Torture Mama & The Open Brain

By Miles

NME, 19 February 1977

Frank Zappa

“OH CHRIST!" sobbed someone near to me as Frank sloped on to the stage. It had been a long time.

Frank's musical apprenticeship goes back to the doowop groups and bands, and in the Johnny Otis tradition he opens and closes his act by introducing the members of the band:

Eddie Jobson on multiple keyboards and violin, e-Roxy Music, “bringing to the group a sort of damp English charm, smothered in rosy-cheecked appeal”. Eddie got a chance to work out almost immediately as the group kicked off with "Peaches En Regalia" from the "Hot Rats" album. Franck picked his way nimbly through the two solos but he was a little stiff.

He was supported brilliantly ny bass player Patrik O'Hearn. Formally a jazz player, O'Hearn's technical skill enables him both to do time keeping work and to scramper round the beat like a dack round a pond. Terry Bozzio, "together in leather", has been with Zappa for about two years and seems to know instinctively when Frank is going to sustain a note, coming in with just the right length of drum roll.

"Peaches ..." segued straight into "The Torture Never Stops" which, being a much slower, extended piece, gave Frank a chance to stretch out a little and to fool around, demonstrating various heavy-metal guitar stances and at one point extending his foot for Patrick O'Hearn to bow and kiss. In almost every instance Frank's playing was better on the second night than the first. He may have been tired, having only arriced the day before from a heavy European tour schedule, but I think he was nervous.

England has always been special to gim – he even moved here to make 200 Motels – but his recent experience has been very unfortunate: the fall from the stage of the Rainbow which put him in plaster for a year, and then the absurd Albert Hall court case. But Frank need not have worried. He has a large cult following of older fans and, judging by the audience, a new generation who follow and enjow his work.

The show was very varied, a balanced mixture of the various Zappa musical histories. He did "Big Leg Emma", an unsuccessful single from back in 1967, and settled back to tune up while Terry Bozzio took a solo. Bozzio first rolled round the kit like thunder rolling in mountains then built up some hostile war drums. It's hard for a drum solo to keep the interest of the audience, but Bozzio can.

There's not a band in the country that couldn't learn from Zappa as far as stage presentation goes. There are no breaks between numbers – everyone tunes with electronic strobes (so that they can't be heard) while someone is soloing.

Frank's been around long enough to begin to rewrite his own history, just like Dylan. He performed another '60s lassic, "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama", but in a slowed-down bionic funk version – except for a brief soaring '60s solo to show that his fingers still remembered the 1966 curfew riots on the Strip. It's on numbers like this that the fifth member of the group, Ray White, comes into his own. Formally with a San Francisco funk outfit called Aztec, he brings the Wattstax scream and some hard driving guitar to the group. He sings lead on a number of songs and is a valuable front line addition.

When soloing, Frank adopts a question-mark stance, leaning backwards and head forward like a turtle. He likes to look funny and do funny footwork but usually, when you think about it, the joke's on you.

On the first night he played one totally misconceived solo – there was no way that anyone could have resolved it – though he did his best. The same solo spot on the second night he excelled himself, playing a solo so strong and inventive that the other guys were all laughing with him as more and more riffs appeared and were developed. Even Frank was smiling.

It was a real Zappa concert, so there were sections in which Frank prowled about the front of the stage singing lyrics which insulted the audience and also a theatrical break of the kind first develpoed when Flo and Eddie were with him.

One of the problems is that there just aren't to many taboo subjects anymore for Frank to sing about. Gone are the days when eplicit mention of sex or a few four letter words could shock – though the word "cock" was censored from "Father O'Blivion" on the "Apostrophe" album. Frank makes do with a long song about anal sex, "You're An Asshole", the "Torture" song, and a long dialogue in which he attempts to sell his soul to the devil for "titties and beer" after the devil, in the guise of Terry Bozzio in mask, has eaten Frank's girlfriend and his six-pack just as Frank was gouing to get ripped and ball.

Just as Godard likes to constantly remind you you are watching a film, so Frank always defines his relationship to the audience. He is on stage trying to "organise your time interestingly for you", but you've got to do your bit too. As an encore he did "Dynamo Hum" and insisted the audience sang along "just like at a big ol' rock'n'roll concert". He knelt at the edge of the stage and on both nights was able to find a few people to sing directly into the microphone.

He berates his audience. He called them "stodgy, tense, neo-Victorian, hung-up, and more concerned with clothes that what's happening out in the world". They are gonna have to loosen up! The ecstatic reception given him restored his confidence. He encored with "Camarillo Brillo" and "Muffin Man" on the first night, and spoke to the audience about his accident at the Rainbow and his law suit – he was genuinely moved.

There was no Nuremberg Rally, no glitter, smoke bombs, dry ice or laser display. Just sheer professionalism. A show which has been worked on to make sure everything is perfectly spaced and balanced, played by five guys who really know how to play their instruments.

What more could you possibly want?

Note. The Hammersmith, London concerts were on 9 and 10 February. Both concerts were taped and the setlists are available at FZShows.