynsley Dunbar, Frank Zappa (uncredited photo)

A previously unheard version of “Watermelon In Easter Hay,” retitled “Drooling Midrange Accountants On Easter Hay” by Dweezil, is next. The new name comes from an FZ quote in which he discusses the record business in – as you can tell – his usual glowing terms; this spot-on diatribe is now edited over an alternate arrangement of the tune. The next two songs – SHEIK YERBOUTI’s “Wild Love” and SHUT UP ‘N’ PLAY YER GUITAR SOME MORE’s “Ship Ahoy” – feature several musicians who cut their teeth in Zappa’s late ’70s bands: bassists Roy Estrada and Patrick O’Hearn, guitarist Adrian Belew, vocalist Napolean Murphey Brock, and uber-percussionist Terry Bozzio. Though the songs are familiar, the four-channel mixes bring out the hidden intricacies inherent in all of FZ’s music. The much bally-hooed (just how much? Well, check out the first paragraph of this here critically-motivated piece) “Dweezil” tape rears its magnificent head next. Apparently, Dweezil would have been a kind of Mothers super-group in a standard four-piece rock setting: FZ on guitar (and, presumably, vocals), Ian Underwood on keyboards, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and Max Bennett on bass. As far as I know, Zappa’s reasons for retiring Dweezil after this single recording session has never been revealed. Obviously, Frank decided to reconvene the Mothers in a newer, harder-edged version and to maintain his steadily growing solo career, as well. “Chunga’s Basement,” now, is merely a glimpse of what could have been.

Frank Zappa (photo credit: FRANK LEONHARDT/ASSOCIATED PRESS IMAGES)

The next two tracks are the oldest of these recordings, aside form the Dweezil tape. An unreleased live recording from 1974, “Venusian Time Bandits,” features three more impressive Mothers: George Duke, Chester Thompson, and Tom Fowler. While FZ usually went large – as on the WAKA/JAWAKA title track which follows – it is in the stripped down arrangements for four-piece combos that his own virtuosity is featured in its best light; there is no doubt as to the genius he displayed as a composer, a conductor, an arranger, a band leader. The thing that these smaller groups shows is that Zappa was an unselfish (though demanding) player. He was more than willing to stand aside and allow his bandmates to shine, but was able to play rings around just about anybody you could name when he chose. “Waka/Jawaka” is a prime example of FZ standing aside, allowing his compositional and arranging skills to dictate how the other musicians move the music along. “Basement Music #2,” a piece culled from the soundtrack to the BABY SNAKES movie, finishes the set off in fine fashion. Chil’uns, if the newly discovered mixes don’t sell you on this one, then the unreleased stuff is surely enough to convince each of you to become a QUAUDIOPHILIAC! Dude, this just reminds me how much I miss FZ… hopefully there’s more to come.


100 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME (ACCORDING TO ME), NUMBER 100

If you’re here looking for a Jann Wenner/ROLLING STONE/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame style affirmation of how great Bruce Springsteen is, move on… there’s nothing here for you; Springsteen’s indecipherable vocal grunts have never appealed to me and – like Kurt Cobain’s – his lyrics are a tick (well, okay… several ticks) below that “Friday” girl (Rebecca Black). So, with that out of the way, I can pretty much guarantee that this list will not look like any other such list. Why? Okay, while there are albums that are obviously classics, landmark releases or “must hears,” most of those don’t manage to meet my stringent requirements for this list. Do I like Miles’ BITCHES BREW, Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED or the Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON? Absolutely! And, just for the record, I do actually like a lot of Nirvana’s stuff, IN UTERO being my favorite. But, and here’s the major prerequisite for this list, how often do I listen to them? Not as often as I listen to the records that made the cut and, to these ears, that’s what counts. So, there you go… that is my stringent requirement: How often do I listen to the album and, to a lesser extent, how vehement am I about forcing said album on everyone else with whom I come into contact. A few minor things to consider (or not): There are no live albums (that’s a completely different list); these are all full-length releases (no EPs or singles); every album on this list is an official release (no bootlegs or “promotional only” items); “Greatest Hits,” “Best of… ” and singles collections are strictly verboten.

Ask me again next week and this list will probably look quite different; in fact, it’s already changed significantly since I decided to do a list. I started at 20 (in line with my list of favorite live albums). The list quickly ballooned to almost a hundred before I started whittling it back down to 50. I then found myself adding, deleting and substituting the other nearly 50 albums, so… what’s a music lover to do? The answer was obvious: Make the list a firm Top 100, regardless of the massive undertaking. If you wanna call this a “guilty pleasures” list, if that’ll help you sleep better at night… that’s okay with me. What I hope to accomplish with this list is to get you to take a closer look at some albums you may have crossed off after a spin or two or to get you to check out something that you may have never even been familiar with. It ain’t rocket surgery, kids; it’s just me telling you what I like and why – maybe – you should like the stuff (or at least give a listen), too. With that said, and heading from the bottom of my humble list to the top of the heap, here’s…

(100) KING CRIMSON: DISCIPLINE

(WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS/EG RECORDS; 1981)

Discipline cover

I likes me some King Crimson! No… really, I do! I like RED (mostly because I have long been enamored of the bass playing and vocal talents of one John Wetton) and, honestly, who doesn’t like IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING? My favorites, though, have always been the triptych of early ’80s albums after Robert Fripp reconvened the project following a six year break: BEAT, THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR and the one that started this new phase, DISCIPLINE. Why, then, if I am such a fan of the band, is this the only Crimson album to make the cut and why at the bottom of the list? Well, first, it really is my favorite King Crimson album and, second… with a collection nearing 10,000 full-length albums, being considered one of my top 100 favorites of all time ain’t too shabby!

