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Listening Report: Zappa & The Mothers 1971 Super Deluxe Editions (Part 3, The Boxed Set)

Mark Smotroff completes his deep dive into an important era of Zappa’s band…

Just out, The Mothers 1971 eight-CD boxed set— plus two companion, free standing, three-LP sets —are collectively a fantastic deep-dive study into an under represented and often overlooked era of Frank Zappa’s legendary group. If you missed my earlier Listening Reports about the vinyl editions please click here for Pt. 1 and here for Pt. 2 to catch up.

But wait, kids… there’s more!

Betwixt and between the June performances at the Fillmore East and that bittersweet final gig at The Rainbow Theater featured — all included in this new boxed set — were a number of stand out moments captured at other venues on that 1971 tour. 

For example, you’ll find on Disc #6 in The Mothers 1971 a “Bonus Hybrid Concert” taken from the earliest known four-track recordings, made on Zappa’s then new Scully half-inch tape recorder.  As documented in incredible detail by Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers, only three Pennsylvania tour stops were captured at that point — Harrisburg, Scranton and Pittsburgh — with the former sounding the best (and thus featured in this collection). 

Something of a test run effectively, Zappa would go on to use this recorder to document every tour from 1972 to 1980.  Travers also notes that this material does not circulate even within the hardcore tape collectors underground (serious Zappa fans can be as obsessed as Dead Heads, Springsteen, King Crimson and Pearl Jam fanatics, for those of you who weren’t aware of this).

These are particularly interesting performances, delivering things like early versions of Zappa’s epic mock-opera “Billy The Mountain.” There is also a snippet from the June 1st show that gives us a sizzling nearly ten-minute version of “Willie The Pimp.”

As I’ve been listening to the various complete shows from the Fillmore it has been fascinating getting a much deeper insight into the group: not only it’s prowess as exemplary musicians – which I’ve discussed in my prior reviews – but also, I’ve gained a better appreciation of those comic pieces when in context with the rest of the concert.

Again, one of my big problems (if you will) with the original single disc Fillmore East June 1971 album, was that it was so skewed towards the comedy routines that you didn’t really get a sense of just how great the band was and what the show was really like. I mean, a Zappa show wouldn’t just be 2 hours of madcap comedy?  There had to be some jamming somewhere along the way…

Later live Zappa albums — such as Roxy & Elsewhere and Zappa in New York— achieved a better balance between transcendent musicianship and comic relief. 

Of course if it was 1971 and you were Zappa fan you probably had seen those concerts live in person, so everything on the album made more sense to you and the record became a fun memento of the moment. 

But for those of us who came on board later – my first Zappa show was Halloween 1976 at the Felt Forum in New York City – some of that perspective was effectively lost. And that is one of the joys of The Mothers 1971 which effectively puts the listener front row center into the 1971 Zappa experience.

Even a piece like “Billy The Mountain” — which eventually appeared on another single disc live album (Just Another Band From LA) — is much more enjoyable on The Mothers 1971. Hearing Zappa himself spend nearly four minutes setting up the storyline for the audience goes a long way to bringing you in on all the absurdist jokes and social commentary which can other wise pass by you in a flash.

Now there’s no denying that this song tells a strange story but on The Mothers 1971 “Billy The Mountain” actually starts to make some sense (in a B-grade horror movie sort of way, at least).  One longer version of the piece clocks in at just under 36 minutes which seems to tell the story better than the vinyl-album-side-sized 24-minute version on Just Another Band From LA.

We also get a sweet long excursion through “Chunga’s Revenge” as well as some unusual covers — such as The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” and a spoof on ? & The Mysterians’ “96 Tears” (presented as “Tiny Sick Tears”) here on The Mothers 1971.

Overall the sound on The Mothers 1971 is excellent. If you want a little more fidelity and have access to Tidal MQA (click here) or Qobuz HiRes (click here), the entire set is streaming in 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity there. It is also on Apple Lossless (click here).

The Mothers 1971 boxed set comes with a lovely CD sized booklet has extensive, detailed liner notes from Joe Travers — the “vault-meister” of the Zappa archive — as well as engineer producer Eddie Kramer (who did the great the remix of the tapes from The Rainbow Theater). We also get to enjoy Ahmet Zappa’s interview with long time Zappa multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood (who was in the ’71 band as well as the original Mothers) and a reminiscence by bassist Jim Pons. 

But wait, there’s more… You’ll also get some great photos and nifty imagery such as an ad for the original live album featuring imaginary-but-Zappa-iconic radio promotion mystery man “Eddie” (who was later formally introduced to the Zappa universe in the song “Eddie, Are You Kidding” on the subsequent live album, Just Another Band From L.A.).

And that’s another underlying bonus in this collection as there are many instances of “conceptual continuity” cropping up help to connect many dots in the Zappa universe.

If you are a Zappa fan or if you simply like this era of the band featuring the glorious lead vocals by Flo and Eddie (aka Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of The Turtles), you really need to hear The Mothers 1971. It is a lot of fun and you might just be surprised at what you’ve been missing. 

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