Monday, June 10, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #21: Bongo Fury

Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet met in the late 1950s, when Vliet was a teenage sculptor and Zappa the drummer for a California band called The Blackouts. They quickly formed a lasting (yet volatile) friendship and musical partnership. Their band The Soots in the early ‘60s performed some of Zappa’s first rock compositions, and Van Vliet took his stage name, Captain Beefheart, from a film script Zappa had written called Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People.

In 1969, the Zappa/Beefheart collaboration reached its arguable zenith, when Zappa produced Beefheart’s surreal double album Trout Mask Replica, and in turn invited him to sing on “Willie the Pimp” on Zappa’s own Hot Rats. Beefheart’s raspy voice and free-verse poetry seemed to unleash Zappa somewhat – their collaborative material has a ferocity not often found in the composer’s work.

The Mothers of Invention and Beefheart’s Magic Band would frequently tour together, but it wasn’t until 1975’s Bongo Fury that Zappa and his longtime friend made their first and only collaborative album. Bongo Fury is credited to Zappa, Beefheart and the Mothers, and is largely made up of live recordings from two shows at Armadillo World Headquarters in May of 1975, one of the few times Beefheart performed on stage with Zappa’s band.

As a historical document, it certainly captures a musical anomaly well. Bongo Fury is loud and bluesy, the Mothers matching Beefheart's raspy, shouty vibe. Much of it stands in contrast to the relatively slick material Zappa had been producing for the previous three years – there’s an unrestrained messiness to the opener, “Debra Kadabra,” that had not been heard on a Mothers album since Weasels Ripped My Flesh.

But with that ferocity comes a certain simplicity, and beyond the jump-cut arrangement of “Debra Kadabra” and the odd, loping “Cucamonga” (one of two studio tracks here), this album traffics in traditional blues and rock. Both “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy” and “Advance Romance” pound their singular riffs into submission, though “Carolina” does so with a breezy feel and some lush harmonies. “200 Years Old” is a straight-up blues, while closer “Muffin Man” begins with a lengthy spoken section (yes, about a guy who makes muffins) and ends with three minutes of the same guitar riff on repeat.

That’s unfortunate, since Bongo Fury offers the final chance to hear the Roxy band in action. George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Bruce and Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson return here, joined by slide guitarist Denny Walley. The most notable debut here belongs to drummer Terry Bozzio, a mainstay of Zappa’s late ‘70s band. There’s scarcely a trace here of the insanely complex work Bozzio would deliver in just a couple short years, however.

The star of this album, musically speaking, is Zappa himself. While the early ‘70s Mothers were an ensemble, with most members able to turn in a solo, virtually all of that lead space is taken by Zappa here, ripping things up on the guitar. He’s especially incendiary on the 11-minute “Advance Romance,” trading licks with Beefheart on the harmonica. His playing on this album catches fire, snarling and spitting and stamping its hooves. The solos on this album set the stage for the more guitar-centric work Zappa would deliver through the rest of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s.

Beefheart contributes two of his trademark acid-fueled vignettes, with typically Beefheart titles: “Sam with the Showing-Scalp Flat-Top” and “Man with the Woman Head.” They serve to break up what is an otherwise fairly monotonous recording. Zappa also has some fun with the impending bicentennial celebration (and its attendant commercialization of patriotism) in the cautionary tale “Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead.” “T-shirt racks, rubber snacks, poster rolls with matching tacks, yes a special beer for sports and paper cups that hold two quarts… this buy-cent-any-all salute, two hundred years have gone ka-poot…”

Despite this, and the undisputed catchiness of “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy,” Bongo Fury is a severe step down from the rest of Zappa’s 1970s output. It feels like a side project, and brings to an end a four-album streak of excellence. Zappa would collaborate with Beefheart once more, on the Captain’s aborted (and now resurrected) Bat Chain Puller album, and Van Vliet would make scattered appearances on Zappa albums (including the next one, Zoot Allures). Though their one full record together is at times a delight for fans of dirty blues, his absence from here on is probably for the best.

It is with this album that we bid farewell to the Mothers of Invention as well. Zappa would never again use the band name on a new album, and nearly all of the Roxy band would dissipate before the sessions for Zoot Allures. By the time of the next tour, Ruth Underwood would be the only holdover. The eons, as Zappa once said, truly were closing.

Rating: Skippable.

Which version to buy: The 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster uses the original 1975 analog mix as its source, and sounds tremendous.

Next week: Well, I’ll be in New York. (And it’s still two entries too early to make a Zappa in New York joke.) But the Buyer’s Guide will return on June 24 with Zoot Allures.

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