King Crimson (Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, Robert Fripp) (publicity photo)

King Crimson (Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, Robert Fripp) (publicity photo)

This was a distinctly new Crimson, with Fripp’s songwriting and guitar gymnastics (ingeniously dubbed “Frippertronics”) falling more in line with his concurrent project, the League of Gentlemen. Toss in Adrian Belew’s equally quirky guitar meanderings (alongside his abstract lyrics and unique vocal style) and the masterful stick (and bass) playing of the incredible Tony Levin and that means that the only constant and true link to the original Crimsons is the powerful, jazzy drumming of Bill Bruford.

King Crimson onstage, circa 1982 (Tony Levin, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford) (uncredited photo)

King Crimson onstage, circa 1982 (Tony Levin, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford) (uncredited photo)

The album is short, but so incredibly dense musically that you don’t realize the brevity. It starts, as these things generally do, with side one, track one: “Elephant Talk” is Fripp’s mission statement for this new Crimson, laying out everything in one blast of avant-garde progressivism. Tony Levin uses the stick like a lead instrument, butting up against Adrian Belew’s whammy bar tomfoolery and Bob’s manic Frippertronics. Belew’s lyrics and crazed vocal delivery is basically an A-B-C (and D-E, too) of terms for human communication, sounding particularly verbose on the word “bicker,” which is repeated with extra venom a few times. Through everything going on over the top, Bill Bruford sounds almost like a beginner with his minimalist time-keeping approach. “Frame By Frame” has an almost orchestral feel, even with Levin and Bruford double-timing the stick and drums. Levin adds his backing voice to a nice Belew vocal as Fripp continues to get “loopy” amid an air force of skittering, dive-bombing guitar effects. A laconic soundscape, Matte Kudasai,” features Fripp egging on Adrian’s melancholic delivery of his own tortured lyrics. Side one ends with “Indiscipline,” a song about “it” and how “it” can consume and destroy you. Belew speaks matter-of-factly between “21st Century Schizoid Man” blasts of blistering metallic riffing. The tune may best be known as the “I repeat myself when under stress” song, a phrase repeated several times as Belew is driven to distraction over “it.”

King Crimson (Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp) (photo credit: PHILIPPE HAMON)

King Crimson (Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp) (photo credit: PHILIPPE HAMON)

Aside from “Elephant Talk,” the track that opens side two, “Thela Hun Ginjeet” may be the most well-known number on DISCIPLINE, maybe more for the title than anything else, though the song is certainly of the highest quality. Belew’s tale of fear and loathing on the streets of New York plays out in a “tape-recorded” narrative, an instance of art imitating life (or vice-versa). The adrenaline-fueled pacing features tribal percussion, stinging guitars, Levin playing a real, live bass guitar and another inventive Frippertronics loop running throughout. The momentum and the paranoiac vibe of the tune is just right for the subject matter. In a rather quirky move (is there another kind where Fripp’s King Crimson is concerned?), the album’s final two tracks are instrumentals. It may have been more prudent to flip one of these two numbers with one from the first side. So, anyway, “The Sheltering Sky” opens with Bruford’s African hand drums and Belew’s understated rhythm guitar before Fripp and Levin launch their tonal assault. A soundscape that lasts well over eight minutes, “The Sheltering Sky” is at once pastoral and moving, calming and exciting; a true dichotomy… just like this new Crimson. As the name implies, there is a degree of “Discipline” in the title track, with more looped guitar and a rhythmic simplicity that connotes the disciplined musician. As further textures are introduced (especially more adventurous drumming and another guitar), the whole thing threatens to come undone before Fripp regains control.

King Crimson on the 1996 HORDEFEST main stage (Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

King Crimson on the 1996 HORDEFEST main stage (Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Even though this may not be the archetypical King Crimson record, if you’re Crimson-curious, it may just be the best place to start, as it tends to be the most “conventional.” After DISCIPLINE, you’ll want to check out some of the band’s more diverse offerings, such as RED (featuring the trio of Fripp, Bruford and John Wetton, with David Cross – who left during the recording – on violin) or IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (the band’s debut album, with Greg Lake on bass and vocals and featuring the most well-known Crimson song of all time, “21st Century Schizoid Man”).

The most recent version of DISCIPLINE was released in 2011, part of the band’s “40th Anniversary Series.” The CD features a new mix of the original record plus some bonus tracks. In addition, there’s a DVD with seven (yes, seven!) different mixes of the album (two of which feature the bonus material). It also features three videos recorded live for the OLD GREY WHISTLE TEST television show, including the one above.