Appellate Judge Dan Mancini may not be the daughter of a Florentine Pogen, but "Read 'em and Weep" is, in fact, his adjustable slogan.
"View these materials carefully."—Director L. Storch, Department of Entertainment Security
The word genius gets tossed around on the airwaves of MTV and VH1, and in the pages of Rolling Stone and Spin magazines more than a beach ball at a Phish concert. According to the rock 'n' roll sages who draw paychecks from these media giants, Brian Wilson, Lennon and McCartney (well, maybe not McCartney), Joey Ramone, Joe Strummer, Kurt Cobain, Eminem, and a laundry list of others are or were geniuses. Perhaps that would be true, except that the production of catchy tunage—while certainly a useful and marketable talent—is no mark of genius. Rock 'n' roll can lay claim to but one bona fide genius, and only partial claim at that. The genius in question is Frank Zappa.
According to his own account of things in The Real Frank Zappa Book, as well as in any number of interviews, Zappa had no formal musical training other than an introductory class in theory at a community college when he was an upperclassmen in high school. In his early teens, he loved to draw and was fascinated by the idea that men who very often looked like mad scientists from Universal monster movies drew dots on pieces of lined paper, and from those dots other men made music. It was like alchemy to him. Apparently a geeky kid, he got into the habit of checking out Igor Stravinsky recordings from his local library, along with the scores for the pieces on the records. He'd listen to the music and follow along as best he could in the books of little dots Stravinsky had made. Almost by osmosis, it seems, he learned to read music by doing this. Not only that, he learned to score an entire orchestra—again, with no formal training whatsoever. As if that weren't enough, he went on to compose music that, according to conductor Kent Nagano, generally takes at least a Masters degree in music theory to understand, and a level of inspiration not obtainable through formal education to actually write. On top of all that, Zappa's music—despite its technical complexity—is vibrant, human, and a whole lot of fun to listen to. These are the marks of genius.
And now, thanks to the Zappa Family Trust and Eagle Rock Entertainment, we can all drink in a little of that genius in the comfort of our home theaters.
Facts of the Case
Part concert film, part postmodern silliness, The Dub Room Special was created on-the-cheap and on-the-fly in the dub room (hence the title) at Compact Video in the San Fernando Valley in 1982. The program consists of a mish-mash of live performances by Zappa's 1974 touring band, recorded at KCET studios in Los Angeles for a failed television special; select songs from a 1981 Halloween gig at the Ritz Theater in New York; the antics of Zappa and the Compact Video team recorded while creating The Dub Room Special; excerpts of Bruce Bickford's claymation visualization of the epic tale of "Gregory Peccary" (which appears in a more complete form in Baby Snakes); a snippet of footage shot backstage at an infamous Zappa concert in a mosquito-infested soccer stadium in Palermo, Sicily in 1982 that ended in a riot (the event is commemorated on the cover of The Man from Utopia, and the performance itself has been saved for posterity on the second disc of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 5); and a few samples of the broken-English comedy stylings of Italian journalist Massimo Bassoli (the man with the minchia tanta).
Here's a run-down of the 14 songs you'll find on the disc:
• "Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat" ('74 Band)
Over the past couple years, the Zappa Family Trust have teamed with Eagle Rock Entertainment to begin slowly upgrading the delights from FZ's Honker Home Video line of audio/visual entertainment for the digital realm. The folks at Eagle Rock did a fine job delivering Zappa's concert/art film opus Baby Snakes to DVD. In addition to a crystal clear Linear PCM presentation of the picture's original stereo audio track, the disc offers a fascinating Dolby 5.1 remix that has raised the hackles of Zappa purists, though it was based on a 4-channel mix created by FZ himself—recently discovered in the vast vaults of his recorded material—and supervised by Dweezil Zappa.
But a retail release of The Dub Room Special is a different animal altogether. Once upon a time, one could drop into Best Buy and pick up Baby Snakes on VHS (albeit at an exorbitant price), or even rent it from your local Blockbuster. The Dub Room Special, though, has always been a doo-dad for the serious Zappa collector. Never available at brick 'n' mortars, and not even orderable from Amazon, one could only get it on VHS (and Beta, back in the dark ages) via Barfko-Swill, Gail Zappa's homegrown mail-order distribution business cum internet boutique. And in the old days, before the Zappas hit the internet, that meant getting on the horn, dialing 818-PUMPKIN, and asking them to send you out a copy right away, along with a Thing-Fish T-shirt, and a copy of Dweezil's "My Mother Is a Space Cadet" 45.
Well, Zappa fans, welcome to the new millennium. The Dub Room Special is now available on DVD…everywhere.
The highlight of The Dub Room Special is the eight songs performed by the 1974 band. A slimmed down version of the 1973 band—the primary unit for two of Zappa's most popular records, Over-Night Sensation and Apostrophe ('), as well as the live recording, Roxy and Elsewhere—the '74 unit boasts jazz luminary George Duke on keyboards and vocals, Chester Thompson (later of Weather Report) on drums, Ruth Underwood on percussion, Napoleon Murphy Brock on saxophone and vocals, Tom Fowler on bass, and FZ on lead guitar and the occasional vocal. The band's sound is funky, raw, and, after a year of touring with Zappa, unbelievably tight (for more of their magic, check out the entire second volume of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore). Their rapid-fire opening salvo of "Dog Breath Variations" and "Uncle Meat" establishes their musical virtuosity and their ability to play Zappa's challenging compositions with a soulfulness and verve that makes them, easily, one of the best bands he ever toured with. Since the '74 band is essentially the rhythm section of the '73 big band, stripped of the horn section and a second drummer, the song arrangements are lean, but demanding of the individual players. From the vaudevillian antics of "Room Service," to the faux-avant-garde abstractions of the rhythmically rococo "Approximate" (which the band plays, then sings, then dances), to the good-time funkiness of Zappa favorites "Cosmik Debris," "Montana," "Florentine Pogen," and "Inca Roads," this particular incarnation of the Mothers of Invention acquits itself with dizzying aplomb.
