If, like me, you never saw Frank Zappa live with one of his fabulous bands, this DVD release from Eagle Rock is a great way to see what you missed. Or even if you did witness the madness before Zappa died of cancer in 1993, you’ll enjoy The Torture Never Stops.
This DVD was filmed live at the Palladium in New York on Halloween in 1981. The cut we see was “created by” Zappa from a concert production for MTV, and has never aired in this form. The program includes 24 songs and lasts about two hours, starting with “Black Napkins” and ending with an encore performance of “The Illinois Enema Bandit.”
In between, he challenges pretty much every aspect of Western culture, music, religion, sexual mores and more with songs that include “Montana” (about a dental floss ranch), “Harder Than Your Husband,” “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes,” “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” “Heavenly Bank Account” and “Suicide Chump.” Sixties icons and attitudes get skewered in “We’re Turning Again,” with its scathing critiques of hippies, Hendrix, Joplin and more. The DVD’s title comes from the final song in the regular set, one of Zappa’s best known, “The Torture Never Stops.” You can see it here.
I keep hoping for a video release of a concert by one of Zappa’s mid-80s big bands, but this ensemble does a great job in its own right. It features three top-notch electric guitarists, including Zappa himself, Ray White and Steve Vai. White, the only African-American member of this particular Zappa ensemble, also does a lot of lead singing, and he’s an incredible performer. Vai contributes a lot of “trick guitar” playing, and can be counted on to mug for the camera whenever it points his way. Zappa, always laid back and laconic, either sings leads, plays his trademark guitar solos or conducts the band, complete with baton. These three leaders are backed by Tommy Mars on keyboards and synthesizers, Bobby Martin on piano, sax and some lead vocals, Ed Mann on vocals and percussion (including xylophones, vibraphone, keyboards, cymbals, bells and all kinds of percussive and electronic effects — he must lose several pounds of weight during the performance), and the very young-looking Scott Thunes on bass and Chad Wackerman on drums. Wackerman gets a lot of screen time, almost as much as Zappa, and deservedly so, because rhythm and percussion are as important to Zappa’s music as are lyric and melody, often more so.
The filming is superb and deliciously clear on today’s high definition TVs. The editing, apparently by Zappa himself, is mostly good, except for those times when it flickers rapidly (two or more times per second) back and forth between Zappa and Wackerman. The sound is also quite good.
The extras on this DVD are minimal: a still photo gallery, two additional Palladium performances, “Teenage Prostitute” and “City of Tiny Lights” and a video treatment of “You Are What You Is.” But who needs a bunch of extras when the main event is so good? This film beautifully presents the concentrated, serious wackiness that was a Zappa concert. So turn on (your DVD player — Zappa didn’t like drugs), tune in, get your ox gored and your culture skewered, and your ears bombarded with intense, complex, rock music as only Frank Zappa could conceive of it.
Eagle Rock Entertainment, 2010