The 1988 road band self-destructed before US audiences in the south, mid-west and west could hear it perform. It was, however, heard and appreciated by east coast and European audiences during its brief existence (from February to June 1988).
- Frank Zappa, in the liner notes of The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life
Frank Zappa (1940 - 1993), one of the world's most gifted musicians, toured with 'his own band'1 for the last time in 1988. This tour is one of the most memorable, musically and otherwise. For fans, of course, there is also an additional emotional dimension to the tour. As with all Zappa tours, the band consisted of extremely talented and versatile musicians, who had to be capable of playing any of the 150 pieces in any time (eg, 11/8) in any style (fake-devo electro-pop, reggae, jazz, rock) in any combination and at Zappa's ad hoc command. The repertoire consisted of Zappa's own stuff (new and old) and a few covers from Stravinsky to Led Zeppelin, in a total of 150 songs - at least. The tour was also characterised by its political edge which was only boosted by Zappa's risqué sense of humour and the fact that Zappa never minced matters.
Almost all 1988 concerts were recorded by Frank's own mobile studio, the UMRK (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen). So far, these concerts have yielded three 'albums' of their own: Broadway the Hard Way, Make a Jazz Noise Here and The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life. Many performances from this tour can also be heard in the You Can't Do This On Stage Anymore series.
The band line-up of the 1988 tour band, as listed in Broadway the Hard Way, is:
- Frank Zappa (lead guitar/vocal)
- Ike Willis (guitar/vocal)
- Mike Keneally (guitar/synth/vocal)
- Robert Martin (keyboards/vocal)
- Ed Mann (percussion)
- Walt Fowler (trumpet)
- Bruce Fowler (trombone)
- Paul Carman (alto sax)
- Albert Wing (tenor sax)
- Kurt McGettrick (baritone sax)
- Scott Thunes (bass)
- Chad Wackerman (drums)
During the first US leg of the tour a rather joyful Frank Zappa had this to say about his new band and the tour: 'You know, it's the best band in the world'. And: 'Yeah, well, you know, we have fun with that band. Travelling around with, uh, eleven guys, you know, like we leave right after the show tonight and take an eight-hour bus ride to Cleveland, so it's a little bit like going to camp. Yeah, it's a blast'. It is possible to hear the band having a good time on stage on the recordings.
Every show in the 1988 tour was unique: It was part of Zappa's 'aesthetic philosophy' to reward the audience for paying attention. He would change the setlist, the style and the lyrics of the songs, insert musical references (the famous 'Louie, Louie' riff) and parodies (the 'Billy Jean' vamp in 'Why don't you like me?'2) depending on the reactions of the audience and on current events in the media (eg, Jimmy Swaggart under investigation).
During the US leg, Zappa was registering people to vote during the shows ('Ladies and Gentlemen, this is intermission, get your butt out there and register to vote') While this boosted the political edge of the shows and provided a platform for Zappa to unload his social (and otherwise) comments, some reported that the music fell a little short. On the other hand, the band was warming up in the first phase of the tour, and was becoming increasingly better as the tour progressed.
Understandably, a lot of the political aspects vanished during the European leg of the tour. As a consequence, the musical and the humouristic quality of the shows improved. Towards the end of the tour however, the animosities within the band members had escalated to the point where it started to affect the quality of the shows.
While some shows received bad reviews, and some of the songs are very experimental (with loops, synclavier and samples), many fans claim that this is one of the best Frank Zappa tours ever.
The high musical quality of the performances can be heard on the so-called 'monster' songs (long instrumental pieces) like 'Big Swifty', 'King Kong' (both on Make a Jazz Noise Here), 'The Torture Never Stops' (on The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life) and 'Stolen Moments/Murder By Numbers' (on Broadway the Hard Way) with special guest Sting. Zappa's guitar prowess can be heard on his extensive solos, for example in 'Fire and Chains' (Jazz Noise), 'The Torture Never Stops' (The Best Band), 'Any Kind of Pain' and 'Outside Now' (Broadway).
A sample of the entertainment quality of the shows can be heard on the tracks 'Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk' (aimed at TV-evangelist Jim Bakker), 'When the Lie's So Big' (aimed at 'The White House' and US politics in general), both on Broadway, 'Penguin on Bondage' (aimed at TV-evangelist Jimmy Swaggart), on The Best Band and 'Star Wars Won't Work' (obvious title) on Jazz Noise. Often the concerts would be under the motto of one or more 'secret words'3 (for example 'Jimmy Swaggart', 'Llama', 'Hi-ho- silver!', 'Just the tip') which are words that would creep spontaneously into the lyrics, or on other passages of any song. In a similar way 'spontaneous' musical quotes (as mentioned above) would also creep into some of the songs.
In spite of the high musical level and the highly entertaining shows, Zappa decided to 'call it a day' in June 1988, in the final phase of the European leg of the tour, a few days after their show in Genoa, Italy (on 9 June). The reasons are manifold and interconnected:
Financially, the tour was not doing well (US$400,000 in the red). Zappa comments, in an 89/90 interview that he'd never tour with his own band again, '[...] because the amount of money that I lost since 1984 - I lost 250,000 dollars on the 84 tour, and I lost 400,000 dollars on the '88 tour. And so that's it! No more cash of my bank account to pay for musician salaries or travel expenses or any of the stuff that's required to do a band and to do a tour. I can't do it.'
Animosities and tension between bandmembers escalated during the tour. In the aftermath all members had fingers to point. Long-time band member Ike Willis was asked in one interview, if he knew why Frank hadn't simply replaced the band members that were causing trouble. Talking about a specific member of the band, his answer was: 'It was the timing of the thing. If it had been a different day and Frank was in a different mood I'm sure that would have happened. It just occurred when Frank was in a bad mood and woke up on the wrong side of the cave. He was just starting to get sick and he just said f..k it.'
Zappa did not point his finger at anyone in particular, but probably felt that some of the musicians he had hired were being ingrate: 'I think they are probably paid ten times more than they are worth.[...] I think a musician who gets the opportunity to work in this band really ought to be paying to be in the band, because he's getting a chance to experience things that nobody else in the business would get a chance to do. And that might sound a little bit arrogant, but it's arrogant and it's also true. This is the best music school that any musician could ever go to.'
Additionally, Zappa was getting tired of touring. Were these the first signs of his illness? In 1990 Zappa was asked about the physical stress of touring: 'If I go on the road, I've already been to all the halls that I will play and I already know what the dressing room is gonna smell like, I know what the backstage food is gonna taste like, I know what the hotel-rooms will look like. There's no surprise there. The only joy you get from that is the two hours you spend on stage, but the rest of the day is not pleasant.'
Zappa wrote the words 'self-destructed' in the liner notes of The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life (which he released in 1991), suggesting that the band might have gone on were it not for the animosities between the members of the band. But that, of course, is mere speculation.
Links to The Zappa 1988 Tour
In Make a Jazz Noise Here Zappa says: 'People who come to these shows listen so carefully to every little detail... ' Here is the link to one group of fans that have dissected the Zappa 1988 tour in most meticulous detail: The 1988 Tour Project.
Guitarist Mike Keneally kept an audio journal during the first two-thirds the tour. A transcription of his personal observations can be found at his homepage: www.keneally.com - 1988.
A timeline of all musicians, with links to their individual biographies and interviews (also about the 1988 tour) can be found here: United-Mutations.com - Musician's Timeline.
And of course, there's also the official Frank Zappa/Zappa Family site for more info: zappa.com.