In the first minutes of the first of six shows, Frank Zappa lets the Palladium audience know that the performance is being recorded. It’s ironic to mention, especially in hindsight, knowing Zappa’s predilection for taping every chance he could. Guitarist Adrian Belew suggests in his contributing liner notes that even the hours of daily, pre-show rehearsals likely were recorded and utilized for a subsequent Sheik Yerbouti album. In fairness, there was a difference between capturing the show and recording it specifically for potential release. The Halloween visit to NYC by Zappa had become recurring and legendary since 1974. So much so, that the first two nights of the ’77 run- the 28th and 29th- had additional shows tacked on to them due to demand. Total this all up and it comes to possibly eight hours per day over four consecutive days of rehearsing and performing, and Zappa was equipped and ready to film and record all of it. The results are as anticipated: Phenomenal.
To begin, the band was knife-edge deadly. Terry Bozzio’s drumming has to be acknowledged as the ceaseless generator responsible for driving this beast of a band. This was 1977, keep in mind, when the angst of punk and the up-up-up energy of new wave was not only dawning but responding to and reflecting an audience buzzing all night. His tempos are accordingly propulsive, taking on every one of Zappa’s hairpin arrangements, with the mastery of Belew, keyboardists Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf, and percussionist Ed Mann hitting every wild and crazy turn. A special mention has to go to bassist Patrick O’Hearn, whose ability to lock down a pocket and freelance fully across an improvisational spectrum, sometimes simultaneously, is unparalleled.
As for Frank, he’s leading, singing, and playing guitar with peak motivated intent; perhaps his battle with Warner Bros. at the time, and knowing this was going down on film, was oxygen to the fire. Maybe not, though, as Zappa was always one to bring his virtuosity to the show. Perhaps, instead, it was the love and affection he had for the Halloween holiday, the zany New York City audiences crammed into the place, and the fact that a lot of fresh, new material was on the setlist, including the October 30 premiere of “Dancin’ Fool” and the lone appearance of the controversial “Jewish Princess.” Much of this previously unreleased repertoire was also ranging, to be polite, into the most suggestive if not blatant incorporation of sexual and religious parody and comment. Even today, perhaps especially today, it’ll draw a blush (and a laugh) from many.
It would take pages to dissect and review the totality of the six shows, but maybe one example, albeit a somewhat mathematical one, will summarize the awe of these half-dozen. The concerts, for the most part, were essentially a program- mostly with the same songs in the same order, (the 10/30 show being a looser, slight exception to the rule). They contained vehicles for lengthy, untethered jams, like “The Torture Never Stops,” “Envelopes” and “Wild Love,” but also demonstrated again and again the defining, exacting precision of this unit. On night one, the 28th, the opening “Peaches En Regaila” clocked in at 2:42. The second show of the night’s version? 2:42. Skilled and drilled, these guys killed; musical monsters essential for Halloween ’77 and beyond.