"You're Completely Surrounded"

Baby Snakes DVD Review

© 2003 Patrick Neve

At long last, Baby Snakes has been released on DVD. This is truly a cause to celebrate. I consider this to be one of the finest concert films ever produced, and certainly the best of Frank Zappa's officially released video output. That fact that it's been out of print for 15 years I've long considered a travesty of entertainment justice. So let's jump right into it.

The Feature:

First, some back-story. The core of this movie is based on a series of Halloween concerts at the Palladium in NYC by Frank Zappa in 1977. Frank loved the New York audience and the Palladium Theater in particular, so he played many Halloween shows there throughout the 70's and 80's. So take a particularly spirited set of performances from Halloween of 1977, and slowly add the following ingredients to taste:

  1. A heaping helping of the most psychedelic claymation work you've ever seen in your life, done by master stop-motion artist Bruce Bickford.
  2. Interview sessions with Mr. Bickford, revealing him to be crazy as a loon.
  3. Lots of audience shots, inside and outside the building, featuring their Halloween costumes and endearing New York perspective.
  4. Interviews with crew, such as Bill Harrington, and bodyguard John Smothers.
  5. Road footage of Frank playing an accordion in a gift shop.
  6. Ex-Mother Roy Estrada being a twisted fuck with an inflatable doll in the dressing room.
  7. Future member Warren Cuccurullo saying he would like to try out for the band.
  8. Pre-show stage rehearsals.
  9. Frank and band members goofing off in a studio, doing a cheesy lip synch to "Flakes".
  10. Studio footage of the recording of "Revenge of the Knick Knack People".

You might be thinking, how could you possibly mix all this together and still get a decent representation of a live concert? The answer is, by making it a very long movie. Not one minute short of 164:00, to be exact. There were originally two edits of the film, including a shorter 90:00 cut. I'm told there was some discussion at the Zappa Family Trust which version they would release. They probably sensed the impending mob of peasants with torches and pitchforks at their door had they released only the short version. This lengthy cut is without question the more desirable, and commendations are due to the Zappas for releasing this one.

Picture Quality:

From the first frame, you can tell that this was at one time, a real live piece of analog celluloid. There are some dust specs and a general graininess which I find actually quite pleasing. It's not enough to get in the way of enjoying the picture, it's just a slight grittiness which reminds you that you're viewing a working print which could have at one time been shown in a real theater. Remember, this isn't a major studio product, it's basically an indie film that was stored in a glorified basement for decades. Given that, I think the print is in great shape, and it blows away any prior home versions.

Some amount of processing is evident. It's nothing terribly elaborate, don't expect a revelatory experience like the recent restoration of Metropolis. This is rock'n'roll, folks. Compared to the videocassette, the color balance is a bit more in the "red zone". In fact, I think all the colors are saturated a bit heavier than the previous home video release, and since many of the stage lights are red, that's what you see a lot of.

The overall tonal balance is a bit darker than the previous video, with increased contrast. Generally this is an improvement, as the original home video looked a little washed-out. At times there is some lost detail, particularly in some of the panning crowd shots, but for the most part it's a perfectly livable tradeoff for getting a good solid black level. I think they found the best compromise in terms of tone. I believe some sharpening has occurred, though I'm not certain. My television set just isn't large enough to notice the edge enhancement artifacts that so many people rail against. But to my eye, it's a pleasingly crisp, but not artificially sharp-looking picture.

I do have a bit of a gripe with the amount of compression, however. Even on my 36" screen, compression artifacts were clearly visible. For one thing, given all the positive things in terms of color balance and tonal quality, the overall picture does have sort of a "flat" and 1-dimensional aspect to it, that I can't really put my finger on, except that through the natural filmlike quality, it does have a bit of a digital "look" to it. More tellingly, there are many shots where blockiness occurs, particularly when a spotlight is shining down on frank across the audience, which is often. There is smoke in the air, and it just looks blocky and flat. I figured this was a result of putting the whole movie onto one disc, which frankly had kind of surprised me. A quick check indicated that the bitrate transfer was right around 5.5 Mbps, a far cry from the 7, 8 or even 9 megabits that superior videophile transfers are sporting these days. Don't get me wrong, it still blows away my old videocassette, but this was the first movie that I could tell right away that it had been heavily compressed. I figured it was a result of cramming so much movie onto one disc, and they had to cut some corner somewhere to make it fit, so they just squashed it in there. However, it seems that the entire content of the disc totals just 7.2 GB, which is quite a bit shy of the 8.5 GB media limit. So it seems to me they could have hit the compressor perhaps not so hard and still have been able to fit the whole feature on one disc. Better yet would have been to give it the megabit treatment, and perhaps split the film across two discs. But then, a whole 'nother legion of Zappa fans would cry foul at that, so I guess there's just no pleasing everybody. The bottom line is, though this might not be the final definitive transfer, it's clearly superior to all prior home versions.

