There are plenty of misconceptions about musician Frank Zappa, and there was a Frank Zappa persona to match every one of them. Some saw him as the acerbic critic of those who wanted to censor rock music through labeling. Some know him as a serious classical composer. Plenty of others think of “Don’t Eat Yellow Snow” or “Valley Girl”—a rocking composer of novelty songs.
All of that’s a little bit true. But for the bulk of his career, Zappa was something rarer and more useful: the leader of a rock band that was dead serious and utterly witty at the same time. Now that is unusual. So much rock, including the good stuff, is an overserious snooze. Ever see Led Zeppelin crack a joke? Please.
But Frank Zappa turned his rock bands into both orchestras capable of expressing complex and precise music and satirical troupes whose players became parts in a Zappa circus of parody and biting wit. There has never been a rock artist like Zappa. Who else could combine Spike Jones and Stravinsky? Who else saw themselves as both Monty Python and Duke Ellington?
The Torture Never Stops is the DVD release of the full 1981 Halloween concert by Zappa’s band at New York’s Palladium Theater. Zappa had the concert filmed, and portions of it aired previously on MTV. The full concert, however, is a remarkable experience. This is the crack band of crack bands—a rock orchestra that is utterly nimble and fluid, all while still having the time of their lives. In addition to the leader singing many of the tunes and also playing guitar solos (when he is not conducting the whole thing with a legitimate orchestral baton), the band includes: Ray White (soul vocals and guitar), Steve Vai (guitar), Chad Wackerman (drums), Tommy Mars (vocals and keyboards), Bobby Martin (keys, tenor sax, vocals), Scott Thunes (bass, vocals), and Ed Mann (percussion and vocals). And simply put, these guys could play just about anything . . . and Zappa asked them to do just that.
From the time the proceedings kick off with “Black Napkins” until the concert is nearly over, Zappa moves his band from tune to tune in clean and precise segues. The effect is dazzling. The band is precise but never fussy, with complex rhythms, turn-on-a-dime shifts of feeling, layered harmonies in many styles, and dizzying patterns for the musicians to rip off as if they were nothing. The classic “Montana”, for example, is rich in laughs because of its tale of a dental floss farmer, but it also is flush with luminous chords, zinging vocal harmonies, and super-fast fusion lines played with precision by Vai, Wackerman, Mars and Mann. Just as you are getting over a particularly stunning passage, the band has moved onto a new tempo or song or mood.
Listeners with only passing acquaintance with the most obvious of Zappa’s music may wonder what other music it is comparable to. But there is not a single other artist in rock who operates with the sonic complexity of Steely Dan, the cartoonish bite of Spinal Tap, and the intense seriousness of organic chemistry. “Harder Than Your Husband” is mock-country music, while “Bamboozled by Love” is a strange blues running over an unusual time signature, and “We’re Turning Again” has the heart of a sappy middle-of-the-road tune but completely satirical lyrics sending up dozens of rock stars (“They were mellow, they were yellow, they were wearing smelly blankets, they were Donovan fans”). Then how about “Alien Orifice”, an instrumental tune that sounds like the smartest jazz fusion tune you’ve ever heard, with sudden shifts in sonority and rhythm that dazzle. That these four wildly divergent songs are played back-to-back-to-back-to-back without any stopping gives you a sense of this concert.
A big part of the fun of The Torture Never Stops is hearing such a wide array of styles, all played for remarkable fun. A half-dozen band members get to sing, usually very very well but with not a trace of over-sincerity, and every player gets to be a virtuoso. Still, the great playing here is never sterile, with even a talent like Steve Vai not feeling like this is band that allows you to show off. The real star is always going to be whatever song the band is playing: as a composer Zappa was utterly and finally one of a kind.
Frank Zappa, of course, is not for everyone. Though he is an amazing guitar player, he coats his sound during this concert in a strange kind of processing. And while the songs are undeniably clever and tricky, they trade in certain gimmicks that can be frilly or too cute. Zappa’s lyrics are funny and satirical but they also jab in the direction of some pretty obvious targets. And the baroque flourishes, done perhaps as a percussive line harmonized between marimba, electric guitar, and synthesizer, are a classic Zappa motif that I’ve grown to expect.
I hope that Zappa’s music gets a bigger audience over time. Between raging against the Parents Music Resource Center and naming his kids Dweezil and Moon Unit, this amazing musician became more famous for a few outlandish moments in his life rather than his life’s work. The Torture Never Stops is a record of one very fine Zappa band playing much of his most accessible and ingenious music. People might know that he composed and was widely influenced by some rather modern classic music or that, early on, he was a kind of proto-punk. But the bulk of Frank Zappa’s work—and a great and wide bulk it is—sits in a unique space where an acerbic wit could meet up with rock music that was unusually rich in melody and complexity.
There was and probably will never be another musician quite like Frank Zappa. Here he is, great as he could be, on one generous night.