"The finest night of the year..."
Frank Zappa knew how to throw one hell of a Halloween party.
The iconoclastic composer-bandleader counted Halloween as his favorite holiday, and his annual celebratory shows were among his most anticipated. The 1981 stand at the late, lamented Palladium - a once-plush 1927 movie palace sadly demolished in 1998 to make room for dormitories at New York University - was particularly special to Zappa's fans as he had curtailed the 1980 shows earlier than expected due to illness. (Not to mention that there was no fall tour, and no Halloween show, in 1979.) It also turned out to be not only the final time he would play the Palladium, but his second-to-last Halloween concert stand ever.
Now, Zappa Records and UMe have brought Halloween 81 to life as a frightfully entertaining 6-CD box set, following the previous releases of Halloween 73 and 77. Some of this material is no doubt familiar to longtime fans. Zappa had arranged for the October 31 midnight show in front of the 3,000-capacity crowd to be recorded for both radio and television (the latter on a new channel called MTV) - reportedly the first live simulcast in cable television history. The early show at 8 pm was filmed, too, and multimedia auteur Zappa would put that footage to good use, too, on home video releases of The Torture Never Stops (1982) and The Dub Room Special (1983) and on the audio releases of The Dub Room Special, One Shot Deal, and the You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore series. On the new box set, however, everything has been newly remixed and mastered from the original Ampex 456 two-inch, 24-track analog tapes by Craig Parker Adams and John Polito, respectively. It also marks the very first time the audio from the concerts including the third show of November 1 has been released in its entirety.
The band at the Palladium had only been together for roughly a month by the time October 31, 1981 rolled around. Veterans Ray White on guitar, Ed Mann on percussion, and Tommy Mars on keyboards were joined by three fresh players: Scott Thunes on bass, Chad Wackerman on drums, and Robert Martin on keyboards and saxophone. Steve Vai was on his second Zappa tour as "stunt guitarist," flashily playing while Zappa sang and vice versa. (King Crimson's Adrian Belew had filled the stunt guitar role previously, and Mike Keneally would subsequently assume it.) Despite their relative inexperience as a unit, the group played with the skill and precision of a seasoned troupe for the Manhattan audiences.
A Zappa band had to be proficient - scratch that, make it exemplary - in every genre, capable of bringing to life his wildest musical imaginings from scorched-earth heaviness to ironically smooth fare. He conducted the band as he would an orchestra, gleefully turning pop, rock (and rock and roll!), jazz, reggae, and gospel on their ear - sometimes in the same song. Shifting time signatures, unexpected harmonies, and offbeat chord progressions were all Zappa hallmarks, while he left enough room for solos to be tossed off in the manner of a great jazz band.
All three setlists concentrate primarily on then-recent material. Zappa wisely kept the October 31 early and late shows largely different, while the next evening's concert borrowed heavily from both. While mileage will vary largely based upon which Zappa persona is most favored - the esteemed composer, the irreverent rock songwriter, or the guitar hero - plenty of all three can be found on this set. It's all in startlingly good sound with very little intrusion from the audience. (The sound is no surprise as Zappa often incorporated live material into his proper albums and wanted those recordings in studio quality.) More surprisingly, there's little banter and less audience participation than in years past, as the artist placed the emphasis squarely on the music.
The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing
Zappa's respect for his musicians was established early on each night as he introduced the band immediately after the first song (in the case of the 8 pm show, the 1970 instrumental "Chunga's Revenge"). While he wasn't shy about unleashing his virtuosic guitar throughout the evening, he was a generous leader to his bandmates. His intricate, expansive compositions took center stage for the open-minded New York audience, a fact which he acknowledged in his chatter during the midnight show. At times, it seems like far more musicians are playing this challenging music (see: the connected, musically-shifting, and precisely-performed trilogy of "Drowning Witch" into "What's New in Baltimore" into "Moggio") than those assembled onstage, a credit to both the arrangements and the individuals' musicianship.
