Monday, September 16, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #30: Tinseltown Rebellion

After unleashing five albums (two of them doubles) in 1979, Frank Zappa took all of 1980 off as a recording artist. He continued to tour relentlessly, and he funneled much of his Sheik Yerbouti and Joe’s Garage money into his new home studio, which he ironically called the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, after the dead-end job Joe took in “A Little Green Rosetta.”

 The first project he intended to assemble at UMRK was a triple live album called Warts and All, which soon collapsed under its own weight. It became Crush All Boxes, a combination live/studio album, and that slowly morphed into Tinseltown Rebellion (although material intended for the aborted projects would appear on the next few Zappa releases). In fact, the cover of Tinseltown Rebellion is the same one intended for Crush All Boxes, and you can still make out the original title behind the new one.

Released in May of 1981, Tinseltown captures Zappa’s early-‘80s band on their 1979-1980 U.S. tour. This band is Zappa’s most reliant on synthesizers, with three keyboard players – Tommy Mars, Peter Wolf and Bob Harris – trading off here. It also, significantly, features the debut of guitarist Steve Vai, a Zappa disciple who would stay through 1984, and then would go on to a solo career that mainly serves as a tribute to Frank. Vai is an extraordinary player and composer in his own right, but his time with Zappa forever colored what he does.

This tour was also the last for drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, who plays on all but two of the songs on Tinseltown. Coliauta is one of the finest drummers Zappa ever employed, although his talents are more evident on Joe’s Garage and the Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar series. The band also includes longtime Zappa collaborator Ray White, singer Ike Willis, guitarists Warren Cuccurullo and Denny Walley, bassist Arthur Barrow and percussionist Ed Mann.

Tinseltown begins with two studio-enhanced tracks, “Fine Girl” and the nine-minute “Easy Meat,” which introduce new drummer David Logeman. It is in the instrumental midsection of “Easy Meat” where the newfound emphasis on synthesizers truly becomes apparent, with Tommy Mars overdubbing blatting keyboard horns atop one another. The effect is intricate, but dated, though Zappa’s guitar solo saves things.

The following 13 tracks are entirely live, with no overdubs, and they offer a strong glimpse of Zappa’s sound and material during this period. The music is slightly more plastic, befitting the era to come, and the songs performed with a wink. The album contains a healthy mix of new songs and reinvented old tunes, including “Love of My Life,” “I Ain’t Got No Heart” and a raucous run through “Tell Me You Love Me.” Hearing the thick synthesizers crash through songs from Freak Out and Cruising With Ruben and the Jets is fascinating, even if it feels a little disrespectful, as is the keyboard-heavy take on “Peaches in Regalia” that closes the album.

The new songs continue Zappa’s obsession with sexual and romantic foibles, and your enjoyment of this album will likely depend on your reaction to the lyrics. Zappa has not quite entered his bitter old man phase, but he can see it from here, and his words are becoming even more sarcastic and sneering. Opener “Fine Girl” emphasizes its subject’s willingness to do the dishes and laundry, before she “go down in the evening, all the way down.” “Easy Meat” is about a sexual predator, who “saw her tiny titties through her see-through blouse, I just had to take the girl to my house,” where she “rub my head and beat me off with a copy of Rolling Stone,” before he ditches her: “I told her I was late, I had another date…”

“Bamboozled By Love” is perhaps the most problematic. It is a parody of blues-style done-me-wrong songs, in which Willis’ character threatens to kill the object of his affection: “I ain’t the type for begging, I ain’t the type to plead, if she don’t change those evil ways I’m gonna make her bleed, she can scream and she can holler, bang her head along the wall, if she don’t give me what I want, she ain’t gonna have no head at all…”

More successful, though no less smirking, is the title track, an evisceration of the then-current music scene. It follows a new wave band through their first record contract through the selling-out process: “They used to play all kinds of stuff and some of it was nice, some of it was musical but then they took some guy’s advice, to get a record deal, he said, they would have to be more punk, forget their chops and play real dumb or else they would be sunk…” The band “sells their ass, their cock and balls” to “those record company pricks who come to skim the cream from the cesspools of excitement where Jim Morrison once stood.” The music is filled with clever references, and aside from some vague homophobia (“…leather groups and plastic groups and groups that look real queer…”), this song is on target.

“The Blue Light” contains the first released instance of a vocal technique Zappa would use more frequently in the 1980s. He called it “breakdown” – it is similar to improvised scat singing, but with far less tunefulness. In later years, Vai would be enlisted to transcribe improvised breakdown singing and play it on the guitar along with live recordings.

Whatever else can be said about Tinseltown Rebellion, it showcases a band that can play “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” live, and that alone deserves respect. It is a transitional release, one that showcases the musicians who would play with Zappa throughout the early 1980s, and its new material points forward to the likes of You Are What You Is and Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. It’s a perfectly fine, if inessential, live document that heralds a new era in Zappa’s output.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: The 1990s Ryko CD master introduced several errors – cross-fades, drop-outs – to the mix, and though Ryko did issue a much-improved version in 1998, it is nearly impossible to tell which version you have before buying it. However, the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster returns to the original vinyl mix, and it sounds impeccable. This is the definitive Tinseltown Rebellion on CD.

Next week: Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar.

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