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.


ANT-BEE: LUNAR MUZIK

(DIVINE RECORDS, UK; 1997) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULTS (UPDATE BELOW)

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The entity known far and wide (and just around the corner) as Ant-Bee is actually a mad genius named Billy James, who has managed to cozy up to an unimaginable group of rock stars, including Gong’s Daevid Allen, every member of the original Alice Cooper with a name other than Alice Cooper (including the late Glen Buxton), and a slue of ex-Zappa sidemen who occasionally go by the name “Grandmothers” (Bunk Gardner, Motorhead Sherwood, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, and Don Preston, among others). James himself is sort of a rock everyman: He plays drums, guitar, keyboards, bass; he writes… music and books (he’s written or co-written books about/with Peter Banks, Michael Bruce, Grand Funk Railroad, and – his latest – Todd Rundgren); he produces and, occasionally, he slices and dices (just like Sean “P. Doh-Wah Diddy-Daddy” Combs, only with talent); he promotes other musician’s releases. And, regardless of the involvement of the ex-Mothers, he has a definite Frank Zappa sensibility toward songwriting, production, and arrangement. Listen, for instance, to the album’s opener, “Snorks and Wheezes,” with its bizarre time changes, obtuse vocals in a psuedo-doo-wop middle section, and Ruth Underwood-style percussion, and tell me that you are not having a late ’60s-early ’70s Mothers flashback.

“Child of the Moon” is a pretty straight take on the old Jagger-Richard B-side, with some nice orchestration and vocals. It also features some nice acoustic work. Later, James and his uber-minions give the same treatment to Mike Nesmith’s amazing psychedelic country hit, “Love Is Only Sleeping.” There’s a wicked guitar solo – performed by Roy Herman – that weaves its way throughout “Love Is Only Sleeping,” adding to the overall psychedelic feel of the tune. Again, like Zappa, compositions/ideas tend to run together. The triptych nestled between “Child of the Moon” and “Love Is Only Sleeping” wanders between lunatic rave-ups (with a couple of wild backward guitar solos – which always seem to sound more impressive than they probably are – and a percussive coda repeated from “Snorks and Wheezes” on “Blew a Banana Thru the Sun”) and introspective balladry (complete with harpsicord, gongs, and lilting vocals on “The One Who Is Gold”) and back again (“Silicone Hump,” an ancient Don Preston piece of Turtles-esque lunacy). The album’s centerpiece, “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is a composition in four parts, encompassing Harvey Bainbridge’s (he of Hawkwind fame) “The Swan and the Horseshoe” and Neal Smith’s (he of Alice Cooper fame) “The Platinum God” sandwiched between original James music. The nearly ten minute piece continues LUNAR MUZIK’s thematic make-up: Pretty, almost pastoral vocals interspersed with manic percussion and noisy rock guitar. Bainbridge’s part is an almost ambient synthesizer wash, leading back to the main theme before giving way to “The Platinum God,” which features the four ex-Coopers – Neal Smith, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway, and some trippy guitar from Glen Buxton, undoubtedly one of the last things he recorded before his death.

Ant-Bee/Billy James (publicity photo)

Ant-Bee/Billy James (publicity photo)

The album ends – much as it began – with songs running together, themes repeated and overlapping into each other. “Diva Gliss (Are You Sirius?),” which flows out of the final movement of “By-and-By I Touch the Sky,” is by Daevid Allen and features him on guitar; the tune leads – seamlessly – into “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” a return, as it were, to “By-and-By… ,” which leads into a Michael Bruce/Billy James composition called “Return of the Titanic Overture.” The piece features themes and pieces of music culled from the very first Alice Cooper album, PRETTIES FOR YOU. It, like “Tears That Fall Unto the Sky,” features Bruce’s guitar work. “Son of Snorks and Wheezes” closes the proceedings with an even more bizarre take on the opening track. It features most of the Grandmothers, with Jimmy Carl Black’s prominent Indian chants and attempts to extort money and beer from the producer. Boys and girls, this is the type of inspired lunacy that one could regularly expect to find in the record bins as the 1960s phased into the 1970s: Nearly virtuoso performances coupled with adventurous arrangements, melding rock with jazz, doo-wop, classical instrumentation, and big-band phrasing. Though the album has been out for awhile, it’s so hard to come by that I only recently acquired this CD-R copy from James himself and I just had to tell you about it. Oh, yeah… the album artwork is by some guy named Syd Barrett! (Check out Billy James’ “Web Bizarre” at www.ant-bee.com and, if you’re really nice to him, you may be able to pick up your very own copy of LUNAR MUZIK… before it’s too late!)

(UPDATE) Gonzo Multimedia’s reissue of LUNAR MUZIK was released in June 2014. For ordering information, check Billy’s site.