Monday, April 07, 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, watch Ruth...

A delayed posting and anyone not interested in erm, complicated jazz-rock of the mid ‘70s should probably wait until the next update on here for less esoteric ramblings.


A couple of weeks ago I was pointed in the direction of… FINALLY… a release of the soundtrack which precedes (maybe) the official release of the film of the gigs which gave birth to one of FZ’s finest albums: namely, Roxy and Elsewhere.

Roxy by Proxy single-handedly demonstrates why the period of 1973-5 for Zappa (and the last incarnation of the Mothers) was his most fruitful and, conversely, what a godAWFUL organisation the ‘Zappa Family Trust’ are.  I may go into more detail on point number two at the end of this post, but, in the spirit of using this blog to pass on GOOD news rather than dwelling on negative emotions (man) let’s sort out why Roxy by Proxy is so wonderful, despite its suspect origins.

In December 1971 Zappa was attacked on stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre by a jealous fan who claimed that FZ was looking at his girlfriend. A fall into the concrete orchestra pit led to a six-month period confined to a wheelchair, a deeper voice (produced by a crushed larynx) and a lifetime of back pain. But more importantly, it was probably exactly what the progressive composer in FZ needed at that time: an extended period to come up with something more mature than the road tales and rock ‘n’ roll lineage of the Flo and Eddie incarnation of the Mothers.

The two subsequent albums, Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo were ample evidence of FZ’s changing approach – both albums featuring two significant things – a bigger brass section lending the ensemble’s sound more towards jazz, and the more permanent addition of the mighty George Duke on keyboards (he’d already worked on Chunga’s Revenge on ’70 and the 200 Motels project in ’71). While every incarnation of Zappa’s bands has contained astounding musicians, this was the cusp of Frank’s entry into a level of playing that really took the purpose of ‘getting all the right notes on the tape’ seriously.

By 1973, with his full return to the stage, Zappa began to assemble what would, to any right thinking aficionado, become not only his greatest touring band, but pretty much THE BEST BAND YOU’LL EVER HEAR. This express train ride to superlative city is fully justified because, well… let me demonstrate.

Early incarnations of this more ‘serious’ line up at various times featured earlier cohorts such as Jeff Simmons and Ian Underwood as well as fusion fiddler, Jean Luc Ponty, whom George Duke had already played with on his Zappa-inspired King Kong album. As well as a live album featuring Duke’s own trio. Added to this was what would become the core of Zappa’s touring band for the next 18 months. This was Ruth Underwood (Ian’s wife at the time) on percussion, Napoleon Murphy Brock on flute, sax and vocals, Ralph Humphreys on drums, Chester Thompson on drums, Tom Fowler on bass and brothers Bruce Fowler on trombone and Walt on trumpet.

The earliest variant of this line up toured (with Ponty and without Thomspon or Murphy Brock) from February in 1973 to August, but by October both Ponty and Ian Underwood had gone and the Over-Nite Sensation album had been recorded.

The removal of non-American, Ponty (along with attendant ego clashes with Zappa) laid the way open for a band that not only had the fearsome chops to deal with Frank’s insanely complex material but also a shared an outlook and cultural reference points with which to combine political satire (Watergate was colouring all US events at the time) and the usual road humour that Zappa loved to feature in his work. But more importantly, this was a band that could play.

So it was, that by the end of 1973 the transitional line up which still featured Jeff Simmons on guitar and featured both Humphreys and Thomson on drums had convened in December at the Roxy on Sunset Boulevard for a six-night residency that gave birth to the Roxy and Elsewhere live double album; the ‘Elsewhere’ of the title being additionally recorded dates in Chicago and Pennsylvania, as well as the studio overdubs to add a little tweezer gleam to the proceedings.

By February of the following year the line up had settled into the more manageable six –piece without Simmons or Humphreys. The following studio album, Apostrophe (‘) – released under Frank’s own name with no ‘Mothers’ - dated from sessions which retained Ponty as well as various other luminaries (including Jack Bruce playing electric cello on the co-written title track – apparently he hated it) and continued. While both this and its predecessor are now considered FZ classics (possibly for the wrong reasons, containing as they do some of Frank’s more sexually dubious numbers) interestingly at the time his stock was critically low. Reactionary writers mourned the older versions of the Mothers and heard only the sardonic road tales while ignoring the amazing band that was evolving under the smut.  The fact was: while FZ was always a brilliant studio technician, this band had to be heard LIVE to really be appreciated. And a true representation of the finest live band that ever bestrode this earth (IMHO) had to wait until the later release of Roxy… and the following year’s One Size Fits All - arguably Zappa’s finest studio album – to really show what they could do.  And again, both of these albums were panned by the critics. Talk about cloth ears…

But forty years after the fact it’s pretty well accepted, both by fans, critics and the original band members that this really was where Frank reached some kind of  creative apotheosis. But why?

