Monday, April 1, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #11: Chunga's Revenge

Chunga’s Revenge is an important album in the Frank Zappa catalog. It introduced the second incarnation of the Mothers of Invention, featuring ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman on vocals. As such, audiences looked to it to answer the question of where Zappa intended to go next, after dissolving the original Mothers. It also followed hot on the heels of two odds-and-sods collections from the prior band, and was his first “new” statement since Hot Rats.

So why does Chunga’s sound more like a haphazard compilation than either of its immediate predecessors? Frankly, this album is a bit of a mess. It culls five studio tracks from the new Mothers and places them on the same piece of wax as two instrumental jams, one long bit of live insanity, a brief percussion piece and a holdover from the Hot Rats sessions, all of which were performed with different groups of musicians.

Chunga’s, released in October of 1970 (Zappa’s third record of the year), is not the confident step forward it perhaps should have been. It presents a slightly confused vision, one that Zappa and his band would hone for their next release, and spends a little too long making you wait to hear the new direction. However, if you consider every album and every song part of a single unified work, as Zappa did, this album starts to make more sense. Why shouldn’t these pieces exist together? Only marketing concerns would keep them apart.

Taken in that light, Zappa seems to be easing his audience in over the first side of this album. Zappa’s new Mothers consist of drummer Aynsley Dunbar, bassist Jeff Simmons, pianist Ian Underwood and brass and keys player George Duke. But the real draw here is Volman and Kaylan, who – for contract reasons – have adopted the names The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. That’s Flo and Eddie for short, and after making their mark with the Mothers, the pair would go on to use those names for their own act.

That act was pure comedy. Flo and Eddie were both strong singers, but Zappa was more interested in their ability to deliver smutty laughs, which they did with abandon. Flo and Eddie fronted the Mothers for three years and four albums, and it remains the most controversial period in Zappa’s history. With them aboard, Zappa seemed intent on chronicling “life on the road,” telling sordid tales of groupies and sex in odd places (and sometimes, as we’ll hear on the next album, with weird animal species). Flo and Eddie were not just willing participants, they attacked these roles with relish. There was no line they wouldn’t cross, and this left Zappa with no boundaries either.

We get the barest hints of that on Chunga’s Revenge, the most reserved of the Flo and Eddie albums. But there’s no doubt the new lineup of the band is the main attraction, which naturally means that Zappa makes you wait until side two to hear what they really sound like. The first half of the record kicks off with “Transylvania Boogie,” an absolutely incendiary jam between Zappa, Underwood, Dunbar and bassist Max Bennett. It’s unclear how much of this was planned out beforehand, but the fluid tempo shifts sound organic and remarkable.

Zappa himself takes the lead on “Road Ladies,” the first and most obvious “life on the road” song. It’s a standard blues about the healing powers of groupies, the first piece of what would become the Mothers movie, 200 Motels. That leads into the jazzy instrumental Hot Rats castoff “Twenty Small Cigars” and a nine-minute mosaic of live improvisations – mostly pounding drums and yelping – called “The Nancy and Mary Music.” That’s all of side one.

Thankfully, the full power of Mothers Mark II is brought to bear on the second side. The four glossy studio tracks featuring Flo and Eddie are all powerhouses, debuting a new guitar-driven rock sound designed for 1970s radio. “Tell Me You Love Me” is a prototypical rock single, one of Zappa’s first, and it shows off just how strong his new vocalists could be. Zappa’s guitar has rarely sounded this fierce – if not for “Transylvania Boogie,” it would be the most ferocious thing here.

Zappa takes on the USO in “Would You Go All the Way,” suggesting that the entertainment provided for our troops goes beyond a little theatrical show, and begins his long-standing feud with unions on “Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink.” (Zappa had several bad experiences with musicians unions, frustrated at the players’ unwillingness to stay late or put in extra effort, and extrapolated that into an “all unions are bad” mindset.) Both of those songs make use of Duke’s impeccable brass playing.

In between them, we get the title track, a classic Zappa instrumental. It’s lilting bass lines and memorable melody lead into a wah-wah sax solo from Underwood and a typically terrific guitar solo from Zappa. The same can’t be said of “The Clap,” a percussion piece that sounds more scattered and improvised than usual.

Zappa concludes things on an uncharacteristically sweet note, with one of his most heartfelt pieces. He would go on to record “Sharleena” five times in total between 1970 and 1984, and it’s deserving of the honor – it’s a lovely little tune, perhaps the only one of his originals that approaches the timeless status of the ‘50s balladry he adored. The Chunga’s Revenge version is delightfully straightforward, Volman and Kaylan nailing the vocal. It’s a simple piece, worlds away from the complex orchestrations that make up the rest of the Flo and Eddie years, but an effective one.

It caps off an album that points both forward and backward without much confidence. Chunga’s Revenge follows a period of intense musicianship and social criticism, and precedes an era of even more intense musicianship and intricate dick jokes. It has a tendency to get lost and forgotten, despite the handful of gems it contains, and that’s down to its slight and confused nature. As the opening salvo of Mothers Mark II, Chunga’s Revenge isn’t nearly as strong as it should be.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to get: This is going to sound like a broken record, but the 2012 Zappa/UME reissue is the one you want. Unlike previous CD editions, this one returns to the original 1970 vinyl master, and makes it even brighter and fuller. If nothing else, this album at least sounds fantastic.

Next week: Fillmore East, June 1971.

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