Frank Zappa Whisky a Go Go 1968

Frank Zappa’s ‘Whisky a Go Go 1968’ Appears in Deluxe Edition

Released this month in a Super Deluxe Edition, Whisky a Go Go 1968 recovers a legendary “lost” performance by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

Whisky a Go Go 1968 (Super Deluxe Edition)
Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention
21 June 2024

On 23 July 1968, people were lined up outside the Whisky a Go Go on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, hoping to get into the club to witness a live recording session by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. It was a far cry from the reception the Mothers got a couple of years earlier when clubgoers, out for a night of dancing, walked out on the group as they broke into “Help, I’m a Rock”, a rhythmically decentered song from their 1966 debut LP Freak Out!

Zappa recounts this tale of rejection to the Whisky audience – “It became very difficult for us to gain employment in the Los Angeles area… we starved for a long time” – with a dryness unusual for an artist known for his ribald stage banter. Zappa must have felt redeemed in July 1968 as he reintroduced “Help, I’m a Rock” for an adoring crowd at the Whisky. Among those attending the show were bluesman John Mayall, producer Kim Fowley, and members of the Turtles and the Rolling Stones.

The performance at the Whisky a Go Go, recorded for a prospective live album never released during Zappa’s lifetime, has finally been released in its entirety. Whisky a Go Go 1968, released this month in a three-CD/ five-LP Super Deluxe Edition, brings an essential piece of Zappa lore into the canon. Frank Zappa’s enduring legions of fans are already celebrating in online communities; those who don’t “get” Zappa are typically bewildered. Weighed against the wider Zappa canon, Whisky a Go Go 1968 is a mixed bag. Its best moments capture the astonishing versatility and sonic power of the Mothers of Invention as a live band. Other times, the set documents a group searching, more or less successfully, for new musical ideas.  

Joe Travers and Ahmet Zappa, who produced Whisky a Go Go 1968 from the original one-inch eight-track master tapes, have preserved almost every moment the Mothers of Invention spent on stage that night. Beginning with a percussion and horns jam on “Whisky Improvisation: Episode I” and ending three hours later with a bluesy instrumental, “Brown Shoes Shuffle”, the Whisky set covers numerous facets of Zappa and the Mothers’ career up to that point.

As well as “Help I’m a Rock”, the group play “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” from Freak Out!, along with four selections from sophomore album Absolutely Free (1967), and two songs – one of them an incendiary early version of “King Kong” – from what would become Uncle Meat in 1969. “King Kong”, an instrumental divided at this stage into Part One and Part Two, is easily the best musical highlight on Whisky a Go Go 1968. Contained in its fiery riffs, knotty rhythms, and call-and-response dynamic are the seeds of everything from jazz-rock fusion to progressive rock to “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers Band.

Beyond these crowd-pleasers is a whole lot of Frank Zappa strangeness. Included is a parodic cover of the Angels’ 1963 hit “My Boyfriend’s Back”, a not-so-parodic doo-wop medley of some of Zappa’s earliest songwriting efforts (including “Memories of El Monte”, recorded by the Penguins in 1963), and a bizarre tune called “Meow” in which the Mothers – you guessed it – meow over Don Preston’s noodling jazz keyboard. The show also features the live performance debut of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”, Absolutely Free‘s lyrically outrageous and musically complex mini-opera. Plenty of rowdy banter ensues between the songs as Zappa spars verbally with the freaky people (including the infamous women’s troupe, the GTOs) cavorting in front of the stage.

Most of the best stuff happens on the first two CDs/ three LPs of the Super Deluxe Edition, as Zappa and the Mothers shapeshift between styles. By the third set, captured on the third CD and last two LPs, Zappa seems to have run short of ideas. Apart from the climactic “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”, the last third of the show is a series of improvised blues jams that pale in comparison to the fiery “King Kong” and “Tiny Sick Tears Jam” earlier in the evening. One point of interest, however, is how the jams anticipate Frank Zappa’s emergence as a guitar hero on the following year’s more focused Hot Rats album.  

Whisky a Go Go 1968 comes lushly packaged according to the standards established by the Zappa Family Trust, which sold their assets to Universal Music in 2022. Judging by the new Super Deluxe Edition, Universal are intent on preserving the integrity of posthumous Zappa releases. The boxed set, available as three CDs or five LPs on 180-gram black vinyl, contains photo-illustrated liner notes by co-producer Joe Travers and former GTO member Pamela Des Barres. The booklet also contains Ahmet Zappa’s recent interview with Alice Cooper, whose original group, along with Wild Man Fischer and New Jersey guitarist Joe Piresanti, played between Zappa sets at the Whisky.  

The show captured on 23 July 1968 is arguably less compelling than the Mothers’ studio albums (especially Uncle Meat and Hot Rats) that grew out of their musical experiments. The set lacks the more developed stage routines captured three years later on Fillmore East – June 1971—and rarely touches the musical bedazzlement of 1974’s Roxy & Elsewhere. Still, those standards are very high, and Whisky a Go Go 1968 is a good performance beautifully packaged that any Zappa diehard should be pleased to own.

RATING 8 / 10