Monday, April 22, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #14: Just Another Band From L.A.

In an alternate universe, the Flo and Eddie incarnation of the Mothers continued well beyond 1971. There’s clear evidence, both in the Fillmore East album and the 200 Motels sessions, that Zappa was having a great time with this band, and in particular the two gregarious master improvisers out front. There’s no indication that the material was running out, and the Vaudeville act that the Mothers live show had become was legendary.

But that’s an alternate universe. In this one, a crazed fan pushed Zappa off a stage at the Rainbow Theater in London in December 1971, nearly killing him. Zappa suffered multiple fractures, head trauma and a crushed larynx, which led to his voice dropping considerably. It took him almost a year to heal to the point where he could tour again, and by that time, the rest of the Flo and Eddie Mothers had moved on.

Which leaves live album Just Another Band From L.A. as the swan song from this particular band. When it was recorded, in August 1971 at the Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, it was by no means intended to serve as the final document of these Mothers. But when it was released, in March 1972, Zappa was still in a wheelchair, and this phase of his career was over. That gives Just Another Band a sort of poignance – or, it would, if this record were not such a bawdy, raucous affair.

In August 1971, 200 Motels had yet to darken movie screens across the country, and the Mothers were still playing material from Zappa’s “life on the road” songbook. But the composer was evidently eager to move beyond this – Just Another Band contains no tunes about groupies, tour buses, mud sharks or vibrating beds. Those songs were all played during the same show, but for this collection, Zappa chose compositions that showed the ongoing evolution of his work with this particular band.

The most important track here is the first, the 25-minute “Billy the Mountain.” In many ways, it’s the ultimate Flo and Eddie song. It’s a constantly evolving spoof of rock operas, not limited to the fact that it’s an opera about a guy made of rock. As such, it’s Zappa’s first real stab at a programmatic piece, a technique he would perfect a few years later with “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary.”

There’s certainly a classical influence on this piece, with its repeated and reinterpreted motifs. Billy gets a six-note theme to himself, and his wife Ethel gets a 12-note interpolation of that theme. These melodies appear at the beginning of the piece, and crop up throughout, becoming musical shorthand for the main characters. “Billy the Mountain” is clearly meticulously arranged, honed over dozens of live performances.

And yet, it sounds like a free-flowing comedy routine, in the way that only the most practiced routines can. “Billy the Mountain” tells the story of the title character, one of the Rocky Mountains, and his wife Ethel, a tree growing off of his shoulder. The tale begins when Billy finally gets his royalty check for all of the postcards he’s posed for. He and Ethel decide to go to New York on a vacation, walking across the country – and destroying anything in their path. Along the way, Billy is drafted into the army, and he ignores the summons.

To stop Billy, the U.S. government taps superhero Studebaker Hoch, named after the Studebaker Silver Hawk automobile. Studebaker Hoch rubs himself down with Aunt Jemima syrup to attract an army of flies, who lift him off the ground to talk with Billy. This doesn’t go well, and Billy’s laughter causes an avalanche, sending Hoch to his (possible) death below. The moral of the story? “A mountain is something you don’t want to fuck with, don’t fuck with Billy, don’t fuck around.”

This is all great fun, and the band sells it as an ever-unfolding series of gags. Many of them are Los Angeles in-jokes, but just as many – including a poke at Jerry Lewis and an interpolation of the Tonight Show theme – are universally funny. The nimble band – Zappa, Jim Pons, Aynsley Dunbar, Ian Underwood and Don Preston – shifts from section to section without betraying any indication of how difficult it all is to play. While some of the jokes go on longer than they should, “Billy the Mountain” as a whole never drags.

“Billy” takes up the entire original first side of this album, and the second side feels like a strong series of four bonus tracks. Three of them are barely worth discussing – you get the Flo and Eddie reinterpretations of “Call Any Vegetable” and “Dog Breath,” both arranged with new focus on the vocals, and another extended in-joke, “Eddie Are You Kidding,” about Los Angeles store Zachary All Clothing and its advertisements starring its owner, Edward Nalbandian. The reinventions are interesting, and “Eddie” is a pleasant trifle.

But you also get “Magdalena,” one of the few cases in which Zappa’s envelope-pushing led him into the realm of the truly tasteless. The song itself is an intricate skipping soul-punk number, but it’s sung from the point of view of a man trying to rape his young daughter. It’s an outgrowth of the “what would you do, daddy” section of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” extended to uncomfortable lengths: “Magdalena, don’t you tease me like this, right in the hallway with your blouse and your tits, if your mommy ever finds us like this, she’ll call a lawyer, oh how mom will be pissed…”

Zappa does include one verse to show that he’s on Magdalena’s side: “The girl turned around and said ‘go eat shit’ and ran on down the hall, right on, Magdalena.” But then he allows Kaylan to improvise the father’s twisted pleas for the final minutes of the song, and it’s squirm-inducing. “I’d like to take you in the closet and take off all your clothes until you are virtually stark raving nude, spread mayonnaise and Kaopectate all over your body…” “I wanna take off your little training bra, I’m gonna take off your maroon hot pants…” “We can make love all night long, no one will ever know…”

Zappa defended lyrics like this by saying he was reporting on the vile attitudes and practices of Americans, without condoning them. But the song doesn’t make that clear, spending most of its time voicing the father’s point of view in a jaunty way. This would be a problem plaguing Zappa’s lyrics from this point forward – he’s never certain of the line between condemning behavior and celebrating it. “Magdalena” is a tremendous song, but its tone is disconcerting.

Overlook that, though, and Just Another Band From L.A. is a barrel of fun. It is arguably the most successful document of the Flo and Eddie era, proof that the concept could have carried on, if not for one insane fan. At one point during “Call Any Vegetable,” Zappa announced to the audience that the theme for that night’s show was “It is so fucking great to be alive.” He couldn’t have known when he said them just how resonant those words would be.

Rating: Worthy.

Which version to buy: Broken record time, but the best bet is the 2012 remaster from Zappa/Universal. It reverts to the original analog master – the 1990s Ryko CDs use a duller and darker digital master – and the sound is bright and glorious.

Next week: Waka/Jawaka.

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