Well, the aforementioned accident/attack as mentioned had not only given him time to do some really serious writing for which he HAD to find the right combination of musicians to play. It was that complicated.

But if you investigate the usual ‘conceptual continuity’ clues that litter Zappa’s work, it’s easy to see why this version of the Mothers was the ultimate.  Here are four randomly picked reasons:

      1)   Percussion: FZ was originally a drummer and (as he later demonstrated with drum version of The Black Page’) he could write for drums. His initial love of Varese and Stravinsky had left him with a penchant for percussion and with the Roxy line up he had THREE world-class percussionists onboard. The Roxy By Proxy tapes feature a brilliant rhythm-only retooling of ‘Cheepnis’.

      2)   Voices: Frank’s newly lowered voice needed not only George to sing up, but also Napoleon Murphy Brock. This adds the sweetness that Zappa’s sardonic near monologues on numbers such as ‘Montana’ or ‘Stinkfoot’ can’t supply. The close harmonies that resulted allowed the requisite amount of greasy doo-wop into the mix. Just listen to the band’s sense of fun as they sing the final line to ‘Dickie’s Such An Asshole’: their tribute to the exiting President Nixon.

In several interviews Duke talks about how Frank wore away his muso snobbism about dumb, greasy rock ‘n’ roll as well as helping him accept a wider array of new electronic equipment and getting him to sing. Hold on… he never sang before he joined the Mothers?!? Just listen to his voice on ‘Inca Roads’ and marvel at the loveliness of his voice! And by the time, a year after leaving the Mothers, he recorded his own version of Frank’s anti-racism classic: ‘Uncle Remus’ on his  solo album, The Aura Will Prevail, his voice had become a thing of grace and power.

      3)   Versatility: watch any film of Frank at the helm in a live situation and you see the various visual cues and hand signals that could lead the band in one of several directions, often turning on a dime in the middle of a complex arrangement to include some private joke or incongruous flourish. Again, as George Duke said: this band was SO well-rehearsed and proficient as to almost know before Frank what was required. To listen to any of the recordings from the ’73-’74 band is an exercise in witnessing what can actually happen if musicians give themselves entirely to music.

      4)   Democracy: An odd one in the context of FZ: for years Frank was the ringmaster in his own circus of oddities, yet following a serious accident (as well as losing all of the band’s equipment in the notorious ‘Smoke on the Water’ hotel fire on lake Geneva and being involved in the legal wrangles of extricating himself from the managerial grip of Herb Cohen) even such an avowed workaholic could grow sick of having to nursemaid a band. Years of penury in the Mothers’ early years had meant that Frank had to constantly field the complaints of musicians who often went hungry. But with the Roxy band you can somehow sense that, maybe for the only time in his career, Frank was enjoying spending time with a bunch of players who were in every way his equal. Ultimately he’d never go as far as to hand over any control of the ban’s future to anyone else or claim that he was anything less than their paymaster (unlike the rather disingenuous way that, say Robert Fripp does with King Crimson, or David Bowie or Paul McCartney would with Tin Machine or Wings) – but if you watch any of the TV broadcast you can see the sheer joy that he’s getting by spending time with such outstanding musicians. This was more than just humour belonging in music, it was Frank truly getting his musical rocks off, and even learning from the conservatory-trained alumni around him. He may have lost his Ian Underwood, but he’d gained not one but six others in replacement. Which brings me to the jewel in the ’73-’74 Mothers’ crown: Ruth.

Ruth Komanoff/Underwood had witnessed Zappa’s important 1967 Garrick Theatre residence in New York where he’d learned his advanced stagecraft and absurdism. In later interviews she points out that, while they were revolutionary in their chaotic approach to what constitutes a ‘gig’ (involving members of the audience at various times), in the midst of the shenanigans were some exquisite tunes.

Ruth’s skills as a percussionist were to emphasize both the rhythmic and melodic heart of Zappa’s work. If George Duke provided the chordal backbone of the set-list, she injected intricacy and speed that beggars belief. In later years Captain Beefheart meanly suggested that FZ had used the lovely Ruth as mere window-dressing, but it’s obviously bullshit. Why else would Frank give his famous call to ‘Watch Ruth’ in the monstrously complex ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’ This is Frank, the supposed misogynist, in awe of a woman as a key member of his band. He knows that he can put her on the spot, any time and she’ll deliver.

So, over the years I’ve tried to collect as many recordings of this band (or its variations) as I can. The mere attempts of an obsessive, you’d probably conclude. However, if I was the kind of classical music buff who sought legendary recordings of, say, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, I’d be regarded as an aesthete. It’s the ‘rock’ label that adds the sneer. But IS this rock? I’d say not.

