DVD review: FRANK ZAPPA – The Torture Never Stops/The Dub Room Special/Baby Snakes

Eagle Rock [Release date 14.10.13]

Some familiar FZ material finds its way into to a 3 DVD box set which represents three different snapshots of a career that was moving into the audio visual domain. Of course Frank had already filmed stuff years before, but video gave him a new and cheaper outlet to ultimately provide us with a wealth of material for posterity

The box set offers very little new footage for the die-hard fans and curiously appears to work backwards in terms of quality, leaving the best to last.

‘An Evening With Frank Zappa during which The Torture Never Stops’ to give it the full title, finds out hero in a pink to purple jump suit not playing nearly enough guitar, but he’s in the good company of Steve Vai and Ray White etc. ‘The Dub Room Special!’ scores slightly more than ‘Torture’ because it features the 1974 band TV special, a period when Zappa seemed at his happiest. The concluding ‘Baby Snakes’ is a warts and all account of the ‘79 tour band with great live and backstage footage, and Zappa lapping up the closest he ever got to stardom.

The material on ‘Torture’ centres around his ‘81 tour band with two new songs ‘We’re Turning Again’ and the complex instrumental ‘Alien Orifice’ which wouldn’t appear in a recorded form until 4 years later on ‘Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention’

The box set is topped and tailed by the supreme ‘Black Napkins’, of which the ‘Torture’ version is over all too soon and is followed by ‘Montana’ on which Stave Vai plays the guitar parts, while Zappa makes the most of the camera angles to illustrate his famous hand signals. The set is efficiently played and segued right up until he introduces the title track, which is strangely lacking in either shock value or humour. When you compare and contrast the ‘79 band with this, the latter feels slightly detached.

Most of the satire might be lost to anyone under 50 now, as Frank’s satirical targets of teenage angst, yuppies, hippies, gay’s, disco, religion and government, although still partially relevant now, were very much of their time.

Bobby Martin’s starling vocal range offers much needed contrast to a languid arrangement of the red neck ‘Bamboozled By Love’, on which Frank briefly solo’s while Vai is wasted on heavy rhythm guitar.

And so on it goes, with an almost rushed showcase of his most recent material, which is efficiently dispensed by a brilliantly routined tour band going through the motions.

He pulls back from the brink with the heavy metal monster ‘Stevie’s Spanking’ on which Vai cuts his hair, shreds brilliantly and spars with Frank on stunt guitar (though not with the intensity of the famous Rome gig where he blows out Frank’s cigarette at the climax of the solo).

Zappa finally takes the mic to introduce the title track as a ‘traditional Halloween number’, but in truth it’s something of a tired version.

In contrast the faux orchestral ‘Strictly Gentile’ provides a welcome sense of resolution, before Ray White brings some bluesy passion to the concert favourite ‘Illinois Enema Bandit’. The extras include some hard copy memories from Scott Thunes which are probably familiar to die-hard Zappa heads, but probably not so to the casual purchaser.

***

‘The Dub Room Special’ finds Zappa in his element as a video pioneer. One of the greatest ironies of his later career was that he could never apply his editorial discipline to his self production, from ‘Joe’s Garage’ onwards.

Originally released as a video ‘DRS’ is re-issued on to DVD with restored Zappa segments. It combines footage from a 1974 TV special with the same 1981 Palladium concert found on the above DVD and both are interspersed with Bruce Bickford’s clay animations and occasional studio snippets.

As one of Zappa’s team later explains, the results are basically ‘accidental editing straight to video’, as the action cuts to the funky ‘74 band with Napoleon Murphy Brock on the humorous ‘Room Service’ sketch and then fasts forwards to Ray White on the bluesy ‘Nig Biz’, an outtake from the ‘81’s band concert.  Then we’re back to the superbly filmed TV special with Ruth Underwood, George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Chester Thompson & Tom Fowler on the cacophonous ‘Approximate’ and the marvellous unabridged ‘Cosmic Debris’. Frank seems very happy as Murphy takes the lead solo on wah-wah sax as Frank and George Duke jam thrillingly

The action jumps back to the ‘81 band for ‘Cocaine Decisions’, but it all seems very limp in comparison to the inspired ‘74 band.

The Massimo Bassoli section is instantly forgettable  but it’s counterbalanced by a glorious ‘Florentine Pogen’ with Zappa on imperious guitar, while the sublime ‘Inca Roads’ only serves to highlight the difference between an essentially happy and inspired 1974 band and a clinically brilliant 1981 one. There’s also an unexpected thread of continuity as both band members wear pink!

The bonus tracks include the ‘Valley Girl’ mini documentary which includes some interesting Zappa interviews and the DVD is worth its 4 stars just for the ‘74 music alone ****

The 1979 ‘Baby Snakes’ is a video that Zappa couldn’t find anyone to release. After ‘200 Motels’ it was probably once bitten, twice shy for United Artists. There’s no significant increase in the quality of the stock on any of the 3 discs and the bonus segments are limited. Nonetheless, ‘Baby Snakes’ has some great back stage footage – including Warren Cuccurullo being promised an audition –  Bruce Bickford’s workshop (previously seen on ‘The Dub Room Special’) as well as him talking about his animation.  The 1979 concert find both the band and crowd a lot more animated than 2 years later on ‘The Torture Never Stops’ and the interaction between the two is priceless, giving a visual guide to all the gags we used to hear on his albums.

Zappa gives an illustrated ‘Poodle Lecture’ and there’s a fiery ‘City ofTiny Lights’. Frank has to direct the cameraman towards a self evident Patrick O’Hearn bass solo and there’s a creepy backstage skit with Roy Estrada apparently getting his kicks from ravishing a blow up doll – he’s now languishing in jail for child molestation – not that the two are related of course.

Frank parodies Peter Frampton on ‘I Have Been In You’ and there’s a procession of fast moving snippets from rehearsals to road manager Phil Kaufman as the human trombone, Terry Bozzio as the devil on ‘Titties & Beer’ and Zappa actually playing rhythm guitar on ‘Jones Crusher’.

For the rest, the band steamroller though ‘Dynamo Hum’, and ‘Camarillo Brillo’ as Frank shares his fun with the first 4 rows, before climaxing with a magisterial ‘Black Napkins’, before being  mobbed outside the theatre.

Based solely on the music and the back stage footage this is essential stuff

*****

Review by Pete Feenstra


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