To simplify my life considerably, I'm going to combine the "reviews" of all six Stage releases into a single entry, even though they were released individually. Also, to save a lot of time and effort, I'm not going to give complete track listings of the twelve discs, or do song-by-song reviews (hey, we're talking over 800 minutes of music here, give me a break). If you need to know the track listings, they're probably available through The Official Zappa site, or an information site like the All Music Guide. There's probably a few other Zappa sites that list them as well. Maybe one day when I have the time, I'll come back and expand this section to really cover all twelve discs in detail. Until then, I'll just give some general facts and opinions, focusing on highlights and material unique to the Stage series.
It's hard to determine where to place this series in a chronological listing of Zappa's albums. For one thing, some sources site the first volume has having been released in 1988 while others say 1989. And the entire set wasn't released all at once, it was staggered out over a few years, with the last volumes not coming out until 1992. Then there's the fact that the series covers Zappa's entire career, from the earliest Mothers recordings in the mid-60s to the final tour in 1988. Just to keep things simple, I'm going to lump the entire series together and place them between Guitar and the live albums from the 1988 tour.
I should note that the Stage series was, to some degree, my introduction to Frank Zappa's music. I already owned a few of the studio albums, but after getting YCDTOSA vol. 2 for Christmas one year, and then finding vol. 3 in a used CD store a few weeks later, and then filling in vol. 1 to complete the set, I decided to just keep picking them up as they came out. Soon, I had the whole series. So to me, the live versions of many of these songs were the first ones I heard. This may or may not have been a good thing, since Zappa often changed the lyrics during live performances (substituting in a "secret word" chosen for each show), and just assumed that his audience would already be familiar with the "originals", and would get the jokes. On the other hand, Frank must have known that this series would introduce some new fans to his works, so he included extensive (but unfortunately not always accurate) liner notes with most of the series, indicating which album(s) each song originally came from.
Before getting into each individual volume, here are a few notes in general about the series. Ever since the days of the original Mothers of Invention, Zappa said that he wanted to release a live, multi-album set to document what his bands were capable of. I've read that Weasels Ripped My Flesh was originally intended to be part of such a set. The Beat the Boots series also comes close to fulfilling this idea. But with the 13 hours of music represented by the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore albums, Frank finally realized his dream. And the music really does show his bands' abilities - the entire series features un-retouched, live performances. No overdubs. What you hear is what happened on stage.
Much to many fans' annoyance, Zappa decided not to present the material chronologically. FZ stated in interviews that his music was a single entity, and that each album just reflected a side of the total creation. He also had his "conceptual continuity" - the threads and quotes and remakes of songs, lyrics and ideas that recurred on album after album after album. So it's no surprise that when he put this series together, he decided to have the music jump from year to year, decade to decade, band to band, between songs and sometimes even during a song. Keeping that in mind, it's impressive how consistent Zappa's bands were. You would expect that in a song put together from different performances in different years by different bands, the edits would sound glaringly obvious. But they don't - the cuts are usually seamlessly smooth. The result is almost like a monstrous Mothers concert that includes every musician who has ever played in a Zappa band. It's as if Frank played an all-day music marathon, split up into six separate shows with two sets each. Frank even announces an intermission at the end of the first disc on some sets, and usually concludes the show by introducing the band at the end of each volume.
Still, many fans would have preferred it if Frank had done things chronologically, or at least stuck with a single band for each disc. Those fans should be pleased with volume two (which does, in fact, seem to be the most popular volume) because it documents the 1974 "Roxy" band playing a single concert (actually a couple concerts at the same location, edited into a single show). Volume five also keeps things somewhat chronological, with disc one being entirely by the early Mothers of Invention, and disc two being entirely from 1982. This volume is one of my favorites, although it doesn't seem to have a lot of other fans.
Now, on to the volume-by-volume details...
Volume one kicks off with a "field recording" of Flo and Eddie in a Florida airport, talking about nearly throwing up on stage. What a way to begin a marathon live set. After that we finally get part of the Sofa mini-rock-opera, but not as much as appears on the Swiss Cheese / Fire boot. The Mammy Anthem is a rippin' instrumental version of Thing Fish's Mammy Nuns. The dialog track Diseases of the Band documents a performance where nearly every band member was sick with one illness or another. The 1969 performance of Lets Make the Water Turn Black, Harry You're a Beast and Orange County Lumber Truck is great, and interesting to compare with the 1988 version of the same medley found on Make a Jazz Noise Here. There's a variation on Flo and Eddie's Fillmore groupie routine, and then a remake of Louie, Louie but with Ruth Underwood's first name substituted for Louie, and lyrics about her fighting off the advances of a man in the hotel the previous night. Babbette is a song about their road manager's "fondness" for dogs. There's a great version of Big Swifty, but unfortunately it's not by the Grand Wazoo band (who have yet to see an official release). Disc one ends with a 20 minute performance of the Yellow Snow suite from Apostrophe('), complete with a bizarre guy from the audience reciting poetry, and the extended Rollo ending.
