Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention | Whisky A Go Go, 1968 – Live Release Review

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Billed on the world-famous Whisky a Go Go’s marquee as “Mothers Of Invention – Recording Session,” Frank Zappa and his band at the time — Ray Collins (vocals, percussion), Ian Underwood (alto sax), Bunk Gardner (tenor sax, flute), Don Preston (keyboards, gong), Motorhead Sherwood (baritone sax, percussion), Roy Estrada (bass, vocals), Art Tripp (drums), and Jimmy Carl Black (drums) — recorded their five-hour set on July 23, 1968.

The album that Zappa hoped to come from was never released during his lifetime, but this expansive Whisky A Go Go, 1968 set is now available as a triple-CD or five-LP set, produced by Zappa’s son Ahmet and Joe Travers. The show, remixed from hi-res 24-bit/96kHz digital transfers of the original 1” eight-track analog tapes, is crystal clear so there isn’t a squeak, bleep, riff, shout or rimshot missed.

It begins with “Whisky Improvisation: Episode 1,” if one can really say that this song starts in any true fashion with a solo drum and percussion squawking. Zappa gives a little history on how the trance-hippie plodder “Help, I’m A Rock/Transylvania Boogie” got the band banned. Then there’s a rather throw-away silly take on “My Boyfriend’s Back.” This is   where the players seem to be “taking the piss,” mostly. Even doo-wop send-ups “Status Back Baby,” “Memories Of El Monte,” and “Valerie” don’t really save all the bleating and screwing around, though Estrada’s high-flying falsetto does make the grade on “Valerie.”

Zappa calls out how much fun and merriment he wants on the first actual song called “Fun & Merriment.” We get into the electric guitar rompin’ on “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” while “King Kong Part 1,” and “King Kong Part 2” are what a Zappa jazz head will salivate over. There is even a melody to hang your hat on.

A live recording session as well as a concert, we get two takes of “The Duke,” a mess of shouting and fake puking noises with some stellar drumming behind it. But because Zappa wasn’t pleased with the first version, he goes for a second. By the time “The Whip,” comes along, the crowd as well as the Mothers are lit and raring over the stomping beat and Zappa’s single note guitar plucking. This leads into some wah-wah guitar and the rumble of a near-perfect “Whisky Chouflée.”

The Mothers also get into something Zappa claims they never played live up until that point — “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” followed by “Brown Shoes Shuffle.” These two and the rest of set are much more cohesive. By all accounts, this show, which also featured Zappa produced acts like Alice Cooper and the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), was a “happening” in Hollywood to be at.

As these recordings reveal, the night brings us into a snippet in time, with Zappa leading his band of merry men to places on stage only they actually knew existed. Sometimes they get there, settling the audience around them in their proto jazz fusion hippie phrasing. And sometimes they sail well off on their own in a whirl of noisy improvisation bordering on musical tomfoolery. Either way, Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention’s Whisky A Go Go, 1968 is a unique live document from an equally unique American institution.

~ Ralph Greco, Jr.

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