A unique opportunity to explore five favourite At The Barrier themes in one go! A detailed compendium of The Mothers and Frank Zappa’s 1971 live activities.
Release Date: 18th March 2022
Label: Zappa Records/UMe
Formats: 8 x CD Box Set, 2 x 3LP Vinyl Sets, Digital
As an At The Barrier contributor, it isn’t often that I get the opportunity to reel in five of our thematical threads with one single article. To wit: regular visitors will be aware that amongst our offerings, our semi-regular features include a ‘Reviews’ section, a ‘News’ section and ‘Time Tunnel’ – our occasional dive into musical history. Those same regular visitors may also be aware that, over the past twelve months or so, we’ve taken a detailed look at the albums that were released during 1971 – arguably rock music’s annus mirablis – and, more recently, an assessment of what our writers consider to be the best LIVE albums of all time. Well – this new package from Zappa records provides the opportunity to tick every one of those boxes, containing, as it does, a healthy chunk of Frank and The Mothers’ extensive live itinerary from that momentous year, including every single note played during the four concerts that closed New York’s iconic Fillmore East auditorium in June 1971 (extracts of which were taken to compile that year’s Mothers – Fillmore East -June 1971 live album), the first official recording of the life-changing show at London’s Rainbow Theatre on 10th December 1971 which ended with Frank being pushed from the stage by a crazed fan, plus compilations of recordings from shows at Harrisburg and Scranton PA, made during the same tour.
Let’s deal with the news of the new package first… It follows hot on the heels of Zappa Records’ November 2021 expanded revisit to The Mothers’ 200 Motels movie and soundtrack project, and it’s another comprensive work of love and dedication that, once again, will be indispensable to dedicated Zappa-ologists. Overseen by the Zappa Trust and produced by Frank’s son Ahmet and Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers it’s a 100-track, 10-hour marathon that, in addition to the goodies listed above, also includes the entire encore to the second Fillmore show on 6th June, for which The Mothers were joined by John & Yoko for a six-song jam (more of which later…) and the collection is rounded off with a few odds and ends, including the original (rare) single, Tears Began To Fall and its ‘B’ side, Junier Mintz Boogie. Clearly aimed at the kind of dedicated fan and completist who will drool at the prospect of acquiring six more versions of Peaches En Regalia, this is, indeed, a rich collection that documents a key and highly productive period in the career of music’s most outlandish of mavericks.
Devotees of vinyl are well-catered for, too. Alongside the CD box set, a 3LP 50th Anniversary edition that includes a remaster of the Fillmore East – June 1971 album plus two discs of bonus tracks (including that John & Yoko encore) has hit the racks and, not only that, another 3LP set, this time covering that notorious Rainbow concert, also sees light of day. In full, the CD package comprises the following:
CD Box Set:
Disc 1: The complete Fillmore East first show from 5th June 1971;
Disc 2: The first part of the 5th June second show;
Disc 3: The second part of the 5th June second show and the first part of the 6th June first show;
Disc 4: The second part of the 6th June first show and the first part of the 6th June second show;
Disc 5: The second part of the 6th June second show;
Disc 6: The John & Yoko encore from the 6th June second show, a Radio spot, the Tears Began to Fall single, out-takes and Part One of the bonus ‘hybrid’ concert from Harrisburg/Scranton;
Disc 7: Part Two of the Harrisburg/Scranton ‘hybrid’ concert and the first part of the 10th December 1971 Rainbow Theatre show;
Disc 8: The rest of the Rainbow show.
As has been previously recorded in these pages, 1971 was, just possibly, the most significant year in the life of Frank Zappa. The year started with a ban from London’s Royal Albert Hall after accusations of obscenity, the American tour that spawned the Fillmore East – June 1971 album, that live appearance with John & Yoko, a fire during a show at The Casino, Montreux, Switzerland and that horrendous incident at the Rainbow Theatre that saw Frank spend most of the next year in a wheelchair and which permanently lowered the tone of his voice. 1971 was also the year in which Zappa’s documentary movie, 200 Motels, was filmed and released, accompanied by the movie’s soundtrack album. We covered much of this when we announced the release of the 200 Motels box set, so this time, in keeping with the occasion, I’ll concentrate on the live album, a time-capsule that captures the workings of Zappa’s imagination of the time, provides a preview of the themes that would make up the surreal plot of the 200 Motels movie and which provides a humorous, fascinating, if frequently distasteful insight to the leisure activities of an early 1970s rock band.
