(LOOTPRESS) – In the continued exploration of the career of composer, guitarist, and singer/songwriter Frank Zappa we find ourselves at the tail-end of the 1960s. The countercultural dream of peace & love is all but dead and so is the beloved original lineup of the Mothers of Invention.
In truth, Zappa had begun reconfiguring the group shortly following the release of their debut record Freak Out!, which featured five Mothers – Roy Estrada, Jimmy Carl Black, Ray Collins, Elliot Ingber, and Zappa himself. By the release of Absolutely Free just over a year later, the personnel for the band had nearly doubled, boasting an expansive eight core members along with a slew of outside contributors.
But frustrated by the musical shortcomings of his bandmates as well as the financial strain of funding the group’s live act, Zappa effectively disbanded The Mothers in 1969 retaining only multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood who would contribute heavily to the musician’s material for several years beginning with Hot Rats that same year. Mothers keyboardist Don Preston would reappear in the band – before disappearing once more shortly after – in the early 70s, however.
Following the dismissal of his bandmates Zappa set about assembling a group of musicians capable of conjuring his elaborate musical vision. An early acquisition was that of French jazz-rock violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty, who would feature on a number of Zappa projects but never consistently remained a full-time member.
Blues bassist Jeff Simmons – who Zappa initially signed as part of the band Easy Chair and for whom he produced the 1969 solo album Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up – was brought onboard along with English drum virtuoso Ansley Dunbar, jazz keyboardist George Duke, and vocal duo Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the recently disbanded Turtles.
With an ace band at his disposal and with no shortage of material, Zappa set about hitting the road while simultaneously crafting records and even filming a movie. The new Mothers had become a well-oiled machine, but proceedings were brought to a halt when Zappa was attacked by a fan on stage in 1971, resulting in a fall which those in attendance whether or not he had even survived.
As would become customary for Zappa, this iteration of the Mothers of Invention dissolved. During his extensive recovery period, Zappa focused his attention to more compositional work, turning out a pair of remarkable – primarily instrumental – jazz fusion records.
So without further ado, feel free to indulge in the Beginner’s Guide to Frank Zappa: The Early Years Part 2 (1970-1972).
Long before Frank Zappa was cutting jazz fusion records or verbally assaulting audiences at the Garrick Theater, he was devoutly studying the playing of blues practitioners such as Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Guitar Slim. While rhythm and blues had perhaps the most significant impact on Zappa as a guitarist, it was not often he devoted entire songs to the form. “Road Ladies” features on Zappa’s 1970 album Chunga’s Revenge, and, according to Zappa, was recorded in a style similar to that of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.
Chunga’s Revenge was recorded quite early in this phase of the Mothers of Invention, with some tracks even featuring playing from session musicians who partook in the Hot Rats sessions. Nonetheless, the audible tomfoolery discernable in the opening section of this number is indicative of the comradery of this Mothers lineup – one of the last to feel like a true band rather than an assemblage of hired guns – (the subsequent lineup would hit this mark in extraordinary fashion as well.)
“Tell Me You Love Me”
“Tell Me You Love Me” may have sounded more like a hit than anything Zappa had released prior upon its 1970 introduction to the public as part of the Chunga’s Revenge album. The hook-heavy number finds Zappa at his most unabashedly exuberant in the stadium rock form, conducting blues-infused riffs over singalong vocal passages over toe-tapping rhythms.
The song isn’t without its idiosyncrasies of course, and features an impromptu double-time shift and climactic build near the song’s end which culminates in some fantastically screamed vocals from the recently recruited Howard Kaylan. The tune, like much of the material from this era of Zappa’s career, is significant in that it demonstrates the artist’s adeptness at effectively wrangling a multitude of styles with which he may not necessarily have been heavily associated throughout subsequent musical eras.
“Tears Began to Fall” (live)
The prevalent influence of early rock & roll on Zappa’s musicianship has – debatably – always been most apparent in his guitar playing. But this obscure number is demonstrative of the man’s capacity to pen a hyper-effective tune in the same style which, to those outside the know, could pass for a genuine composition from the decade.
Among other things, this period in Zappa’s career is notable in that it sees the composer taking on a fair amount of sung vocals, a practice which he would never fully abandon throughout his career but which would become less and less prevalent over time. In truth, the early 70s represented a vocal peak of sorts for Zappa, as the 1971 fall he sustained at the Rainbow Theatre precipitated several physical ailments including a fractured leg which healed shorter than its counterpart, as well as a crushed larynx which the musician claims dropped the general pitch of his voice by a third.
Zappa’s vocal participation – along with that of former Turtles bassist Jim Pons who replaced Jeff Simmons following the latter’s departure during the production of the 200 Motels film – contributed in the exhibition of Zappa’s knack for writing tight, multi-part vocal harmonies; a skill no doubt honed as a result of his close study of 50s doo-wop and early r&b music.
This live cut crops up on The Mothers’ Fillmore East – June 1971 album as well as the Live At Carnegie Hall/1971 album which went unreleased until 2011. The song sees Zappa making full use of his upgraded Mothers of Invention, milking the acclaimed vocal harmonies of Volman and Kaylan to full effect along with the controlled chaos of drummer Aynsley Dunbar’s wildly swinging, expertly executed percussive backing.
At the time of writing the song is known only to have been performed in the early 1970s by the “Flo & Eddie” Mothers lineup, though one can only speculate on what remains unreleased in the storied Zappa vault.