Sound Quality:

There is a 2.0 DD stereo track and a 5.1 DD track. The fuller story is at zappa.com, written in the Zappa family's own peculiar vernacular, but it seems that the original stereo track was beyond repair. So instead, Vaultmeister Joe Travers set out to completely reconstruct the soundtrack from the original elements, using the original soundtrack as a guide. No small feat, for such a long feature, consisting of all manner of multitrack music performance, archival footage, location shoots, and who knows what else. Fortunately, Joe came up with a stereo mix that blows the previously available home video mix out of the water. It still has its limitations oddly, don't expect the kind of sound quality found on the Baby Snakes soundtrack album. But in comparing it to the old home video, it's night and day. The original video was awash in hiss and high end artifacts. There was no real midrange or low end to speak of. It had a decidedly AM radio sound to it. This reconstruction has added large amounts of meat 'n potatoes for those full range home theater speakers which have generally replaced built-in TV jobbers, with plenty of mids and lows to sink your teeth into. The thing that strikes me about this reconstruction is how faithful it is to the original video mix, and yet how much better it sounds. It's like it sounds the same in terms of the actual mix components, and the balance between elements is very close to the original, but overall it just sounds so much better. Give your subwoofers a day off, however. I think that in keeping it true to the spirit and original mix of the film, the kick drum will not rattle your windows, and you will not feel the bass guitar in your gullet. In fact, there's practically nothing below about 100 Hz, or above 10k or so on the high end, for everything except the "Baby Snakes" music video itself, which does seem to be very close to the soundtrack album version, if not that master itself.

Still with me? Let's look at the 5.1 mix.

It further seems that while researching the elements of the film, Joe stumbled across an unused 1979 four channel mix which was never used. On the tape boxes, these channels had been labeled "front left and right, center, rear surround". As Zappa.com suggests, this is highly reminiscent of Dolby Pro Logic. They wondered if it could work as a 5.1 soundtrack. I assume this means taking the single rear surround channel and doubling it to both rear surrounds. Once you put this disc in and play the 5.1 version, the results will immediately become apparent. Years before home theaters supported surround mixes, Frank created an exciting multichannel soundtrack, with a dedicated center channel, when all the quad-heads were still thinking in terms of left and right, front and back. The more I check out Frank Zappa, the more I see him as a forward-thinking visionary, working decades ahead of his time. In this case, creating media for a playback system not yet invented.

Some folks in newsgroups have complained about the surround mix, how it sounds artificially separated, and not with a clearly defined focus. I do hear perhaps a bit of sonic tomfoolery that I can't quite put my finger on, like perhaps some delayed channels to create greater separation, but by and large it's an exciting and live kind of mix, which uses all the channels in a very creative manner. For those of you who have picked up the mostly-wonderful Halloween DVD-A, don't expect that sort of "band-up-front-audience-in-the-back" scenario. This has, at various times, different instruments and effects all over the place. Particularly during the "Knick Knack People" sequences, stuff is going in all the speakers, and it's all very clear and distinct, with a high degree of directionality which is often lost in today's surround mixes. Also, whether you love the surround mix it or hate it, the only one to blame is Frank himself, who personally mixed and/or approved the surround soundtrack. So for better or worse, kudos to the Zappa family for including it more or less as Frank created it. Personally, I love it. The surround mix is definitely my preferred way of listening to it. My only gripe is, and it's a minor one, "why no DTS track?" The Dolby Digital track sounds fine, but it would have been nice to hear how a DTS encoding would have treated the surround mix. And, given the amount of space left over on the disc, I think they could have accomplished that.

The Extras:

First, I'll tell you what's not included.

Call me crazy, but I'm actually pretty disappointed that they didn't include the behind-the-scenes footage from the Barfko Swill office that was part of the videocassette release. The full release was a two-tape affair. The first tape included the first 45 minutes of the program, the end of which was punctuated by a 3 minute intermission type short, featuring a few members of the Zappa mailroom staff. We got to meet Mariel, the Legendary Barfko Executrix. Dottie, The Person Who Pulls The Things Off. And who could forget the legendary (really!) Gerald Fialka, "Cool Guy Who Wraps Stuff So It Doesn't Break"? There's some quick footage of the Mothers at the Garrick, the photo shoot for We're Only in It For The Money and some looks at current (circa 1987) Zappa product. At the end of the second tape was a 14 minute tour of the inventory room by Mr. Fialka. Even the bathrooms. It's a rough and unedited tour of all the shelves of Barfko Swill product. Finally, the tape included a music video of "Peaches En Regalia", consisting of lots of archival and home movie footage from the 60's.

After nearly three hours of the behemoth rock extravaganza that is Baby Snakes, these features function as the perfect brain-relaxing wind-down. Gerald's cool and slow California style leaves one on an up note, particularly if you're stayed up till 3am with your friends to watch the movie. I've always thought of it as sort of an after-dinner mint for the mind. Unfortunately, none of this material was included in the DVD. Although it's certainly nice to finally see the entire film without interruption for the first time the smooth segue from a drum solo to Disco Boy is indeed a revelation but especially given the storage capacity apparently available on this particular disc, it would have been nice to add the original supplements as a bonus somewhere on this DVD.

