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