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Listening Report: Zappa & The Mothers 1971 Super Deluxe Editions (Part 1)

Mark Smotroff dives head first into a misunderstood and underrepresented era of Zappa’s band…

The new 50th anniversary releases celebrating Frank Zappa’s iconic 1971 live album recorded during the closing month of a legendary New York City concert hall — Fillmore East – June 1971 —  are an exciting and at times bitter sweet affair. 

Essential Background For The Unanointed

Simply packaged to look like a low quality “bootleg” album — an illegal form of long playing record album, usually taken from unauthorized audience recordings or stolen master tapes, manufactured by often dubious sources and sold in “underground” boutique type record stores — the original single-disc LP was actually the first concert Zappa recorded on the then-new and state-of-the-art 16-track multi-channel recording tape format. More on that in a bit…

I’ve long had mixed feelings about this album. For its time and place in pop music history, the album was no doubt very funny (in an ultimately puerile, frat-boy sort of way, humor which hasn’t entirely aged well). 

Condensing many sexually-tinged comic routines from Zappa’s show at the time, one centerpiece on the Fillmore East – June 1971 album pays homage to a legendary escapade (if you will) with members of popular, hard rocking, proto-heavy metal bands, groupies and a type of fish called a “mudshark.” An iconic bit of rock ’n roll semi-mythology, the story has taken on epic proportions over the years to the point that there today is even a Snopes page exploring levels of accuracy to the tale (click here). Sensing the absurdity of the scenario and the moment, Zappa celebrated the incident by turning it into a literal song and dance comedy routine called The Mudshark (as in “Do the mudshark, baby.”). 

This alone probably helped to make Fillmore East – June 1971 very popular among a new generation of Zappa fans who were entertained by the more — for lack of a better phrase — potty-mouthed humors Frank was showcasing at the time. These were not necessarily the same fans who got into Zappa’s artistically acclaimed albums like Uncle Meat and the avant garde audio-vérité of Lumpy Gravy. They were, I would wager, probably the same fans who made Zappa’s 1973 release Overnight Sensation a Top 40 hit (according to the wiki it made it to #32 on Billboard Magazine’s Top 200 list and went gold by 1976). 

There Had To Be Something More to ’71-era Zappa, RIght?

So, enjoying Fillmore East – June 1971 has always been something of a two-edged sword for me. I get that Zappa needed to sell records to stay in business so he could make the “good” albums I preferred.  But I can’t tell you how many friends I have had to educate when I found out that Fillmore East – June 1971 was all they knew about Frank’s music (well, frequently that and Overnight Sensation and maybe “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” from Apostrophe).

So, you might be wondering at this point what my problem was with the original Fillmore East – June 1971 album?  Well, since Zappa’s concerts were known to be a combination of brilliantly inventive, often challenging and improvised musics interspersed with moments of comic relief, I always felt that Fillmore East – June 1971 was a bit one-sided in its presentation of that particular band.  

My suspicions were confirmed several years ago when The Zappa Family Trust issued the post-humous complete Carnegie Hall concert from this same period. You can read my review of that fine release by clicking here.  In short: I loved it because it presented a better picture of what the 1971 era of Zappa’s band was really about. They were arguably as great as any other era of his groups.

The other thing I never really liked about Fillmore East – June 1971 was the vinyl disc mastering. That album always sounded hyper compressed to me. I was surprised when I first learned it was made on 16-track! I even felt that the Carnegie Hall  show (which was taken from a mono audience recording Zappa made) sounded arguably better. 

Accordingly, I have had great hopes that this new 50th Anniversary package would rectify this situation. The good news is that it does that and more… 

The new 50th Anniversary expanded series of releases featured on The Mothers 1971 Super Deluxe CD boxed set and two complimentary triple-LP sets present these recordings in proper context — containing all four complete shows from that Fillmore run and others from that period — remastered from original tape sources and sounding better than ever!

These expanded editions are a wonder to listen to giving the listener a much stronger sense of the musical prowess of this era of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.  

