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There are many different versions of Frank Zappa's "The Torture Never Stops," but the best I've heard (yet) occurred in Philadelphia in 1976 -- 5 years before I was born.
In my experience, "The Torture Never Stops" has always carried a "jazzy" (or relaxed) quality to it, which perhaps was an ideal launch-pad for endless musical ideas. Quite simply, the initial structure of this (and many other Zappa tunes) allows it to go virtually anywhere, come back, then venture out again. There's also a built-in, ironic contrast to a free-and-easy musical feel mixed with lyrics about a torture dungeon.
Of course, one of the big aspects of this song (aside from the lyrics) is the guitar solo. Zappa, a guitar master, skillfully blends diverse moods and intricate ideas together here. The solo could definitely serve as an introduction to the merits of improvisation.
Aside from Zappa, who was on board for this performance?
Bianca Odin—vocals, keyboards
Ray White—vocals, rhythm guitar, cowbell
Eddie Jobson—keyboards, violin
Patrick O'Hearn—bass, vocals
Terry Bozzio—drums, vocals
The Imagery & Meaning -- What is the Torture and Why Won't It Stop?
Frank Zappa wrote some highly imaginative lyrics sometimes, and "Torture" is an excellent example. It conjures up potentially memorable images, no doubt about it. In the dungeon you have "Flies all green and buzzin,'" and it "Stinks so bad, stones are chokin.'" Arguably, though, the most memorable image is when "An evil prince eats a steamin' pig" not far from the dungeon.
Basically, the song is about the depths of sadism, albeit performed in a fairly humorous manner. It's the rare kind of song that is, at least on the surface, not very open to interpretation. The images are stark and very gross, and we instantly know that the Prince involved is "evil," and presumably there is no legitimacy or leniency to his kingdom's rule.
The lyrics also suggest ignorance among the population, as no one seems to know who's contained in the dungeon or why. Also, few ordinary folks would dare publicly speculate on the matter, lest they end up in the same place. This is Zappa's simple yet poignant message. Meanwhile, as some versions of the song feature much female moaning that almost sounds like pleasure, it's implied that there's a kinkiness in the torture taking place -- that people flexing this power totally get off on it. After all, why else would they do it so eagerly and so often?
The Captain Beefheart Version: Another Key Incarnation of "Torture"
The first time I heard "Torture" was on an FZ compilation called "Cheap Thrills," and I didn't care much for it at first, honestly. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate it after further listens. An obviously factor to this version is Beefheart's vocals, which one will likely either love or hate. What helped me appreciate this "Torture" is that I like much of Beefheart's other work. I mean, who wouldn't like a Captain Beefheart tune like "Bat Chain Puller" or "Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey On My Knee"?
This version is obviously more bluesy than "smooth jazzy," and the greasy, grimy vocal stylings definitely match the subject matter. In fact, it's almost easy to neglect the more absurd aspects of the tune after a while, and mistake it for nothing than another raw, rough-around-the-edges, dragged through the dirt blues piece.
However, the biggest drawback to this version (in my opinion) is the lack of any solos (guitar or otherwise). Sure, sometimes solos can get in the way, but this is a track where it should have been deemed necessary for some instrument to get on in there, break things up a little bit, then maybe reassemble them with slight variations. Without a memorable solo, the repetitive aspects can make the tune drag on.
In all its incarnations and iterations, "The Torture Never Stops" is an interesting tune, but it may take a few listens to get into the appreciative mindset. It really helps to pay attention to the lyrics, and to appreciate a good guitar solo (when applicable). Basically, like much of Zappa's work, this is better reserved for people who already like this type of music, and who are drawn to quirky things in general. In any case, if you don't like this particular tune, Frank Zappa definitely has others for you to try. In his lifetime, FZ released 62 official albums, and 49 albums have been released posthumously. Chances are there will be something in there you'll like, even if you're not the hugest fan.