The second disc of volume one begins with a version of Plastic People that makes it very, very clear that the song is based on Louie, Louie. The lyrics are also different from the Absolutely Free version. After that comes yet another version of The Torture Never Stops, stretching out to a torturous 16 minutes long. Sweet Leilani starts out sounding like an old 50s song, but changes to a Mothers-style freak out mid-way through. The versions of Fine Girl, Zombie Woof, Be in My Video, Deathless Horsie and The Dangerous Kitchen are all good. Towards the end of the disc there's the religion and suicide bashing songs from You Are What You Is - believe it or not, they actually come from a concert that MTV broadcast live back when they were just starting out and were desperate for content. The lyrics to those songs probably explain why MTV never had anything to do with Frank Zappa again after that. The side ends with an energetic Tell Me You Love Me and a nice Sofa #2.
Volume two features a complete performance by the lineup of FZ, Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, Ruth Underwood, Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson. The liner notes claim that the whole album was recorded on Sept. 22, 1974 in Helsinki, Finland. While the whole thing comes from that location, fans who compared the official album with boot tapes have found that the CDs are a mix and match of multiple shows from around that date. Still, it sounds like one continuous concert, and in the end that's all that really matters. Another rumor that floated around about this album was that the bass drum was, for reasons unknown, re-recorded at the time the CDs were being put together. This has been the subject of much debate on alt.fan.frank-zappa, with even the "insiders" who worked with Zappa giving conflicting reports - one recording engineer swore that the bass drum was not re-recorded, while another one detailed the exact equipment and methodology they used to do it. To my ear, the kick drum sounds very out-of-place, so I'd believe that it was re-recorded. With that bit of useless trivia out of the way...
By the time this band got to Helsinki, they had been playing together for quite a while, so they were able to blow through these songs with amazing speed and precision. Some of the songs are the same titles found on Roxy And Elsewhere, but here they're played much faster and with a sense that the band has "perfected" these songs.
The first disc opens with Tush Tush Tush - the melody of this song would eventually become A Token Of My Extreme on the Joe's Garage album, but here the lyrics are mostly improvised, based on recent events in the band. Inca Roads has a crushingly good guitar solo, an intense bass and keyboard part towards the end, and beautiful flute playing throughout. Crank it up loud, and your jaw will hit the floor. RDNZL is also impressive, with Zappa counting it off by shouting a quick "One! One! One! One!". This version of Village of the Sun is good, but the quick tempo kills some of the emotional impact. Room Service is an improvised piece with the band reenacting their difficulties getting decent room service and female companionship at the hotel. The rest of disc one is impressive as well, with the band whipping through some complex tunes like they were a piece of cake.
Disc two begins with Approximate, a piece where the rhythms were strictly enforced, but the musicians could improvise whatever melody they wanted. Several versions of the song are performed, including a capella and tap dance (!). The rest of the disc is dominated by the massive, 24 minute version of Dupree's Paradise, that comes next, complete with lots of improv and percussion solos. To be honest, this has never been one of my favorite songs, but some fans love it (I just saw a guy on rec.music.progressive list it as one of his top-10 all time favorite songs). At the end, it segues into a traditional Finnish tango, Satumaa ("Leave the lights on on stage, we have to read this music. We've never played it before"). After that there's a flurry of short pieces, including a Dog Breath / Uncle Meat medley that's interesting to compare with the version on The Yellow Shark. The final full song is Montana, and what a song it is. It starts with a guy in the audience shouting out "Whipping Post!". Frank consults with the band, but they don't know Whipping Post. So instead they play Montana, with Frank altering the lyrics to include as many references to a whipping post as he could work in. Very funny. The disc ends with Big Swifty, but it's really only a snippet of that song tacked onto the end of Montana, followed by band introductions and the end of the album.
Volume two seems to be most fans' favorite of the series, getting much praise from folks on the Zappa newsgroup and always being recommended to people who ask which volume to begin with. Personally, it took me a long while to warm up to this album (although now I think it's fantastic). It helps a lot if you're familiar with Roxy And Elsewhere before hearing this one. Otherwise, I'd start with volume one and then take the rest in order.
