“Among fair fists at the greatest ‘hits’ are extensive improvisations that repeatedly just don’t work”: Frank Zappa’s Live At The Whisky A Go Go, 1968

Seems like there’s a reason this live recording remained unreleased in his lifetime

Frank Zappa – Live at the Whiskey A Go Go 1968
(Image: © Zappa Records / UMe)

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On the face of it, this looks like something of a peach for aficionados of the never-sharper Zappa. Just four months prior to this extensive three-set hullabaloo, he’d delivered the Mothers’ iconoclastic freak-defining, hippie-baiting We’re Only In It For The Money collection. 

Recorded at one of the band’s favourite venues on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard and advertised via an open invitation in the LA Free Press as “five full hours of unprecedented merriment, which will be secretly recorded for an upcoming record album,” Whisky A Go Go 1968 has been a long time coming. So was it worth the wait?

As its 32-track unexpurgated immensity remorselessly unfolds, one cannot help but marvel at Zappa’s evident production genius – not so much here as elsewhere. He’d initially been aided by sainted production pioneer Tom Wilson (who’d also supplied equally miraculous midwifery services to Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground) on both Freak Out! and Absolutely Free.

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention - Live at Whisky a Go Go 1968 (Vault Footage) - YouTube Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention - Live at Whisky a Go Go 1968 (Vault Footage) - YouTube
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Zappa had engineered and edited his ever-ambitious We’re Only It For The Money  with such adept sleight of hand as to present them as a far more skilled combo than evidenced here, capable of performing to a standard they were never entirely able to duplicate in the live arena.

That said, no one should be surprised by the limitations of this incarnation of the Mothers, least of all Zappa. During the band’s first set, he reveals that he’d tried to capture a Mothers live recording before: “In Miami... that didn’t turn out too swift.”

So, was Frank any happier with this attempt? Well, it was shelved for 56 years – remaining unreleased in his lifetime – and he disbanded these Mothers the following year, ostensibly for financial reasons, but also citing a lack of “sufficient effort” from the musicians.

Ultimately, his musical ambitions rapidly outgrew the original Mothers; he had designs on different arenas

Ultimately, his musical ambitions rapidly outgrew the original Mothers; he had designs on different arenas: not just rock, but jazz, modern classical, the avant-garde – and there’s a lot more to musique concrète than randomly hitting stuff.

Among fair fists at the Mothers greatest ‘hits’ (Plastic People, Hungry Freaks, Daddy, a gallant, near-miss attempt at Brown Shoes Don’t Make It) there are numerous 10-minute-plus improvisations that repeatedly just don’t work. In fact, much of WAGG sounds like the pit orchestra at the local am-dram making a valiant attempt at pulling a Zappa tribute out of their arses. Which, one imagines, was not exactly Frank’s avowed intent.

Whisky A Go Go 1968 is on sale now via Zappa Records / UMe.

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.