Zappa/Mothers “Go Ape”

The latest in the current series of Beat The Boots-type releases (above-ground bootlegs) on the Smokin/Eat To The Beat labels – this came as a bit of a surprise.

Unlike the others, all of which have some claim to “usefulness” (yes, even the audio of Barcelona 1988), this show has already been released as part of the original Frank-Zappa-endorsed Beat The Boots series (on Rhino/Castle), where it was copied from a bootleg album called Tis The Season To Be Jelly (the concert was around the start of the Christmas shopping season). Packaging fans ought to seek out the vinyl of the Season… edition, for the bizarre short-story on the back cover (a post-nuclear-apocalypse thing).

But for anyone who happens by the Go Ape edition…

One of the earliest substantive Zappa live recordings, sourced from a radio broadcast, this is (probably) the second half of the Mothers’ show in Stockholm in November 1967, this is as near as we get to an authentic glimpse of their highly-theatrical 1967-season shows at the Garrick Theater or the Albert Hall (there are definitely no Garrick Theater audio recordings, whatever you may have read!)

Divided into distinct segments – starting with twelve minutes of goofing around with ’50s/early ’60s pop tunes and FZ’s imitations of same. Vocal harmonies are as inexact here as they were on Absolutely Free, and we’re reminded that – whether he saw it that way or not – Ray Collins’ performance is as much about vocal caricature as singing. (In folkloric terms, the best bit is “No Matter What You Do”, a song-fragment which basically repurposes Frank’s unloved “All Night Long” collaboration with The Animals. Comparable to the similarly-obscure “Bust His Head” – both may in fact be Zappa/Collins co-writes).

Naturally the second segment is “jazz-rock-fusion / free-improv + performance-art mode for twenty-five minutes”. The bulk of it is comprised of one of the best versions of “King Kong” you’re ever likely to hear. Played as a jazz-waltz (like on the Uncle Meat album) instead of 12-8 (like every other pre-1981 rendition), it has excellent solos from Bunk Gardner and Don Preston but is dominated by a long and anguished-sounding solo from Ian Underwood: comparable to his Copenhagen outpouring on the Uncle Meat album, or, in a certain mood, I might say, better.

Eventually Frank takes up his baton and the chaos begins. We get a short, hasty, rendition of “It Can’t Happen Here”, but it’s only the mustard in this particular burnt-weeny sandwich. There are ingredients you’ll hear in every conducted-improv – i.e: the 5-4 beat – and there are ingredients which Zappa collectors have heard somewhere before – Don’s synthesizer screams and Floydian Farfisa-organ soloing, and the Freak Out-style routine where various Mothers recite monologs simultaneously (including some Spanish and some sheer incoherent gibbering). But here they combine into something unique – something which listeners may find genuinely unsettling: the sound of encroaching insanity, an audio hallucination in digital audio. Maybe it’s the moment of radio-scanning a la John Cage that makes the vital difference, or maybe it’s Ray, who seems to be babbling into one of those voice-changing toy-microphones.

It’s easy to miss the fact that Frank never plays a guitar solo on this disc (a wise decision, during this era, if you ask me!). A couple of familiar embellishing-licks behind Bunk’s solo is the nearest we get to an FZ solo. This is probably not an artistic decision but a sign of illness. It’s likely that this is indeed the show described in Michael Gray’s biog, where he spent a lot of time offstage vomiting – in which case, it’s possible (though I doubt it), that Ian Underwood played some of the rhythm-guitar parts. Later that night Suzy Creamcheese would be nursing him through gastro-enteritis and listening to him recant his plan to run for the presidency, cursing his political timidity.