Frank Zappa: 1988

Here’s a panacea for these mad times – spend a few weeks drilling down into the music released from Frank Zappa’s (final) 1988 tour.

It was a vision of modern America and a goodbye to ‘rock’; rather, FZ dealt with country, musical theatre, marches, TV/film themes, early ‘60s jazz, hymns, modern classical, reggae. In contemporary interviews he professed an admiration for Prince, who was also pretty much rejecting ‘rock’ in 1988.

The band had four months of intensive rehearsal, and you can hear it. He got the horn section doing things horn sections don’t normally do, playing lines from ‘The Untouchables’ or a Bartok piano concerto.

Some of rock’s sacred cows – Johnny Cash, Hendrix, Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Elvis – were in the firing line, as were the right-wing Christian fundamentalists running for US presidency in 1988. In fact, anyone restricting his right to speak freely (he cited that his politics were neither intrinsically left nor right-wing). He encouraged fans to register to vote at the shows and also incorporated snippets of daily news (‘confinement loaf’, Jimmy Swaggart etc.).

There were spectacular reimaginings of his old work and a cadre of new cover versions, including ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. There were good, new, sometimes stoopid songs with political lyrics and disarmingly brilliant musical flourishes. The epic ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’ became a kind of an epitaph: ‘I hope we never see that day/In the land of the free…And if you don’t believe by now/The truth of what I’m telling you/Then surely I have failed somehow’.

Though the gigs took place in big arenas, there was forensically superb musicianship and also lots of room for improvisation, areas where no one knew exactly what was going to go down. Zappa would set the Synclavier running with random ‘events’ and see how the band responded.

The tour made it down the East Coast of the US and to Europe. I saw the first night at Wembley Arena in April 1988 – an absolute revelation. But sadly the West Coast US leg was cancelled. Some say bassist Scott Thunes became persona non grata, others pointed to Zappa’s health and the huge outlay of the tour. The truth is probably somewhere inbetween. The various views are outlined in Andrew Greenaway’s book ‘Zappa The Hard Way’.

Watching the few bits of tour footage (from Madrid and Barcelona) is interesting – not always an easy watch and apparently neither were particularly good nights on the European tour. But one somehow forgets that Zappa chiefly saw himself as a COMPOSER, and there he is conducting the band through all the instrumentals. He didn’t leave the stage like Miles. Nor did he fine musicians if they screwed up, JB-style, but meticulously ‘comp’d’ only the best performances for any released work from the tour (and often incorporated ‘mistakes’ into a song’s arrangement).

Still, some will just take against Frank’s music – understandable, but it’s their loss. Paraphrasing Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece: ‘Listen to this stuff quietly because you don’t want your neighbours to hear you listening to this kind of stuff’ – I beg to differ. Play most of this stuff boldly and proudly, because it’s more interesting, more challenging and funnier than 90% of other contemporary music.

Check out the complete albums taken from the tour – Broadway The Hard Way, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, Make A Jazz Noise Here – or I’ve put together a 1980s Zappa playlist which fillets my favourite moments (OK, even I can’t take ‘Planet Of Baritone Women’ or ‘Elvis Has Just Left The Building’…).

Further reading: ‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich

‘The Complete Frank Zappa’ by Ben Watson

Frank Zappa: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ 40 Years On

Recently, I was pleased and very surprised to hear a youngish (30s?) sales assistant playing Zappa’s Apostrophe while guarding the till at a local charity bookshop.

A quick and enjoyable conversation led us to agree that of all the major music figures who emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, FZ may be the least respected/understood these days.

You’ll seldom see a major piece about him in the heritage rock magazines (and the family estate keep a close eye on such, as I discovered when writing this piece), but if you do, it’ll probably focus on the ‘golden’ era – i.e. the late 1960s.

Maybe Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece had more power than he anticipated, and he certainly wasn’t the only naysayer – many were turned off by Zappa’s unapologetic, un-PC lyrical stance as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. But his musical intelligence is beyond question and pretty much unprecedented in the ‘rock’ era.

Frank kicked off the 1980s with the release of the stand-alone ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ single, recorded on 16th and 17th February 1980 at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles and released 40 years ago this month.

A satirical comment on the draft policy of the Carter administration, it was the first product issued on his own Barking Pumpkin label – and reached #3 in the Swedish singles chart!

It kicked off an incredibly busy decade for FZ. Two albums – Francesco Zappa and Thing-Fish were released on the same day in 1984.

There were two albums of guitar solos (one triple and one double), three major orchestral works and hundreds of instrumental pieces for the Synclavier. Not forgetting many other studio/live albums, compilations, and two books, ‘Them Or Us’ and ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, though both contained some previously-published material.

In the live arena, Zappa embarked on major tours in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1988. Now that he, Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul are gone, it’s hard to imagine that any other major artist will ever again play such virtuosic, challenging music in front of large crowds, whilst also blooding young musicians in the process.

Author Ben Watson memorably described FZ’s final 1988 tour as ‘the wildest and most speculative music…heard in rock arenas since the days of Cream, Hendrix and the Mothers Of Invention’.

One of the pleasures of lockdown has been discovering some ’80s FZ works I hadn’t heard (Francesco Zappa, London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 and 2) via Charles Ulrich’s excellent book ‘The Big Note’.

What struck me again is the lack of sentimentality in his music (off the top of my head, only three ’80s tracks feature those ‘bittersweet’ major-seventh chords: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’, ‘Jumbo Go Away’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), something that also seems to drive ‘rock’ critics crazy.

It ain’t all good, but the best of Zappa’s ’80s output is absolutely superb, and it really pays to have a root around in his discography. I’ve tried to separate the wheat from the chaff here. There’ll never be anyone like FZ again.

Book Review: The Big Note (A Guide To The Recordings Of Frank Zappa) by Charles Ulrich

It’s difficult to believe but today marks 30 years since the release of FZ’s final ‘rock’ album, Broadway The Hard Way.

After that, there were just a few more official live collections, and then he was gone.

Posthumous Zappa books seem to have mainly focused on his status as a countercultural hero (though Ben Watson’s incisive works deserve a special mention) and the musicians around him.

Even the entertaining 1989 ‘autobiography’ (ghosted by Peter Occhiogrosso) propagated most of the myths and featured only one chapter about music.

Charles Ulrich’s ‘The Big Note’ redresses the balance. This is the book Zappa fans have been waiting for. It’s an alphabetical album guide featuring everything you’ll ever need to know about his songs, musicians and concerts.

The title comes from Zappa’s theory that all of his recorded, live and written work formed a kind of ‘Big Note’, with overlapping themes and recurring motifs.

The book features very little – if any – critical appreciation of this work, just detailed notes on the lyrical and musical references alongside many explanatory quotes from FZ himself.

Ulrich’s approach works a treat. The book functions as both a meticulously-researched reference guide and a ‘gospel according to FZ’. For example, it’s been bugging me for nearly 30 years what the band plays after Frank’s exclamation: ‘…who was strictly from commercial!’ in ‘Nanook Rubs It’ – I found out in an instant.

I was also pleased and amazed to read that ‘Rat Tomago’ from Sheik Yerbouti was nominated for a 1979 Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy (but lost out to Wings’ ‘Rockestra Theme’!).

There’ll never be anyone else quite like Zappa. Long overdue, this is the book his music deserves.

‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich is published now by Newstar Books.