Album Review

Frank Zappa – The Manchester Mystery (UK Broadcast 1979): Album Review

Flawless concert recording and a genuine time capsule for those of us who were there when Frank Zappa hit Manchester in 1979.

A newly released live recording of a 1979 Frank Zappa concert allows our writer John Barlass to combine an album review with a Time Tunnel feature.

Release Date:  5th February 2021

Label: Gossip Productions

Formats: 2CD

The mid-1970s were torrid years as far as Frank Zappa was concerned.  His relationship with his long-time manager Herb Cohen had shattered during 1976 and in 1977, Zappa entered into a dispute with his record label, Warner Bros, which resulted in a hiatus in the release of recorded material, a situation that the prolific Zappa dealt with by touring extensively and preparing new material in preparation for the resolution of the dispute.  Thankfully, the lawsuits that pitched Zappa against Cohen and Warner Bros were concluded successfully and, by 1979, Frank was ready to go with his new Zappa Records label and with a host of new road-tested material in the pipeline.

From my own point of view, I guess that Frank Zappa had just about always been there.  Like a lot of those who went on to be avid fans, my initial interest was aroused by Hot Rats and, in particular, the opening track Peaches En Regalia, a piece of music I will never tire of hearing if I’m around until I’m 100.  During my mid-teens, I was enraptured by the Fillmore East – June 1971 album, probably ensnared by the schoolboy humour of the Flo and Eddie ‘Groupie’ routine that opened Side 2 of the album, before I was introduced by an older neighbour to the early masterpieces: the We’re Only In It For The Money, Freak Out! and Uncle Meat, albums that I still enjoy today and in which I still discover sounds and lyrics that I’ve managed to miss for the past 45 years or so.

As the 1970s progressed and my own musical tastes matured (at least, that’s what I like to call it…)  I became especially fond of that mid 70s triumvirate, Apostrophe’, Overnite Sensation and Zoot Allures; albums I would play over and over, particularly when I had managed to get myself into a ‘relaxed’ frame of mind.  And so, when the dates for FZ’s 1979 European Tour were announced, I excitedly scanned the itinerary for news of a Manchester show – and there it was – 12th February 1979 at The Apollo, the second date in a sequence of UK gigs that also included shows in Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow, Brighton and London, before the retinue moved on to delight the good citizens of Belgium, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Scandinavia, Austria, Spain and Switzerland.  It was a big tour…

Ostensibly, the purpose of the tour was to promote Frank’s forthcoming double album, Sheikh Yerbouti, scheduled for release on 3rd March, and destined to become the best-selling album of Frank’s career, but as we shall see, Frank took the opportunity to use his long-awaited return to the European stages to treat his audiences to a selective look into his past and to provide a tantalizing foretaste of things to come.

Frank Zappa and Ike Willis, 1979

I have to admit that, after a period of 42 years, my recollections of what went on during that evening in February 1979 had become a little hazy.  I certainly had clear memories of the highlights of the Sheikh Yerbouti material; City of Tiny Lights and Dancin’ Fool had lodged themselves into my brain; I also remembered the somewhat uncomfortable section of Brown Shoes Don’t Make It that conjectures a corrupt City Hall official covering an under-age female paramour in chocolate, and also of the bunch of songs from the Apostrophe’ album, including Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow for which Frank demanded full audience participation – and I’ll come back to that – but the passing years had turned the rest of my recollections into an impenetrable blur.  Happily, it seems I’d picked the right show. Frank and band were really cooking by the time they arrived in Manchester and, by Frank’s own assessment, the show was one of the best on the tour.

A tour souvenir

I am, therefore, exquisitely grateful to the folks at Gossip Productions for releasing this double CD collection that contains the entire set from the Manchester gig, preserved in faultless hi-fi sound.  I was aware that the show had been recorded for FM radio and I’d recalled listening to an extract from the recording, along with an interview with Frank, that a local radio station (either Piccadilly or BCC Radio Manchester) had broadcast shortly after the show.  I’m also aware that a double CD German bootleg version of the concert has been doing the rounds for a number of years, but it’s fantastic that an official recording of the show has finally seen the light of day.  It’s a veritable time capsule and an absolute gem to boot.

The members of Frank’s band for the evening will be familiar to anyone who followed his music from the mid-seventies to the early-eighties.  Arthur Barrow was on bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Warren Cuccurullo (introduced to the audience by Frank as Sophia Warren) on vocals and guitar, Ed Mann on vocals and percussion (including marimba, a key element of Frank’s signature sound), Denny Walley on slide guitar, Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf on keyboards and the excellent Ike Willis on vocals and guitar.  It was, indeed, a stellar line-up.

