When Frank Zappa hit London in the winter of 1978, he had with him a rocking teenage combo that could run circles around just about any other band on earth. Of course, Frank always had the most talented and well trained musicians to do his musical bidding, and his ’78 band was indeed no exception. Prepare for complete and utter awe…
Hammersmith Odeon, available only from zappa.com, presents selections from January and February of 1978 in London spread across three discs. The sound is fantastic and the performances are simply jaw dropping. Having seen the Baby Snakes DVD, which documents the same band a few months prior on Halloween night in New York City, I knew the band was fantastic. But there’s just something about this particular release that opened up a whole new realm of late ’70s Zappa appreciation. Every song sounds fresh and exciting while the band sounds poised and powerful – there is a raw urgency to the performances that perfectly captures the unbridled excitement of a live Zappa show.
Before we get into the meat of the show I have to mention the one thing that really, really bothered me about this released before I ever heard it: there is no performance of “Yo Mama” or “Wild Love.” The absence of these two selections seems strange for a number of reasons. Both songs were huge vehicles for intense jamming during this exact time period and if ever there was a release that would call for their inclusion, this was it!
Also, since each disc only runs a bit over 50 or 60 minutes, there was a very large amount of time left on which to cram those songs in. Now, perhaps in the preparing of the Sheik Yerbouti album Frank razor bladed those songs to death in the editing room, but one would think there was at least something usable from the many times both songs were played. However, any hard feelings towards the two aforementioned missing songs are quickly alleviated upon the first listen because, man, this release is just so insanely fantastic.
Throughout disc one we are treated to impeccably played versions of “Peaches En Regalia,” “The Torture Never Stops,” “City of Tiny Lights,” and a breathtaking version of “Pound For a Brown.” “Peaches En Regalia” is played pretty closely to the original but with a wonderful late ’70s flair while “The Torture Never Stops” features a smoking FZ solo and some astounding drum work from Terry Bozzio. Actually, Terry is on fire throughout the entire release and his recorded drum sound is incredible in its articulate detail – on every single song he is all over the place with creative and impossible fills, all played with a furious power and equally distinctive finesse. I can think of no other Zappa release that is quite so drum centered, and any fan of Terry’s, or the drums in general, would do well to acquire this for that reason alone. I’m serious here…it is insane.
“City of Tiny Lights” features a heavy FZ solo while “Pound For a Brown” is balls out jazz fusion played to such a stunning degree that on that cold night in 1978 there were no other bands capable of achieving such massive intensity. The main riff comes pouring out of the band at a perfect tempo while all the trademark Zappa quirks are on full display from a band ready, willing, and able to follow Frank’s every move. After the head we are immediately thrust into a laid back vibes solo from Ed Mann, which is then followed by keyboard and synth solos from, I would assume, Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf. Meanwhile, Bozzio and bassist Patrick O’Hearn keep things pumping with an unending simmer of grooves that fall somewhere between funk and jazz with a dose of rock. Incredible.
Disc two, probably the weakest but no less potent of the three, features a long and hilarious “I Have Been in You” and an early but no less fiery version of “Flakes.” Although these aren’t the exact performances that made up Sheik Yerbouti– the basic tracks were taken from the same shows, just not the same songs presented here – it is extremely interesting to hear the raw versions found here as they are simply brimming with a live excitement that was somehow lost in the studio. Even a song like “Jones Crusher,” which I normally have no time for, flies by with a new urgency that renders the studio version almost weak in comparison. Still, Sheik Yerbouti is not to be taken lightly and perhaps just needs a fresh new remix and remaster…
Disc three, perhaps my favorite of the set, is killer from start to finish. After a very early version of “Dong Work For Yuda” and “Bobby Brown,” we are thrust into the insane madness that is “King Kong.” Oh “King Kong,” how I love thee. For years this has been one of my favorite Zappa riffs and methinks this is now my favorite version. The tricky, sinuous riff comes out of nowhere and before you know it we are thrust into a FZ solo of mammoth proportions. With each pass Frank brings his solo higher, at times reaching such degrees of awesome you can’t help but literally drop your jaw. The band dances around him with a surging seriousness as Frank continues to toy with the solo. Zappa was never afraid to go completely out there and see what he could muster up and this is a perfect example of his daring musical bravery.
“Watermelon in Easter Hay,” heard here in what seems like some sort of beautiful sketch, follows and it turns out to be the most poignant and lush solo on the set. Of course, “Watermelon in Easter Hay” was always one Frank’s most touching solos and, although lacking the finished gloss of the studio version, Frank manages to beam down a solo from the cosmos. Afterwards we are thrown into a “Dinah Moe Humm > Camarillo Brillo” that moves along at such an alarming pace I don’t even mind hearing it again for the millionth time. Really though, it doesn’t matter how well that was played because we all know that when it’s over we will be treated to barn burning madness. I am speaking, of course, about “Muffin Man.”
Armed with one of the heaviest riffs known to man, Frank proceeds to set his guitar to “explode” as he solos away with a mad fury. Only Frank could come up with such a monster riff this heavy. His solo is nothing short of ridiculous and heavily laced in washes of distortion and waves of pounding riffery. By the time he reaches the end of his solo it is a pure sheet of sound blanketing the surely stunned audience.
But of course there’s no time to breathe as the band launches into a beautiful version of “Black Napkins” that hits all the right spots. Although a wee bit shorter than I like, the quality more than makes up for it and Frank says everything he needs to in his wonderfully stinging solo. And then, with a final encore of “San Ber’Dino,” the set is over and you find yourself reaching for the first disc to start your journey all over again.
Hammersmith Odeon delivers in so many ways it almost seems like the long lost Zappa album that should have been. The sound is impeccable and the performances are without peer. Each song is played with a stunningly tight group mind that is simply spellbinding. Frank’s solos are heavy monsters in both tone and delivery, while the band is on top of their game in every respect with special mention again going to Terry Bozzio and his manic drum work. This release easily fits in with some of the best of Zappa’s massive recorded career and it is indeed the album we have all been waiting for whether we knew it or not. Highly, highly, highly recommended.
- “Convocation / Purple Lagoon Intro” – 2:18
- “Dancin’ Fool” – 3:43
- “Peaches En Regalia” – 2:36
- “The Torture Never Stops” – 13:52
- “Tryin To Grow A Chin” – 3:37
- “City Of Tiny Lites” – 7:01
- “Baby Snakes” – 1:54
- “Pound For A Brown” – 20:39
- “I Have Been In You” – 13:55
- “Flakes” – 6:39
- “Broken Hearts Are For A*******” – 3:54
- “Punky’s Whips” – 10:26
- “Titties And Beer” – 4:49
- “Audience Participation” – 3:32
- “The Black Page #2” – 2:49
- “Jones Crusher” – 3:01
- “The Little House I Used To Live In” – 7:13
- “Dong Work For Yuda” – 2:56
- “Bobby Brown” – 4:54
- “Envelopes” – 2:16
- “Terry Firma” – 4:10
- “Disco Boy” – 6:43
- “King Kong” – 10:10
- “Watermelon in Easter Hay” – 3:55
- “Dinah Moe Humm” – 6:10
- “Camarillo Brillo” – 3:23
- “Muffin Man” – 6:18
- “Black Napkins” – 5:16
- “San Ber’dino” – 5:54