1973 and 1974 were prolific years for Zappa. He was constantly on tour (recording as much as he could), he released a double live album (Roxy & Elsewhere), produced a live in studio video (parts on The Dub Room Special, fully released as A Token of His Extreme in 2013) and issued two studio albums (Apostrophe(‘) and Over-Nite Sensation).
Further live recordings found later their way through the YCDTOSA series: The Helsinki Tapes (74) and some other sparse stuff.
He also produced various studio sessions, later to be released as part of albums (One Size Fits All, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt) overdubs, or as part of posthumous releases (Lost Episodes, Lather, One Shot Deal, QuAUDIOPHILIAc).
From a conceptual point of view, this two years period can be considered as a unique era, the band being the signature. Even if there were several influential changes, the continuous presence of Tom Fowler, George Duke and Ruth Underwood (with a two months hiatus in 1974), and the smooth transition between Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson keep the sound of these groups distinctive and recognizable.
The following chart pictures the differences between the 73/74 live bands, relating them with peer releases.
This two years period is divided in the nine parts defined in the FZShows pages. However, four main periods emerge:
1 Feb-Sep 1973
2 Oct 73 – Mar 74
3 Apr-May 74
4 Jun-Dec 74
Jean-Luc Ponty and Ian Underwood were in the band during the first period only. Period two was the two drummers one and marks the arrival of Napoleon Murphy Brock. The third was devoted to the “10 Years of The Mothers” anthological tour (Ruth hiatus). And eventually, during the last one, the band was extremely tight! A sextet at the end, and after almost two years on the road, some pieces were speed light numbers!
Live periods 2 and 4 are very well represented by Roxy & Elsewhere (2), A Token of His Extreme (the KCET-TV special, period 4) and YCDTOSA #2 (4 again). A great sample of the anthological tour (3) is on Roxy & Elsewhere. Road Tapes, Venue #2 is the first official long live release recorded during the first period. As shown in the previous chart, only a few minutes from this part of 1973 live shows have been published before.
Luckily, hard-core fanatics are well aware of this particular era due to some very good sounding guerilla audio and video recordings (i.e. Sydney and Stockholm), however these Road Tapes represent the first chance to enjoy the music through the original audio source, after a great production work. Joe Travers informs that the album includes recordings from three different shows, performed in Helsinki on August 23 and 24, 1973. “Show One and most of Show Two on 2 track stereo tapes while the rest of Show Two and all of the Show Three on four-track tapes, configured with a 2 channel stereo mix and two channel of audience microphones” (from the liner notes). The result is good, surely below the average Zappa standard, however, as a road tape, highly enjoyable in spite of some distortion issues.
Please click the classic Roman Garcia Alberto link for track list, lyrics and production credits.
And the first sequence (tracks 2-9) is one the most relevant distinguished feature of this set, particularly suited to the venue: the Finlandia-talo in Helsinki, a concert Hall designed by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. It’s a very well balanced mix of chamber music (EMBBQ, KF, E#4, Dog/Meat), rock & roll (Penguin) and jazz-rock (RDNZL). It could be a great challenge for orchestras like the Ensemble Modern, and Ali Askin should invent a special treat for the RDNZL guitar solo, a transcrption for strings will make it! But back to 1973, this first guitar solo, as well as the first short solos by Ponty and Duke, are appropriate ingredients to close the suite. As noted by Jason Gossard in his essay devoted to this tour (a must read), the other special feature of the sequence is Penguin in Bondage:
“This song premieres on this tour, magically appearing both fully clothed and completely prepared from the start. Pretty amazing- I mean, how many times has Frank succeeded in debuting a song and leaving it be for the rest of his career? The only difference is that in the early performances, there is no solo, just an immediate segue from the pre-solo verse to the post-solo verse. Apart from that, what we get here is what is essentially performed as on TBBYNHIYL (the “Roxy and Elsewhere” version is edited), allowing for obvious differences in instrumentation, and with the standard deviation coming in Frank’s solo”.
Right after the first sequence, Montana enters, as RDNZL one of the classic numbers of the 73/74 era (see Charles Ulrich repertoire page). It is also time for the second guitar solo of the set, about 2 minutes long, like the previous one on RDNZL.
