January 24, 2014

Friday Review: Broadway the Hard Way

In 1988 Frank Zappa embarked on what would be his last tour.  He put together a big band, complete with a five-piece horn section and drilled it on dozens of songs, both reworked old favorites and new material.  Zappa mainstays like Ike Willis and Ed Mann were joined by newly minted stunt guitarist Mike Keneally.  Musically, the result was one of the best periods of Zappa's career, with argument being split as to whether this band or the mid-70s Roxy & Elsewhere band came out on top.

Sadly, the band fell apart, rather spectacularly, following stops in the eastern United States and Europe.  As a result, the 1998 band has an almost mystical quality to it, both because people wonder just what caused it to implode and the because it was, for many folks, the best band they never heard in their lives.

Thankfully, Zappa saw fit to record every stop on the tour (save one, due to technical difficulties) and, for a band with an aborted lifespan, it's ridiculously well documented.  During Zappa's lifetime he released three albums of material, with additional tracks showing up on some You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore collections.  Even more tracks have been released since Zappa's death.

The first of the three albums to be released was Broadway the Hard Way (also the name of the tour itself).  Originally an LP of almost all new material, it was expanded for its CD release with several reworked older tracks.  The new stuff is almost all political or socially satirical in nature  and will put off some folks.  However, the political stuff is bipartisan (Jesse Jackson gets smacked in "Rhymin' Man," along with the GOP in tracks like "When The Lie's So Big?" and "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk") and some of the other stuff is good fun ("Elvis Has Just Left the Building," for instance).  There's also an appearance from "Mr. Sting" to perform "Murder By Numbers" and a ripping "Hot Plate Heaven at the Green Hotel."  Still, it's the least essential of the three because it's so bogged down in the era.

The two-disc The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life featured more older material, although in radically different forms given the arsenal Zappa had at his disposal.  Good examples would be the run of One Size Fits All tunes on disc one.  It also features the highest quotient of Jimmy Swaggart related songs (he was a regular rhetorical punching bag throughout the tour), including "Swaggart Versions" of "More Trouble Every Day" and "Lonesome Cowboy Burt."  Finally, this release includes some bizarre cover versions, some recorded during sound checks, topped off by a version of "Stairway to Heaven" in which Zappa the guitar god lets the famous Jimmy Page solo be taken by  . . . the horn section.

The final release, also two discs, was Make a Jazz Noise Here, which is the most "serious" and "heavy" of these albums.  It's also the most essential.  It covers a lot of the more extended instrumental tracks, often laden with improvisation and Synclavier madness from various parties.  It's here where the band shines the most, as on the suite of old Mothers tunes stripped (for the most part) of vocals.  Check the uniform attacks from the horns and percussionist Ed Mann on "The Orange County Lumber Truck" and marvel.  Having said that, some of the pieces on disc one wander a bit.  However, disc two is probably my favorite hunk of Zappa ever released (except, maybe, depending on the day of the week and the barometric pressure, Roxy & Elsewhere).  All the songs are strong and they have enough structure to them to let you know where you are.  When things end with Zappa introducing the band at the end of "Strictly Genteel," it sounds like a perfect cap on the whole affair.

Speaking of the whole affair, what the fuck happened to this band, anyway?  The short answer is that a rift quickly developed between bass player Scott Thunes, also the "Clonemeister" (the guy responsible for rehearing in Zappa'a absence) for this tour and most of the rest of the band, particularly drummer Chad Wackerman and the horn section.  The long answer (although, honestly, there isn't much more to it) is laid out in Andrew Greenaway's recent book, Zappa the Hard Way.  Using extensive interviews (new and old) with most of those involved, Greenaway provides an interesting insight into the tour, the personalities involved, and how the whole thing fell apart.  It's not the most integrated work - Greenaway is prone to introducing a person and quoting whole paragraphs of the interview - but it's chock full of interesting anecdotes, not all of them focused on what went wrong (my personal favorite was the story of the night Mats & Morgan got to meet and play with Zappa).

One thing Greenaway gets right - because I agree with him! - is that Zappa was a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to these live albums.  In the liner notes to each, Zappa proudly explains that the music contained therein was all performed live and with no overdubs.  While that was true, it elides the fact that most of the tracks are stitched together from multiple performances, thus presenting performances that never really existed in the wild.  I've got no problem with that - it's a stunning technical achievement in some instances (over 20 in "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk") - but don't get all holier than thou about it.

