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The Torture Never Stops DVD showcasing Frank Zappa at a career peak in 1981.

Music DVD Review: Frank Zappa – The Torture Never Stops

Halloween was Frank Zappa’s favorite holiday, and in 1981 he spent it performing two shows at The Palladium in New York City. Both sets were filmed, and later edited together for The Torture Never Stops DVD.  It was previously available in truncated form through the Zappa family’s Honker Video imprint, this new Eagle Rock release is purportedly the definitive version.

The rhetorically titled Does Humor Belong In Music? came in 1986, but was thoroughly applicable to The Torture Never Stops. In fact, it was a question critics seemed to have been posing for Zappa’s entire career. Early satirical statements such as We’re Only In It For The Money were applauded as hilarious in 1967. Only a few years later though, songs like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow,” or “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes,” were deemed so juvenile as to be beneath contempt. Zappa professed not to care what the critics thought, but there were times that he was obviously exasperated by those who just didn’t get it.

For those of us who believed that humor very definitely did belong in music, the era showcased on this DVD was a golden one. The albums Sheik Yer Bouti, Joe’s Garage, and You Are What You Is were filled with stellar guitar playing, incredibly complex arrangements, and some of his funniest songs ever. Zappa previewed nearly half of the soon to be released You Are What You Is during these 1981 Halloween concerts, and the audiences ate it up.

Much of You Are What You Is address trendy subjects of the day. FZ looked at Urban Cowboys with “Harder Than Your Husband,” punk rock denizens in “Mudd Club,” big-time televangelists during “Heavenly Bank Account,” and the new Reagan-auts in “We’re Turning Again.” As great as these numbers were on vinyl, they seem somewhat superfluous in concert. 

To watch Frank Zappa play live is to see one of the most underrated guitar players of all time at work. The show opens up with “Black Napkins,” a cousin of sorts to his various “Black Page” solo arrangements. The title references what the sheet music for a tune like this looks like, nothing but black ink. From there the set moves into the more traditional cuts, featuring those from You Are What You Is and others. “Montana” works well in this context, as do “Jumbo Go Away,” and “Bamboozled By Love.” Percussionist Ed Mann’s Bob Dylan impression during “Flakes” is absolutely hilarious, the funniest moment of the entire concert for me.

Zappa always had the best musicians in the business playing with him. In 1981 a very young Steve Vai was along for the ride, and the guitar-slingers duel “Stevies Spanking” is an amazing showcase. The band slips into the lengthy “The Torture Never Stops” afterwards, which takes the level of musicianship up a few notches.The first encore, “Strictly Genteel,” maintains the awe-inspiring musical intensity, and the show comes to an end with the ever popular “Illinois Enema Bandit.”

The rarities in the bonus section are two more live tracks, “Teen Age Prostitute,” and “City Of Tiny Lights.” Finally there is an early video done for “You Are What You Is,” which serves to show us just how primitive the format was back in 1981.

The Torture Never Stops is Frank Zappa in rare form. While he went on to compose serious classical works, play Broadway, battle the PMRC, and finally bow out gracefully, Zappa rarely looked happier than he does on this DVD. A must for FZ fans.

About Greg Barbrick

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