With the exception of the ill-fated 1988 big band (which rivals the 1973/1974 bands as perhaps the very best of Zappa's touring units), I've never been a huge fan of the various '80s bands. The virtuosity of the musicians is unquestioned, but there's often a cold, clinical nature to their playing that gives their impressive precision a mechanical quality. The performances of the '81 band on The Dub Room Special are entertaining, but suffer by comparison to the material from '74. The line-up is a collection of incredible talent: Tommy Mars on keyboards, Ed Mann on percussion, Ray White on vocals and rhythm guitar, Scott Thunes on bass, Bobby Martin on keyboards, vocals, and saxophone, Chad Wackerman on drums, a young Steve Vai on "stunt" guitar, and FZ, as always, playing ringmaster, cranking out wicked guitar solos, and providing the occasional vocal. The material ranges from Zappa at his most pedestrian and heavy-handed in the anti-drug "Cocaine Decisions," to his most biting in "Nig Biz" (a song about record company exploitation of artists that used plantation imagery long before Prince declared himself a slave to the suits at Warner), to his naughtiest with "Stevie's Spanking" (the tale of Vai's encounter with a hefty groupie named Lauren, a banana, and some spittle). A highlight of the 1981 material is "Flakes," a tune about the practical hassles of day-to-day living in the wayouttasphere of California. Nearly 25 years later, the song is somewhat dated but the lines, "I'm a moron and this is my wife; she's frosting a cake with a paper knife" will bring a smile to the face of anyone old enough to remember those stupid Pillsbury frosting commercials, and Ed Mann's half-assed imitation of Bob Dylan is a scream. Another stand-out performance is the raucous "Easy Meat." Always a crowd favorite during Zappa's tours in the '80s, this rendition is a high-speed good time that suffers only slightly from the absence of the dynamic vocal stylings of Ike "Thing Fish" Willis, who didn't tour with this particular unit.
The connective material consisting of Bruce Bickford's animation, the antics in the dub room, and Massimo Bassoli's clowning around and in-studio rendition of "Tengo na Minchia Tanta" (which can be found among the Disc Two supplemental material on the 1995 CD release of 1969's Uncle Meat) may make The Dub Room Special feel like a sampler, but these sorts of transitional elements have always been a key to Zappa's organizational style. Early Mothers of Invention records like Absolutely Free and We're Only In It For The Money contain the audio equivalent of such non sequiturs acting as a bridge to segue from song to song. Zappa was fond of referring to his oeuvre as the Project Object, meaning that all of his compositions coalesced to create a massive, unified work of genre-defying music. One of the practical ways he expressed this concept was by shifting the context of tunes. By constantly juxtaposing stylistically different compositions across time and a vast body of recordings, he was able to erode the boundaries between rock, jazz, soul, "serious" music, and all other genres he touched. In this way, the scattershot organization of The Dub Room Special is in perfect keeping with his aesthetic. Not only does it mesh performances from two different eras, but it frequently marries an audio performance with visual imagery with which it has no direct relationship. This may be an annoyance for those who like a straight-forward concert video, but that approach is decidedly not Zappa-esque. It is the approach he basically takes in Does Humor Belong In Music?, an abbreviated concert video featuring the 1984 band, and the least compelling item in the Honker Home Video catalogue (available on DVD from EMI).
Eagle Rock Entertainment's DVD upgrade of The Dub Room Special looks and sounds great. The image is limited by the age of the source materials and the fact that much of it was originally shot on video, but there's nothing in the way of transfer-related flaws. Audio is presented in a Linear PCM stereo mix that is crisp, vibrant, and far more dynamic and subtle than the old VHS release. I assume that the stereo mix was the only audio available for the program. Had there been a multi-track master or a quad mix created by Zappa prior to his death, we likely would've seen a more elaborate treatment, but neither the Zappa Family Trust nor FZ's rabid fans would much appreciate a matrixed 5.1 presentation. The preservation (and increased quality) of the original stereo presentation is fine and dandy.
Supplements are limited. The Valley Girl Documentary is a rather dry seven-minute examination of the hit-single status of Zappa's "Valley Girl," featuring Moon Unit Zappa on vocals. The success of the song launched a brief fad of fascination with Valley girls and mall culture in the early '80s. The documentary dates to around the time The Dub Room Special was produced and focuses mostly on the accidental nature of the song's success, and Zappa's general apathy toward radio airplay and Billboard charts.
A discography contains multiple pages of tiled reproductions of the cover art for Zappa's massive body of recordings from 1966's Freak Out! to QuAUDIOPHILIAc, a DTS audio collection released in September of 2004.
Rounding out the extras is a trailer for Baby Snakes, and a text-based advertisement for a CD soundtrack for The Dub Room Special in the pipe from Eagle Rock Entertainment.
No longer a rarity, The Dub Room Special is a weird little ride worth taking. The musical performances are killer, and the oddball structure of the piece is a lot of fun. For the hardcore Zappa fanatic, it's as must-own as a Sears poncho and a pair of Zircon-encrusted tweezers.
The casual fan who owns no Zappa on DVD should start with Baby Snakes, his sprawling, bizarre, and beautiful concert film extravaganza. Or, heck, pick up Snakes and the The Dub Room Special. They're both reasonably priced and they make great companion pieces.
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• The Valley Girl Documentary Featurette
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