Sorry, Frank! Though the title of Zappa and The Mothers' 1971 album was Just Another Band from L.A., listeners knew what the maverick bandleader was alluding to: his latest group was anything but. Vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (a.k.a. Flo and Eddie) and bassist Jim Pons - all freshly recruited from The Turtles - were now happy together with Zappa, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, keyboardists Bob Harris and Don Preston, and multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood in one of the most outrageous and potent line-ups of The Mothers ever. Though Just Another Band has its fans, this brief era of Mothers history was best captured on Fillmore East - June 1971. Underneath its plain, white bootleg-esque cover, Zappa unleashed a live concept album linked thematically to his motion picture 200 Motels and its life-on-the-road theme. With 200 Motels just having received the deluxe treatment last year from Zappa Records and UMe, the labels have turned their attention to Fillmore East. While the original album has been expanded as a 3-LP vinyl set, the original concerts are premiering in full as part of a bigger set: The Mothers 1971. This comprehensive 8-CD set follows the smaller, 4-CD box The Mothers 1970 which introduced Flo and Eddie into the band alongside Dunbar, Underwood, George Duke, and Jeff Simmons.
The 100-track, nearly 10-hour The Mothers 1971, produced by Ahmet Zappa and "Vaultmeister" Joe Travers, presents each and every note of all four shows played at NYC's late, lamented Fillmore East on June 5-6, 1971 from which the original album's dozen tracks were drawn. (The concerts were among the closing acts at the historic venue; it closed permanently on June 27. Today, a bank sits in its place.) It marks the very first time the complete Fillmore East concerts, including the subsequently-released jam session with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, have been released in unedited form. They're also newly mixed from the original tapes by Craig Parker Adams and mastered by John Polito.
But the Fillmore shows are far from everything on this comprehensive set. To paint a fuller picture of the Mothers' 1971 - one which began in triumph and ended in tragedy -the box recreates a composite concert from the June 1 and June 3 performances in Scranton and Harrisburg, PA (respectively), and concludes with the full Rainbow Theatre concert in London, England on December 10, 1971 when a "fan" attacked Zappa following the band's performance of The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand," leaving him with serious injuries. The band had been playing that night with rented equipment, due to the shocking fire that engulfed the Montreux Casino on December 4 (and their instruments with it). Thankfully, Zappa and the Mothers emerged relatively unscathed, not knowing that the fire would be mere prelude to more horror.
The premiere of the Rainbow show could threaten to cast a pall over the higher spirits displayed at the Fillmore East shows, but happily that's not the case here. The complete Fillmore shows (which occupy the first five-and-a-half discs of the box) are very much a delight for fans of this still-controversial period of Mothers history in which Flo and Eddie steered the group in a more overtly comical direction. Though the duo dominates the proceedings, whether with raunchy humor or distinctive harmonizing (and frequently with both!), the musicianship for which Zappa was known is still very much in evidence.
The setlist was similarly structured at each show, introducing the audience to Flo and Eddie's pop sound with the relatively straight love song "Tears Began to Fall" and their vocals on the jazz fusion of "Peaches en Regalia" before jumping headfirst into debauchery with 200 Motels' "Shove It Right In." (Zappa completely resequenced the show for the original 1971 LP.) The Mothers delivered in this off-color vein with such Flo and Eddie comedy specialties as "The Sanzini Brothers (Sodomy Trick)" - you can look it up, but rumor has it a stuffed penguin and a drumstick were involved - and "The Mud Shark," drawing on the infamous incident alleged to have happened involving Vanilla Fudge in a Seattle hotel room. "The Mud Shark" would then lead into a thematically-linked suite of sorts featuring "What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are," "Bwana Dik," "Latex Solar Beef," the heavy, scorching "Willie the Pimp," and The Turtles' 1967 chart-topper "Happy Together," subversively presented as the punchline to the skit "Do You Like My New Car?" Your mileage may vary on the puerile humor but the band sure sounds to be having fun on the truncated, enjoyably ragged sing-along version of the irresistible pop smash. ("Happy Together" even was released on 45 in France, as the flipside of "Tears Began to Fall." The single version of "Tears" and its B-side in most territories, "Junier Mintz Boogie," are welcome bonus cuts here.) This sequence of songs dominated the original 1971 LP, with "Peaches en Regalia" and "Tears" coming off as afterthoughts.
The box set makes the case that all of the strengths of this iteration of the band, individually and collectively, were in fact showcased at the Fillmore. The epic "Billy the Mountain" was performed at every show, ranging roughly from 30-36 minutes in length. Zappa's parody of a rock opera, about a talking mountain named Billy (with "two big caves for eyes") and his wife Ethel ("a tree growing off his shoulder") allowed for city-specific references, absurdist comedy, satirical jabs at the American right wing, and plenty of Frank's tasty guitar. For the first two shows, the band arguably topped "Billy" with full-throttle renditions of "King Kong." Flo and Eddie mostly sat out the lengthy and intricate jazz-rock instrumental which premiered on 1969's Uncle Meat and allowed for ample, impressive soloing on the Fillmore stage. So did an intense reading of "Chunga's Revenge" which closed the first show of June 6 in ferocious fashion with Zappa's searing guitar, Dunbar's forceful drums, and Pons' hypnotic bass all intuitively linked. If the musicality of the Fillmore stand took a back seat to the comedy on the released album, balance is restored on the box set.