Volume Three is sort of the "80s" volume, with most of the material on disc one coming from the 1984 tour, and disc two coming from a mix of the 70s and early 80s. Highlights of disc one include a version of Sharleena which documents the first time Frank and Dweezil ever played guitar together on stage. The resulting guitar duel is actually pretty impressive. The totally unexpected quote from Yes' Owner of a Lonely Heart makes this version of Bamboozled By Love interesting. Honey, Don't You Want a Man Like Me includes a neat fake-out - when the audience sings the Live in New York version's line "Her favorite group was...Helen Reddy!", the band reply in unison "No! Twisted Sister!" This live version of Drowning Witch is great, although it had to be edited together from two different shows to make it sound that way. Ride My Face to Chicago, Carol You Fool, and Chana in De Bushwop all see their only official releases, and are all pretty catchy songs. This abbreviated version of Joe's Garage is fun and fast, but lacks the textural depth of the original. The vocals notes that are held out forever on Why Does It Hurt When I Pee? are impressive.
The second disc of volume three includes another mammoth piece - a version of King Kong that was edited together from multiple performances to make a "best of King Kong" track. Before that though, we get an interesting mix of material. The disc opens with Dickie's Such an Asshole, a Nixon-bashing song from the early 70s. Hands With a Hammer is a Terry Bozzio drum solo, introduced by a dialog clip of Terry complaining about how hard the tour has been on him and saying that it feels like someone has been beating his hands with a hammer. This drum solo segues into a beautiful performance of Zoot Allures, possibly my favorite version of that song. Then we get the complete side two of You Are What You Is, also taken from that Halloween 1981 MTV concert already featured on Volume one. The recording of Cocaine Decisions and Nig Biz comes from the Italian "riot" show, where the audience got into a battle with police and you can hear actual tear gas canisters being fired into the crowd. Amazingly, this only causes the band to stumble for a moment, and then they continue on. When they get to the next instrumental break, Zappa has an Italian translator try to calm the crowd. After that comes the 24 and a half minute King Kong, which has an unusual reggae feel through most of it. Closing the set is a good version of Cosmik Debris.
Volume four is another grab bag of performances ranging from 1969 through 1988, although the set leans heavier on the 80s material than the 60s or 70s. This is a complaint that some fans have about the Stage series - the 80s bands are over-represented on some volumes. Still, volume 2 is entirely from 1974, and disc one of volume five is entirely from the 60s Mothers. Plus Frank probably had more well-recorded 80s concerts available, and they were fresher in his mind. So it's not surprising that there's a lot of stuff on volumes 1, 3, 4 and 6 from the 81-84 and 88 tours.
About volume four specifically - I think this might be the second weakest volume (after volume six), but it still has lots of good stuff on it. The opening Little Rubber Girl is kinda funny, although seriously sexist. I like these versions of Brown Moses and especially The Evil Prince a lot better than the ones on Thing Fish. The short version of Approximate gets right to the heart of that song, and the Mudd Club Version of Love of My Life is really catchy (I love the drum fills). Jazz fans will love the Let's Move to Cleveland and Pound For a Brown solos. You Call That Music? is an interesting, very experimental minimalist piece from the original Mothers that makes a perfect link between the two "solos" tracks mentioned above. The 1984 version of The Black Page is good, and it's fun to hear the '88 band do a surreal sportscaster parody on Take Me Out to the Ball Game, followed by a smokin' Filthy Habits. Unfortunately there's also a few low points - Stick Together isn't improved by a live performance, and these versions of My Guitar Wants To... and Willie The Pimp aren't the best. The segue from "Willie" into Montana is kind of jarring, and the edit in the middle of the latter song is one of the few in the series that I think sounds really obvious and bad. But the thing I dislike most about this disc is The Torture Never Stops - Original Version with Captain Beefheart. As if there weren't already enough versions of this song in the official Zappa catalog (and there's more to come), Frank had to include this boring, very straightforward blues version. Snooze.
