An Old Flame Flickers Low

By Philip Elwood

San Francisco Examiner, December 27, 1975

Freaky old geniuses of rock, it seems, never die – they just get more and more muddy in their musical concepts as their listeners become increasingly befuddled.

Frank Zappa, last night at the Oakland Paramount [1], presented one of the most artistically incoherent of contemporary rock shows and in doing so either negated or contradicted much of what he seemed to be espousing during our conversation last week. (The interview was on this page Wednesday.)

Zappa played with a quintet, not a sextet. His lighting, though most effective, displayed little of the originality he projected in words. The sound system was abominable, both out of focus and mix and usually frightfully balanced.

The program at the Paramount (presumably about the same as will be presented this evening at Winterland) was poorly paced, especially in the playing of considerable material from a forthcoming LP to a sellout audience that was turned-on to fever pitch to hear more familiar numbers and, at least, should have been told the names of the new things.

And if this was Zappas “most theatrical of shows“, as he said, then full credit must be given to saxophonist-singer-dancer-clown Napoleon Murphy Brock, since he was the only guy on stage who displayed any sense of theater – albeit sophomoric.

Zappas group (which was without announced saxist Norma Bell) spent an hour and three-quarters on stage, following a short (but much too long) set by Captain Beefheart and his magnificently incompetent Magic Band.

Featuring a large stuffed poodle dog as an early comic figure, Zappa plunged into typically strong guitar work balanced by Tony Bozzio’s remarkable drumming.

Brock, as he was to do all evening, played tenor and alto with lusty excess, danced like a marionette clown and sang with a Slim Gaillard-Jack McVae vaudeville touch.

Backing on both vocals and plane was Andre Lewis who, like Brock, has a swinging approach to the sort of electric rock – jive which Zappa projects.

Much of Zappa’s lyric matter is like musical graffiti; never able to overcome his teenage fantasies. Zappa revels in throwing out miscellaneous obscenitics of the junior high school boys’ locker room variety.

“Go Down Easy, Keep it Greasy.” or “The Kaiser Rolls” are new songs typical of this Zappa genre.

Otherwise, Zappa has always been able to use a usually superb batch of instrumental colleagues to add orchestral legitimacy to his lyric illegitimate stuff – this time around, however, no one can handle the overwhelming assignment and the show falls embarrassingly flat during the middle portion.

By the end Zappa has dragged out some of the old numbers, lighting the fires of enthusiam among his considerable band of camp followers in the crowd, and the concert ends with a good deal of foot stomping and screams of delight.

Beefheart’s presentation was noisy, unintelligehle, sloppy and of little lyric interest (that‘s presumably his forte) because of the terrible sound engineering — which also plagued Zappa.

The sixth member of the Zappa ensemble on stage, by the way, was his bodygard. 

1. December 26, 1975. Paramount Theatre, Oakland, CA. The band was FZ, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Roy Estrada, Andre Lewis, Terry Bozzio. The show was taped. See FZShows.