Childhood friends Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) often crossed paths after they'd launched their musical careers. The earliest projects from Zappa's Studio Z included a project of a cheesey science fiction story called 'Metal-Man Earns his Wings' starring Vliet (which sadly never saw the light of day), and their shared love of the bizarre continued. Zappa produced Beefheart's legendary 'Trout Mask Replica', with the Captain repaying the favour by providing vocals on the deliciously sleazy 'Willie the Pimp' on Zappa's fusion jazz album 'Hot Rats'. But these projects never returned much revenue for Beefheart, who had thrown himself into a web of complicated and damning recording contracts. In 1975, Zappa threw his old mate a lifeline by inviting him to come on tour with his band. 'Bongo Fury' is the result of that tour, which had both great and regrettable consequences.
The record is great. Through Zappa's science of 'xenochrony' (the method of creating new performances by cobbling together various parts of live and studio recordings), the songs are completely bonkers, funny, and a little bit scary. Opening with 'Debra Kedabra', this hurtles round rhythmic changes at breakneck speeds, with the Captain ranting along in his best demonic Howlin' Wolf guise. '200 Years Old' is a withering 'celebration' of the USA's birthday, with Zappa giving a mini lecture on avoiding all the tacky merchandise that goes along with it. It's a great bit of blues though, with Zappa's strangled guitar cosying up to Beefheart's growls superbly.
Beefheart gets to indulge in a few surrealist monologues in 'Man with the Woman Head', 'Sam with the Showing Scalp Flat Top' and 'Poofter's Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead' (whatever the hell that means). The band go into 'meltdown' behind him, with newly acquired sticks man Terry Bozzio conjuring up all sorts of percussive voodoo.
'Advance Romance' is a blast - the band are tight and groovy throughout, with wailing harmonicas, numerous harmonies, and lots of drum/bass/guitar interplay. It's a ten-minute blues/funk/jazz improv epic, that features the return of the character Potato-Head Bobby, who originally turned up in 'San Ber'dino'. Marvellous.
They save the best for last though, with the sublime show-stopper 'Muffin Man'. Zappa's guitar prowess had been hinted at during his previous records, but here he sealed his reputation as a wizard of the intrument. Built round a monster of a bass-driven riff, it gave Zappa (and other subsequent guitarists of his ever-changing entoruage) a platform to let their improvisational skills shine.
This is a record covered with the dust of the Mojave desert; all blues growling, garotted, overdriven guitar work and wailing harmonicas, splattered with the work of a demented horns section. The band are tight but freeform, with plenty of scope for them to throw in surprise twists. But it came at a price, as Zappa and Beefheart's egos clashed frequently on the tour, leading to a frosty and acrimonious atmosphere with the two barely speaking. The record sleeve says it all, which is a real shame as the mad scientist and the dadaist of rock and roll work really well here, creating a killer record with tons of atmosphere, humour and sonic wizardry. It's also surpringly accessible, considering how off the wall the two parties involved could be.
This can be found on CD at Amazon for £6.99, which is pretty cheap as Zappa albums go. Vinyl version turn up occasionally on ebay, and the bass-heavy mastering on these is great and suits these songs well.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Debra Kadabra
2 Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy
3 Sam With The Showing Scalp Flat Top
4 Poofter's Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead
5 200 Years Old
7 Advance Romance
8 Man With The Woman Head
9 Muffin Man