Is there a more intimidating discography for a neophyte to ponder than that of Frank Zappa? With about 110 albums to Zappa’s name, there are an ungodly number of entry points into his music. And no matter which album you pick, you will never find a truly “representative” Zappa LP. The best-known touchstones in his catalogue are practically islands onto themselves: The genre-hopping irreverence of Freak Out! and We’re Only In It For The Money, the metal-riffing jazz-rock of Hot Rats, the wise-ass AOR of Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe, the scatological satire of Joe’s Garage. Where in the world does one get started?
Brilliantly virtuosic, absurdly complex, painstakingly conceived, lyrically childish, restlessly creative, staunchly anti-commercial — Zappa can seem almost impossible to fathom from the outside looking in. On one hand, he was among the most original and technically gifted composers ever to work in the context of rock and roll, capable of writing both hooky jazz-pop ditties and sprawling avant-classical pieces without precedent in modern music. And then he would hire top-flight musicians to play those songs, rehearsing them tirelessly so that they could perform his music with spotless precision, even as he improvised spastic, chaotic guitar solos over the top of them for minutes on end.
But as high-minded as he was musically, Zappa could be downright piggish as a lyricist, relishing his very “’70s rock guy” attitudes about women and sex in scores of jokey songs that can come off now as straight-up misogyny or homophobia. In 1979’s “Bobby Brown,” one of Zappa’s most infamous songs, he details the sexual misadventures of a thoroughly unlikeable homosexual radio promotion man in decidedly un-PC language that is even more offensive now than it was 40 years ago. (Nevertheless, “Bobby Brown” was an international hit, reaching the top five in five countries, including Noway and Sweden, where it was a No. 1 smash.)
For detractors, Zappa is a vortex of obnoxiousness — musically obtuse and lyrically abhorrent. And yet, because of the sheer quantity of music he created, it’s possible to set aside what’s grating about Zappa and focus on his idiosyncratic talents as a composer, guitar player, and free-thinking all-American original.
All of those attributes, good and bad, are on display in Halloween 77, a new box set that commemorates a series of six blazing holiday shows that Zappa and his excellent band — which at the time included monster instrumentalists like guitarist Adrian Belew and drummer Terry Bozzio — performed at the Palladium in New York City in 1977.
Halloween shows were an annual tradition for Zappa, a monster-movie enthusiast who loved to incorporate the costumed freaks in the audience into his performances. On Halloween 77, the music is loose and spontaneous in spite of fairly static tracklists across the half-dozen concerts, with Zappa playing off the oddball crowd while leading his band through thrilling renditions of songs that would later appear on one of his most popular albums, 1979’s Sheik Yerbouti. The freewheeling, irreverent spirit carries over the packaging for Halloween 77 — the music is contained on a zip drive shaped like an “Oh Punky” candy bar inside of a plastic Frank Zappa mask and costume.
According to Ahmet Zappa — who, along with his sister Diva, runs the Zappa Family Trust charged with overseeing his father’s voluminous vault of unreleased music, films, photos, and various other documents — Halloween 77i s the first of what could be many releases commemorating the annual Halloween shows. “Unfortunately, the Halloween shows throughout the years, not all of them were recorded,” says archivist Joe Travers. “There’s a whole gap of mid-’70s shows that weren’t recorded, and it was most likely due to the union cost. But we do have material for a certain number of years to do future box sets.”
Incredibly, there will also apparently be future Frank Zappa concerts. In September, the Zappa family announced plans to mount two hologram-related projects, including a concert tour featuring former Zappa associates like Belew and guitarist Steve Vai, and a stage adaptation of Zappa’s iconic 1979 rock opera, Joe’s Garage. (Belew and another former Zappa guitarist, Denny Walley, have since backed out of the proposed Zappa hologram tour.) While both projects are still in the early planning stages, the idea of Frank Zappa returning to the road as a 3D image immediately sparked controversy in the niche-y world of Zappa fans. The most notable critic was Dweezil Zappa, who swiftly condemned his brother Ahmet and his associates, deepening a bitter family feud over the management of Frank’s legacy that’s been raging publicly since Gail Zappa, the Zappas’ matriarch, died in 2016.