Friday, September 19, 2014

Frank Zappa 23: Zappa In New York

At this point the Zappa catalog becomes even tougher to navigate. A break in the release schedule was precipitated by various lawsuits, which also affected what he put out and how. Four records’ worth of material were prepared, then combined into a single package, then supposedly split up again. (The actual chronology is moot for the time being.)
The first of these related (or not) albums was Zappa In New York, a live two-record set culled from a set of concerts that closed out 1976. The album was further “tampered with” against Frank’s wishes, deleting one entire song and editing another. But anyway.
Only a couple of years on from his last live album, Zappa’s band had evolved yet again, with basically only Ruth Underwood still hanging on. He had several vocalists who could also play instruments to his satisfaction, including guitarist Ray White; drummer Terry Bozzio was put forth as the teenage heartthrob star, but his singing is only slightly less grating than Flo & Eddie, since there’s only one of him. He gets the spotlight early on, voicing the parts of the devil in the puerile parable “Titties & Beer”. This transitions abruptly to the so-called “sensitive instrumental ballad for late-nite easy listening”, the unfortunately named “I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth”, a title to which Warner Bros. somehow didn’t object. (And therein lies the problem with post-‘60s Zappa: anytime you want to admire him as a composer, he has to go and deflate it with “humor”, under the concocted defense that such activity was what his audience demanded and therefore it was the only way he could sustain a living.) Then it’s another 180 to a performance of the rare (for then, anyway) B-side “Big Leg Emma”.
Outside of Frank’s commentary, side two is all instrumental, and fascinating. This version of “Sofa” sounds like the closing theme from Saturday Night Live, which makes sense since some of that band makes up the horn section. The faux-sci-fi soundtrack “Manx Needs Women” segues neatly into the complicated drum solo section of “The Black Page”, so named for the anxiety dream session guys have of being faced with sheet music absolutely crammed with notes. The melodic portion is another showcase for Ruth Underwood on percussion; an alternate arrangement follows after.
High comedy returns on “Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?”, which is funky but not too taxing before taking time out to spew a variety of chauvinistic epithets. Guest MC Don Pardo introduces “The Illinois Enema Bandit”, the fresh-as-that-day’s-headlines story of an armed robber who provided an extra “service” for his female victims. Naturally, Frank finds it hilarious, else he wouldn’t have written, arranged, performed, recorded and released a song about it. Again, the guitar solo is far preferable to deciding whether, as the song suggests, the women enjoyed it. “The Purple Lagoon” takes up side four of the album, and features some very jazzy solos from the Brecker Brothers and bass player Patrick O’Hearn (as well as Frank).
Ultimately, it’s the music that puts Zappa In New York solidly in the plus column. Whether truly live or enhanced later with guitar and other overdubs, the performances on the album stand out much better than the humor.
The eventual Zappa-approved CD editions not only rescued the edited portions, but expanded the original by about 40 minutes. The running order is different too, basically pairing sides one and three on one disc and the other two on the other, with “Big Leg Emma” stuck between “The Black Page #1” and “Sofa”, where it was supposed to be originally. After a restored “Titties & Beer”, a lengthy instrumental extrapolation on “Cruisin’ For Burgers” shows off his compositional prowess. The major deletion from the original LP, “Punky’s Whips” begins with a setup from Don Pardo, explaining how Bozzio became entranced by a photo of a guitarist from an otherwise forgettable band. The drummer duly sings of his predicament, in a voice ranging from raspy to nasal, in between excellent interplay between horn section and guitar (and a well-timed quote from “Isn’t It Romantic”). Starting the second disc, “I’m The Slime” gets a welcome, enthusiastic performance from Mr. Pardo, before abruptly shifting to “Pound For A Brown”, with traded solos. “The Torture Never Stops” is well played, without the distraction of the “recreational activities” from the studio version.
The album’s stature was high enough that it was reissued a year late for its 40th anniversary in a deluxe package resembling a manhole, containing the original LP mix on one CD, plus three discs of more music from the same shows (including even more Don Pardo and swipes at the record label) and a fourth with alternate mixes and related music. While there are repeated songs from the original album and CDs, we also get unique performances of “Peaches En Regalia”, “Penis Dimension”, “Montana”, “Find Her Finer”, “Dinah-Moe-Hum” and a “Black Napkins” that runs nearly half and hour. For historical purposes, “Titties & Beer” appears a couple times under its original title, “Chrissy Puked Twice”. Thanks to the horn section, “America Drinks” gets a wonderful arrangement in the style of the “Johnny Carson” theme. Also, an alternate “Purple Lagoon” features the instrumental chorus from “Any Kind Of Pain”, which wouldn’t end up on an album until 1988.

Frank Zappa Zappa In New York (1978)—3
1991 Barking Pumpkin CD: “same” as 1978, plus 5 extra tracks
2019 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1978, plus 40 extra tracks

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