Frank Zappa: Zappa In New York

By Peter Douglas

Beat Instrumental, June 1978


It's taken an extra month to see whether this is actually as bad as they said it was. The verdict? Probably not. From my own point of view, having seen Zappa twice recently, the material was familiar, and hence was low on surprises – and surprises being an essential ingredient of this strange man's appeal, it might have seemed a bit of a letdown.

But then, the majority of fans will not know the tracks, and they are the ones who count. The opener – Titties And Beer – is about a motorcyclist whose, er, girlfriend and beer are snatched by the Devil in a bid to wrest the soul of the motorcyclist away in exchange. The latter, of course, outwits the Devil by agreeing to the pact without hesitation or indeed any signs of regret. This cute morsel of metaphysics is followed by a relaxed and exceedingly lyrical – passage mostly by Eddie Jobson on synthesizer, plus a guitar solo by Zappa. The closer for side uno is Big Leg Emma, a facetious little ballad in affectionate pastiche of Elvis (Presley that is).

The second side is entirely instrumental, save for a long, condescending explanation of the music halfway through. The Black Page is one of those pieces that probably took him round about half an hour to write. In other words, it is brilliant, quirky, jerky, strange, impossible to dance to and hard even to listen to. People often fail to realize, in the midst of all the sex and satire, that Zappa is a musical genius, working in areas that no-one else seems to have discovered. Unfortunately, because he refers so casually to his own music, the punter tends to take it for granted, as if it's there merely as decoration. Not so! A remarkably unpleasant modern romance story (Honey Don't You Want A Man Like Me) kicks off the third side of this double set, followed by The Illinois Enema Bandit, which is distinguished by some fine singing by Ray White, though mainly the interest lies in the narrative. Needless to say, the tale ends with a typically idiosyncratic "moral". The fourth and final side is instrumental again, the music varying from what can only be described as conventional modern jazz to Zappa's now-traditional Edgar Varese spin-offs. The piece is called The Purple Lagoon, and is uninterrupted by dialogue or monologue.

So what does it add up to? Well, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the sides are quite short. The jokes make you smile rather than guffaw. The music itself is patchy. All in all, a dispensable album, and nowhere near as good as the comparable Roxy and Elsewhere double live set of three years ago, nor as good as his last studio offering Zoot Allures. On the other hand, oldtime fans will buy it as a matter of course. There's plenty of stimulating stuff here, and it's still musically far in advance of just about anything else travelling under the guise of rock music.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)