Other highlights of the Fillmore sets include the grooving, twisty, mostly-instrumental "Little House I Used to Live In" and numerous, eclectic selections excised from the original LP including the mordant one-two punch of "Concentration Moon" and "Mom and Dad" from We're Only in It for the Money (1968) and the early, high school-themed Zappa composition "Status Back Baby" from the abortive I Was a Teenage Maltshop project with Captain Beefheart.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono dropped by for the closing show. Their surprise encore before an audibly appreciative audience was originally planned for release by Zappa who mixed it in 1971. But once John and Yoko released their own mix on 1972's Some Time in New York City, Zappa shelved his recording util the 1992 release of Playground Psychotics. This new mix has been derived from a high-resolution transfer of the original multitrack safety reel (which Zappa had made for Lennon in 1971) supplied by Ono and the Lennon estate. John takes the lead vocal on Walter Ward's bluesy oldie "Well (Baby Please Don't Go)," a 1958 single for The Olympics and a Liverpool-era Beatles favorite, with Ono adding mainly wordless interjections and Zappa soloing. Just months earlier, on February 11 and 16, Lennon had recorded a studio version of the song.
The remaining jams were substantially edited on Some Time in New York City, and some released under different titles. "Say Please" and "Aaawk" were issued there as "Jamrag," while the final jam Lennon and Ono dubbed "Aü" was drolly rechristened by Zappa as "A Small Eternity with Yoko Ono." A snippet of "King Kong" yielded to the jam "Scumbag" with the title phrase shouted repeatedly over the percolating rhythm. What's most evident in both Zappa's Playground mix and the 2022 version is that Kaylan and Volman's vocals, largely absent from Some Time in New York City, stand out. The meeting of Frank Zappa and John Lennon is less than the sum of its parts, but its historical significance alone warrants a listen here.
The hybrid concert on Discs 6-7, recorded at Pennsylvania venues just days before the Fillmore stand, has been assembled from what's believed to be the earliest known live four-track recordings from Zappa's own recorder. It features some unique songs including "Call Any Vegetable" from 1967's Absolutely Free and spoofy, goofy takes on "My Boyfriend's Back" (with lyrics that might make the authors blush) and "96 Tears" ("Tiny Sick Tears").
The culmination of the box is the first presentation of the complete December 10, 1971 Rainbow Theatre concert which ended the tour - and almost ended Frank Zappa's life and livelihood. Today, the venue is home of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God; in 1971, it was one of the U.K.'s premier music venues. Zappa released some of the concert on the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series and Playground Psychotics, but it's been freshly mixed for the box set (and standalone LP release) from the original one-inch multitracks by Eddie Kramer and mastered by Bernie Grundman.
Just six days after the Montreux Casino fire that inspired Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," the band was remarkably vigorous and seemingly refreshed despite the troubles mentioned by Zappa in his introductory speech to the audience. Following a performance of the instrumental "Zanti Serenade" that doubled as a soundcheck, Zappa asked the audience for patience, explaining that the band was forced to use new equipment as a result of the blaze. The Mothers - now sans second keyboardist Bob Harris - performed a modified version of the Fillmore show with much of the same material ("Peaches," "Tears Began to Fall," "Shove It Right In," King Kong"). "Pound for a Brown," "Super Grease," "Cruising for Burgers," "Sharleena," and the 1969 Jeff Simmons co-write "Wonderful Wino" (which first appeared on the ex-Mother's own album Lucille Has Messed Up My Mind) showcased The Mothers in various idioms from psych-rock to pop.
Following a strong "King Kong," The Mothers encored with a jovial version of The Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand." That should have left the Rainbow audience on a high note, but a deranged fan charged the stage and violently pushed Zappa into the orchestra pit 12 feet below. A panic broke out on the premises, and he was left with serious injuries to his face, head, ribs, arm, and leg. The bandleader spent most of the following year in a wheelchair and a leg brace; needing to continue working, the Mothers disbanded and pursued other musical avenues. This is the first release to present the official audio of the Rainbow Theatre show complete with its frightening ending; a cry of "Frank!" is audible amidst the rough minute of audio-vérité chaos preserved on tape.
The eight discs of The Mothers 1971 are housed in individual sleeves (each adorned with a tape or tape box scan) within a small, sturdy slipcase. A squarebound, copiously-illustrated 68-page book is worth the price of admission, with essays by Joe Travers, Eddie Kramer, and Jim Pons as well as a conversation between Ahmet Zappa and Ian Underwood. These collectively explore the 1971 live recordings from every angle (though one wishes Flo and Eddie, too, had shared their memories of this tumultuous time) to complement the attention to detail of the audio itself.
Zappa Records and UMe have already announced the next box set in their archival series: Zappa/Erie, chronicling his Pennsylvania-area concerts in 1974 and 1976 with a reconstituted Mothers line-up. But The Mothers 1971 shouldn't be overlooked. While this iteration of the band was ultimately short-lived and marked by twin tragedies, their musical hijinks remain among the most spirited of Zappa's varied career.
All titles are available now:
The Mothers 1971: Official Zappa Store / Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Fillmore East - June 1971: 50th Anniversary Expanded Edition: Official Zappa Store / Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada
Rainbow Theatre - December 10, 1971: Official Zappa Store / Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada