For Frank Zappa fans, his multi-night run at The Palladium in New York City back in October of 1977 is the stuff of legend. It came in the midst of one of the guitarist/composer’s most fertile creative periods, which would yield a dozen live and studio albums over the next five years as well as the feature film Baby Snakes, built from footage captured at one of these vaunted Halloween shows in ‘77. These performances were also a showcase for what is arguably Zappa’s best backing band of his lengthy career, an ensemble that boasted future Talking Heads/King Crimson member Adrian Belew on guitar, percussion master Ed Mann and, most crucially, the outrageously talented drummer Terry Bozzio.
Just in time for All Hallow’s Eve, the Zappa Family Trust is unleashing Halloween ‘77, the full performances from this small residency at The Palladium via a wonderfully-designed boxed set that includes a kitschy ‘70s-style costume (plastic Frank Zappa mask, plastic pull over top) and all the audio on a USB stick made to look like a candy bar. It’s charming as all get out, aimed directly at the hearts and bank accounts of (are they any other kind?) FZ super fans. There’s also a truncated three CD version for those not wishing to expend that much dough.
For the casual listener, it’s a lot to take in. The complete audio runs to just under 16 hours, and almost all the shows feature the same set list. The music, too, can be plenty imposing. Zappa’s compositions are full of quick time signature shifts, executed with almost rigid yet limber precision by a very well rehearsed band. The songs themselves are dizzying, braiding together jazz, psychedelia, proto-metal and contemporary classical. There are enough pop-style hooks to draw you in, but you’d better be prepared to hold on tight.
Another potential sticking point is your tolerance for juvenile humor. If you’re unfamiliar with Zappa’s work, it might be a little off-putting to listen to him invite audience members on stage to whip each other or delight in the uncomfortable sexual oddities of “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” the weird gay panic wrapped in “Punky’s Whips” or the tittering reference to mooning people in the title of instrumental “Pound For A Brown.”
There’s also the matter of his conservative outlook, which peppers these performances, particularly the first show of the set, recorded on October 28th. In his intro to the song “Flakes,” he says, “This is a song about people who don’t do what they’re supposed to do. There’s a large concentration of these denizens in the state of California. The problem, simply stated, is that everybody who moves to California, moves there to collect unemployment or welfare or both.” He also makes clear what he thinks of his main character in “Bobby Brown,” calling him a “schmuck” for being “the first guy in town to say ‘Ms.’” Whether Zappa truly believed those things or not or was aiming for provocation, the cheers of the New York crowd in response is off-putting enough.
For those folks acutely familiar with the Zappa canon, this is the kind of treat you want someone to drop in your candy bag. All of the shows sounds spectacular. Working off of some great source material, the remixing and remastering work, overseen by Ahmet Zappa and Joe Travers, shows off each instrument with precision and clarity. There’s added allure here with the inclusion of rarely heard live tracks like the leisurely instrumental version of “Conehead” (a showcase for a particularly effusive solo by Zappa), a premiere of future single “Dancin’ Fool” and the only live performance of “Jewish Princess.” I can also see some fans debating over which epic version of “Wild Love” (each one ranges between 24 and 28 minutes in length) is the best or which Bozzio drum solo reigns supreme (I’m partial to the double kick drum-heavy antics of the first show on October 29th).
This Halloween-themed release comes along at a strange time for the Zappa family. Ahmet and Dweezil continue to fire off furious open letters to one another, and just as they keep reissuing FZ’s work in new formats, including freshly cut vinyl remasters, they’re going to attempt to bring the man himself back on tour via hologram. Those odd turns could tarnish this somewhat for longtime supporters or leave a sour taste for someone looking to dive into this expansive body of work for the first time. Luckily, much like the discomforting stage banter within, the music overshadows all of that nonsense. Especially when it is presented with such care and wit as with this set.