Released in March 1972, Just Another Band From LA marked the end of an era for Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention. The album was recorded live at Pauley Pavilion, The University Of California, Los Angeles in August 1971 – just months before the ‘Flo & Eddie’ line-up of the group was brought to an end.
The injuries that Frank Zappa suffered at the Rainbow Theatre, London, in December 1971 meant that touring was out of the question for the foreseeable future and the Mothers – Aynsley Dunbar (drums), Howard ‘Eddie’ Kaylan (vocals), Jim Pons (bass, vocals), Don Preston (keyboards), Ian Underwood (keyboards), and Mark ‘Flo’ Volman (vocals) – were disbanded. Despite the severity of Zappa’s condition, the composer busied himself with the recording of jazz-fusion classics Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, producing and guesting on Ruben And the Jets’ For Real!, and the writing of an unrealized stage musical, Hunchentoot.
Zappa also used his convalescence to review tapes of live shows that had been recorded with his recently purchased portable Scully four-track machine. He saw the release of one of these shows as a way of compensating the Mothers, as he told Sounds in 1972, “I started figuring out ways that I could get the guys some money, because our tour was cut short and we didn’t do about six jobs… I happened to have a tape of a concert we did just prior to the European tour, so I decided to release that as an album and I managed to work a deal where I got each member of the group an advance payment of 2,000 dollars, which is way in excess of what they would have gotten if I’d just done it under normal circumstances.”
Not only was this a neat way of ensuring dues were paid, the release of an edited version of the concert as Just Another Band From LA pointed towards a new working method for Zappa. From this point on, live recordings became intrinsic to his working method. As his archive of tapes grew, so did the material at his disposal to edit and manipulate – effectively becoming another instrument in the studio.
These were early days though, and Just Another Band From LA was a relatively simple job. Recording engineer Barry Keene later summed up the process, “I recorded the band using just two microphones. Instead of using dozens of mics, I set the mix using the volume controls of the band’s instrument amplifiers. I told them if they needed to hear their instrument with more volume, they had to call in a roadie and have their amplifier moved higher or closer to them. The point was, if they turned up their amp, the album would be ruined. They trusted me completely. As a result, the album’s sound is their sound – not a studio mix. I recorded direct to a four-track. Frank and I then simply mixed 4-to-2 at Ike Turner’s Bolic Sound studio in Inglewood. That was some night. I’m sure all of us remember it well.
“Frank was still recovering from his injuries… I was transporting him to the studio on a mattress I’d put in the back of my ’47 Chevy panel truck… I moved him from the Chevy to his wheelchair and rolled him into the recording studio to supervise as I mixed.”
The result was a punchy and dynamic recording that showcased the strengths of what some fans would call the “vaudeville” era of the band. The first side of the original vinyl was taken up by the fittingly colossal “Billy The Mountain.” The near-25-minute-long suite can be seen as Zappa’s response to the fashion of the day for “rock operas” – including The Who’s Tommy and The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow. The utterly absurd plot follows Billy, a mountain, and his wife, Ethel (a tree growing out of Billy). Billy unexpectedly receives a royalty check compensating him for all of the photos taken of him over the years, and the unlikely couple decide to go on a vacation, leaving a trail of devastation across the United States in their wake (“the first noteworthy piece of real estate they destroyed was Edwards Air Force Base” – where Zappa’s father had worked). Along the way, Billy evades the draft, and an ace secret service man named Studebacker Hoch is called in to catch the mountain. Eventually, Hoch falls into Billy’s mouth and suffers a 200 ft drop. The moral of the story? “A mountain is something you don’t want to f–k with.” Wise words.
The narrative might have been surreal and whimsical, but it allowed Zappa to throw in a myriad of reference points – Howard Johnson’s diners, Jerry Lewis-hosted telethons, Ron Hubbard, Gimbels department store, Neil Sedaka – making it a sweeping panorama of American life in the late 60s. The music followed suit, with quotations from Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard Of Oz, “Wild Blue Yonder” (the official song of the United States Air Force), “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “Johnny’s Theme” from The Tonight Show stitched into the wild tapestry.
“Billy The Mountain” also demonstrated the dexterity and precision of the playing during this era of The Mothers and the theatricality of Kaylan and Volman as frontmen. The duo’s vocal gymnastics and propensity for coarse humor gave a distinct flavor to Zappa’s work during this period, with the composer clearly working up material that would best suit the singers. Their flair for improvisation was also called upon – “Billy The Mountain” was an opportunity for the pair to insert local references, much to the delight of crowds across the country. And the range of the two singers meant that Zappa could reinvent material, such as the brilliantly heavy and freewheeling version of Absolutely Free’s “Call Any Vegetable” included here. Still, the attempts at humor could go beyond the pale, as on “Magdalena,” a Kaylan and Zappa co-write. Zappa sometimes used brutal topics to skewer society’s lowlifes – here, it’s played for laughs.
In sharp contrast was the finale, a version of Uncle Meat’s “Dog Breath” dominated by a muscular and frantic, wah-wah heavy guitar solo from Zappa that pre-empts the fretboard heroics that would come to define his live shows as the decade went on. For an album that marked the end of an era, Just Another Band From LA did a fine job of showing where Zappa was heading.