Now for what they did include.

The first trailer and the two commercial spots are all very nice trailers for the movie. The narration is funny, and the clips are very representative of the movie. Moreover, the film quality is excellent, there is some visible scratches and dirt, but the colors are vibrant and lifelike, and in some ways the picture seems to rival or perhaps even exceed that of the feature. How can that be? Let's see here.. A-ha, the bit rate seems to be hovering right around 8 Mbps! I wonder if that has something to do with it. This might be the first DVD I've ever seen where the trailers look better than the movie itself.

The Roxy Trailer.

This is the real kicker.

D'yall know the Zappa album, Roxy & Elsewhere? Of course you do. Did you know that the whole series of Roxy concerts that went to produce that album were filmed? Back in '74, Frank had the intention of actually releasing the filmed version of the Roxy performances, but budgetary concerns, technical problems, and lack of a market to fund such a project kept it from getting off the ground. Since the Roxy album is such a favorite among fans, this film has been sort of a mythical holy grail to Zappa heads ever since. Fast forward to December 25th, 2000. Zappa.com, the official website, posted a video file for fans to download which was a 3+ minute trailer for the Roxy Performances. 3 shows, 4 hours, totally uncut. It showed little blurry snippets of the world's best Zappa band playing their asses off to the music we grew up with. Then, a few weeks later, it mysteriously disappeared, without notice or explanation. Fans nervously called the Barfko Swill hotline with questions aplenty, none of which were answered. The family has been as tight-lipped as ever about this particular subject, and I've not yet heard a single word as to what might have happened to the project since 2000. Fast forward yet again to December 2003. Almost three years to the date, the Roxy Trailer appears yet again, this time as a bonus to the Baby Snakes disc. It would seem that either the project is back on schedule, or the Zappa Family are intentionally messing with our minds. One this is true.. if a concert video could usurp Baby Snakes as the best Zappa video ever, the Roxy film could surely be it.

Interface:

The general interface is set up as sort of a cheeky classified dossier. Every menu and page is emblazoned with words like "Sensitive materials" and After the obligatory copyright notice and warnings by Interpol and the FBI, the picture fizzles out and you get the classic Warning/Guarantee that has emblazoned many a Zappa release over the years. ("..If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us.")

Next is a scrolling notice from "The Department of Entertainment Security" to the viewer that the materials they are about to view are of a highly classified and sensitive nature. This includes grandiose statements just as:

"The materials you are about to witness must NOT be exposed to the general population AT ANY TIME. The risk is incalculable."

Under this notice is a bed of very quiet chamber music that could very well be the Ensemble Modern. Finally, it gets to the main menu.

The options are:

Moving the cursor above the menu will take you to a not-very-well-hidden easter egg called "Eyes Only". This is to a page festooned with more important-looking documents and evidence. Behind this is a bit of hitherto-unreleased audio from one of the Palladium concerts, where Frank is explaining to the audience, over a bed of "Stinkfoot", that they are filming a movie, and he introduces them to their new friends, the cameramen Bob, Phil and Dick. Nice touch.

The keep case that it comes in includes a file folder labeled "Top Secret Eyes Only" from the "Department of Entertainment Security". It contains several news clippings, review, and miscellaneous info. Also included is a pair of "No-D Glasses", just as did the 1987 videotape.

Chapters:

  1. Baby Snakes Rehearsal
  2. "This is the show they never see"
  3. Baby Snakes
  4. Bruce Bickford / "Disco Outfreakage"
  5. The Poodle Lecture
  6. "She Said" / City of Tiny Lites
  7. New York's Finest Crazy Persons
  8. "The Way the Air Smells"
  9. Pound- Bass and keyboard solo
  10. "In You" Rap/Dedication
  11. Managua/Bruce Car/Drum Solo
  12. Disco Boy
  13. "Give people somewhere to xscape thru"
  14. King Kong- Roy's Halloween Gas Mask
  15. Bobby Brown Goes Down
  16. Conehead "All you need to know"
  17. I'm So Cute "Entertainment all the way"
  18. Titties 'n' Beer / The Black Page #2 / Audience Participation / The Dance Contest
  19. Jones Crusher
  20. Broken Hearts are for Assholes
  21. Punky's Whips
  22. "Thank You" / Dinah-Moe Humm
  23. Camarillo Brillo / Muffin Man
  24. San Ber'dino
  25. Black Napkins
  26. New York's Finest #2 and credits
  27. Good Night

Summary:

If you've read this far and don't own this disc yet, run to your nearest dealer and acquire one post-haste. At a street price of under $20, it's a steal at three times the price... which is about what it cost to own in 1987. The insane completists might want to hang onto their videocassette versions for the Gerald Fialka stuff, and for the fact that technically it does contain a unique (if inferior) mix. But for everyone else, this DVD effectively replaces all prior releases with a bullet. Whether you're curious about Zappa and this is your first exposure, or you're a jaded old collector, this disc comes very highly recommended.

© 2003 Patrick Neve

 

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This dog last modified: 2013-09-22