Frank Zappa/Mothers: Roxy & Elsewhere

By Eric Salzman

Stereo Review, March 1975

FRANK ZAPPA/MOTHERS: Roxy & Elsewhere. Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals); George Duke (keyboards, synthesizer, vocals); Tom Fowler (bass); Ruth Underwood (percussion); other musicians. Penguin in Bondage; Pygmy Twylyte; Dummy Up; Village of the Sun; Echidna's Arf (Of You); and five others. DISCREET 2DS 2202 two discs $9.98, Ⓑ 2D8 2202 $10.97, © 2D5 2202 $10.97.

 Performance: Zapparoony
Recording: Live with overdubs

Frank Zappa, the Franz Liszt, Jonathan Swift, and Spike Jones of the pop avant-garde, is the standard bearer of whatever is left of that theatrical school of rock music which is at once commedia dell'arte zaniness, social critique, and high-class musicianship on a low-brow trip. Zappa has perfected a kind of rock-and-roll tone poem, with a surrealistic text scraped off the soft underbelly of American life – a dippy blues riff, some elaborate jazzy musical developments, and a rousing return to cap it off. All of this is very carefully worked out with a kind of nutty showmanship that was one of the starting points for the growing theatricality of rock performance.

Zappa's mixture of funkiness and America-absurd with the most precise sort of performance and production has led him to a recording technique that combines the on-the-spot feeling of live performance with some of the more elaborate techniques of studio recording. These are basically live tracks, overdubbed and remixed by the master himself.

A good deal of this double album is taken up with funny business: Zappa's intros, a semimusical routine about smoking a highschool diploma, and a long audience participation bit – the Be-Bop Tango – which takes up the entire fourth side. The meat of the album lies in the half-dozen tunes and a couple of good-sized instrumentals that travel the usual Zappa route from low-down to lunatic. A great deal is sometimes made out of Zappa's affinity for jazz, but I think the jazz influence on Zappa's music is fairly peripheral; his real source of inspiration is Hollywood-America, music and all. The best material here – mostly on side three, including a brilliantly orchestrated song about cheapie horror movies, an ode to ex-President Nixon, and a 1965 song about watching the news on television, all strung out as a continuity – is California-America bottom-side-up.

The fact that Zappa could so easily include a 1965 song demonstrates that he has not changed very much in a decade, but I don't think that makes the best of what he has to say less good. Everything is as tight, as mean, as lunatic, as precise as ever, and every bit of craziness is carefully in place. The ever-changing Mothers are particularly strong here. Zappa has a very good lead vocalist in Napoleon Murphy Brock – who also plays tenor and flute with the excellent horn section – and a wonderful mallet percussionist (obviously classically trained) in Ruth Underwood. Zappa's hand is, of course, everywhere, and, frankly (pardon the pun), all he really lacks is self-criticism. Anyway, for the price of a double album we get one good solid album's worth of stuff, which comes out to a better percentage than most anything else these days.