This line up featured now-legendary lead vocalists Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman – a.k.a. Flo & Eddie, a.k.a. The Turtles! a.k.a. the harmony vocalists on T-Rex’s Top 10 hit “Bang A Gong” and Springsteen’s Top 5 hit “Hungry Heart” – as well as monster British drummer Aynsley Dunbar.

Again, these Mothers were anything but a simple comedy act. They were as talented and gifted in their own way is any of the classic lineups including the original Mothers and the so-called “Roxy” era band. And it is across all these recordings on The Mothers 1971 Super Deluxe that we finally get to hear this group stretching their muscles and in the best possible fidelity. 

These guys could play!

In general, the sound quality across all these recordings is excellent.

From the official press release for the album we learn:

“The majority of the boxed set’s unedited live tracks have been newly mixed from scratch by longtime Zappa Trust associate Craig Parker Adams at WinslowCt. Studios and mastered by John Polito at Audio Mechanics. The complete historical Rainbow Theatre concert was newly mixed by legendary producer/engineer Eddie Kramer (his first Zappa Trust project to date) and mastered by Bernie Grundman. All recordings included on The Mothers 1971 were sourced from their original 2-inch 16-track, 1-inch 8-track, ½-inch 4-track, and ¼-inch 2-track stereo analog master tapes discovered in The Vault and digitally transferred and compiled by Joe Travers in 2020, who then supervised the mixes in early 2021.”

The Expanded June Fillmore Recordings: The Vinyl

The three-disc vinyl edition of Fillmore East – June 1971 is a fantastic snapshot offering a generous helping of the music played by the group at that time.

Disc One is a remastered version of the original Fillmore East – June 1971 LP and I can say without reservation that it sounds significantly better than any copy of the album I’ve ever heard. The 180-gram vinyl pressing (made at Optimal in Germany) is excellent, dead quiet and well centered. The disc masters were cut by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering.

The sound is much more open and while still not perfect to my ear — Zappa’s edits and mixes are what they are — the new mastering makes for a much more enjoyable listening experience. So much so, I probably do not need to keep my original copy of the album in the collection much longer. 

The real excitement in the set comes on the extra LPs…

Disc Two opens up with the first-time release on vinyl of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s appearance with The Mothers. This is a well-known recording of course given that John and Yoko released it as part of their 1972 album Sometime In New York City. However — and Beatle fans need to open up their ears a bit here — Zappa’s version of the recording is significantly different than Lennon’s release.

Zappa fans have known about this since the early ‘90s when these recordings were issued on CD as part of the Playground Psychotics collection.  Working from a high-resolution transfer of the lone surviving multi-track safety reel (which FZ had made for the Ono-Lennons in 1971 — the original having been stolen), for the first time in 50 years we can now hear the full encore performance in its entirety remixed in best possible fidelity.

On the Lennon version of the recordings (again, as issued in 1972 on the Sometime In New York album), Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan’s vocals were brought down so low in the mix that it sounds as if John and Yoko were the only voices on stage. The Zappa version is a much more interactive full band affair. Those significant back-up and (at times) lead vocals change the vibe of the recording, frankly for the better! Lots of little details are popping up on this new mix that I don’t remember hearing such as their spot-on harmony vocals with Lennon during the song “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go).”

Also on this three LP version we get a whole side of soloing from “King Kong” and the original version of “Billy The Mountain.” The LP wraps up with some hysterical home-made promotional recordings Zappa and the band created and the rare period single “Tears Begin To Fall” and its non-LP B-side “Junier Mintz Boogie.”

All in all, the three LP version of Fillmore East – June 1971 is a much more satisfying overview of what the band was capable of at that time. 

But there is SO much more to talk about in the further expanded 8 CD boxed set as well as the complete Rainbow Theater concert from later in that year and tour. I’ll explore more of these recordings in Part Two of this series… 

Be sure to tune in same Zappa time, same Zappa channel… here on Audiophile Review.

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