Frank Zappa’s Halloween Happenstance

New six CD set from 1981 guarantees a ghoulish good time

Frank Zappa Halloween 81, Zappa/Universal 2020

“You are in the right place at the right time,” Frank Zappa tells his audience during the lead-in to his first series of shows on October 31, 1981 at New York’s famed Palladium.

That’s a talented man…one who was able to foresee a future that would transpire 40 years on.

Indeed, over the decades, the Zappa estate has released a series of Halloween performances, and yet it’s Halloween 81, Live at the Palladium, New York City that ranks as the most expansive effort yet.

Naturally then, any number of Zappa classics are included over the course of these six discs — “Zoot Allures,” “Drowning Witch” (appropriately!), Chunga’s Revenge,” “Joe’s Garage,” “Dancin’ Fool,” among them, many of them repeated for the sake of the different shows. A frenzied take on the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” may seem a strange choice at first, but given closer consideration, it doesn’t appear odd at all given the band’s ability to adapt it to their own specific template. Of course, Zappa’s sarcasm and cynicism are, as always, the hallmark of these performances, and indeed, on the song “Dumb All Over,” he casts himself in the role of an especially eager evangelist, his derogatory view of mankind and religion expressed in no certain terms.Not so surprisingly then, the song that follows, “Heavenly Bank Account,” finds him railing against organized religion’s tax-free status.

The innards of Halloween 81 (Photo: Zappa Records/UMe)

So too, his views on the taking of one’s own life are also articulated on “Suicide Chump.” Zappa may indeed have been an overarched eccentric and insurgent, but he was also a pervasive pundit as well. 

It’s especially fortuitous that the remastered sound on these recordings is so clear and refined that they could have been culled from actual studio sessions. The band is one of his best, with Steve Vai (guitar, vocals), Ray White (guitars, vocals), Tommy Mars (keys), Robert Martin (keys, sax, vocals), Ed Mann (percussion, vocals), Scott Thunes (bass, vocals), and Chad Wackerman (drums) ably attaining the exacting musical standards that their leader demanded of them. Some of these songs are surprisingly accessible, a lot more so than they might have appeared in their original incarnations. Time has been kind to the Zappa catalog, and what once seemed decidedly brazen and bizarre now finds a comfortable fit within contemporary confines. 

Frank Zappa Halloween 81 Highlights, Zappa/UMe 2020

Not that Halloween isn’t utterly offbeat and outlandish. Zappa’s off-kilter attitude, frequent time signature changes, immaculate arrangements and demented discourse reflects the fact that he never conformed to any particular musical mantra. He was a genius and a visionary, and this music continues to affirm that fact credibly and completely.

Still, if anything comes off as especially outlandish, it’s the packaging of the box itself, given that it boasts not only the music but a booklet of photos and commentary, and, for those that procrastinated when it came to buying their own Halloween garb, a ghoulish Zappa mask and accompanying cape for full effect. It ought to be a fine fit for anyone willing to brave the horrors of COVID-19 and claim a cache of candy in a risky attempt to trick or treat. 



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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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