In his all-too-short life, Frank Zappa composed and captured on tape a truly monumental amount of music. Sixty-two official albums in his lifetime, and another 54 since his death in 1993. But as any Zappa fan knows, these could just be the sonic appetizer, the bread sticks before the massive feast of stylistically varied, all-you-can-eat musical courses that remain unreleased.
Frank pretty much recorded everything – rehearsals, live performances, studio sessions, casual jams, conversations in hotels and tour buses – and it has all ended up in his mighty “vault.” How much you ask? Well, Joe Travers, Zappa’s dedicated “Vaultmeister,” has spent 25 years thus far digitally transferring and cataloging it. And he estimates he may only be halfway through this immense collection, which contains thousands of hours of audio and video in every format under the sun.
It’s all now under the savvy stewardship of Frank’s son, Ahmet, who developed his biz acumen producing children’s books, animation and video for the likes of Disney and Sony. The gems that are now consistently emerging from Frank’s vault are finally getting the super smart, super deluxe treatment they deserve. The recent Zappa boxes are expansive and authoritatively notated encyclopedias of his many eras of sound, ones befitting one of the true geniuses, and legendary perfectionists, of 20th Century modern music.
With Ahmet’s background in kids’ content, it’s no wonder that Zappa’s Halloween shows are some of Zappa Records/UMe’s most entertaining and outrageously packaged offerings to date. The latest, which follows box sets dedicated to Halloween shows from Frank Zappa of 1973 and 1977, is Halloween 81; and boy, is this one a doozy!
Zappa’s Halloween shows in NYC were a nearly annual tradition, from 1974 – 1984. When he returned to NYC’s Palladium in 1981 for a five-show run from October 29 to November 1, he was primed to impress. This was mainly because he had to cut short his 1980 Halloween shows due to illness.
As always, Zappa was boasting a hot band, now supercharged with three, remarkable new virtuosos – Scott Thunes on bass, Chad Wackerman on drums and Robert Martin on keyboards. They joined veteran guitarist/vocalist Ray White, percussionist Ed Mann, keyboard whiz Tommy Mars and the jaw-dropping Steve Vai, his “Little Italian Virtuoso,” then on his second tour as “stunt guitarist.”
Zappa recorded every note of every show with a mobile unit, and the two Halloween night shows on video as well. Halloween’s midnight performance became the first cable simulcast on a fledgling channel called MTV; while other footage ended up in The Dub Room Special (1983) and The Torture Never Stops (1982). Though parts of these concerts have been released over the years as part of the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore live series, The Dub Room Special soundtrack and One Shot Deal, audio from the complete shows has never been released in its entirety, until now..
Halloween 81 features all of the musically smoking Frank Zappa, hijinks-filled Halloween night concerts, and the closing show on November 1. It sprawls across six-discs, featuring 78 unreleased tracks totaling more than seven hours of music, in superior fidelity, as always with Zappa. More context comes in the accompanying 40-page booklet, featuring rare photos and liner notes by band member Robert Martin, Joe “The Vaultmeister” Travers and super fan-in-attendance Gary Titone.
Like its predecessors, Halloween 81 comes in packaging which, at first glance, looks like it contains a Halloween costume, which it does, along with the CDs and booklet.
Right through the cellophane you are greeted with an adult-sized COUNT FRANKULA mask, along with a red and black cape. Why? So you can dress like a “vampire” Frank Zappa on Halloween, as many fans did at the Halloween shows I attended over the years. Superfans will no doubt display it alongside their FRANKenZAPPA mask and gloves from 2019’s Halloween 73box, and the retro Zappa mask and costume from 2017’s Halloween 77. As you will see from the photo here, the Halloween sets are a great way for fans to indoctrinate their youngsters into the singular, virtuosic hilarity of Zappa’s Mothermania, at an ideally impressionable age and occasion!