At the 8 pm show (heard here on Discs 1-2), they played most of Sides 3 & 4 of the just-released double album You Are What You Is as one continuous suite. Much of Zappa's sharp, pointed satire would still prove controversial today ("You Are What You Is," the suite of "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing/Dumb All Over/Heavenly Bank Account"). While he often used humor to get his social commentary across, he seemed deadly serious when somberly intoning "Tax the churches...tax the businesses owned by the churches..." after taking musical aim at hypocritical televangelists and their ilk. His lyrics could be insensitive and off-color (and certainly politically incorrect) but frequently exposed truisms with keen, uncensored observation.
Some songs, though, are more difficult to explain, such as the spiky pop tune "We're Turning Again" (which hadn't yet appeared on an album) in which Zappa rails against the '60s youth culture of which his own music played a part. Or was he taking on a role in the song, as an actor would? The same question could be asked of the unsympathetic "Teen-age Prostitute," later to be the closing track of 1982's Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. A tense, suspenseful mood cedes to a funhouse feel in the instrumental "Envelopes," written in 1968 per Zappa but not recorded until Drowning Witch. Whereas the album version of its nominal title track "Drowning Witch" was edited from performances in multiple cities, the music here is all one-take.
The instrumental "Alien Orifice," on which the band swings lightly, would show up alongside "We're Turning Again" on 1985's Meets the Mothers of Prevention. A handful of tracks from the punningly-titled 1979 double album Sheik Yerbouti also took prominent slots in the set. Sheik marked Zappa's "liberation" from Warner Bros. Records and found him more heavily reliant upon the comedic lyrics, perhaps resulting in what is still his biggest-selling album to date. At the Palladium, he revisited "Yo Mama," "City of Tiny Lites," the Bob Dylan-lampooning "Flakes," the scatological and sexually explicit "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes," and the even more outrageous "Bobby Brown Goes Down." Tinsel Town Rebellion, another 1981 LP release from the prolific artist, was represented with "The Blue Light" and the title track: a cynical, jaundiced look at the music biz with an interlude in Zappa's beloved doo-wop idiom.
Even the encores reflected the dichotomy of Zappa's art, from the majestic instrumental "Strictly Genteel" from 1971's 200 Motels to the novelty-esque chart single "Dancin' Fool." But the most exciting encore might be a blistering run through The Allman Brothers Band's "Whipping Post," with Robert Martin on vocals - a potent reminder that Zappa could play it straight, and play the hell out of it, when he wanted to.
The second, midnight show (Discs 3-4 of the box) opens with the bluesy fusion instrumental "Black Napkins" from 1976's Zoot Allures featuring an intense, fiery guitar solo. Zappa quickly admonished the audience not to throw things on the stage after an egg or projectile was thrown near the end of the 8:00 performance, clearly to his ire. A different selection of songs from from You Are What You Is - "Charlie's Enormous Mouth," "Society Pages," "Beauty Knows No Pain," "Teenage Wind," the off-color country and western pastiche "Harder Than Your Husband," and the ideal Halloween novelty "Goblin Girl" - joined a few reprised from the first show and kept that LP front and center.
Zappa dipped back in time for "Montana" (off 1973's Over-Nite Sensation) while finding a place for more Tinsel Town Rebellion selections, as well. The soaring instrumental section of "Easy Meat" (in which both Chad Wackerman and Zappa shine with their bold, commanding work) far outshines its puerile lyrics. "Fine Girl" is a Zappa spin on a pop song, well sung by Tommy Mars. "Bamboozled by Love," led by Ray White, offers up some heavy blues-rock.
"Cocaine Decisions" (which would appear in 1983 on The Man from Utopia as well as on a single) is one of Zappa's anti-drug songs, aimed not at youth or junkies, but the business cognoscenti. "Cocaine Decisions" was followed, as was typical in the setlists of the era, with "Nig Biz," to tell a continuous story. Within its blues-rock framework, the latter has some tasty sax and guitar soloing, but this critique of the music business is one that hasn't aged well. The shock-value lyric overshadows the worth of the music and the message of the song.
