With Universal issuing remastered versions of Frank Zappa’s enormous catalogue, Gary Steel takes up the challenge of reviewing every single one of FZ’s genius album creations. Today’s selection: Chunga’s Revenge.
AFTER THE SUSTAINED brilliance of Frank Zappa’s work between 1966 and 1969, critics and fans that saw the dissolution of The Mothers as tantamount to treason were looking for a chink in his creative armour, and with Chunga’s Revenge, they found it.
Released in October 1970, Chunga’s Revenge was Zappa’s first real post-Mothers project, and there are those who contend that it showed the first signs of the rot setting in; ‘the rot’, that is, of the so-called smut he became increasingly well known for in the ‘70s. This is factually incorrect, and made on a misinterpretation of a couple of lyrics from an album that’s largely instrumental.
It is true, however, that Chunga’s Revenge shows an artist in transition, and it feels both less substantial and more episodic than its immediate predecessor, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which actually was a collection of bits and pieces, but was cleverly sequenced and convincing in its totality. Despite its second-tier status in Zappa’s overall discography, Chunga’s Revenge is still a great album with some prime moments, and it’s an album I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending to anyone investigating Zappa’s work.
It gets rolling with ‘Transylvania Boogie’, a super-cool modal riffing exercise that allows for some great wah-wah guitar work and almost Krautrock rhythmic repetitions, courtesy of veteran bassist Max Bennett and English percussion powerhouse, Aynsley Dunbar. [Note, Krautrock before the genre existed].
‘Road Ladies’ is an early inkling of the “band, roadies and groupies” material that Zappa would work up into proper themes for both his next project, the film 200 Motels, and the subsequent album, Fillmore East June 1971. It’s a blues song where the singer laments his life on the road with lines like: “Don’t it ever get lonesome?/Don’t it ever get sad when you go out on a 30 day tour?/You got nothing but groupies and promoters to love you/And a pile of laundry by the hotel door.” Clearly, the song is lampooning the faked misery of an over-privileged white rock star feigning the blues, all to a cool blues vamp with George Duke’s fruity organ and a smokin’ Zappa guitar solo.
The song also marks the debut of two new vocalists, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of the hit pop group, The Turtles. There’s a rich back-story here, involving The Mothers’ early dismissal by a record company whose rejection letter claimed they would never make it like The Turtles, so it must have seemed pretty funny that the group’s very recognisable (visually and vocally) singers would end up joining Zappa’s ensemble a few years later.
Chunga’s Revenge is nothing if not eclectic, and the next piece sounds like something that, for whatever reason, didn’t quite make the cut for Hot Rats the year before. ‘Twenty Small Cigars’ is an achingly gorgeous, melancholy instrumental on which FZ accompanies himself on guitar and harpsichord, while Ian Underwood chimes along on piano. At a mere 2:17, this piece shows just how economical Zappa’s compositions could be, as every note counts.
‘The Nancy & Mary Music’, on the other hand, lasts around 10 minutes, but is broken up into three sections. It starts out with a sax and drum solo, but soon breaks off into an awesome groove featuring the obligatory (very cool) exposition of wah-wah guitar. Probably sourced from several different tapes both live and studio and cannily edited together, it’s an astonishing, energetic interlude.
‘Tell Me You Love Me’, on the other hand, sees Flo & Eddie (Volman and Kaylan) used as main vocalists for the first time, and it’s a horny, high-octane pop/rock song that screams “hit”. Except it wasn’t, of course. Flo & Eddie are also at the helm for ‘Would You Go All The Way?’ – a circus-like romp that’s one of Zappa’s more forgettable songs. But the title track, which comes next, utterly restores the faith with its monster riff and fine wah-wah solos on both guitar (FZ) and sax (Ian Underwood). It’s spectacularly good, with a great bass line from Bennett, and some of the most restrained modal guitar soloing on record. And let’s face it, the sound of a wah-wah is fantastic when it’s in the right hands, and Zappa was a master at it.
Inevitably, things go downhill from this highpoint. ‘The Clap’ is a too-short 1:23 of cool percussion, followed by ‘Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink’, a merciless razzing of a representative from the musician’s union. This piece got up some people’s craws for its determinedly anti-union stance. What critics of Zappa’s anti-union songs are missing are the specifics pertinent to the situation he’s describing: an invasive musician’s union that purportedly did its best to get in the way of creativity. He wasn’t looking at the history of unions, or the good they had done earlier in the 20th century in creating better conditions for workers; but still, to those who supported unions, Zappa’s stance must have looked like the musical radical was turning into a political conservative. [In truth, Zappa was no ideologue, and was happy to live with what seemed like a bunch of contradictions.]
The album regains its feet, more or less, with the final track, a power love ballad that’s most untypical of Zappa, yet one that would crop up in his live set list for decades to come, ‘Sharleena’. As is often the case with FZ, it’s not clear whether it’s to be taken directly, and addressed emotionally, or whether it’s a sarcastic comment on such songs. I suspect something between the two: while Zappa often commented on the way pop songs encourage mental instability by having singers voice love lyrics that were essentially nonsense, he clearly also had a genuine affection for the kind of nostalgic pop that cropped up around the doo-wop era.
This Universal version of Chunga’s Revenge was mastered by Bob Ludwig from the original analogue tapes, and although some of the source material is a little rough (notably the live sections), this remaster does have extra width, depth, and heft. The cover artwork is pretty much the same.
While Chunga’s Revenge isn’t one of the great Zappa albums, some of its material does belong in the top echelon of his work, and it’s important to think of these ratings as specific to Frank Zappa’s particular universe, which is simply better than just about any other universe I could imagine. GARY STEEL
Note, the ZAPPA-RATING below is specific to where the recording fits into the vast catalogue pertinent to Zappa’s musical universe.