It’s the time of year for saving money!
If I have learned one thing in all these years reviewing archival releases from the estate of Frank Zappa, it is to trust the taste, opinion and vision of its “Vaultmeister” Joe Travers. He is the guru who has taken the helm of the Mothers-ship, steering us fans gingerly through the deeply rewarding waters into Zappa’s legendary archives. Travers’ passionate drive for these releases is roughly equivalent to the impact of the late great Dick Latvala, the man behind the pioneering “Dick’s Picks” series of archival releases for The Grateful Dead.
This latest release comes from an era of Zappa’s music that I have honestly had some misgivings about over the years. And apparently Mr. Travers himself admitted that the Spring 1980 tour hadn’t been a big priority for them, but he apparently found a lot of related tapes that Zappa had been working on at one point or another. So he eventually found time to explore the recordings and found much greatness connected within.
Thus we now have this fine new album called Zappa ’80 Mudd Club / Munich and much like the great 1981 Halloween performances — which I reviewed a while back (click here) — this recording has gone a long way to change my perspective on what Frank was doing at this time. Central to this unusual period’s sound is that Zappa was working with a relatively stripped down, five-piece rockin’ back up band to take on tour supporting new material he was working on. This tight efficient unit also found itself sporting a great new drummer who was only with Zappa for a short time, David Logeman.
The first disc of Zappa ’80 Mudd Club / Munich comes from an exclusive appearance at the legendary downtown New York hipster dance venue called The Mudd Club. I remember when this show happened back in the day and many of my Zappa fan friends were buzzing about it. This recording comes from Zappa’s Nagra reel-to-reel which he was running in the back of the club during the performance. It sounds really quite good all things considered and on it we hear this nascent band coming together before our very ears. It is really interesting hearing Zappa — whom by this time many of us had become accustomed to hearing live on large concert stages before thousands of fans — playing for about 240 lucky fans. You can feel the close ambiance on these recordings.
But really, this is all a warm up for the complete concert later at the end of the tour in Germany made in a much much larger venue. Recorded at the Olympiahalle in Munich on July 3, 1980 — which holds some 12,000 people — this performance is quite remarkable on numerous levels. Part of this gig had been broadcast (on the classic King Biscuit Flower Hour syndicated radio show) but now we get to hear the band’s complete set and so far I’ve been super impressed. Everything about the arrangements and overall sound of this assemblage is very concise. Adding to pure rock bliss is the fact that we find Zappa playing his beautiful Les Paul guitar, so his fat, rich overdriven feedback-ready sound is fierce and ripping.
This is also a significant release in that it is the first all digital recording that Zappa ever made on tour, recorded in the then state-of-the-art Sony PCM-1600 format on 3/4-inch U-Matic video tape. Happily, this show sounds quite wonderful as CDs go because basically we’re hearing the native original recording that was laid down at that time. Even though it was captured at 16 bit, 44.1 kHz resolution — not coincidentally the eventual standard for the eventual Compact Disc — the recording sounds excellent. There apparently was a considerable amount of restoration work done to prepare this album for release, fixing tape many dropouts from safety master copies Zappa had made (the PCM video format is apparently notorious for developing dropouts over time). The final recordings were ultimately mastered by the legendary Bernie Grundman and it sounds it.
At the end of the day the appeal comes down to the music and the band here is pretty much on fire delivering many new tunes and fan favorites with gusto. I’m particularly taken with this version of “Easy Meat,” a song which Zappa had been working on since 1970 which ultimately saw release on the disappointing Tinseltown Rebellion album (1981). I wish Frank had issued this version of the song. No disrespect to keyboardist Tommy Mars, but one of the issues I’ve always had with Tinseltown in general is that the keyboards were mixed way to high for my taste, dominating the feel of that album — I’m admittedly accustomed to Zappa’s guitar leading his sound but there the synthesizer sounds tend to be the primary color. That said, this version feels more balanced and rocking towards the overall band sound, plus Zappa’s solo is fairly epic.
Other tracks of note in this set are “Dancin’ Fool” and “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” both of which get particularly strong crowd responses. I have read in the past that the latter song became a huge hit in Europe. Indeed, the wiki says “It was a number-one-hit in Norway and Sweden and placed at number 4 in the German charts, where it sold more than 250,000 units.” This is quite amazing given the subject matter of the song — about a mysoginistic closeted dysfunctional Gay record company executive! However, the crowd goes audibly bonkers when Zappa launches into the simple Doo Wop-flavored ditty! Zappa continues the frivolities with a scorching version of “Ms. Pinky,” from Zoot Allures (1976) about a… ummm… for lack of a better phrase… let us call it a reusable rubber personal entertainment doll.
All goofiness aside, seriously, Zappa ’80 Mudd Club / Munich is a joyous three CD set which sounds great and is reasonably priced. The recordings are historically significant, and you probably need them in your collection if you are a Zappa fan. I hope to get my hands on the vinyl editions soon and will report on those as soon as I get them. You can also find these recordings streaming on Qobuz (click here), Tidal (click here) and Apple Music (click here).