Zappa had disbanded the original Mothers of Invention lineup in 1969, following the release of that year’s Uncle Meat double album. Frustrations had been felt from all sides – Zappa had felt that he was shouldering too much of both the creative and financial responsibility of running the band, whilst band members had become annoyed by what they perceived as Zappa’s autocratic style. However, during 1970, the band that was to tour under the curtailed moniker of The Mothers slowly came together and by the October release of Frank’s Chunga’s Revenge album, the line-up was, essentially, complete. Thus, when The Mothers kicked off on the American leg of their 1971 tour in May, their ranks consisted of: Frank on guitar and vocals, Ian Underwood on keyboards and woodwind, Don Preston on synthesizer, Jim Pons on bass, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, Bob Harris on keyboards and former members of The Turtles (by then performing as ‘Flo and Eddie’) Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman on vocals. It was this line-up that arrived at New York’s Fillmore East on 5th June for the concerts that provided the material for the seminal live album.
Fillmore East – June 1971 is one of my all-time favourite LIVE albums. Indeed, it’s one of the albums (along with Hot Rats, Chunga’s Revenge and Uncle Meat that sparked, in my 16-year old self, the life-long passion for all things Zappa that I enjoy to this day. When I first heard it, shortly after its release, I was stunned – not only by the wit and the vulgarity on display – but also by the amazing musicianship and the compositional mastery that, as I was to learn, were the real Frank Zappa hallmarks. In many ways, Fillmore East – June 1971 is a curious album. Indeed, it’s often viewed as a ‘concept’ album, as the comedy routine of a pair of groupies (played by Kaylan and Volman) playing hard-to-get with the members of the band is an ever-present theme. But there’s a lot more to Fillmore East – June 1971 than mere comedy and the musicianship of Frank and his hand-picked band is never far beneath the surface, and is given full rein at frequent intervals throughout the album.
Although the album comes over as a cohesive, single live recording, it was actually pieced together using what were considered as the best takes from the four shows that were performed at the auditorium. It was with surprise, therefore that I learned that Little House I used to Live In, the song that, for 50 years I’d understood to be the band’s set opener, was, in fact, performed mid-way through one of the 5th June shows. The version of the tune featured here is heavily-curtailed in comparison to the version that had appeared on the 1970 Burnt Weenie Sandwich album but, nevertheless, it’s a delight. Dominated by Ian’s/Bob’s keyboards and some masterful guitar from Frank, it’s a delicious amalgam of jazz, blues and Eastern influences to which Flo and Eddie add hilarious, surreal trappings with their various “oink oink” noises and their piercing screams.
The ‘groupie’ saga gets underway with Mud Shark, a piece that, by way of dialogue and song, recounts the tale told to Don Preston during a stopover at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport by a member of The Vanilla Fudge, concerning that band’s depraved antics at The Edgewater Inn in Seattle. If you haven’t already heard the story – and there really can’t be that many of you that haven’t – the details are widely available online. Amongst other distractions, the song references “A succulent young lady with a taste for the bizarre” and features a lesson in the Mud Shark Dance, as tutored by Flo and Eddie using the same style that Rufus Thomas used to teach us the Funky Chicken. It’s great fun and, amidst all the silliness, the musical embellishments are spot-on.
The tale continues in the bluesy What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are, as the groupies (played by Flo and Eddie, remember…) reveal themselves as a pair of ladies who “Get off being duped by a baby octopus and spewed upon with cream corn” whilst, simultaneously, defending their respective virtues by making clear that they’re only available to the most successful performers – viz their statement “These girls wouldn’t let just anybody spew on their vital parts – they want a guy from a group, with a big hit single in the charts.” You wouldn’t get away with it nowadays…
…and the downward slide in taste continues with Bwana Dik as Kaylan, this time in the guise of a band member, boasts about the size of his ‘physicality’ in a song that takes in schmaltzy balladry, Russian opera and heavy metal…
…before things take a sideward lurch into Latex Solar Beef, a rocky interlude with lyrics that hint at further forms of sexual deviation involving (for one reason or another…) hemorrhoids. Sometimes, it’s wise not to probe too deeply.
We’re taken to the interval – or, if you will, to the end of the original album’s first side, by a marvelous version of Willie the Pimp, a track from the classic Hot Rats album and undoubtedly one of Zappa’s best known and most well-loved tunes. There’s no Beefheart vocal, unfortunately, but Zappa’s guitar work is outstanding as he improvises around the song’s core riff. The only problem with the earlier issues of the album – including my vinyl and CD versions – was that the tune was faded out with Frank in mid-flight, to meet the capacity constraints of the vinyl format. Now, with this new reissue, we can finally enjoy the entire, unabridged, thing.
