Frank Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch: 35 Years Old Today

Barking Pumpkin Records, released 3rd May 1982

Bought: Virgin Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988?

6/10

This is the first Zappa album I ever bought. It was a cheapo Fame Records/EMI cassette edition. Before Ship, I had only heard choice cuts courtesy of a friend’s career-spanning compilation. I was going to say that Ship was not the ideal album to start with, but actually with hindsight it probably was; it’s maddening, brilliant, tawdry, overblown – basically a microcosm of Zappa’s ’80s output.

Ship ditched the lush, multi-tracked sound of 1981’s You Are What You Is in favour of a no-reverb, claustrophobic mix featuring Chad Wackerman’s busy drums, blaring synths, in-your-face bass and loads of wacky guitar processing.

Opening track ‘No Not Now’, concerning the sexual dilemmas of a long-distance truck driver, is a six-minute disaster area that would surely test the patience of even the most diehard Zappa fan. ‘Valley Girl’ placed killer new-wave rock around daughter Moon’s hilarious vocal exclamations. It was a typically bold, spontaneous and very successful career move by FZ resulting in a timely hit single (peaking at #32 in the US).

But we then unfortunately segue into ‘I Come From Nowhere’, a fairly unlistenable track about the inanity of TV personalities with a ghastly vocal performance by Roy Estrada over an uninvolving, sub-Men At Work riff.

But side two of Ship demonstrates all that’s essential about ’80s Zappa. It should really be heard in its totality. The title track is surely one of his career highlights, a unique, surrealistic 12-minute salvo featuring spoken-word, ‘scatting’, a great rock guitar solo over a grinding 9/8 vamp, a blizzard of avant-garde piano/percussion and even a quote from Stravinsky’s ‘Rite Of Spring’ (of course also a piece about ritual sacrifice).

‘Envelopes’ is a brief but brilliant through-composed tribute to Conlon Nancarrow featuring close-interval, player-piano perversions, while ‘Teenage Prostitute’ is the R-rated version of ‘Valley Girl’, a hellish vision of Hollywood’s underbelly complete with ‘Peter Gunn’ riffs, intricate marimba and operatic vocals by Lisa Popeil.

I was in. I would immediately go back/forward and investigate FZ’s career in more detail. Next up was Sheik Yerbouti, the first CD I ever bought and probably my favourite Zappa album.

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Allan Holdsworth (1946-2017)

With the sad death of Allan Holdsworth, we have lost another guitar great and one of the UK’s most singular musicians. There’s an old muso cliché that seems to lend itself to guitarists more than other players – ‘he/she’s a musician who just happens to be a guitarist’. Allan really was that. He came up with an entirely original soundworld, and was feted by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and John McLaughlin.

From a young age, Holdsworth always revered horn players – particularly Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Michael Brecker – above guitarists, but, given a guitar by his father as a teenager, decided to pursue his love of music using that tool. In doing so, he revolutionised the instrument, fashioning a unique legato technique.

The aim was a smooth, soaring sound which lent itself to horn-like improvisation, allowing him to play fiery, exciting solos with huge intervallic leaps. His chord work was underrated and equally innovative, using close-interval voicings and ridiculously large stretches. He came up with an entirely personal series of ‘chord scales’, loathing standard chord shapes and even calling them ‘disgusting’ on his instructional video!

The first time I heard Allan’s playing was his extraordinary solo on Stanley Clarke’s ‘Stories To Tell’ track from the album If This Bass Could Only Talk, but it took me a while to identify him since my cassette didn’t list the personnel… To my ears, it was just a remarkable solo; I didn’t even particularly ‘hear’ it as a guitar.

In the late 1980s, as I started reading various American muso mags, Allan’s name popped up frequently (particularly memorable was this 1989 Guitar Player cover feature) – it was time to explore his career in more depth. In the early to mid-1970s, he guested with Soft Machine, Nucleus, Tempest and Gong. Master drummer Tony Williams came calling, and he hot-footed it over to New York for 18 months of recording and touring with the New Lifetime band.

He then joined Bill Bruford in one of the greatest ever fusion units alongside Jeff Berlin and Dave Stewart, then formed prog supergroup UK with Bruford, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton (playing a legendary solo on ‘In The Dead Of Night‘). He also forged a brief but fruitful musical relationship with violinst Jean-Luc Ponty.

An early solo album, 1976’s Velvet Darkness, was virtually disowned by Allan despite featuring Narada Michael Walden on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass. But he spent the 1980s embarking on a far more fruitful solo career. Endorsed by Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa, mainstream success beckoned in the mid-’80s, but a high-profile Warner Bros contract came and went very briefly with only an EP Road Games to show for it. It didn’t hold him back though; in fact it led to probably his most commercially successful period – Metal Fatigue, Atavachron and Sand were all important statements.

