Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #12: Fillmore East - June 1971

Chunga’s Revenge was really just the prelude. This live album, released two months after it was recorded, was the true opening salvo of the Flo and Eddie era. It remains one of the most controversial releases of Frank Zappa’s long career, signaling a turn away from the biting social commentary of Mothers albums past and a turn towards a more scatological form of observational humor.

That’s an academic way of putting it. The truth is that Fillmore East – June 1971 is one long dick joke. It is part of Zappa’s attempts to capture the life of a rock band on the road, and was recorded after filming had wrapped for the similarly themed Mothers movie, 200 Motels. The material on Fillmore East – and it is almost entirely new – is an expansion of the groupie routines from 200 Motels, in which Zappa “immortalized” the apparently numerous women in each town desperate to have sex with his band members.

In Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, previously with the Turtles), Zappa had found more-than-willing accomplices. Though Zappa still led and conducted his band on stage, Flo and Eddie were the frontmen, gleefully leading the group through one routine after another. They’re remarkably strong singers, the finest Zappa had yet employed, but they also excelled at improvised comedy. The groupie material, which makes up 80 percent of this album, grew and evolved each night of the tour, Flo and Eddie encouraged to keep pushing boundaries.

The sleazy subject matter was matched by Zappa’s new, pared-down Mothers, featuring himself on guitar, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, bassist Jim Pons (also from the Turtles), and keyboardists Ian Underwood and Bob Harris. Gone is the sense of the band as rock orchestra – the new Mothers were a nimble rock band, drawing from blues more than any of Zappa’s other influences. Zappa’s guitar playing had taken on a particularly raw and nasty tone, which fit this new material perfectly.

Anyone picking up Fillmore East – June 1971 would know right away that this was a different kind of Mothers album. The front cover is plain white, with the words “The Mothers” and the album title scrawled in pencil. The recording quality is similarly unvarnished – this sounds like a high-end bootleg, and given how particular Zappa was about sound quality, this can only be intentional. This is a steamy, down-and-dirty kind of record.

After a splendid, stripped-down version of “The Little House I Used to Live In,” which shows off Underwood’s chops, Zappa gets things started with “The Mud Shark,” a retelling of a story originally relayed by members of the Vanilla Fudge. The tale involves the Edgewater Inn in Seattle, where guests can rent fishing poles and cast them out their room windows into the ocean below. It includes the titular mud shark, a young groupie and a movie camera. You can probably guess the rest.

This leads into the groupie material. Volman and Kaylan role play as the groupies on “What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are,” and as the virile musician, here called “Bwana Dik.” “I am endowed beyond your wildest Clearasil-spattered fantasies,” Volman sings, before declaring that “all groupies must bow down in the sacred presence of the latex solar beef.”

Things get even raunchier in “Do You Like My New Car,” seven minutes of Volman pretending to be a groupie hoping to seduce Kaylan. Here it becomes clear that groupies, in Zappa’s world, are only interested in having sex with musicians who have a song in the charts “with a bullet.” (Each time that phrase is uttered, the band punctuates it with a quick explosion.) At one point, Volman’s character is referred to as a “voluptuous Manhattan island clit,” and sex with soda bottles and donkeys is explored.

So what makes this album-length dick joke worth listening to? For one, it’s an epic dick joke, with an epic punchline – the groupies demand to hear the band’s hit song (with a bullet!), and the group launches into the Turtles smash “Happy Together.” It’s such a metatextual left turn that it’s completely unexpected, even if you know the song is coming. It almost makes all of the buildup worth it, which could be a sexual metaphor in and of itself. Volman and Kaylan absolutely sell this material, too – it’s hard not to grin along with them, even when they’re talking about shoving an enchilada up a donkey’s ass.

But for another, the band is tremendous. Underwood, Pons and Dunbar form a lean rock machine, and Zappa’s dirty guitar playing is perfectly attuned to them. The band slays the new arrangement of “Little House,” and Zappa’s fiery solos on both parts of “Willie the Pimp” are superb. If you focus on the frontmen during “Bwana Dik” and “Latex Solar Beef,” you may miss how complex these songs are. And the encores, including a take on “Peaches En Regalia” driven by wordless vocals and a slam through Mothers single “Tears Began to Fall,” are terrific. There are precious few opportunities in Zappa’s catalog to hear this particular band, which is a shame.

Some see the change in tone on Fillmore East – June 1971 as a shame as well. This album marks a turning point – rarely again would Zappa engage in social criticism as pointed as that on We’re Only In It for the Money without also indulging these baser instincts. Joe’s Garage, for example, is rightly cited as one of Zappa’s finest works – it’s about a world in which music has been outlawed, and about a man who imagines guitar solos in the air. But it’s also about sex with household appliances, anal rape in prison, and receiving blowjobs from robots.

While that lyrical direction arguably began with “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” this is the album on which Zappa doubles down, and chooses that path for the rest of his career. He seemed to enjoy people suggesting that his sexual humor cheapened his musical work, and for the rest of his career, he would not compromise either one. In some ways, the Flo and Eddie band was his way of testing the waters, and as we’ll see over the next two entries, he pushed the bounds of good taste repeatedly. Zappa would soon give us the likes of “Bobby Brown Goes Down” and “He’s So Gay,” and that journey truly began here.

Despite all that, Fillmore East is a fun little record, and the “Happy Together” moment will bring a smile, if nothing else will. The Flo and Eddie years remain the most argued-over and passionately defended era of Zappa’s career. If you want to find out why, you need to hear this.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: Again, the Zappa family came through with the 2012 Zappa/UME remaster. The new release reverts to the original 1971 analog mix, ignoring the master Zappa made in the 1980s. Good thing, too – that master added tons of digital reverb and eliminated “Willie the Pimp Part Two.” The new version restores the original (still raw) mix, and the missing track, making it the definitive CD release of this album.

Next week: 200 Motels.

No comments:

Post a Comment