Do you remember when the Grateful Dead released a box set of their Europe ’72 tour? Like the entire tour, as in every show? And it ended up being 73 discs worth of music?
Even a Dead fan would have to ask “Who has that much time and money to spend on a 73-disc box set spanning two months of shows in Europe?” More importantly, why would you do that to yourself?
I bring this up because of this week’s release of Halloween ’77, Frank Zappa’s six-show stand at the Palladium in New York forty years ago. This is as close as Zappa fans have ever been to a Europe ’72 box set type of deal and yet the same questions arise: who has the money and time for such a venture?
Some context: The Palladium was Zappa’s venue of choice in New York City between 1976 and 1981. He had already recorded his popular In New York live album there the previous year. For the Halloween ’77 series, he hired a camera crew to shoot the concert portions of what would become his feature film Baby Snakes.
Zappa’s band at the time featured guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, who would later go on to play in David Bowie’s band before joining the new lineup of King Crimson. On drums and bass were Terry Bozzio and Patrick O’Hearn respectively, who would go on a few years later to find success with new-wave group Missing Persons. Joining them were keyboardists Peter Wolf (not the J. Geils singer) and Tommy Mars, and percussionist Ed Mann.
Now that you know that, here’s the straight poop on Halloween ’77: these are six shows recorded over four nights from October 28th to Halloween night. Nearly all of them have the exact same set list. Halloween’ 77 comes in two editions: a three-CD set containing the actual Halloween night concert or the six-concert set which is contained on a USB drive that looks like an Oh Henry candy bar.
Did I mention the costume?
The six-show USB drive set comes with a Frank Zappa costume. You can dress like Frank did in the Baby Snakes movie! You too can be a shirtless man with a medallion. It’s a great costume to wear in public if you want to give people nightmares.
To be fair, I have not listened to all fifteen-plus hours of Halloween ’77. I’ve gotten through the first two shows and listened to pieces of others. I can tell you a few things if it will help at all.
- Unlike the Grateful Dead, Zappa and his band are tight. The only exceptions to this are “Bobby Brown” (written two weeks before they played it) and two other new songs, the controversial “Jewish Princess” and the future novelty hit “Dancin’ Fool”.
- The band is even tight when they improvise. Mostly band members vamp while Zappa (or Tommy Mars or Peter Wolf) solo. Zappa plays some of his best guitar here and the Halloween show finale “Black Napkins” is a highlight.
- Belew’s standout vocal is “City Of Tiny Lites”, which would make its debut on 1979’s Sheik Yerbouti as would his other lead on “Jones Crusher”.
- It was not unusual for Frank to play songs live well before they were released on an album. At the time of these shows, thirteen of the songs had not been released yet. Many of them would surface on Sheik Yerbouti, which would be his most popular and successful album.
- “Wild Love” is another would-be Yerbouti track. It’s performed at each of the six shows, with a running time between twenty-two and thirty-minutes. About four minutes of actual song and the rest is solos. Your mileage may vary.
- The other extended soloing takes place in “The Torture Never Stops” which runs anywhere from eleven to fifteen minutes depending on how well Frank’s solo goes.
- There are a lot of moments where Frank talks to the crowd while the band vamps behind him. It can be pretty awkward and condescending at times: “The Poodle Lecture”, which has been preserved on other Zappa releases and has never been funny and the middle part of “Titties ‘N Beer” where he conjures graphic fantasies about how he’s like to see Warner Bros. record executives tortured.
- The crowd is noisy and wild. Frank is like a hall monitor to them: “Keep the aisles cleared, you never know when there might be an emergency” as the crowd pushes toward the stage.
- He doesn’t want the crowd to smoke weed and at times tells them so. However, he smokes cigarettes. In the film you can even see him stick a lit cigarette in the headstock of his guitar while he’s playing.
- When he’s not being conservative about weed and crowd control, he kisses girls in the front row and compliments one of them on her tits.
- Some of these would still offend over forty years later: “I Have Been In You”, “Bobby Brown”, “Punky’s Whips”, “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes”. If you’re a Zappa fan, you know this and you don’t care.
- What’s boggling is that Zappa contrasted that with brilliant instrumental music: “Peaches En Regalia”, “The Black Page #2”, and “Lather” are great examples. “Pound For A Brown” is a vehicle for soloing and experimentation.
If you’re a neophyte and interested in checking out Frank, there are not only better albums to start with (Hot Rats, Sheik Yerbouti) but better live albums to start with (Roxy And Elsewhere the best example). Halloween ’77 is for fans. But even I would suggest the 3-CD set over the costume set with the USB drive. If I want to dress up as a shirtless guitar player for Halloween, I can do that already.