ZAPPA '88: THE LAST U.S. SHOW

Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show contains mostly unreleased material capturing Frank’s full Nassau Coliseum Long Island, NY performance plus additional tracks from MD and RI shows. The ’88 band, a well-oiled machine intended to be Frank’s Fox television show “house band”, included some of the finest musicians that had ever worked with him. Naturally, Frank was to have complete show control including guest selection. He intended to choose people with wildly different backgrounds and viewpoints, but at the last minute, Fox pulled the plug.

In his liner notes, drummer Chad Wackerman recalls “…after all that rehearsing for the non-starting TV show the band had memorized more than a hundred songs. We were ready to hit the road. The band played a combination of tight arrangements and long open solos that generally helped make the modern classical parts even more dramatic”.

Why in 1988 would Fox want a Zappa television program? In the mid to late ‘80s Frank was an outspoken “1st amendment fundamentalist” who fought against the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), which sought to restrict sales of records containing material it deemed “offensive” by adding on the jackets parental warning labels. Zappa’s regular appearances on news programs including CNN’s “Crossfire”, The CBS “Morning News”, and ABC’s “Nightline” among others, became legend. He carried on an ongoing feud with Tipper Gore, author of “Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated World” and other conservative moderates, arguing that government organizations should not be responsible for censoring records.

On “Crossfire” in ‘86 Frank asked “Why are people afraid of words?...I don’t think anyone in their right mind would desire to have the government step in to make sure that they install a censorship board that keeps certain things from being said.” Once the show was canceled Frank figured he might as well take the well-rehearsed band on the road, and that’s what’s documented here.

For the few here who might not know, Frank Zappa was a rock’n’roll iconoclast who fused Bach level musical composition with near stand-up comedy lyrics. Despite the material being mostly composed and fully orchestrated, he’d often include totally improvised segments. He’d intended to be a classical composer and in 1993 released The Yellow Shark, an orchestral performance of his various works but the prohibitive costs of employing and touring an orchestra of that size made taking it on the road unfeasible. Arranging the music for a smaller rock ensemble proved a cost-effective way to take his compositions on the road.

By the 80’s Frank would alternate between conducting, singing, and with a metal pick, shredding visceral/angular guitar solos, often with a lit cigarette dangling from his headstock. When he wasn’t beating down on the idiocy of American culture at the time, he’d be crafting and delivering sly lyrics that often felt juvenile juxtaposed with the mathematically perfect music. The contrast allows the songs to hit the listener on numerous levels.

During this sold out ’88 tour Zappa recorded the concerts onto two Sony 3324 DASH PCM 24 track tape recorders synced up using a Lynx Time Code Module, giving him a 48 track recording system. The mix is clear and punchy for a live recording, though due to the digital console’s inadequacies you can hear thinness, compression, and a lack of three dimensionality to cymbals and other high frequency transient producing instruments.

This performance caps Zappa’s decades of musical development and experimentation. It’s full throttle, unapologetically outrageous and often hysterical, with a degree of sophisticated musicianship most bands other than perhaps Prince only dream of achieving. Zappa oscillates seamlessly between funk, ska, circus, jazz, 50’s doo-wop, reggae, classical, hillbilly, rock’n’roll, prog rock, marches, orchestral and jazz fusion. No one is safe from his lashing satirical tongue. He jabs at Petty, Dylan, The Beatles, rednecks, hippies, pro-lifers, Long Islanders, religion, and Republicans, among others.

Many of these songs at this point had been arranged for a live setting and re-orchestrated from the original recordings. Frank relies heavily on his five-piece horn section to reinvent the feel of familiar tunes. Songs like “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” and “Peaches en Regalia” hit with horn section energy that the original album versions lacked.

The album begins with crowd noise and as the band takes the stage the audience energy revs up. A bit of Zappa sound check cacophony occurs, followed by the supremely well-rehearsed band laying down some background music as Frank welcomes the audience to the group’s final United States concert appearance before the band heads to Europe.

Zappa’s emphasis on voter registration instantly turns the show into a call to action. He brings onstage a man named Mr. Bolognese and on the spot registers him to vote, emphasizing that all you need to do so is provide a name and address. “It’s beyond easy…it’s almost embarrassing!” Zappa proclaims. A pre-recorded speech read by New York’s then Governor Mario Cuomo lauded Zappa’s voter registration drive. People were encouraged during intermission to register to vote at booths located in the lobby. How appropriate to hear this today as all across America Republicans squelch voting rights under the false guise of stopping “voter fraud”.