The groupies are back for Do You Like My New Car, a lengthy monologue from Flo and Eddie that resumes the flirty dialogue with their potential suitors (“where do you guys play tomorrow night? I’d like to come, maybe… in your bus”) and namechecks examples of musicians who fit their idea of BIG stars – Davy Jones, Bobby Sherman ( a sixties singer, actor and sometime teen idol), David Cassidy and, perhaps most incongruously, Three Dog Night keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon. To regular listeners, the story is, perhaps, a little over-familiar, but the band’s restraint during the dialogue is admirable and the occasional bursts of heavy metal riffing are still thrilling, even after all these years.
The storytelling part of the album reaches its zenith (I nearly said ‘climax’ but that would, maybe, be milking the concept a bit too much…) at the end Do You Like My New Car when the band members – the targets of the groupies’ flirtations – are finally persuaded to perform their ‘big hit single – with a bullet’ and burst into The Turtles, 1967 smash, Happy Together. It’s an exciting moment and the band do the song full justice, with Kaylan and Volman (ex-Turtles, as I’ve already explained) both urging the audience to “Sing along with the big rock show” before Frank steps to the mike to deliver a short speech about the impending closure of the Fillmore and the band members offer their hysterical screams of “Goodnight.”
It doesn’t end there, of course. Don Preston’s otherworldly synth showpiece Lonesome Electric Turkey was billed as an encore on the original album but, as the new reissue now confirms, it was, in fact, an extract from a mid-set item from the 5th June second house. It was always one of my favourite tracks on the album and, once again, it’s great that the new package makes it available in its unadulterated form. The original album is wound up by a searing version of Peaches En Regalia – arguably Zappa’s best-known tune – which, despite a harder edge and some intriguing improvisation, stays reasonably true to the Hot Rats original and, finally an enjoyable take on Frank’s then-current single, the poppy Tears Began To Fall.
And that was it. A classic live album that still bears repeated plays even today. Yes, some of the sex-infused dialogue is cringeworthy and sounds hopelessly dated by today’s values, but listeners need to remember that Zappa was poking fun at a lifestyle that he identified as monumentally cheesy, despite the rest of us considering it to be unimaginatively glamourous, and the satirical intent isn’t lost – even today. But, above all, it’s the musicianship that shines through and the durability of tunes like Little House, Peaches…,, Willie… and Lonesome Electric Turkey has never been more evident.
But what about that John & Yoko appearance? The Lennons were introduced to Zappa a few days before the Fillmore shows by Village Voice presenter Howard Smith. Lennon was, apparently, an admirer of Zappa’s music and Zappa, in turn, was impressed by John’s sense of humour – not least when, upon meeting, Lennon remarked that Zappa “was not as ugly as he expected him to be.” The result of this mutual admiration session was that the Lennons were invited to the final show of Fillmore season to jam with The Mothers for the show’s encore. A live sighting of a Beatle was, back in 1971, a life-changing experience for those present, and the Fillmore audience were suitably delighted, despite the occasionally rambling incoherence of the six-song mini-set that the Lennon-enhanced Mothers performed that evening. The set kicked off with a version of The Olympics’ Well (Baby Please Don’t Go) – a song familiar from the formative performance years of both Lennon and Zappa. Next came Say Please, a burst of noise and screaming into which Yoko (clad head-to-foot in a white bag) fitted seamlessly before the band tackled King Kong, a track from Uncle Meat. Aawk, Scumbag and piece now titled A Small Eternity With Yoko Ono completed the mini-set, and history was duly made. As befits such a historical event, the encore has been released in numerous forms over the years – first, and perhaps most famously, as the bonus disc in John’s 1972 Some Time In New York City collection and also on Zappa’s 1992 Playground Psychotics.
Before we leave Frank Zappa and 1971, it’s maybe worthwhile giving a mention to the primitive yet innovative sleeve art of the Fillmore East – June 1971 album. In an era when elaborate cover illustrations were very much de rigueur, Frank took the unusual – maybe even brave – step of packaging the album in a crude white sleeve, onto which the album’s title, the tracklisting and the production details were all scrawled in Frank’s own handwriting, in a manner that even bootleg album manufacturers would consider a bit basic, with the whole presentation topped off by Frank’s reminder to his politically sceptical fanbase: “DON’T FORGET TO REGISTER TO VOTE – FZ.” He never was afraid to buck the trend!
Listen to The Mothers perform their set-closing version of Happy Together, at New York’s Fillmore East on 6th June 1971, here: