I missed the birth of a tradition – the advanced, instrumental ecstasy, cliff-edge improvisation and impromptu theatrical hijinks of Frank Zappa's annual Halloween concerts in New York City – by less than a week and a 90-minute drive. On November 5th, 1974, I saw Zappa in performance for the first time in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in a drafty livestock showroom on the Allentown Fairgrounds. The composer was leading the Mothers featured on that year's live document, Roxy & Elsewhere, and they were – under his firm direction, despite the dire setting and matching acoustics – in thrilling military-drilled form.
Six days earlier, Zappa celebrated his first Halloween in New York – after '72 and '73 stands in Passaic, New Jersey, and Chicago respectively – with early and late shows of two hours each that established the city as Zappa's mischief-night headquarters into the mid-Eighties. The repertoire on that night in '74 spanned his entire, winding history in provocation and incisive adventure, going back to jump street – 1966's Freak Out! – via the jazzy expanse of "Big Swifty" from 1972's The Grand Wazoo and the devious accessibility of the '74 chart shock, Apostrophe ('). During the second set, Zappa also hit the trick-as-treat button, bringing Lance Loud – the aspiring glam-rock star and breakout gay icon from the proto–reality TV series, An American Family – onstage to join the vocal shenanigans.
In 1977, after three years of Halloween at the Felt Forum, Zappa moved to the Fillmore East–style atmosphere of the Palladium (formerly the Academy of Music). He also added shows to the run: six marathons over four nights, with the last two concerts on October 30th and 31st hitting the three-hour mark without intermission. As Zappa told the packed and delirious crowd early on the 31st, introducing the helium falsetto of an original Mother, guest vocalist Roy Estrada, in a "glam-rock opera" about a sexually aroused rubber mask: "You don't want to have a regular Halloween, do ya? You want the best. You deserve the best. You're gonna get the best."
Forty years on – and nearly a quarter-century after Zappa's passing in 1993 – "the best" has been unleashed in full by the Zappa Family Trust. Halloween 77: The Palladium, NYC (Zappa Records) is a digital-age box with the six concerts from introduction to encores, packed onto a USB stick packaged as a candy bar and accompanied by a Zappa mask and saucy T-shirt for masquerade enthusiasts. Non-completists and those on a budget can get the climax of the engagement on a three-CD set, Halloween 77: October 31st, 1977, with bonus tracks from the 30th (including a rare detour that week into Zappa's signature instrumental "King Kong"). "By the end of a performance," guitarist Adrian Belew writes in his liner notes, "I remember that happily-drained feeling. No more to give ..."
This was, in fact, a band primed for giving, under Zappa's strict, exuberant command: drummer Terry Bozzio and Patrick O'Hearn, precocious-fusion furies and comparative Zappa veterans of a year-and-change; keyboard players Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf; percussionist Ed Mann; and Belew, then on his first tour with Zappa and discovered by the latter earlier that year at a club gig in Nashville. Belew's single year with Zappa would kick off the guitarist's rapid ascent in the late Seventies and Eighties: next with David Bowie, then in Talking Heads and King Crimson. Mars and Mann would stay with Zappa, on record and the road, in various lineups, until the end of his touring life in 1988.
Zappa arrived at the Palladium in October 1977 under heavy legal weather. A deteriorating relationship with Warner Bros. Records, the distributor of his DiscReet label, reached an infuriating low that year when Warner Bros. refused to release Zappa's next intended release, a four-LP anthology of new and archival work, Läther. When Zappa took the set to Mercury, planning to release it under his new Zappa Records imprint, Warner Bros. claimed rights to the recordings. Zappa was forced to carve that material across a series of separate LPs for the company while building a new album from scratch.
The Palladium shows were the start of that next record, 1978's Sheik Yerbouti. In his liner notes, Belew cites "two- and three-hour soundchecks which were thinly disguised recording sessions" for the album. Two performances from that week of "Jones Crusher" and "Jewish Princess" were included on the '78 double LP. Other Sheik Yerbouti songs that appeared nightly in the set lists included the galloping cynicism of "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes"; the breakneck sequence of "Tryin' to Grow a Chin" and "City of Tiny Lites"; and Zappa's biggest hit anywhere, the gleefully scabrous "Bobby Brown." Issued as a single in 1979, it inexplicably went to Number One in Norway and Sweden. (A personal milestone: Sheik Yerbouti, completed with live recordings from Europe in early 1978, was the first album I ever reviewed for Rolling Stone.)
Zappa was also filming the Palladium concerts for what would become, with Bruce Bickford's stop-motion clay animation, the 1979 film, Baby Snakes. At one point in the Halloween show, someone in the crowd complained about the glare of the house lights. "We can't turn off the lights," Zappa replied, "because we're making movies of you."
"Frank was the hardest working artist I have ever known," Belew writes, "fueled by constant caffeine and cigarettes, and we tried our best to keep up with him." Zappa, in turn, summarized his working methods and commitment this way, when I interviewed him in 1979 for the magazine Trouser Press: "I just do mine for me and people who happen to like it."
Halloween 77, in both variations, captures Zappa in a late-Seventies outlaw prime: ignoring critical brickbats and serving a devout cult audience as he fires lethal lampoons of social self-righteousness and pop-culture jive through mock-Fifties grease, propulsive jazz-rock and roiling avant-instrumental challenge. There is surprising vintage material ("Big Leg Emma," a 1967 non-LP single with the early Mothers); the crushing send-up of the glam-rock band Angel in "Punky's Whips"; and "The Black Page #2," a daunting, percussive composition named after the opaque density of Zappa's written notation. "Wild Love," which ultimately lasted four minutes on Sheik Yerbouti, goes for half an hour at every show, with Zappa generously spreading the soloing time around. He keeps one guitar showcase, "Conehead" – eight minutes of overdriven harmonics and Hot Rats–fusion slalom – for himself. There is a special encore gift on Halloween too: Zappa's only outing that week on the Zoot Allures guitar-solo monster "Black Napkins."
I missed it all, by just a few days, in 1974. I didn't make that mistake again after moving to New York in 1978, celebrating Halloween week in the city with Zappa that year and then as often as fortune allowed until he retired the tradition, back at the Felt Forum, in 1984. When I interviewed Zappa in 1980 for Circus magazine, after the release of Baby Snakes, he characterized the film – and, by extension, the 1977 Palladium action in it – as "a statement on what people missed in the Seventies. You know the history of rock & roll, how in the Fifties everybody was cool and in the Sixties everybody was crazy and in the Seventies everybody was dull? This movie proves that not everybody was dull."
Here, at last, is the soundtrack – all of it.