As I’ve already mentioned, the setlist was an inspired mix of the past, the present and the future.  Going right back to the earliest days of The Mothers, there’s a tight, fresh and faithful version of Ain’t Got No Heart from the Freak Out! Album and, from nearly as far back, the aforementioned Brown Shoes Don’t Make it from 1967’s Absolutely Free.  Apostrophe’ is represented by Cozmic Debris, Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow, Nanook Rubs It, St Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast and Father O’Blivion.  All are greeted with the enthusiasm of the long-deprived by the Manchester audience and played with a joie de vivre that simply leaps from the speakers – even though it’s been bottled for such a long time.  It’s during Nanook Rub’s It that Frank memorably insists on a session of audience participation in which, in his words, we were being asked to be “Totally Stupid.”  And we were, and we did, as requested, pounce, pounce again, jump up and down on the fur-trapper’s chest, do it all again because it wasn’t good enough the first time, and then we sat back down in our seats.  It was at this point, whilst listening to the CD, that the penny dropped – this really was the show I was at in February 1979!

The 1975 album, One Size Fits All, was something of a departure for Frank ZappaNotably jazzier than much of his previous output, it contains songs with a more serious edge than we’d been used to and the music is generally quite complex.  At the Apollo show, the album was represented by Andy, the epic Inca roads and Florentin Pogen.  All are flawlessly played and the sound is excellent.

Whilst we were supposed to there to hear extracts from the new Sheikh Yerbouti album, the selections from that album were limited to Tryin’ To Grow A Chin, as well as the aforementioned City of Tiny Lights and Dancin’ Fool, but the versions that were played that night left us in doubt that we could expect an excellent album – an expectation that was satisfied just a few days after the concert when many of us who were there headed down into town to make our purchase.  And it’s still an album I play regularly to this day.  The version of Dancin’ Fool contained here clearly demonstrates that these new songs were well bedded in as it flows seamlessly from the spoof-disco chorus into the hilarious “chat-up” section of the song. And I believe that this concert was the first time I had anyone use the “Yowza, Yowza, Yowza” expression of excitement that was adopted by 70s disco fraternity (it was originally the catchphrase of radio presenter Ben Bernie in the 1930’s.) Special mention needs to made of Ike’s soulful vocal and Frank’s mind-melting guitar solo on City Of Tiny Lights.  Truly out of this world. 

Sheikh Yerbouti – Zappa’s best-selling album

So prolific was Frank at this stage of his career that February’s double Sheikh Yerbouti album was followed, that September, by the first portion of the Joe’s Garage trilogy and we got a preview of that album and the tale of Joe’s epic battle with the music censors with versions of Keep it Greasy, Wet Tee-Shirt Nite and a wonderful rendition of Why Does It Hurt When I Pee on which Ike’s voice is so full of soul that even the line “My balls feel like a pair of maracas” is made to sound somehow fresh and wholesome.

And that’s not all, we get tastes of 1981’s Tinseltown Rebellion with the soulful Easy Meat and the fun boogie For The Young Sophisticate, whilst the bluesy Jumbo Go Away and the excellent The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing (a potent swipe at evangelism and greed and FZ at his satirical best) provide an early preview of the You Are What You Is album.

The end of the show comes with Rollo, before Frank and the band return for five encores including sublime versions of the instrumentals Strictly Genteel, a quasi-classical piece from the 200 Motels movie and the magnificent Pound For a Brown, plus a crowd-pleasing favourite, Montana.

Sure, some of Frank’s lyrics are very much of their era and grate a little to today’s less misogynistic mindset – I find the words to Honey Don’t You Want A Man Like Me, also included here – particularly challenging in this respect, but the music and the satire have held up well and is just as relevant today as it was way back in February 1979.  But my overwhelming emotion having heard this excellent live recording is one of great gratitude – to Frank, for taking the trouble to visit Manchester on 12th February 1979, to providence for placing me in the audience that evening, and, not least, to Gossip Productions for allowing me to revisit a fantastic evening, from when I was 24 years old.

Frank Zappa died in December 1993, and I miss him still.  Musically, he was an irreplaceable genius and innovator, and thankfully, he left a vast, rich, legacy that we mere mortals still have the pleasure of sifting through.  But I also miss his willingness to challenge the wisdom and competence of those in authority, whether the subject be censorship, prohibition, self-enriching evangelism or incompetent statesmanship.  Heaven knows what he would have made of the feeble response of the US and UK (led, respectively, by Oliver Hardy and Billy Bunter) to the COVID pandemic.  I’m sure though that his observations would have been incisive, lucid, practical and cynical.  Rest in Peace Frank.

Watch Frank and the boys perform Cozmik Debris here:

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