Listening to this collection has been a real revelation for me. I was a Zappa devotee nearly from the jump, of the original Mothers of Invention of the late 60s Uncle Meat/Burnt Weeny Sandwich era, and the Roxy & Elsewhere/Overnight Sensation band of the mid-70s, featuring keyboard giant George Duke, the incredible marimba of Ruth Underwood, the bass and trombone of Tom and Bruce Fowler, sax playing singer Napolean Murphy Brock, etc. By the time 81 came around, my interest in Zappa was getting diluted with my growing passion for jazz, electronica and alternative music.
Halloween 81 includes astounding musicianship, from all on hand, but especially Zappa. Frank may have been at the apex of his “Guitar God” phase then, pushed perhaps by Steve Vai, a superfan who first gained his attention by sending Frank notations of his knotty solos. Zappa and Vai’s mind-altering guitar prowess is here in spades. The prime courses come in “The Black Page #2,” “Easy Meat,” “Stevie’s Spanking,” “Black Napkins,” “King Kong,” “The Torture Never Stops” and even a cover of The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.” Zappa’s new album of the time, You Are What You Is, is naturally showcased heavily, with its cover track, “Teen-Age Wind,” “Goblin Girl,” “Doreen,” “I’m A Beautiful Guy,” “Mudd Club,” “Dumb All Over” and the rollicking boogie, “Suicide Chump.” The chamber rock brilliance of “Zappa, the Serious Composer,” comes across strong in the multiple takes of tracks like “Envelopes” and the slippery modal majesty of “Sinister Footwear II.”
By this era, politics and sex were the central thrust of Frank’s lyrics. Tunes like “Heavenly Bank Account” and “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” protesting the profiteers of mega churches and conservative politics, seem even more relevant today. His controversial views and sense of humor on love and sex are here in “Harder Than Your Husband,” “Teenage Prostitute” and “Bobby Brown Goes Down.” These tunes stand as evidence that this may have been one of Frank’s most enjoyable bands vocally, with White and Mann contributing strong lead and harmony vocals and suitably snarky phrasing.
Frank Zappa has always been one of my favorite musicians and, in some ways, a surrogate father. He taught me the importance of pursing the creativity life, personal discipline and, in a weird way, civics. Zappa was a good citizen in a democracy by questioning the status quo, the importance of being a free man in a free world of free ideas.
For a short time after his death, I was worried about his legacy. Jim Morrison didn’t have a tenth of the talent, or produce 1/1000th of the work, but he was being deified and mega-marketed to new generations of fans, along with other dead rockers who couldn’t hold a candle to Zappa in my opinion.
Then along came Frank’s eldest son, Dweezil. In 2006, he picked up the mantle and the music to apostle it to tens of thousands of fans old and new, at hundreds of shows in all corners of the globe.
A “Zappa Plays Zappa” show is a beauty to behold. There’s Dweezil himself, arguably one of the greatest and most sorely underrated guitarists on the planet, leading a band of young virtuosos through all eras and forms of his father’s rigorous music. He’s breaking our hearts again and again, with conservatory level recitations of Zappa’s classic albums, accented with the same uniquely astounding guitar style.
Then along was comes Ahmet. Since 2015, he’s been doing his equally vital part with the unique talents he developed over his career – as a conceptualizer, producer, promoter and, yes, a world class brand strategist for all things Frank.
What Ahmet has done since he took the helm of the Zappa Family Trust is remarkable. With recent releases like this, and last year’s splendid six-CD Hot Rats Sessions and the forthcoming Alex Winter documentary, he is further spotlighting the brilliance of Frank Zappa, by digging deeper into the seemingly inexhaustible well of musical wonder he created over his brief but action-packed 52 years.
Releases like this are laying important new cornerstones for a deeper appreciation of all that is Frank Zappa. They are the thick and tasty textbooks that show the evolution of his music, through each classic album and era.
Key Tracks: Sinister Footwear II (10/31/81, second show), Heavenly Bank Account (10/31/81, first show), Stevie’s Spanking (11/1/81)