Disc two starts out with the amusing Church Chat, a spoken word piece that reminds us that "There is no hell, there is only...France!". This would seem to be a logical introduction for In France (I used it that way on a mix tape I made), but instead they go into Stevie's Spanking. This version includes a long, amazing guitar battle between Zappa and Vai. They each play an individual solo, and then they play together for several great minutes. Even though I'm not the biggest fan of long guitar solos, I really like this one. Unfortunately that song is followed up by a lengthy Outside Now, which I've always thought was one of the more boring of Zappa's songs (although others love the track). This is followed by versions of Disco Boy, Teen-Age Wind (I think you may be able to construct a nearly complete live version of the You Are What You Is album just from tracks in the Stage series), Truck Driver Divorce and Florentine Pogen. A track called Tiny Sick Tears follows, based on the song 96 Tears. This song includes a narrative section in the middle where Frank does a funny parody of some Doors lyrics. Smell My Beard and The Booger Man are folkloric tracks by the '74 band, and sound like jamming improvisations. Carolina Hard Core Ecstasy is pretty good - I like it better than the Bongo Fury version. In Are You Upset? Frank confronts an angry audience member who doesn't like the early Mothers' experimental music. The disc ends with a medley of short doo-wop/50s rock songs. A nice touch.
Volume five, as mentioned above, contains one full disc of the early Mothers, and one full disc of the 1982 band. The Mothers disc is an audio scrapbook of things recorded between 1965 and 1969. The sound quality is a little lower than the rest of the series, but still very listenable. Other than Trouble Every Day and My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, all the tracks are previously unreleased. A lot of the tracks document the Mothers improvising and freaking out, both on stage and off, but there are also some "regular" songs. The Downtown Talent Scout is an R&B number with lyrics about the undercover cops who would try to infiltrate the hippie culture so that they could make drug busts. Charles Ives is better known as the backing track for Captain Beefheart's The Blimp, but this version is longer and has extra material. Here Lies Love is a blues tune similar to Directly From My Heart To You, but with a smoky horn section replacing the violin. The Mozart Ballet features some of the Mothers attempting to dance a ballet (much to the audience's amusement) while Ian Underwood plays Mozart's Piano Sonata in B Flat. Chocolate Halvah is an exotic, eastern-sounding piece with a plodding drum beat and wailing vocals. Some of the music that Frank composed for the movie Run Home Slow is included, as is an early version of Little House I Used to Live In (although for some strange reason, on this disc it's called Return of the Hunchback Duke). Where's Our Equipment? is a "semi-acoustic" song, performed that way because the truck carrying their amplifiers broke down and couldn't get to the show in time. German Lunch is a lengthy, non-musical comedy sketch, in which the band reenacts the difficulties they had getting through customs in Germany. The closing My Guitar... is a shortened, "single edit" studio version. The rest of the disc is made up of various bizarre conversations recorded on tour buses and elsewhere, and the Mothers jamming and doing various experimental things on stage. If you like Weasels Ripped My Flesh, you should like this CD.
If you like the 1982 band, disc two is fantastic. A nice selection of songs (although I probably could have done without Dancin' Fool), crystal clear recording and note-perfect performances. The music is largely instrumental and includes a lot of Zappa's more complex rock compositions. Standout tracks include What's New In Baltimore?, Moggio, RDNZL, City of Tiny Lights, Pound For a Brown, Doreen and Black Page #2. Also included is a live version of Dead Girls of London, which Zappa co-wrote with violinist L. Shankar for his album Touch Me There (see the related albums page). Shall We Take Ourselves Seriously? is a great song with vocals that get stuck in my head. I'm surprised Frank never included that one on a studio album. The lyrics were inspired by a concert promoter who acted like a dictator backstage, being particularly picky about who could eat the asparagus on the vegetable tray (apparently, in whatever country this was, asparagus is considered a delicacy). There's a word repeated several times in the song that I thought was "sparkle", but is actually the German (?) word for asparagus.
One down side to the 1982 tour was that, for some reason, audiences insisted on throwing things (including coins, food and even used hypodermic syringes) onto the stage. Frank wouldn't put up with it, so he would warn the crowd that if it continued, he'd cancel the show. In Geneva the crowd apparently wanted to see if he'd really do it, so the last track on disc two is Geneva Farewell, with Zappa ending the set in mid-song, announcing that he'd had enough and walking off.
The final volume of the series is the Halloween sex volume. It brings together most of Zappa's sexually themed songs, and includes a lot of songs that were recorded at Halloween shows over the years.
