July 8, 2020

Without having done the math, it’s quite possible that we have reached the point where there have been more posthumous volumes in the Frank Zappa catalogue than were released while he was alive. Hardcore fans continue to be spoiled by the endless wellspring that is the Zappa Family Trust, whose every trip to the vault seems to result in further bountiful, mind-boggling delights. With my own Zappa collection now well over 100 titles, I still seem to find myself imitating that internet meme, screaming “Take my money!” at least twice a year on average.

Six months on from last year’s yuletide release of the sparkling six-disc The Hot Rats Sessions box comes the latest must-have entry in the vast Zappa catalogue – a tasty, seventy-song collection simply titled The Mothers 1970. These four CDs commemorate the 50th anniversary of this particular short-lived Mothers lineup, and once again ZFT caretakers Ahmet Zappa and Joe Travers have unearthed a treasure trove of previously unreleased material – four and a half hours to be precise – almost entirely new to listeners a half century after it was created.

A treasure trove of previously unreleased material…

Quite literally a May-December romance, the seven months this lineup (FZ, Aynsley Dunbar, George Duke, Jeff Simmons, Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, and Ian Underwood) spent together only ever resulted in one proper album, Chunga’s Revenge (although they later appeared on compilations such as Playground Psychotics, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore and Road Tapes), and were gradually working towards the 200 Motels film project (before bassist Simmons quit the band). Regardless of its brief lifespan, the era is an exciting one, and Zappa even described them at the time as a “more rock based rhythm section and a lot more vocals” – which is fairly accurate, considering the more experimental and jazzy compositions that immediately preceded and followed this period.

Disc one is comprised of twelve recordings from London’s Trident studios in June of 1970, while the group were undertaking a European tour, and engineered by Roy Thomas Baker (no less). Almost exclusively never before-heard material (only Sharleena was officially released, on Chunga’s – and even that is a different mix), there are killer versions of Wonderful Wino and an early version of Envelopes that is a highlight. This disc could, in some alternate universe, be considered its own ‘lost album’ and is quite the impressive opening to this box. But we all know that ‘live’ is where it’s at when it comes to Zappa.

Rewinding a few days to the Piknik concert from Uddel, Netherlands, it becomes quickly apparent that the stage was where this music sprung to life, as it has a fiery urgency absent from the recordings made in the confines of the studio. This is the first official release of this show, sourced from the master tape found in the vault, and an improvement on the previously bootlegged radio broadcast. The ‘Flo & Eddie’ period tends to divide fans, but there’s no denying the power of this lineup when they really get cooking. Also of note is that the silly/wacky factor had yet to be dialed up to eleven as it was on later recordings, although their raucous brand of quirkiness does make itself known on occasion here. Listeners who may not be entirely enamoured of Kaylan and Volman’s usual hijinks may find themselves surprised at how much they enjoy this concert.

Zappa and his merry men some fifty years ago at the dawn of a new decade…

Dunbar, too, stands out as perhaps the major highlight of these live recordings. Sometimes unfairly relegated to the shadows of history because of the drumming monsters and lauded lineups who followed in his wake, his prowess was perhaps never more obvious than here. He lays down a breathtaking foundation as he underpins Duke’s lengthy solo during King Kong, for instance, among other noteworthy classics from the period. The remainder of disc two and all of disc three consist of ‘hybrid concerts’ sourced from three separate American shows later that same summer.

Disc four is a selection of tracks compiled from various live shows and backstage goings-on during the fall of 1970, recorded by Zappa himself on his trusty tape recorder. While a few of these recordings are a step down in sound quality from the rest of the box, there are some pretty dazzling performances, and this disc ended up my favourite of the entire set. We are treated with a rousing Pound For A Brown/Sleeping In A Jar followed by a stunning twenty minute series of King Kong solos (with Igor’s Boogie wedged in the middle). These tracks are worth the cost of the set alone… and there are sixty-something more on top of that.

It’s frankly astonishing that there could still be material in the vault after everything we’ve been blessed with over the last quarter century, much less this much. And yet here it is, with rumours of further boxed sets whispered among those in the know. For now though, The Mothers 1970 finds Zappa and his merry men some fifty years ago at the dawn of a new decade; an illuminating snapshot of a curious time, about a year before moments of infamy such as the Montreux fire and Zappa’s injury after being pushed off stage would alter the course of events.

Perhaps most appealing to the already overburdened Zappa collector is that the set is housed in a small, attractive clamshell box that fits neatly on a CD shelf , rather than the bloat of other recent ZFT mega-sets that require their own postal codes. There’s no force-feeding of Halloween costumes, board games and the kitchen sink upon a collecting community who often just want the music (and prime real estate on their shelves!) Much like 2018’s The Roxy Performances, this is a mammoth amount of astounding material in a sensibly compact set. (Okay, so it does include a little button you can pin to your denim jacket and really ‘wow’ the ladies with, but I digress…)

For any Zappaheads with preconceptions or who are just on the fence about this one, allow me to nudge you in the right direction with a strong recommendation: get it. Or I’ll send Suzy Creamcheese after you.

Disc 1 – Trident Studios, London, England June 21-22, 1970
Red Tubular Lighter · Lola Steponsky · Trident Chatter · Sharleena (Roy Thomas Baker Mix) · Item 1 · Wonderful Wino (FZ Vocal) · “Enormous Cadenza” · Envelopes · Red Tubular Lighter (Unedited Master) · Wonderful Wino (Basic Tracks, Alt. Take) · Giraffe – Take 4 · Wonderful Wino (FZ Vocal, Alt. Solo)

Disc 2 – Live Highlights Part 1 – “Piknik” VPRO June 18, 1970 / Pepperland September 26, 1970
Introducing… The Mothers · Wonderful Wino · Concentration Moon · Mom & Dad · The Air · Dog Breath · Mother People · You Didn’t Try To Call Me · Agon · Call Any Vegetable · King Kong Pt. I · Igor’s Boogie · King Kong Pt. II · What Kind Of Girl Do You Think We Are? · Bwana Dik · Daddy, Daddy, Daddy · Do You Like My New Car? · Happy Together

Disc 3 – Live Highlights Part 2 – Hybrid Concert: Santa Monica August 21, 1970 / Spokane September 17, 1970
“Welcome To El Monte Legion Stadium!” · Agon · Call Any Vegetable · Pound For A Brown · Sleeping In A Jar · Sharleena · The Air · Dog Breath · Mother People · You Didn’t Try To Call Me · King Kong Pt. I · Igor’s Boogie · King Kong Pt. II · “Eat It Yourself…” · Trouble Every Day · “A Series Of Musical Episodes” · Road Ladies · “The Holiday Inn Motel Chain” · What Will This Morning Bring Me This Evening? · What Kind Of Girl Do You Think We Are?

Disc 4 – Live Highlights Part 3 – FZ Tour Tape Recordings
“What’s The Deal, Dick?” · Another M.O.I. Anti-Smut Loyalty Oath · Paladin Routine #1 · Portuguese Fenders · The Sanzini Brothers · Guitar Build ’70 · Would You Go All The Way? · Easy Meat · “Who Did It?” · Turn It Down! · A Chance Encounter In Cincinnati · Pound For A Brown · Sleeping In A Jar · Beloit Sword Trick · Kong Solos Pt. I · Igor’s Boogie · Kong Solos Pt. II · Gris Gris · Paladin Routine #2 · King Kong – Outro

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