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Frank Zappa - The Torture Never Stops Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 July 2008
ImageThe Torture Never Stops proves how reality rarely lives up to expectations.

We didn’t have cable back in ’81 when this concert was shown on MTV (you know… back when the M stood for music). Since that Halloween night I’ve lived with the regret that I didn’t get to see FZ stun America with his genius as he took the fledgling music channel to new heights while unknowingly convincing them they should never do another live broadcast.

For the next 20-something years I saw a few grainy clips which had been recorded on ancient VTRs but mostly this magic concert existed only in my thoughts as the night Frank was able to give the music industry the finger, something I’ve always treasured. Now the Zappa family trust has released the show under the title The Torture Never Stops and I regretfully have to say, “eh.”

It’s not a bad show and the playing is routinely incredible. Chad Wackerman is a machine on drums, Ray White sings better than just about every living human and bird, and Steve Vai, although early in his career, is grossly guitar insane. I guess it’s a pretty good show, but it doesn’t come within 100 miles of the concert captured (at the same location) for Baby Snakes. That one, my friends, is so kookoo crazy good it hurts. Frank’s solo on “Muffin Man” haunts my guitar playing dreams. 

And TTNS was recorded during the period when it seemed Frank began to lose his spark for live performance, as if he felt he had to do it to fund his varied brilliant projects. You always got your money’s worth, because there has never been a better-rehearsed or tighter band, but something was missing. With The Torture Never Stops I was expecting the last great Zappa concert on film, but got something much different. The overblown expectations and sore disappointment are mine and mine alone, but the performance speaks for itself. I was surprised by the quality of the video. Most video tape recordings from this period are washed out and fuzzy, but TTNS is crisp. Although most of the show is bathed in reds and yellows it never looks like a cheap horror movie and is very watchable. The sound is PCM stereo and although there’s nothing wildly fantastic about it, it is well mixed, clear and clean. It’s some of the performances that seem perfunctory.

The Torture Never Stops opens with “Black Napkins” and quickly sinks into a malaise that stays until “Alien Orifice.” This was one of Frank’s greatest periods for playing guitar solos (the live triple-album Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar being a testament to this) but here his Les Paul is so overly flanged that even his most incredible solos in the show, particularly on “The Torture Never Stops,” take on a distracting metallic ring. Usually I’ll inch forward knowing that an FZ solo is about to cut loose, but on TTNS I found myself inching forward looking for those moments when his tone was a little cleaner. On “Illinois Enema Bandit” it at first sounds like the old Zappa, sharp, concise and biting, but soon moves to the hollow swoosh of his flanger.

This was also the period of some of Frank’s greatest social commentary and somewhat mean-spirited riffs on America and its inhabitants. Both are in full force on this DVD. For each of the former, “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” “Dumb All Over” and “You Are What You Is,” there’s one of the latter, “Jumbo Go Away,” “Easy Meat” and “Fine Girl.” It’s not that these songs aren’t funny, or even that I don’t enjoy them periodically, it’s just that the playfulness and sparkle that accompanied “Camarillo Brillo” or “Cosmik Debris” is largely missing and when taken in a certain context, or experienced within too small a time frame, they come across as mean and overly sexist. Whereas sometimes they sound like a goading finger to the ribs of people who take things way too seriously (which Frank sings about on “We’re Turning Again”), on The Torture Never Stops they tend to feel like an unwarranted slap to the face. And I’m writing this as one of the world’s biggest fans of FZ’s music.

There are moments on TTNS which almost make it worth the price: both Zappa and Vai’s guitar work on “Alien Orifice” is mind-boggling, when Frank sings “There’s a big difference between kneeling down and bending over” in “Heavenly Bank Account” it still has the same impact as the first time I heard it, and the contrapuntal solo on “Stevie’s Spanking” is as fine as you’ll ever hear from him. But the cost (DVD, tax and shipping) from really wore on my monthly budget and, shamefully, added to my disappointment. That the DVD menu system didn’t work correctly (some song chapters won’t play the selection) merely added to my gloom.

And what a disappointment it is. Like a third grader who’s caught his idolized teacher smoking in the parking lot or baseball fan who’s favorite player tells him to “fuck off,” having the gloss peel away from a fantasy is a hard thing to deal with, perhaps because it also tends to expose the humanity behind a mythic figure. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t make it any more palatable, just a little less bitter.

Frank Zappa is dead, long live the Zappa!       

The sound on The Torture Never Stops is clean, crisp and quite ordinary. I imagine they didn’t really have a lot to work with and that Frank was saddled with whatever the original MTV engineers provided. The mix is very middy, although Tommy Mars’ string/horn synth cuts through it regularly. I played TTNS on both my home theater system and Mac and couldn’t really hear much of a difference. It looked the same on each, even Frank’s strange jumpsuit was clear.

Extra Features
The Torture Never Stops comes with some nifty keen temporary Zappa tattoos and a pair of the fabulous Honker Home Video “No-D” glasses (with instructions!). It’s the kind of interesting, cheap and goofy bonus stuff I adore getting in packaging! The DVD booklet is well designed, with notes by bassist Scott Thunes. There are two additional songs, “Teenage Prostitute” and “City of Tiny Lights,” and a video of “You Are What You Is.” The songs are interesting and well played but I’ve never been a fan of the YAWYI video and it seems quite dated. The Zappa Family’s Barfko-Swill store is fulfilled by and they do an adequate job. I wrote them about the “Rental” T-shirt for sale in the B-S site but they had no idea what I was writing about, so you’ll have to figure out on your own how to go forward with purchases. There’s only so much your faithful reviewer can do for you.

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