Frank Zappa – Zappa ’88: The Last US Show REVIEW
GARY STEEL reviews the latest release from the Zappa vaults and reveals both its strengths and weaknesses.
It turned out that Frank Zappa’s 1988 tour would be his last. He’d assembled a crack band – perhaps the most adept of his many ensembles – to trawl across the United States before heading to Europe, where there was a mutiny against bassist/musical director Scott Thunes.
Worn down by the infighting and suffering ill-health (undoubtedly the cancer that would be misdiagnosed until 1990, and would end his life on December 4, 1993) Zappa broke up the band and cancelled the remainder of the tour. The story of the 1988 band, which never got to lay tracks in the studio, is carefully annotated by Andrew Greenaway’s book on the subject, the aptly titled Zappa The Hard Way.
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Now we’re invited to shell out for a double CD or quadruple LP capturing the last US show before the 12-piece group headed off on that disastrous European jaunt. While the official press release creates the impression that we’re getting something rare and super-special with this release, in fact, the ’88 band is already generously represented in Zappa’s heaving album catalogue. After the truncated tour finished, Frank headed straight to the cutting room where he put together a treasure trove of live recordings. There were the six double CDs of You Can’t Do That Onstage Anymore, which applied micro-editing techniques to splice together live performances from throughout his career, as well as specifically 1988-band releases like Broadway The Hard Way, the ironically titled The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and Make A Jazz Noise Here – both double discs using the full available running time that compact discs enabled.
I consider myself a fairly dedicated Zappa fan but given the abundance of ’88 band material already in circulation, and the near-duplication of much of the material, find it hard to get into too much of a lather about Zappa ’88: The Last US Show. The fact is that Frank Zappa was the best curator of his own music, and the reason he hardly ever released albums of complete concerts was that he knew each performance would have its peaks and troughs; and that listening to a whole show at home couldn’t replicate the experience of seeing the band in performance. His answer was generally to judiciously edit, transpose and sometimes overdub selections (or even sections of songs) from different performances.
In other words, I doubt that Frank would ever have intended the whole of this March 25 (Uniondale, New York) 1988 gig for release. I know that there are hordes of fans out there that will happily swallow their hero’s every utterance, but the top-tier Zappa product all had the composer’s curatorial hand on them.
Having said that, Zappa ’88: The Last US Show is something of a master-class in devilishly tight performances of sometimes incredibly tricky compositions and one that – for all that – shows its commitment to delight and entertain.
This was the first really big band Zappa had toured since the mid-‘70s and there’s a horny splendour, though overt jazz moves are few. I caught the band just a few weeks before in New Jersey, and they were astonishing, but I remember feeling as though Zappa himself seemed a little removed.
It’s possible that this slight sense of separation was brought about by the fact that Thunes, rather than Zappa, had been in charge of months of intense rehearsals with the band. Or maybe it was more that when it came time for Frank to strap on his guitar, it felt a little like he was doing so out of duty. As excited as I was by seeing my first (and last, as it turned out) Zappa gig, I was underwhelmed by his fretboard work that night.
Or maybe it was just the fact that the ensemble was so rigidly rehearsed that the “take a solo now, Frank” spot was lacking a sense of spontaneity. Regardless, as predictable as the placement of the soloing might be on The Last US Show, they’re generally excellent. He pretty much ignores the contextual framework of the song and just goes for it, interrogating his instrument like he’s trying to ferret out the bones of a new composition. His guitar uses fewer obvious effects than previous ‘80s tours, but he still manages to wring out some sonically interesting aural sculptures (the kind that, as he might have said, would irritate an executive kind of guy).
The setlist is geared towards nostalgia rather than musical exploration, with just-okay renditions of ancient songs like ‘I Ain’t Got No Heart’, ‘Love Of My Life’, ‘Sharleena’ and even the rarely performed ‘Who Needs The Peace Corps’.
The best tracks are those in which the band gets to stretch out a bit, like the ‘new age version’ of the always intensively tricky ‘Black Page’, the 10 minutes and 55 seconds of ‘Pound For A Brown On The Bus’ or perhaps Zappa’s greatest single piece, ‘Inca Roads’. On these pieces, we get to hear just how turn-on-a-dime skilful the players are, and despite the cod-reggae rhythms Zappa seemed to love so much at the time, the performances are incredibly dynamic and life-like. Another plus is the odd injection of electronic tomfoolery via Synclavier with its refreshingly rude noises. (Not to mention the Synclavier piece ‘One Man, One Vote’, which may have just been playing itself during the intermission!)
The only “fresh for ‘88” material is heavily political, and is therefore quite dated, although the anti-televangelist messages conveyed through FZ’s lyrics are as pertinent as ever in 2021. It was an election year in the US and most of the first seven minutes are given over to dialogue imploring the audience to register to vote: Zappa had voting registration booths at each show and there was a 20-minute intermission during which the crowd were asked to do so.
Songs in this category include ‘When The Lie’s So Big’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’, and also the infamous Beatles medley (‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’) with new lyrics pertaining to the then-fresh sex scandal of politically aspiring televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. The Beatles medley hasn’t officially seen release before. When I asked Zappa about it during my 1990 interview, he said that the medley couldn’t be released because Michael Jackson owned the Beatles catalogue and wouldn’t give his permission.
Another oddity about The Last US Show is its proliferation of cover versions. Apart from the aforementioned Beatles medley, there’s a fairly straight interpretation of The Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’, Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, the Allman Brothers’ ‘Whipping Post’ and (hilariously) Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’. Oh, and small fragments of both Bartok and Stravinsky (and the theme to Bonanza). While ‘Whipping Post’ was a regular part of the 1980s setlist, presumably because it made a ripping encore item and gave the band a chance to really rock out, Zappa (somewhat implausibly) claimed that he’d never consciously heard ‘Stairway To Heaven’ before deciding to feature the song. While the previously released version distinguished itself by achieving Jimmy Page’s exultant guitar orgasms with the horn section, the version here is more of a chance for some nasty guitar scraping.
Ultimately, despite the band’s supreme tightness and what sounds like it would have been an entertaining night out, The Last US Show falls far short of the best Zappa live releases. The strongest reason I can think of for its release is the excellent sound quality. Digital mixing was in its infancy when Zappa was putting together all those live albums in the late ‘80s and even the 2012 remastered issues of those albums sound thin by today’s standards. The sound on this album, by contrast, is fat and dynamic and really highlights Chad Wackerman’s superb drumming ability.
It’s an album for the Zappa collector who just has to have everything, although it may also entertain a novice who has the time to leisurely take it all in. Still, it’s about the last thing I would play to a newbie to demonstrate what it is that makes Frank Zappa one of the most compelling musical figures of the 20th century.