An Introduction to Frank Zappa: Part 1, The Helsinki Concert


So I listened to “Watermelon in Easter Hay” on Easter Sunday, highlighted on this very blog, and it sucked me back into a mini-Frank Zappa kick. Zappa’s catalog is one of the most diverse, challenging, and downright bizarre in all of music. There are plenty of articles out there on “Where to start with Zappa” and “What are Zappa’s most essential albums,” and you will struggle to find a consensus across them.

Today I’m going to make my own suggestion for an entry point into this strange world of music.

Back in the late ’80s, Frank released a series of live albums called You Can’t Do That On Stage. It contained six volumes, most of which were compiled from different shows from every different eras and many different incarnations of Frank Zappa. The result is a bit odd. You’ll get a few live tracks recorded in 1968, then jump to a song from 1984, and then head back to the mid-’70s, all on one disc. FZ was a perfectionist, so apparently he was restlessly looking for the best versions, rather than worrying about maintaining an artifact of one particular show.

That’s why Volume 2 stands out. It’s billed as “The Helsinki Concert,” a single concert in Finland from 1974. In reality, it’s comprised of recordings from two or three shows, although what’s important is that it features the same ensemble over a two-day period. You get a consistent record of what arguably his best band sounded like at a precise moment in time.

Brief aside: I’ve heard Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell from Phish talk about how their more complex compositions would often give birth to their best moments of live improvisation. The idea being, a really complex song (think “You Enjoy Myself” or “Reba”) requires a high degree of band interconnectedness to nail in concert. But performing those compositions would lead to a mind-meld, so that when the band moved to an open section of improvisation, they were completely connected. Without the tightly knit compositions, you don’t get the highest level of improv.

The Helsinki Concert is one of the best examples of this concept I can think of. Zappa’s music is expertly arranged, loaded with unusual time signatures, and requires a mind-boggling level of synchronicity to pull off on stage. To perform these compositions live — and make them sound good — is a feat on its own. What Vol. 2 shows is how bursts of improv and spontaneity flared out of the compositions.

Now, I’m recommending the entire set, which features tons of great music and plenty of stage banter and the type of wacky antics for which Frank’s band was known. But for our purposes, let’s really focus in on the section that begins with “Inca Roads” and runs through “Pygmy Twylyte.” That’s six songs and roughly 40 minutes of music. Hopefully, it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

A quick note on the band. Zappa plays lead guitar, of course. You’ve got Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals and keys, Tom Fowler on bass, and Chester Thompson manning the drums. George Duke sings and plays wind instruments, and Ruth Underwood is on percussion. That’s six people, though often it sounds like twice that many are on stage. The songs are often decorated with sounds that are uncommon to a rock concert, such as Duke on the flute and Underwood plinking on the marimba. This band is famous from the live compilation release Roxy & Elsewhere, and the Volume 2 set contains many of the same songs. The difference is that by the time of the Helsinki shows, this band had gotten even tighter and meaner, absolutely mastering these songs with speed and precision.

The show kicks off with the playful “Tush Tush Tush” and “Stinkfoot,” before transitioning to the section we’re going to take a closer look at. “Inca Roads” is a song about alien spaceship runways in the Andes, with a tightly constructed opening section that quickly leads into a searing Zappa guitar solo. The band lays down a solid foundation over which Zappa straight-up shreds. The band returns to the song, before breaking out into a jazz-fusion jam, anchored by the rhythm section and some great keyboard work, before concluding the song. “Inca Roads” packs a whole lot of music into just under 11 minutes.

We transition into “RDNZL” with Ruth Underwood stepping out front during the opening section, leading into another white-hot guitar solo from FZ. The composition shifts multiple times, finally releasing with a nice vocal interlude (“we could share a love”). This leads the band back into another jazz-fusion jam that’s similar to what we heard in “Inca Roads.” Somehow “RDNZL” packs just us much music into 8:43 as “Inca Roads” fit into 10:54.

“Village of the Sun” keeps the energy going, and the band knocks out the song before letting Duke take the lead with a sax solo. When I say “solo,” by the way, I mean that the sax is the lead instrument, but the entire band is ripping through this rendition, filling in every available space. A smooth segue lands us in “Echnida’s Arf (Of You),” containing some of the most complex music of this entire section. It’s a high-wire circus act of a composition, which culminates in an outstanding tension-and-release in its back half. Simply outstanding stuff.

Image result for frank zappa 1974

“Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” follows. They tear through it, with Frank bringing back a little stage banter. Finally, we get to “Pygmy Twylyte.” Another tight rendition, which unfolds into another favorite segment shortly after the 4-minute mark. The band lays down a slower groove, and FZ’s solo is gorgeously melodic.

To wrap it all up, you have a band that’s mastered some incredibly dense music, and was capable of performing layered compositions at breakneck speed. As a result, the improv explodes in barely conceivable bursts. The contrast is thrilling.

Let me know what you think. Take in the rest of the set. Go from there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s