Giving some indication of where volume six is heading, disc one starts off with the M.O.I. Anti-Smut Loyalty Oath. Due to Jim Morrison being charged with exposing himself on stage not long before, the Mothers were asked to promise that they wouldn't do anything like that. So they start the concert with a very enthusiastic verbal oath not to show their wee-wees, ending with "That does not include private showings at the motel, which is the Ramada Inn". After that, the album covers a lot of already-covered ground, making me wonder if Frank was running out of material but was contractually obligated to come up with a sixth album. Included are: Dirty Love (with Poodle Lecture introduction), Magic Fingers, Honey, Don't You Want a Man... (did we really need another version of this?), I'm So Cute, Ms. Pinky, Shove it Right In, Wind Up Working in a Gas Station (this song is entirely too lame to deserve the number of versions that appear in the FZ catalog), I Have Been In You, Dinah-Moe Humm, He's So Gay, Camarillo Brillo and Muffin Man. And that's just on disc one. If you really enjoy Frank's "dirty" songs, then you'll probably like this disc - the performances are actually very good, and there's lots of humorous introductions and dialogs. But this is far and away my least favorite disc in the series, just because I really don't need another version of all these songs.
However, there is also a lot of unique material on disc one. The Madison Panty-Sniffing Festival is just what the title implies. White Person is a strange little improvised spoken-word track. Make a Sex Noise has a good groove to it, while audience members are challenged to make their best sex noises over top. Tracy is a Snob and Emperor of Ohio feature the band improvising over pre-recorded tapes of women making some real sex noises. Sounds like the soundtrack to a porno. Adding to the confusion about this title, Farther O'Blivion actually turns out to be Father O'Blivion from Apostrophe (') (see the Piquantique review - the track there called Father O'Blivion is actually Farther O'Blivion).
Disc two is much better. By the late 70s, it had become a tradition for FZ to play a big concert on Halloween every year. Most of these were recorded (both audio and video), and spawned the three hour concert movie Baby Snakes. Most of disc two of volume six also comes from these Halloween shows. The sex theme is continued in tracks like Catholic Girls, Crew Slut and Lisa's Life Story (which has Lisa Popeil of Teen-age Prostitute fame singing about herself). But there are also some fantastic instrumentals, like Thirteen, which features L. Shankar on violin and is in...you guessed it...thirteen. At the beginning of the song, Zappa explains to the crowd how to count it. Lobster Girl is a nice little drum and bass duet. There are also good versions of Black Napkins, Alien Orifice and Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.
The 1988 band gets one of their rare appearances in the series with Lonesome Cowboy Nando, an odd version of Lonesome Cowboy Burt that is so mutated by secret words and inside jokes that it hardly makes any sense to the average listener. Unfortunately, since 200 Motels was out of print while I was doing most of my Zappa collecting, this Stage performance was the first version of the song that I heard, and it left me completely bewildered. During my most recent listen to it, I suddenly realized that I could identify vocals belonging to Mike Keneally, Jimmy Carl Black and Flo and Eddie. Keneally only ever performed in the '88 band, and I had never heard of JCB and F&E performing with that band, so I was further confused. Then I checked the liner notes and saw that FZ had used some new studio technology to somehow combine the '88 performance with one from 1971. It's an interesting experiment, but I wonder if the only reason this track made it into the Stage series was as an excuse for Frank to play with a new studio toy. (Update March 9th, 2004: I got an email from one Ferdinando Boero who, it turns out, is the Nando that the song was named after! He read the above paragraph and sent me the URL for a web page that explains what the Nando and Jellyfish references are all about. Thanks Nando!)
Disc two of volume six concludes with a wonderful performance of the 200 Motels Finale and and instrumental rock version of Strictly Genteel. A perfect ending for the Stage series, made even better by the guy in the audience who plaintively wails "ZAAAPPPAAAAAAAAA!" right at the very end.
Overall, I'd say that there's a lot of good stuff in this series, but there's also a lot of filler. The whole thing probably could have been boiled down to eight discs without losing anything important, possibly even down to six. As an overview of Zappa's career, I'm not sure that it's entirely successful, but then again given the huge scope and volume of his output, a truly comprehensive retrospective is pretty much impossible. Especially since every Zappa fan has a different list of what he or she considers essential. In the end, I'd say this set is worth picking up for people who are serious about Frank's music, but unless you've got a big wad of cash to burn, it probably isn't the best place for beginners to start. Of course, no one's ever going to talk me into giving up my "road case" version (a wooden box with metal reinforced corners, made to look like a piece of touring equipment, which holds all six volumes in the original double-wide CD cases).
One final thought - the liner notes of all six volumes spell out the criteria by which tracks were selected for the set. One thing on every list is "Is there film or video tape of the performance?" As someone recently pointed out on the Zappa newsgroup, it's been over a decade now since this series was released - why has there never been an accompanying video? What was the point?