“She Painted Up Her Face”
Due to the short-lived nature of the Flo & Eddie years, the band from this period tends to be associated with a very specific sound. The sound in question, however, is merely indicative of where Zappa was artistically during the year or so range during which it was recorded.
The 200 Motels soundtrack sees the early-70s Mothers expanding their horizons on what would ultimately be perhaps the most psychedelic offering to be presented by Zappa. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 1:47 runtime encompasses what is essentially a full musical suite complete with tempo changes, melodic shifts, and transitioning sections which display how this disparate group of musicians may have contributed to Zappa’s more compositional efforts going forward had the group not dissolved in ‘71.
Waka/Jawaka is often posited as a jazz-heavy sequel to one of Zappa’s most esteemed albums, Hot Rats. Driven by the improvisational prowess of the great George Duke, opening track “Big Swifty” is an instrumental odyssey which runs unencumbered through changes and sections weaved together effortlessly over its 17+ minute runtime which occupies the entire first side of the album.
Duke himself referred to the recording of the track as more closely resembling free-form jazz improvisation than stringent, note-perfect composition. The song would be broken out live on multiple occasions, notably in versions by the beloved mid-70s Mothers lineup which also featured Duke, along with Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ruth Underwood, Bruce and Tom Fowler, Ralph Humphrey, and Chester Thompson.
The Waka/Jawaka and Grand Wazoo projects would contain some of the final collaborations between Zappa and drummer Ansley Dunbar, who despite his explosive contributions having enhanced the work a great deal, had begun feeling constrained by the meticulous nature of Zappa’s methodology. Dunbar would go on to play with more rock-centric groups such as Journey and Whitesnake.
“Dog Breath” (live)
An unfortunately titled composition that appeared in a litany of variations over the course of Mr. Zappa’s career – beginning with 1969’s Uncle Meat – “Dog Breath” can be nearly unrecognizable from one album to the next. The tune has seen iterations from the early Mothers, mid-70s and 80s lineups, and was even given the orchestral treatment for the last album of Zappa’s lifetime, The Yellow Shark – for which the maestro himself served as conductor.
But arguably the most visceral version of the song is that which appears on 1972’s Just Another Band From L.A., the live album which also features the extensive epic, “Billy the Mountain.” The album, the last to feature the divisive Flo & Eddie lineup, demonstrates exactly what Zappa had in mind when assembling the polarizing iteration of the beloved Mothers. This variation of “Dog Breath” showcases the expansive influence of 50s rock & roll and doo-wop on the composer’s musical sensibilities, and launches into one of Zappa’s most evocative early guitar solos just before the song’s conclusion.
“Call Any Vegetable” (live)
Like “Dog Breath” before it, “Call Any Vegetable” is a tune which originated with an earlier iteration of the Mothers of Invention – first appearing on 1967’s Absolutely Free. The 1972 version found on the live release Just Another Band from L.A. – the final full-length release from this batch of Mothers for many years – is injected with a high-octane dose of vitality driven by Zappa’s stuttering electric guitar and Dunbar’s propulsive drumming.
The version remains true to the original while endowing itself with a distinct identity, but also veers off into performance art territory as Zappa addresses the crowd and queues a good bit of characteristic absurdity from his band members.
The iconoclast’s stage banter expressing abundant jubilation at the very concept of being alive is notable in that it is indicative of a hopefulness displayed during the early years which understandably dissipated following the tragic events at the Rainbow Theatre which would dismantle this lineup of the band. Frank Zappa could always have reasonably been considered a suspicious and even cynical character, but the events of both the early and mid-1970s undoubtedly and irreversibly shifted the artist’s general demeanor into darker territory.
“Billy the Mountain”
The sprawling epic which occupies the entire first side of the Just Another Band from L.A. album, “Billy the Mountain” attracted disdain even from much of the Zappa faithful upon its initial release. Clocking in at nearly half an hour, the satirical tale of the titular mountain and his wife Ethel – a tree – took aim at the rock operas prevalent at the time, the scope of which to many was beginning to border on the absurd. The original runtime for the track was so extensive, in fact, that it had to be edited down to even be pressable on the full A-Side of the LP.
As such, in characteristic fashion, Zappa upped the absurdity tenfold and did so in such a way as to ensure his compositional brilliance and razor-sharp wit remained on full display. The tune is a precursor to future compositions of a similar nature, perhaps the most notable of which is “Greggery Peccary” – or “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” as it would come to be known – first released on 1978’s Studio Tan which makes direct reference to characters introduced in “Billy the Mountain” as is typical of Zappa’s overarching thematic presentation which he dubbed Project/Object.
The Grand Wazoo was an album built around the big band orchestration made famous by composers such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Just as Ian Underwood had been for Hot Rats, trumpeter, flugelhornist, and transcriptionist Sal Marquez was a key factor in the realization of Zappa’s creative vision for The Grand Wazoo. Pieces such as “Blessed Relief” reveal a beauty in Zappa’s musical instinct which, upon extensive study of his catalog, becomes apparent in even the most outrageous of works. “Blessed Relief” is a direct articulation of a seldom seen but undeniably present side of the musician.
These elements would surface sporadically at various points throughout Zappa’s career, perhaps most notably in “Watermelon in Easter Hay” a few years later. It is also worth considering how Zappa’s post-Rainbow wheelchair confinement during the production of the Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo projects affected his approach to writing and recording, such as the guitar being implemented as more of a complimentary element in the music than as a primary focus – though the opening solo of the title track certainly warrants a listen or twelve.
The next installment of this series, Beginner’s Guide to Frank Zappa: The Middle Years Part 1 (1973-1976) will soon see publication.
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