Monday, July 30, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #62 - Frank Zappa - Chunga's Revenge

The catalog of Frank Zappa is vast and often difficult to navigate.  There's a tremendous amount of brilliance but also some flat out crap.  The majority of the catalog is getting re-released starting with 12 titles covering the earliest, and many would say best, period of Zappa's career.  Much has been written about all-time classics like Freak Out!, We're Only In It For the Money, and Hot Rats, so I'd like to talk about a personal favorite that doesn't usually get a lot of attention, 1970's Chunga's Revenge.  This is an album that, among other things, introduced the world to Flo and Eddie.  Of course, many were already familiar with Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman through their work with The Turtles.  But the former pop stars were looking to move on to other realms and approached Zappa himself about working together.  The timing was right as Zappa had recently broken up the original Mothers of Invention and was in the process of forming a new group.  Kaylan and Volman were soon re-christened as The Phlorecent Leach (later shortened to Flo) and Eddie.  Their superb harmony vocals turned out to be a perfect fit for the always doo-wop obsessed Zappa.  The rest of the new band included jazz keyboard player George Duke, who would be an important part of Zappa's bands throughout the 70s, and big time rock drummer Aynsley Dunbar.  This diverse combo produced appropriately diverse music that happened to come together for a great album.
You can pretty much break down the ten tacks on Chunga's Revenge into five vocals and five instrumentals.  Flo and Eddie show off their peerless vocals in a variety of ways.  First off, they provide soulful counterpoint to Zappa's growly lead vocals on the bluesy "Road Ladies."  They give a pop edge to the proto-metallic stomp of "Tell Me You Love Me."  Album closer "Sharleena" is a gorgeous soul/doo-wop number that shows a sensitive side rarely seen in Zappa's works.  This became a frequent staple of live shows throughout the years and there are many great versions available but none that can match Flo and Eddie's vocal work.  The remaining vocal tracks showcase the humor and satire that have always been present in Zappa's works and would become a major feature of the Flo and Eddie era. "Would You Go All the Way" lampoons small town jingoism (with George Duke providing a patriotic trombone line) while "Rudy Wants To Buy Yez a Drink" takes on sleazy music biz types.  The humor would eventually dissolve into juvenile smuttiness that would come to dominate albums like Fillmore East, June, 1971 and other live recordings from the era, but here they keep things relatively restrained and the songs are great to begin with.
The instrumental tracks are even more diverse.  Opener "Transylvania Boogie" and the title track are raw slices of guitar rock with Zappa ripping some pretty impressive solos.  The short jazz-styled composition "Twenty Small Cigars" is reminiscent of Hot Rats tracks like "Little Umbrellas" and "It Must Be a Camel." "The Clap" is a minute and a half of innovative percussion.  Zappa started out as a drummer and has always come up with challenging works for his talented percussionists to play.  The longest track on the album is "The Nancy and Mary Music," nearly ten minutes of live improvisation that goes to a number of different places and even includes some wild scat vocals from Duke.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chunga's Revenge is how all these different elements come together into a whole.  The album has a great flow to it.  It's a bit of a transitional album but the fact that it stands so well on its own is a testament to the overflowing creativity that Zappa was exhibiting at the time.  It's always been a favorite of mine and could well be a fine introduction if you've never listened to any Zappa before.  Just one question that's always been on my mind about that iconic photo on the cover; is he screaming or yawning?
- Adam Reshotko

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