The Roxy band serves up a melange of funk, rock, jazz, doo-wop, modern experimental and improvisation, often in the space of one number. And it’s this last point that made me sit down and write this in the first place. For, on Roxy By Proxy, there’s a version of ‘Dupree’s Paradise’ that may, just may be the best recording of any live band ever committed to tape.

Don’t get me wrong: I know there are finer moments, arguably better playing, even better tunes, but for the reasons stated above as well as many others, this version of ‘Dupree’s Paradise’ represents an almost platonic form of what ‘live music’ should constitute.  Beginning with George Duke’s cute Fender Rhodes and synth extrapolations the band cruise into a funky-as-hell jam that then seamlessly segues into the lovely theme of the tune at the five-minute mark - an epitome of modern American music. From there we journey through a Tom Fowler bass solo that references ‘Montana’’s complexities and returns us to a scorching Zappa guitar solo before reprising the theme one last time. In construction it’s nothing special, but listening to it for the first time I was struck as how this one 15-minute track contains everything you need to know in order to appreciate why I love this band so fucking much.

If there was ever a disappointment with the original Roxy and Elsewhere album, it was that it wasn’t a true aural document of how astounding the band were live. It was the later release of volume two of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore - a complete Helsinki gig - which revealed that yes, they really, really could do all of that in real time! And now, after an eternity of waiting we finally get to hear the cream of one of the fabled nights unadorned on tape. Not only this, but a legitimised version of the full August 27, 1974 at KCET in Hollywood TV special* has been released as well as an earlier Road Tape of thePonty line up live in (again) Helsinki. It never rains etc.

The Roxy dates, of course, were filmed, and the resultant concert footage has, to any right-thinking Zappa fan, become a kind of holy grail. For years now the ZFT have taunted us with brief glimpses even allowing a 30-minute clip to appear on Youtube.  But, like all of the ZFT’s nefarious trading decisions, you can’t help feeling that any delays merely serve to jack up the price and extract the most capital from the deal. Unlike, say, King Crimson, whose website offers a plethora of reasonably priced live and rare treats for the obsessive fan who can be bothered to shell out for such stuff, the Zappa website is both poorly constructed, filled with faux Zappa-speak and littered with archive material that over the years has been bewilderingly random and unfocussed, despite some truly lovely stuff appearing (cf: Wazoo – a live recording of the big band’s seventh and last date in Boston). What’s more appalling are the prices that the ‘Trust’ has inflicted on fans. Who really expects to pay over 20 dollars for a download these days? It often seems that the legacy of Frank - who to be fair wasn’t anything but a self-avowed free market libertarian – has come to rest in the hands of someone more venal, controlling and grasping than Zappa, namely his wife, Gail. As I’ve stated before: the work that his son does often strikes me as being more of an excuse to claim a living from art that was made long ago by his dead father. How many Dweezil records have you bought recently? Exactly…

So it is with mixed feelings that I celebrate the final release of Roxy by Proxy (and the likely release of the film from which it is drawn). It reminds me of the way that Neil Young has toyed with fans who waited for years for his back catalogue and various rarities to be unleashed: but at least he’s alive and should be able to do what he likes with his archive, no matter how frustrating it can be to be unable to buy Time Fades Away. But while the market for Zappa rarities may be considerable on a worldwide scale, it seems like a poor excuse to make the faithful pay a premium. Personally I’d buy a shedload of the 73-74 band CDs should they become available. But not at inflated prices or from a website that can’t even be bothered to give full track details or provenance unless you buy on spec.

Luckily there are hundreds of sites and more obsessive fans out there who share, discuss and cherish this stuff beyond mere capital gain. After all music is the best. But I think I’ve already said too much…

Instead let’s have another look at the best band you DID ever hear in your life. Ladies and gentlemen, watch Ruth…

*It’s worth noting that by this point the band were possibly even more fearsome than at any other time, having been touring almost continually for a year. I urge anyone to watch this gig in its entirety.


Laurie said...

I'm with you on all of this. ('Cept maybe the exit of Ponty. I wish he'd have hung around. But then, I'm a fiddle player myself;-). Can't wait for the video. It's not quite like being there but it's something.

Chris Jones said...

Sorry for the slow reply Laurie. Thanks for your comment. In fact I may write an addendum to this post as I recently went back to some of the Ponty-era stuff and, as you say, he's simply astounding. For FZ I think the real difference was the amount of fun he could have with each band. He's on record as saying that the early '73 line-up was amazing but relatively boring as they enjoyed chess more than the usual road antics of previous bands. But by '74 (with the addition of Napoleon) he seems so much more at ease. God, I could talk about this stuff for EVER...

Unknown said...

For me, Sal Marquez leaving was a real drag. He was the link with Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. I wish there was more live stuff with him in the Overnite Sensation band available from ZFT.