It is the prelude to the 40 minutes of extravaganza that closes the first cd:
11 Your Teeth And Your Shoulders And Sometimes Your Foot Goes Like This . . . /Pojama Prelude (10:14)
12 Dupree’s Paradise (15:55)
13 All Skate/Dun-Dun-Dun (The Finnish Hit Single) (14:10)
Track 11 is actually the expected long Dupree’s Paradise intro, the usual George Duke keyboards showcase, normally intercut with conducted improvisations before the exposition of the Dupree theme. In this case, before going to D Paradise, we have a special treat: an early version of Pojama People, actually a little more than a slow rap. Then the DP theme opens a long section of extended and extremely intriguing solos. First comes Ponty (ca. 4:45 long), then Bruce Fowler (a shorter 2:10), and finally FZ for a 6 minutes long one. At the beginning of this guitar solo Zappa decides to change the key, bringing the band in an unknown musical territory, as noted by Pat Buzby on the zappa.com forum:
Weird solo (even by FZ standards). Sounds like he plays quite a few “wrong notes” (notes outside the key center) but George Duke had a great ability to figure out what FZ played and come up with a good accompaniment.
Zappa presents what follows as a one-time only event, which turns out to be a blues number, after a space synthesizer intro by Ian Underwood and a conducted improvisation section. The blues number includes two funky short solos (ca. 2 minutes long) by Duke and Zappa. Please note the bluesy rhythm guitar parts along the keyboard one. The finale is devoted to a brief and funny speech with audience participation, on how to design a monster movie soundtrack: The Finnish Hit Single.
Second cd starts with the classic 73/74 sequence Village/Echidna/Ever Wash, premiered just a few days before. The Helsinki rendition of the first one features George Duke on “high voice” (this is how FZ presents him for this song) and “new” intro and outro. The opening theme set the tone for a “sort of rock and roll song [...] but don’t despair, it’ll get weird and abstruse and non intelligible again in just a couple of minutes” (from the Zappa intro). The same sort of pop theme is used again as outro. The whole piece is slower than the Roxy and YCDTOSA #2 versions, and, as properly noted by Jason Gossard, George Duke sounds “remarkably like Ike Willis during his Fall ’78 “Village of the Sun” duties.” Echidna is the well known one, augmented with highly enjoyable violin parts. Same for Ever Wash which is also a showcase for four great solos: bass clarinet (with effects), trombone (with effects), electric piano and drums.
The set continues with Big Swifty. After the well known theme, solos for George Duke, Jean-Luc Pony and FZ, all of them remarkable, particularly the last one, 6 minutes long. Then the last long piece, an “instrumental event” named Farther O’Blivion, which, as expected, includes Steno Pool, Be-Bop Tango, The Hook and Cucamonga (an excerpt). The first section includes a violin solo, the second includes distinctive violin parts, and trombone and bass clarinet solos. Be-Bop Tango ends with an audience participation devoted to the relationships between psychedelic music and The Hook. A drums solo follows as a prelude to Cucamonga. The Hook comes back for the very end of the piece (24 min long).
Brown Shoes Don’t Make It is the closing number, though listed as “Show 1 encore” it does not seem that it was often played to close the show. The chart below compares some summer 1973 set lists (taken from the zappa.con forum).
Beside the peculiar orchestration, also remarkable for this rendition is the George Duke vocals, often difficult to recognize when the style is unusually “rude” for him (“She’s a dirty young mind, corrupted, corroded!”).
In summary, one of the best posthumous Zappa releases, although the audio is below the FZ standard, but we know the intent of the Road Tapes is to give birth to otherwise obscure episodes. I am wondering if, more specifically, the leading criterion is to release non circulating recordings only, to give the public the chance to listen to live concerts for the first time. If this is true, it would be a pity not to give a professional treatment to some other better quality tapes (Sydney 73?) just because they are very well known as great guerillas (sometimes in a wrong pitch!).
I for one would go for both, obscure and enlightened!
As two closing feature to this post, the video of the Helsinki 73 Zappa press conference and an 1973 article (in Finnish!), available through the amazing afka.net site.
A brief abstract of the article as been given by Ogo at the zappa.com forum. Here it is:
I don’t feel like translating the whole article (there may be a translation already floating around somewhere), but I’ll pick a couple of interesting things. The concerts were held at Finlandia Hall on two consecutive dates and there was an afterparty jam without Frank at N- Klubi. The article is from a magazine called Intro.
“A future release called Live In Finlandia by The Mothers Of Invention wouldn’t be a surprise because Frank recorded all of his performances and was quite pleased with them.”
Ian Underwood had caught a cold in Sweden and didn’t attend the N-Klubi jam, but I take it he played at the actual concerts. The article also mentions a 3-hour soundcheck on first day and a rehearsal on second. Also in the end there’s a mention of the Mothers’ 10-year anniversary and plans for a “several-LP box” for the occasion.
Finally, the band!