At the time the 1988 tour fell apart, nobody knew it was Zappa's last.  He made statement (both after and before) about being done with the rock band thing, but it's hard to say if he could have kept off the stage had he lived past 1993.  As a last hurrah, it's a shame it had to implode the way it did.  But it did leave behind an awful lot of excellent music for posterity.

The Details:
Broadway the Hard Way, by Frank Zappa
Released 1998

1. Elvis Has Just Left the Building (2:24)
2. Planet Of The Baritone Women (2:48)
3. Any Kind Of Pain (5:42)
4. Dickie's Such An Asshole (5:45)
5. When The Lie's So Big (3:38)
6. Rhymin' Man (3:50)
7. Promiscuous (2:02)
8. The Untouchables (2:26)
9. Why Don't You Like Me? (2:57)
10. Bacon Fat (1:29)
11. Stolen Moments (2:57)
12. Murder By Numbers (5:37)
13. Jezebel Boy (2:27)
14. Outside Now (7:49)
15. Hot Plate Heaven at the Green Hotel (6:40)
16. What Kind Of Girl? (3:17)
17. Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk (9:15)

The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, by Frank Zappa
Released 1991

Disc one
1. Heavy Duty Judy (6:04)
2. Ring Of Fire (2:00)
3. Cosmik Debris (4:32)
4. Find Her Finer (2:42)
5. Who Needs The Peace Corps? (2:40)
6. I Left My Heart In San Francisco (0:36)
7. Zomby Woof (5:41)
8. Bolero (5:19)
9. Zoot Allures (7:07)
10. Mr. Green Genes (3:40)
11. Florentine Pogen (7:11)
12. Andy (5:51)
13. Inca Roads (8:19)
14. Sofa # 1 (2:49)

Disc two
1. Purple Haze (2:27)
2. Sunshine Of Your Love (2:30)
3. Let's Move To Cleveland (5:51)
4. When Irish Eyes Are Smiling (0:46)
5. "God Father Part II" Theme (0:30)
6. A Few Moments With Brother A.West (4:00)
7. The Torture Never Stops (Part One) (5:19)
8. Theme From "Bonanza" (0:28)
9. Lonesome Cowboy Burt (Swaggart version) (4:54)
10. The Torture Never Stops (Part Two) (10:47)
11. More Trouble Everyday (Swaggart Version) (5:28)
12. Penguin In Bondage (Swaggart Version) (5:05)
13. The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue (9:18)
14. Stairway To Heaven (9:19)

Make A Jazz Noise Here, by Frank Zappa
Released 1991

Disc one
1. Stinkfoot (7:40)
2. When Yuppies Go To Hell (14:36)
3. Fire and Chains (3:57)
4. Let's Make The Water Turn Black (1:36)
5. Harry, You're A Beast (0:47)
6. The Orange County Lumber Truck (0:42)
7. Oh No (4:43)
8. Theme From Lumpy Gravy (1:12)
9. Eat That Question (1:55)
10. Black Napkins (6:56)
11. Big Swifty (11:13)
12. King Kong (13:11)
13. Stars Won't Work (3:33)

Disc two
1. The Black Page (New Age Version) (6:45)
2. T'Mershi Duween (1:42)
3. Dupree's Paradise (8:35)
4. City Of Tiny Lights (8:01)
5. Royal March From L'Histoire Du Soldat (1:00)
6. Theme From The Bartok Piano Concerto #3 (3:43)
7. Sinister Footwear 2nd Mov. (6:19)
8. Stevie's Spanking (4:26)
9. Alien Orifice (4:15)
10. Cruisin' For Burgers (8:28)
11. Advance Romance (7:43)
12. Strictly Genteel (5:37)

Players for all:
Frank Zappa (lead guitar, synth, vocal)
Ike Willis (rhythm guitar, synth, vocals)
Mike Keneally (rhythm guitar, synth, vocals)
Bobby Martin (keyboards, vocal)
Ed Mann (vibes, marimba, electronic percussion)
Walt Fowler (trumpet, flugel horn, synth)
Bruce Fowler (trombone)
Paul Carman (alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, baritone saxophone)
Albert Wing (tenor saxophone)
Kurt McGettrick (baritone saxophone, contrabass clarinet)
Scott Thunes (electric bass, MiniMoog)
Chad Wackerman (drums, electronic percussion)

Zappa the Hard Way, by Andrew Greenaway
Published 2011

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