The period between 1988 and 1994 was arguably Allan’s peak – superb solo albums like Secrets, Then!, Hard Hat Area and Wardenclyffe Tower came out and he contributed striking guest spots to albums by Level 42 (Guaranteed), Stanley Clarke and Chad Wackerman (Forty Reasons). He was even lured to share the stage with Level for a month-long Hammersmith Odeon residency in 1990.

Like fellow ex-pats Richard Thompson and Morrissey, he made California his home, moving there in the early 1980s and forging valued musical relationships with Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Johnson and Scott Henderson. Henderson spoke of his incredible generosity in the studio. Drummer Kirk Covington – who recorded with Allan on the ‘standards’ album None Too Soon – reported that sessions at his home studio were always curtailed at 7pm at which point Allan would hand out pints of his home-brewed cask ale.

The complexity of his style meant that Allan influenced relatively few guitarists, though for my money Henderson and Francis Dunnery (who will be presenting his own personal tribute to Allan on his Progzilla Radio show this Sunday at 6pm UK time) adapted some of his techniques to great effect. Fellow Yorkshireman John McLaughlin once said, ‘I’d steal everything Allan was doing if only I could figure out what he was doing!’

I saw Allan several times in concert; at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Jazz Cafe, Ronnie Scott’s, Queen Elizabeth Hall and twice with Level 42 at Hammersmith. He was notoriously self-critical, but to my ears achieved a remarkable consistency in the live context.

A 12-CD career-spanning box set The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever has just been released on Manifesto Records. Allan was also working on a long-awaited new studio album at the time of his death. He spoke about both projects in this recent podcast.

Farewell to a master. We won’t see his like again.

Allan Holdsworth, guitarist and composer, born 6th August 1946, died 15th April 2017

Allan, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Johnson in concert

Funk, Junk & Pulp Culture: Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick

aliens-ate-my-buick-52dea191dc659EMI/Manhattan Records, released April 1988

9/10

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988

This was Dolby’s ‘Marmite‘ album – the one that really tested his fanbase. A relocation to the States after marrying soap actress Kathleen Beller (Dolby’s companion on the front cover) led to a new home in the Hollywood Hills (apparently a very large, rather creepy movie-star mansion), the recruitment of a great new band The Lost Toy People via an advert in a local paper and a wholesale embracing of American black music.

In many ways, Aliens is Dolby’s reaction to the work of George Clinton and Prince. Of course, he’d duetted with the former on his Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends album. But it’s also a rather uptight Brit’s view of American culture complete with tacky local detail: smog alerts, Bel Air bimbos, pink leather upholstery, weird license plates.

dolby

A very brave (or foolhardly) bit of sequencing puts ‘The Key To Her Ferrari’ right at the front of the album. A fake-jazz/B-Movie swinger with a vaguely ‘50s rock’n’roll feel featuring lots of Zappaesque spoken word stuff from Dolby and some brilliant close-harmony female vocals, it’s all pretty stupid but the band plays fantastically and everyone sounds like they’re having a great time. However, you do wonder how many listeners made it past such an uncompromising track.

The lead-off single ‘Airhead”s delirious mash-up of funk and pop is pretty irresistible despite its fairly un-PC lyrics. Mr Clinton contributes the funny and funky ‘Hot Sauce’ which packs in an incredible amount of good stuff into its five minutes including a Spaghetti Western prelude, a reference to Cameo’s ‘Candy’, a touch of salsa and even a killer James Brown-style piano break.

Ditto ‘May The Cube Be With You‘, featuring Clinton and Lene Lovich on backing vocals, the Brecker Brothers on horns and a brilliant groove from P-Funk bass/drums team Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis and Dennis Chambers.

But, as with most Dolby albums, the treasures are mostly found in the more introspective, less gimmicky moments. ‘My Brain Is Like A Sieve‘ easily transcends its title and faux-reggae arrangement to become a superb and quite downbeat pop song in the Prefab style. ‘The Ability To Swing’ is a cracking piece of funk/jazz, with some excellent lyrics, possibly Dolby’s most (or only?) covered song.

‘Budapest By Blimp’ is very much the centrepiece of Aliens and its stand-out track, an epic ballad harking back to the Flat Earth sound with a great, David Gilmour-esque guitar solo by Larry Treadwell (one of many on the album) and some superb, driving bass from the late Terry Jackson.

The only slight misfire is ‘Pulp Culture’, initially interesting but quickly grating with coarse lyrics and a melody line extremely similar to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Have A Talk With God’. It’s worth noting, though, that according to Dolby, the entire song (including his vocals) is made up of Fairlight samples.

The album’s moderate success (it reached number 30 in the UK albums chart and 70 in the US) was probably not a massive surprise – it was totally out of sync with anything in British or US pop. Aliens probably rather reflected Dolby’s interest in music video and movie soundtracks (he’d just finished scoring ‘Gothic’ and ‘Howard The Duck’).