An instrumental highlight of the second show is "Sinister Footwear II," the rock arrangement of the second part of a three-part orchestral suite composed by Zappa. Dramatic, hypnotic, and conjuring an appropriately eerie mood (this was Halloween, after all!), it transfixes with another powerful Zappa solo. Vai's guitar got a showcase moment with the metallic "Stevie's Spanking" ("His name is Stevie Vai/And he's a crazy guy...") on which his interplay with Zappa impresses. "The Black Page # 2" reportedly referred to a page of sheet music which was black with notes...and notes...and notes...! Originally written for drum solo and percussion, this rock version is one of many rearrangements Zappa would do over the years incorporating different musical styles and genres. Wackerman and Ed Mann naturally stand out as they deftly navigated their way through the exceedingly difficult piece of music.
A lengthy post-broadcast encore ("The live show is off the air, and the real show keeps going...") boasted a couple of songs from the 1979 music theatre/concept album Joe's Garage in addition to "The Illinois Enema Bandit" (no, Zappa didn't make up that title which referred to an Illinois criminal active in the 1960s and 1970s), and "King Kong," one of his most justly acclaimed "serious" pieces. He described it from the stage as "the new, improved reggae version of 'King Kong' with little solos and stuff in it," and those dazzling little solos didn't disappoint.
For the third and final show of the Palladium run (Discs 5-6) on November 1, Zappa curated a "greatest hits" set of sorts from the previous evening's two shows with some unique songs including a round of fan-favorite oldies ("I'm the Slime," "Pound for a Brown," "Cosmik Debris"). He repeated the eleven-song sequence from Show 1 of "Dumb All Over" through "Teen-age Prostitute" before reprising Show 2's seven-song sequence of "Sinister Footwear II" through "The Black Page # 2" minus the spoofy pop-rocker "Doreen." The final encore presented Zoot Allures' "The Torture Never Stops" (also used as an encore in the Halloween midnight show) with a period "De plane!" interjection from Fantasy Island and "Chattanooga Choo Choo" allusion. Its extended jamming closed the residency on a high note.
Unfortunately, the performance from November 1 of "Strictly Genteel" is not included on the box set. It can be found on the single-CD, 14-track disc of highlights from all three shows as well as on download and streaming services. Why was it dropped from the box set, forcing completist purchasers to pick up an additional disc? One wishes the producers had opted to include an explanation, but as Discs 5 and 6 run 76:53 and 76:54, respectively, it's likely that the lengthy song wouldn't have fit in its proper sequence, if at all.
Sinister Footwear II
Halloween 81 is packaged in the same format as Halloween 73, in an oversized box also containing a costume: in this case, a Count Frankula mask and cape. Lively, fun artwork by Fantoons Animation Studio graces the box itself and its individual components; each of the individual sleeves housing a CD is festooned with a Count Frankula drawing. But the costume itself is the most controversial item here, loved by some fans and loathed by others. A sure conversation piece, it's certainly in the spirit of Zappa's Halloween festivities if rather cumbersome. An inner tray, also featuring Fantoons artwork, houses the discs and glossy 40-page booklet. Vaultmeister Joe Travers, co-producer of the set with Ahmet Zappa, provides a brief introduction, Robert Martin offers his memories, and Gary Titone shares a fan's perspective on the shows. Numerous photos from the engagement round out the booklet.
What's missing? A video component would have been welcome considering the groundbreaking nature of the shows. (Note that the 2008 DVD from Eagle Rock Entertainment, The Torture Never Stops, contained live footage from the Halloween shows.) But as an audio document, Halloween 81 should sate the appetite of the most ardent Zappa fan and collector.
During the November 1 show, Zappa joked that he was once called "The Guy Lombardo of Halloween," referring to the famed bandleader who rang in the New Year for almost half a century. Zappa played "Auld Lang Syne" in response, one more musical joke from the artist who asked Does Humor Belong in Music? on a 1986 LP and also had his music performed by the likes of The London Symphony Orchestra and the great jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. Zappa was a man of many sides, and Halloween 81 reflects all of them. Thanks to COVID-19, the holiday itself likely won't be the same this year. But, no trick, the new box set (or its slim, cut-down single-disc version) just might be the best treat you'll have for Halloween 2020.