Roxy & Elsewhere
by Zappa / Mothers (released 10th September 1974 on DiscReet)
To put this review in context, one of my all-time favourite records is We’re Only In It For The Money by The Mothers of Invention, I’ve got a lot of time for a lot of Frank Zappa’s solo releases and I can even stomach his occasional jazz odysseys. I’ve tried to listen to this album countless times over the years and never got very far with it.
In Frank’s discography Roxy & Elsewhere comes after Apostrophe (never heard it), and before One Size Fits All (which is brilliant, by the way).
So, with much trepidation, I put Roxy & Elsewhere on once again. This was yesterday, so this review is FRESH. Here we go, one track at a time.
Penguin in Bondage
Right here – this track – is why I often abandoned Roxy & Elsewhere on previous attempts. The album opens with a Frank Zappa monologue coyly alluding to sexual activity, specifically bondage and its associated paraphernalia. It’s a strained few minutes of innuendo – Frank explains that the show may be broadcast at a later date, so he’s tailoring his language. Fine, but it’s long, boring and unfunny.
Once it gets going, the song continues the innuendo – it comes across as childish and forced – the musicianship is impressive, but somehow repellent. There are lots of long, meandering bluesy solos. These are broken up with passages that illustrate lyrics about wet latex – we have squeakiness, rubbery bass and squelchy brass. It’s an aesthetics problem for me – I don’t like the textures of the instruments. Don’t like the raspy vocals. It’s all too showbiz sounding. All surface, no feeling. A massive turn-off (literally if I didn’t have to review it).
Reminiscent of incidental music from an American 70s TV show (Banana Splits?). Pygmy Twylyte seems to be being played at one remove – this is a performance that sounds really self-conscious. In my notes I wrote: “smart-arse music played sarcastically”. Frank has done this better elsewhere – and it works really well when the lyrics are more acute. The vocals sound, simultaneously, strained and as if the singer is strung out on Qualudes. This track reminds me of sweaters that are too hot, and furtiveness. Wonder if that’s what Frank was going for…at this point in the listening process I am cursing David for making me listen to this again…
OK, this is a joke at the expense of the US education system. Napolean Murphy Brock sings it in a comedy voice. A few minutes in a couple of other vocalists start up a dialogue with him about smoking a high school diploma. The effect is like seeing a group of friends falling about laughing at a joke that you’re not in on. Funny right? Right. Right. Right. Right.
The vocals on Dummy Up sound semi-improvised, which is comparable to Microsoft et al releasing half finished software in terms of irritation for me. If you’re going to sing a song at least write it first…don’t, whatever you do, scat.
That’s 6 minutes plus I will never get back…
Village of the Sun
This song is about Palm Dale – the sun village. Apparently, turkeys were raised there, and Frank Zappa grew up not far away.
Village of the Sun has an incredibly funky intro, and instrumentation I can’t immediately place. Hold on, the vocals sound engaged. There’s a soul vibe going on. It’s sunny and 70s-sounding. And, wait a minute, there’s an interesting incidental sincerity going on (missing from the last three tracks) – it’s a travelogue through Frank’s old haunts, his memories. This is pretty engaging stuff. The music’s not so interesting (thwup, thwup, thwup it goes in the background), but it doesn’t seem to matter – the vocals carry it. Wow, highlight of the album so far!
Echidna’s Arf (Of You)
This here’s an instrumental. It opens with what sounds like manic xylophone/ glockenspiel/ vibes action – manic runs like the instruments are in a heated argument with each other. It’s
gripping stuff. And it’s music from an urban environment, like Gershwin but bent into new perverse shapes. Here the great playing is totally at the service of the song and the track comes off like a uniquely 70s modern classical music. Really brilliant.
Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?
CAUTION: CONTAINS DRUM SOLO
Wow, pop attack, comedy instruments, manic cartoon-like instrumental runs, stops and starts. Manic, super-manic, insane humour and cartoon noises. All the stuff I hated in tracks 1-3, but now it works. And then you get a trumpet solo that sounds like a soul attempting to escape it’s mundane life. Followed by a whole load of fluid, incredibly well played solos over music that changes time signatures in a tricky (and indescribable by me) and incredibly complex way.