The set opens with a rendition of “The Black Page,” a composition Frank employed to test a musicians’ sight-reading abilities, negotiating through complicated melodic lines and bizarre time signatures. The song’s title refers to the profusion of notes on the sheet music that turned the pages more black than white! In true Zappa fashion, as the set progresses musical elements suggesting a circus freak show appear that rely heavily upon the horns, with Zappa conducting, accompanied by zany vocal characters, assorted skits and various celebrity impersonations.

The set includes Zappa classics from various eras. From the 60’s: “Love of my Life”, “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” and “Pound for a Brown Pt. 1 & 2”, along with the classic instrumental “Peaches en Regalia”. From the 70’s there’s “Sharleena”, “Sofa #1”, “Packard Goose Pt. 1 & 2”, “Lonesome Cowboy Burt”, “The Torture Never Stops Pt. 1 & 2”, and “City of Tiny Lights”. These selections, plus some of Zappa’s 80’s tunes help turn this set list into a comprehensive retrospective of all things Zappa-esque.

Frank brought on tour his Synclavier, an 80’s era computer based-synthesizer. It allowed him to sample and orchestrate sounds which can be played back at any speed. When the band breaks for intermission, the Synclavier kicks in through the loudspeaker, offering listeners a taste of his musical vocabulary from the Grammy award winning album Jazz from Hell.

Another’88 tour highlight was “When the Lie’s So Big”, a scathing medley centered around former republican presidential candidate and televangelist Pat Robertson. The second verse questions America’s penchant towards theocracy:

“When the lies so big
As in Robertson’s case
That sinister face
Behind all the Jesus hoorah
Could result in the end
To a worrisome trend
In which every American
Not born again
Could be punished in
cruel and unusual ways
By this treacherous cretin Who tells everyone
That he’s Jesus’s best friend.”

Zappa also tackles in these shows some classical music, performing with a backbeat that evolves through reggae, circus music and a militant march, Ravel’s “Bolero”. The theme from Bartok’s Piano Concerto #3 appears. The Long Island Ballet makes an appearance during a seamless transition out of “Packard Goose Pt. 1” into The Royal March from Stravinsky’s “L’histoire Du Soldat”, during which Zappa proclaims:

Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is the best.

Worth noting on an album filled with notables are a series of cover medleys. Without giving too much away, there’s “The Beatles Medley” that changes the chorus “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to “Louisiana hooker with herpes.” You can almost imagine where it goes from there…

Record four is covers full-stop. “Stairway to Heaven (into)” “I am the Walrus” (into) “Whipping Post”, all done in Zappa-esque tradition, completely rearranged with blaring horns, a driving rhythm section, unexpected harmonies, and visceral/angular improvised guitar solos. The band closed this show with a rendition of “America the Beautiful” – a nod to the patriotic voter drive.

For die hard Zappa fans, this is a great addition to what already is a massive compendium of work. The set comes on four 180g black LP’s in rice paper sleeves, along with a three-panel gatefold insert with black and white photographs, credits, and liner notes by FZ vaultmeister Joe Travers and drummer Chad Wackerman. A purple ribbon neatly wraps around the records allowing for easy access. Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering cut lacquers. The records pressed at Optimal in Germany are well-crafted and pristinely quiet.

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COMMENTS
xtcfan80's picture

Many already have the 3 LP Zappa in N.Y.....great reissue with the same Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering ....Get both and sample live euphoria from a true musical genius...yeah, he never went to Berklee...never took a formal music lesson

Paul Robertson's picture

Very insightful well written review Nicholas, thank you for it. I haven't noticed any others from you, but perhaps if I missed anything it just didn't grab me. ZAPPA grabs me. And I will grab this LP set.

Michael's vinyl reviews are stellar and I miss the days when he had more time on his hands, BUT it's great he's brought you and others on board to help keep the boat afloat!

Tom L's picture

...to have been reviewed by both Michael and Nicholas!
My wife and I are both big Zappa fans, but I'm still a bit skeptical about buying this because of my powerful aversion to the sounds of the Synclavier and Mini-Moog.

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