I've gotten into the habit of waiting until the end of the year and then buying all the year's posthumous FZ releases for myself for Christmas. So for Xmas 2010 I got Greasy Love Songs, Congress Shall Make No Law... and this album. Of the three 2010 releases, this one is easily my favorite because it's packed with a ton of non-doo-wop Zappa music.
This three disc set documents a series of shows in London at the Odeon in January and February of 1978 with the band line-up of Zappa and Adrian Belew on guitars, Terry Bozzio on drums, Patrick O'Hearn on bass, Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf on keys and Ed Mann on percussion. Recordings from those same shows were used as the building blocks for the Sheik Yerbouti album, but the liner notes for Hammersmith stress that while some of the songs are the same, these recordings all come from different performances. They attempted to piece together the best bits that hadn't been used before to re-construct a full concert, with multiple encores. As some fans have pointed out, the album is missing versions of Wild Love, Yo' Mama and possibly a couple other songs, but I guess you can't have everything.
If you're like me, you probably looked at the set list and thought "Good god, do I really need another version of Dancin' Fool, I Have Been in You, Titties and Beer, Bobby Brown, Dinah-Moe Humm, another audience dance contest and especially yet another Torture Never Stops?" And the answer is no, you probably don't. I know I didn't.
But on the other hand, you get a kick-ass performance of City of Tiny Lights, a super-extended version of Pound For a Brown with "conducted improv" and solos from nearly everyone in the band, a rare live appearance by Little House I Used to Live In (wish that one was longer), a funny version of Dong Work for Yuda, Envelopes with lyrics (I never even knew that song had lyrics), an early prototype of Watermelon in Easter Hay, a bunch of kick-ass encore performances and lots of fresh banter between Zappa and the audience (my favorite bit is when Frank tells the guy who keeps whistling to shut up). It took me a little while to warm up to this album, but by the time I hit the last track on disc 1, I was into it.
Other random notes: Terry Firma is Gail's clever name for a Bozzio drum solo. The packaging comes with an outer slipcase that holds a fold-out triple disc holder and a separate cardboard case for the liner notes and goodies. Those goodies include a balloon with the trademarked Zappa facial hair on it and a party hat made out of tissue paper. I guess these "special" packages that the ZFT keeps whipping up are nifty and all, but if it would have knocked a few bucks off the price I could have done without the balloon and hat. Still, the set is selling for $48, which is almost reasonable for a 3-CD collector's item (especially compared with the prices of the other ZFT releases from 2010).
The sound quality of the music is excellent. No borderline bootleg sound here. The liner notes include the band line-up, recording dates and info, a difficult to read track listing (seriously, why make it so hard to figure out what's on these albums? Just print the songs in an easy-to-read table for cripes sake) and an essay by Peter Wolf explaining how he ended up in Zappa's band and the effect it had on his career. There's also a picture of Frank sitting naked on a toilet playing a guitar, in case anyone wanted that. If you did, WHY? And of course there's the usual incomprehensible liner notes from Gail and lists of endangered plants and animals that have nothing to do with the release.
As an aside, does anyone else who has heard the album think the transition from disc 2 to disc 3 was really badly done? Why fade out Dong Work and then fade it back in on the next disc? It's only a 3 minute song, and there's a clean break between it and Bobby, so why not make the break there? There would have been plenty of room left on disc 2 to include Dong. I just think it's odd, is all.
So should you buy this thing? Well, if you've got the money to spare and you're a fan of the Sheik Yerbouti band and would like to hear more live versions of that band with great sound quality, then this is an essential purchase. If you're a Zappa fanatic and collector, it's a must-buy. If you're sick to death of hearing the songs on this album, then you can probably safely skip it. There are some neat "rarities" (outlined above), but nothing that really screams "Your Zappa experience is incomplete if you haven't heard me!"