It’s probably hard for most people to fathom how anyone could describe spuddling guitar excursions as ‘emotional’, but if you’re sufficiently attuned, and actually willing to be exposed to mind-altering Zappa rays, you can be walloped by raw, unadulterated feeling. On numb and dreamy “Sleep Dirt”, an uncharacteristically lo-fi cut from his 1979 album of the same name, Zappa wrings devastation from his six-stringed plank of wood. It’s very sad, and perfect accompaniment to brooding over five years of Tory majority government.
Eventually becoming the ‘The Mammy Nuns’ in Frank Zappa’s ineffably bizarre rock musical Thing-Fish, itself loosely based around his earnest belief that the AIDs virus was manufactured on purpose, ‘The Mammy Anthem’ began life as a guitar-based instrumental used to open shows on his 1982 tour. This version comes from a bootleg recording of what was apparently a particularly stellar gig in Pistoia, Italy. A bunker-busting riff hails the arrival of the usual mangled odyssey of a Zappa guitar solo, his straining, sizzling whammy bar theatrics buoyed by Tommy Mars’s ethereal keyboard vamp.
And now in an entirely, inexcusably self-indulgent excursion into the sonic realm, here’s some music The Bemolution listened to and liked in 2014.
Customarily, when you come across these ‘best-of-the-year’-type collections in music publications and the Guardian they only concern themselves with records put out in the last twelve months, as you’d expect. To turn the solipsism dial up to eleven, we’re just going to bang on about stuff that happened to cross the Bemolutionary turntable between the 1st of January 2014 and now, regardless of when they were made.
And off we go.
We’d long-since pronounced quality pop music dead as a door-nail, but this year we stumbled across quite a bit of it – hooked after catching their beguiling, excellently-humoured turn at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival earlier this year, The Bemolution whiled away a fair slice of Autumn listening the lead single from Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott’s What Have We Become on repeat. Wry and spiky, “Moulding Of A Fool” is a three minute gallop through blink-and-you’ll-miss-them vignettes about dumb consumerism, youthful indoctrination and life’s fleeting insignificance. Subtract one gnashing guitar break – misplaced, in our meaningless opinion at least – and you’ve got a perfect pop single.
A diminutive Scottish muso of the classical variety once sat down and watched a bit of the Bemolution’s extensive collection of Frank Zappa videos. Like a lot of classical buffs who stupidly shun anything that isn’t staggeringly, inscrutably complicated, thereby writing-off a mass of the most beautiful and exhilarating music ever created, she did have a somewhat bewildered but very genuine respect for Zappa.
That said, watching him scowl intently into his Les Paul and loudly, furiously, if not dementedly play for several minutes without stopping, she did hypothesise that music was just an excuse for Uncle Frank to angrily vent his dissatisfaction with the world through his guitar. She was half-joking, and there was nothing in life Zappa took more seriously that music, but to some extent she was on to something. Continue reading “Zappa, guitar, and Dangerous Cretins”
It’s hardly a secret that the Bemolution’s boundary-breaking artiste of choice is the late Frank Zappa. This isn’t just because of his music. Politically, Zappa was often hard to like. He was a self-described ‘practical conservative’, a socially permissive economic libertarian who fumed at unions, taxation and big government even while launching scabrous assaults on religious fundamentalism, censorship and corporate dominance of politics and the media. He hated dumb conformism above all else, but wasn’t above wince-inducing misogyny and the kind of knuckleheaded playground humour that finds anything ‘gay’ uproariously funny. As wildly individual a product as Zappa undoubtedly was, he was still a product of his era. But it’s as a ferociously critical thinker that he remains stirringly relevant. In this interview from the late 80s he holds forth on how the Right – the big capitalist, fundamentalist Christian Right – was manipulating the media. The Bemolution is always reminded of this clip whenever right-wingers complain about the BBC’s supposed leftist bias. He might’ve been more secular Ron Paul than Noam Chomsky, but he was bang on back then and, depressingly, still bang on twenty years after his death.
And since it would be criminal to bring up Zappa without aural accompaniment, here’s a hallowed recording from a 1973 performance of ‘Montana’ filmed for Swedish TV.
A 1982 Frank Zappa album mostly composed of inconsequential novelty songs had as its sprawling centrepiece a burbling odyssey into oddity that ranks among the strangest, wildest, most complicated tracks he ever produced. ‘Drowning Witch’ represented the work of its creator quite well – throw-away humour collides with baffling musical complexity, as high-art quotations from Stravinsky jostle for position with extracts ripped from the Dragnet theme.
What starts out as a jaunty and, for Zappa, conventional rock song observing the fate of the titular sinking hag accelerates into 10 minutes plus of demented classical interlude evoking her plight. If there was an award given for Most Sinister-Sounding Use Of Marimba In A Rock Record 1982, it would’ve been scandalous if this didn’t win it. Perilous marimba-clatter makes way for the aquatic splutter of Zappa’s guitar*, which sounds as much like a flailing witch fighting to keep above water as a guitar solo ever can do.
