The Life and Times of 'The Sinister Footwear
This piece of music first raised it's head in the Winter of 1977 - at least part of it, anyhow. In the midst of Wild Love (a rocking song if ever there was one) Zappa threw in a fully realised version of the hard part from Sinister Footwear II. Unfortunately, I bought Sheik Yerbouti after I'd bought Make A Jazz Noise here, and so my thoughts on Wild Love are always going to be tainted - it does seem an odd decision to put this module into the middle of a relatively straightforward song. It makes me wonder how much of Sinister Footwear had actually been written by this time. Along similar lines, the Winter 1978 band performed an arrangement of the first movement of Mo & Herb's Vacation, titled simply Mo's Vacation. Basically, the melody was arranged for Arthur Barrow, and Vinnie Colaiuta and Ed Mann kept up the rhythm side. This piece is strikingly similar in structure to the first movement on the LSO album, and yet the complete orchestra piece was not played until 1983. I realise Zappa had a lot of problems getting pieces performed, so the actual date of completion is difficult to guess - and Zappa's predeliction for using material written at any stage of his career means that portions of anything could have been written at any time. Anyway, I don't think that in 1977 the name/project Sinister Footwear had been thought of, or at least the fragment found in Wild Love hadn't been assigned to it.

In October of 1978, during the Halloween run of shows at the New York Palladium, the opening song of the second concert yielded a solo that would eventually become part of the third movement to Sinister Footwear. I don't know whether FZ had utilised a transcribed guitar solo as the basis for an orchestral piece before, and I think this happened later with this particular melody - Steve Vai allegedly transcribed this for Zappa, and he didn't come on the scene until mid-way through 1979. It's also quite likely that the solo was in it's edited form before Vai transcribed it, as the orchestral theme and the edited solo match quite closely. I've read rumours that parts of Sad Jane were based on a guitar solo transcribed by Ian Underwood, but never any substantial evidence. If it DID happen, it would likely have been between 1967 and 1973. Listening to that piece, it's difficult to pick out any potential candidate passages - nothing that sounds particularly guitar-like to me.

The first signs of Sinister Footwear as we know it today came in February of 1980, with the rock band SFII being rehearsed in skeletal form. It would be interesting to know whether the rock version came first, or if it was based on an orchestral arrangement that was in progress. It's also not clear whether the piece actually had a name at that time. Either way, it was still not in it's final form, and wouldn't resurface in band form until the 1981 tour.

You Are What You Is was released in September 1981, but the presence of Logeman on all tracks indicates that it was partly recorded in the Summer of 1980. The mix bag of musicians present mean it was probably recorded over a few studio sessions - for example, Ed Mann wasn't in either of the 1980 touring bands, and yet appears on the album. The Theme from the Third Movement of Sinister Footwear is an edited version of the Halloween solo, along with a completely new vamp, percussion from Ed Mann and a doubled guitar track by Steve Vai. The Vai track wasn't explicitly mentioned in the liner notes, but there is definitely another guitar track. Indeed, if you listen to some of the sustained notes, there is a slow vibrato bar wobble which doesn't exist on the Halloween recording. Listen to it on headphones; the original guitar is in the right channel, and Vai's guitar overdub is in the left. It's pretty tight all of the way through, but at 1:00 there is a pitch fluctuation which sounds to me like Stevie saying "Hey, I'm here too! Over here! Left channel!"

Also, in the David Ocker internet interview, he recalls overdubbing on this track along with Vai. While I can't pick out anything particularly clarinet -like on this track, there's a lot going on beneath the surface. There are certain sounds that I presumed were sustained notes from Ed Mann's tuned percussion, but I could be wrong - there's a phrase that ends at 1:15 with a flute-like tone, and the same sound occurs at about 2:25. I don't doubt that Ocker recorded this track at some stage, he IS credited with clarinet in the liner notes, and I can't immediately think of another YAWYI track with such an instrument present. Any comments? Whatever it's aural construction, it's an impressive display of musicianship - the overdubs are pretty much on the button all the way through, and make listening to this track on headphones a must.

The Them Or Us version of Sinister was, to some people's amazement, edited together from various live sources. There could be studio overdubs a la Sheik Yerbouti, but the 15th November 1981 late show performance of SFII sounds almost identical to the album version, up to the point where the solo keyboard arpeggios enter. The feedback guitar bits are definitely from this concert, and the very low guitar lines also sound the same - I think the notes out of normal guitar range were produced by lowering the whammy bar, hence the rather odd intonation. Perhaps this was the motivation for Vai to eventually design a seven string guitar?

One rather bizarre branch of the Footwear tree was pointed out to me recently. The first arpeggio from SFII is present in the pre-chorus section of Frogs With Dirty Little Lips. It's out of context, so you might never have noticed it - I didn't - but it's there none-the-less.

It was 1984 when the orchestral arrangement was finally performed, in Berkeley 15-16 June and San Jose 20 June. Thankfully, one performance was broadcast on radio - along with other pieces - under the umbrella title 'A Zappa Affair'. It found it's way onto the 'Serious Music' bootlegs, and eventually onto disc 4 of Apocrypha. I don't think the master of this performance belongs to the ZFT (most TV and Radio companies retain the rights to their broadcast material) but in all honesty it's a below par recording anyway. The people who really want to hear it will eventually find a recording from somebody, and the people who can't be bothered to search for one don't deserve to hear it anyway.

SFII was resurrected for the 1988 'big band' tour, and was one of the most successful songs of the tour. At least, the edited highlights that we were given on Jazz Noise. I've heard a few performances of this song from the 88 tour, and it always seemed to be on the verge on the edge of falling apart. The Jazz Noise edit, however, is probably my favourite arrangement of the ones I've heard. It's made up of material from a number of shows, and the solos are all perfectly sinister. After we've been round the horn section, we get those lush chords just prior to the postlude melody - like chocolate for the ears, if you'll pardon my English.

And that's where it finished. At least to my knowledge. As ever, if you've anything to add to this, write it on a sheet of paper and eat it.

Next Page
Sinister Footwear intro page
back to main index page