The ‘Marmite’ element doesn’t bother me, though – I’d put Aliens up there with The Flat Earth as his best album, a perfect companion piece to other classics of summer 1988 such as Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Scritti Politti’s Provision and Prince’s Lovesexy. It’s strong beer but I love its pungent textures.

And we haven’t even got to Steve Vance and Leslie Burke’s brilliant cover artwork yet.

Illicit AOR: The Tubes’ Completion Backward Principle

tubesCapitol Records, released April 1981

8/10

From Loose Tubes to The Tubes. Even as a teenager, I picked up something faintly illicit about this band. A cool friend of my dad’s stuck ‘Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman’ on a cassette for me alongside Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly and Bill Withers’ Greatest Hits sometime around the late-’80s. I loved it, though it would take me a good few years to find out who had recorded it. A lot of detective work was called for – The Tubes weren’t exactly big in the UK.

To my adolescent ears, the song sounded something like a collision between Steely Dan and Frank Zappa, marrying sophisticated arrangements and jazzy chords to B-movie lyrics, and that still sounds somewhere in the right ballpark.

The band’s earlier career had taken them through glam/punk, Spector-style pop and new-wave rock, but The Completion Backward Principle was the first Tubes album produced by David Foster, a gifted Canadian keyboardist who already had a proven track record as a first-call session player, arranger and songwriter. He had worked extensively on Earth Wind & Fire’s I Am (co-writing the megahit ‘After The Love Has Gone’), Lee Ritenour’s Rit and Boz Scaggs’ Middle Man. According to most accounts, as a producer he was a pretty hard taskmaster, demanding absolute perfection. He wasn’t above telling a band member to go home early and calling in a name session player in his place (which he frequently did during the recording of Chicago 17).

tubes

But the results speak for themselves. The band had made a quantum leap since 1979’s Todd Rundgren-produced Remote Control. Fee Waybill had turned into a pretty damn good singer. Drummer Prairie Prince is hardly the most subtle player in the world (Jeff Porcaro was surely waiting in the wings) but he’s every bit the human metronome on these songs and plays a blinder on the brilliant ‘Think About Me’.

Maybe ‘Don’t Wanna Wait Anymore’ and ‘Amnesia’ sound more like Chicago than Devo but they are subtle, memorable and interesting with great chord changes, while the fairly risqué ‘Sushi Girl’ could have come from Zappa’s You Are What You Is. ‘Let’s Make Some Noise’ even taps into the kind of pop/funk that Let’s Dance took to the bank a few years later. The album is also beautifully recorded, engineered and mastered, sounding superb on my original vinyl copy.

tubes 2

I also love the cover concept. The band’s corporate attire and conservative ‘message’ were apparently a satirical take on Reagan’s inauguration and the rise of motivational business concepts. But the smarter the clothes, the weirder the content, as the Surrealists proved decades before.

According to this interview with Fee Waybill, The Tubes imploded a few years later after The Completion Backward Principle when David Foster suggested that only he, Waybill and a few outside songwriters should compose singles for the band. He would appear to have a point, that team having co-written ‘Talk To Ya Later’, the Top 40 hit ‘Don’t Want To Wait Anymore’ and the number 10 hit a few years later, ‘She’s A Beauty‘. Waybill believes they might have become as big as Foreigner or Journey had they taken Foster’s advice, but it wasn’t to be – the rest of the band vetoed the suggestion and Waybill left in 1985 after the disastrous Rundgren-produced Love Bomb. However, they have continued to be a successful live band to this day. I loved seeing them in 2000 at the much-missed London Astoria.

Frank Zappa v Corporate America: The PMRC 30 Years On

FZ at the 'Porn Rock' Senate Hearing, 19th September 1985

Zappa at the ‘Porn Rock’ US Senate Hearing, 19th September 1985

Coinciding with the huge success of artists like Prince, Madonna, Sheena Easton, RATT, AC/DC, Def Leppard and Motley Crue in the US, the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC was formed in 1985 by Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius.

They proposed that albums carry a rating system and wanted certain songs – the so-called Filthy Fifteen – to be censored. Frank disagreed vehemently with the PMRC (despite not appearing in the Filthy Fifteen list) and appeared on US TV to argue his case with a journalist and…Donny Osmond. With memorable results. He also included segments of the Senate hearing on his spooky track ‘Porn Wars‘ from the album Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention.

He also spent a lot of the mid-’80s fending off questions from lazy journalists about his ’60s ‘hero of the counterculture’ status. The fact is he was still making some outrageous, important music in the ’80s, but the mainstream media was more interested in asking him about The Mothers and Jimi Hendrix.

This fascinating, mostly uncomfortable interview shows that you’ve gotta do your research if you want to speak to FZ (he’s right up there with Keith Jarrett in this regard), and also you might find that he’ll mention ’embarrassing’ truths about your corporation and the music business in general. He’s much missed.