By way of an additional indulgence/Zappa showcase, here’s a completely different solo taken from a live show in the same year – it’s a manic, wailing, yet somehow quite stately piece lamenting the fate of our stricken harridan. And in our overactive man-child imagination at least, is translated into a strange slow-motion mental music video of Zappa sternly watching from the prow of a naval vessel as it ploughs towards the thrashing witch, but getting there too late to save anything except her hat.
*strangely, an instrument built from the remnants of a Fender Stratocaster played then torched onstage by Jimi Hendrix at the ’68 Miami Pop Festival
Predictably, the Bemolution hasn’t got much time for Halloween, seeing it as rampant Yankee cultural imperialism cynically manipulating impressionable kiddies to sell shelf-fulls of overpriced plastic tat. But, since it’s sure as hell going to happen anyway, and ultimately doesn’t do that many people immediate physical harm, it’s a convenient excuse to showcase some nice loosely Halloween-themed music.
First out of the gate are the delightfully offensive Dead Kennedys – probably the Bemolution’s joint-favourite group alongside dazzlingly good Mancunian indie-founders The Smiths – with the originally entitled ‘Halloween’. Jello Biafra, vocalist, band spokesman and former prospective Mayor of San Francisco, uses the prism of a raucous yuppie get-together on All Hallows Eve to attack Middle America’s everyday conformism. While Mr Biafra exercises his vocals chords in harmony with his acid wit, East Bay Ray’s demented surf guitar has bipolar mood-swings between shrapnel-spitting shred and sawing riffs, the volatile concoction kept at boiling point by Klaus Flouride’s implausibly springy bass.
And second, resplendent in pink on the 31st of October 1981, we have the irreplaceable Frank Zappa – probably the Bemolution’s joint-favourite artist alongside ingenious vaudeville oddball Tom Waits – cheerfully presenting the scatological horrors of The Torture Never Stops.
Billy Jenkins is responsible for much journalistic willy-waving. Music critics tend to use him as a linguistic ordnance test, competing to encapsulate his raging idiosyncrasy in the pithiest, showiest, most OTT way imaginable. This is a man who has been variously dubbed ‘a combination of Woody Allen, Tony Hancock and Keith Floyd’, ‘the Victor Meldrew of avant-garde jazz ‘ and ‘the musical equivalent of Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa”. Elsewhere, he’s been likened to Vic Reeves, Telly Savallas, Tommy Cooper, Duane Eddy, Duke Ellington and Debussy.
Billy Jenkins is probably the closest thing we have to a British Zappa. He bombards his fanatical listenership with a combination of satire, improvisation, melancholia, cynicism, anti-commercialism, top-drawer musicianship and humour. Both men explore the spikier sides of jazz and blues while refusing to take it too seriously. And both apparently hate being compared to other artists. Presented with the frequently-used Zappa comparison, Jenkins spoke admiringly but briefly of Uncle Frank’s talents as a composer and arranger, dismissively skimmed over his guitar-playing ability before concluding that he was “a control freak, an excellent businessman and a capitalist. I am none of these things”.
Jenkins is a 55 year-old man from Bromley in Kent, the captain of the Francis Drake Bowls Club in Lewisham, and a magnificent live performer, which is a shame, since he’s now permanently off the road organising and conducting humanist funerals.
Here, performed in Belgium, is a shrieking atheistic blues number called ‘There Is No Lord Up There’, which nicely displays what Mr Jenkins is about.
Zappa wrings something transporting and serene from the sleaziest, unlikeliest of material. Taken from 1979’s three-disc Joe’s Garage, a baffling smut-riddled rock-opera satirising the Iranian Revolution and the music business, Outside Now records the eponymous Joe’s dreams of revenge, guitar hero status, and liberation from the dystopian prison in which he finds himself incarcerated*. Here tranquilly rendered by Zappa’s relatively restrained 1980 touring band, the track features the affecting harmonies of Ray White (pink shirt, sunglasses) and Ike Willis (husky croon, tea-cosy) as well as some of Zappa’s most anguished guitar work and a lovely Hawaiian shirt.
*he was imprisoned after accidentally destroying an alluring vacuum-cleaner-robot called Sy Borg whilst trying to have sex with it, you see.
Last December, it was Frank Zappa’s 70th birthday. Twentieth-century music’s most prominent Sicilian-Greek-Arab-American guitarist, composer and satirising iconoclast was duly celebrated by hard-core adherents on both sides of the Atlantic. Festivities were only slightly dampened by the fact the man himself had been dead for 17 years.
Whether he would’ve appreciated this heartfelt commemoration is questionable. When he wasn’t touring, Zappa was a near-recluse. After his death from prostate cancer in 1993, Zappa was buried in an unmarked grave in California’s Westwood Cemetery. He insisted that it wasn’t important to be remembered – ‘legacy’, in Zappa’s eyes, was for the megalomaniac Ronald Reagans of the world to worry about. Continue reading “Frank Zappa”