FRANK ZAPPA — Zappa in New York (review)

FRANK ZAPPA — Zappa in New York album cover Live album · 1978 · Jazz Related Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
2.5/5 ·
Warthur
Zappa In New York was the live segment of Lather, and it's probably the Lather-fragment I dislike the least - but that doesn't mean I like it. Zappa and his reminted backing band treat the New York audience to a mixture of ribald new songs, a few complex instrumentals, and a clutch of old favourites - some dating back as far as We're Only In It For the Money. I personally don't rate this particular backing band as highly as the mid-1970s version of the Mothers, although possibly that's down to the musical direction Zappa takes the group in - what's offered here is a hard rock-influenced reimagining of Zappa's material, with Zappa's guitar heroics emphasised and Zappa's taste for vulgar comedy indulged to the max.

At points, the lyrical content of the album can get distasteful. I don't mind most of Zappa's material, but I find that I just can't see the comedy in The Illinois Enema Bandit - a song about a real criminal, who actually did force enemas on some of his victims for some sort of weird sexual thrill. Whilst I can see why Zappa would be tickled by the story, the song steers directly into the territory of creating comedy out of real, genuine sexual assaults which happened to actual flesh and blood people, and I personally can't stand for that. Whilst I will admit that the song doesn't condone Kenyon's crimes and it is an interesting update of the old tradition of blues songs chronicling actual news stories, the fact remains that presenting a horrible violation forced on terrified young women as a topic for comedy just doesn't sit right in my stomach.

But even if we set the Enema Bandit aside, I have other reasons for not rating the album particularly highly. As I said before, I don't think the backing group are on a par with Zappa's previous bands; in particular, Terry Bozzio is an alright drummer but bugs the hell out of me whenever he's called on to do any vocals, and David Samuels' command of the vibes pales in comparisons to Ruth Underwood's legendary contributions to Roxy and Elsewhere (hence, I suspect, getting Ruth in to do overdubs). Don Pardo's narrator contributions are corny as hell and a distraction. But worst of all, the new material is just not very good. Punky's Whips tells an amusing story but doesn't need to take ten minutes to do it - songs outstaying their welcome are an enormous problem on the album, to be honest - whilst album opener Titties & Bear is a ribald narrative song along the lines of a less snappy and original Dinah-Moe Humm from Overnite Sensation.

In short, what we have here is Zappa for frat bros - full of songs with moronic subject matter that lurches into offensiveness on occasion, meaty (and, to my ear, tasteless) guitar solos and corny novelty rock that's past its sell-by date. Sorry, Frank, but I think if I were transported back in time to New York in December of 1976 and someone offered me tickets to see this show, I'd give it a pass; the real innovative music in NYC was being played at CBGB's back then.
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