Then, oh dear, a drum solo that seems to last for several hours. I’m just losing interest when a wah-wah guitar solo saves the day. Or does it…this is a looooooooooooong song. It is what it is, but I’m going to go and make a coffee and come back when it’s finished. When it does finish it’s with a comedy duck call.
Frank introduces Cheepnis with a monologue about monster movies, which would probably have been more entertaining had it been part of a TV broadcast.
The song proper starts out with ironic vocals again. But the music’s really tight – the instruments lock into each other beautifully – sounds like some kind of musical telepathy (as described by Dave Brock of Hawkwind) is taking place. The vocals this time fit beautifully into the scheme of things – they’re by turns nicely rhythmic and soulful and just in the right places. Frank breaks in to relate an unfunny monster movie style yarn and then the song takes a turn into manic garage rock guitar territory accompanied by speeded-up vocals. Frank continues his story about an enormous poodle until it dissolves into blocks of vocals and instrumentation, like Ligeti at the mercy of pop. It’s chaotic and fucking brilliant. If this was a film, FZ would be praised for breaking down the fourth wall. Going to listen to it again.
Son of Orange County
Another sincere vocal (about a prophet saving the world) accompanied by cartoon-like snorting backing vocals. Son of Orange County is laid back in comparison with the rest of the album – it proceeds at a stately pace – laying the song structure bare as it goes. And what we hear is complexity. During the mid-section Frank lays down an incredibly expressive guitar solo, which touches corners of your psyche you didn’t know were there (its closest equivalent for me is the solo on Yo Mama (or maybe Rubber Shirt) off Sheik Yerbouti).
More Trouble Every Day
The original version of this song is on Freak Out!, from eight years earlier. This version opens with a slow, swinging funk/ soul backing and an aching guitar intro. Frank declaims the lyrics like they are a news report. There’s more emotion in the massed vocals than on the original. The horns build up, the pace is slow – it’s sexier in the 70s. Then just when you’re about to get it on, the comedy vocals reappear and the cynical distance returns.
There is nothing like this music – such a strange, infuriating, brilliant cocktail. I want to listen to it again immediately – it reminds me of David Lynch’s films since Lost Highway.
Frank’s guitar solo breaks through again – it’s really lovely – and I think it represents his true voice – expressing what can’t be put into words – you know what it is, but you can’t describe it. Abstracted, and very American – I don’t think a UK act could ever make music like this.
This song is nearly 17 minutes long.
Frank relates the history of tango, has a dig at Nixon’s conservatism and tells us the cowbell on the track is a “symbol of unbridled passion”. What follows is a trombone solo underpinned by a complex mesh of what sounds like xylophone and glockenspiel. The rhythm is intense and intricate. It’s technically impressive, but leaves me a bit cold.
Around the five minute mark, Frank explains the trombone solo and suggests that what is to follow is “sort of like jazz”. And adds, “jazz is not dead, it just smells funny”. To prove it he gets George Duke to scat sing (oh the horror!). Complex vocal scatting ensues…and FZ asks for some volunteers from the audience to dance to George’s singing. Carl, Rick and Jane step up and after a few attempts at frugging to George’s super-fast scat, are told they are too reserved.
Next batch, who are a little more laid back have a go. “That’s more like it. Turn on the bubble machine!”
Frank then turns to the audience and says he bets they think they could do that. So he invites them to stand up, turns on the overhead lights and invites them to “link your mind with the mind of George Duke.”
But instead of singing horrible, impossible noises, George starts to sing, “Anything you wanna do is alright.” The song mutates into a loose rock ‘n’ roll number with another beauty of a guitar solo from Frank. It’s a generous, inclusive, sincere end to the concert.
Kind of feel good without feel sick!
(I think David is making me suffer some kind of Stockholm syndrome…)