Father of the Mothers
YOU might think that Frank Zappa is a fearsome fellow from the wild hairy being in photographs, the cutting nastiness of his songs and the god-like aura that surrounds him. It’s not his fault that he is regarded in this way – it’s the result of the publicity and unthinking adulation of some Mothers of Invention fans. In fact, he turns out to be a friendly, mild-mannered fellow, with a cutting tongue to be sure, but he doesn’t cut everything and everyone indiscriminately.
Ever since that album with "Freak Out" emblazoned on the cover, the Mothers have been heroes of the underground, combining good music with biting social comment. Because of this there has been a tendency for people to over-identify with Zappa, and it’s not confined to the long-hairs and the freaks. Surprisingly enough, they are not the typical Mothers fans. Frank Zappa told me: "The people who buy our records tend to be boys between 14 and 17 who are unhappy and come from middle-class homes. They are disillusioned with their parents and find some sort of substitute reality in the Mothers’ material, which leads them to make the words more important than they are."
Frank leaves the interpretation of the Mothers’ lyrics to the listener and takes a "make what you like of them" attitude. "People didn’t listen to the music on the old albums. They tried taking the words as a prophecy or poetry and drew a blank, so then they tried seeing them as purely entertainment which was just as wrong. I get my enjoyment from knowing how an audience will respond and satisfaction from knowing I can play a series of roles to reinforce or negate that impression, which is absurd."
One problem Zappa has to face is the image of Zappa the personality and Zappa the commentator which leads people to take more notice of his comments and lyrics than his music. This happened when Frank visited the London School of Economics to speak to a student meeting. There was hardly a single question asked about his work as a composer. "I got the feeling from the audience there that they thought of me as a political candidate. They weren’t interested in the music, which is one of the Mothers’ great failings. No one bothers to listen to the music and I rarely get asked about the music. I think it’s likely that the Mothers will fail, and this year is a crucial point because we are breaking out to music with less commercial potential – concert music."
This is certainly going to lead to some re-adjustment in the attitudes of Mothers’ fans who don’t notice the music, but, as Frank points out, the group could leave others behind. The new Mothers’ album Uncle Meat is nearly all instrumental music and some of it is fairly complex. There are only live songs on this album which Frank sees as a transitional stage between their old albums and new, more musically ambitious work that he is planning. Uncle Meat is in the charts in America, but it has sold less than other Mothers’ albums. "The kids are going to be confused by what we are moving on to, because people don’t know how to listen to music," said Frank. "Our first album is the most popular because people can understand it now, which shows that things have moved on. They did really freak when it first appeared."
The problem of getting people to know more about music and listen to all sorts of music is one of the reasons that Frank is planning an ambitious musical congress in Toronto for October. He chooses Toronto because there is a good symphony orchestra there, and he believes that young people will come and listen to a concert there. He plans to invite serious composers from all over the world, including from behind the Iron Curtain, to come and perform some of their works and to explain what they are trying to do.
"Serious composers need to reach young people if their music is to survive," said Frank. "They can’t go on forever relying on the over 30s. They need to find out about what’s going on in rock and roll music. So I shall be inviting bubblegum groups like the 1910 Fruitgum Company and Vanilla Fudge to perform and lecture to everyone. I shall get the Fudge to say what they are trying to do through their music; why the organist sweeps his elbow across the keyboard at a certain point, and so forth. I’ll be inviting Hendrix – he can lecture on how to eat a guitar – and I hope the Beatles will come to explain what they are doing."
Frank will record the whole event on videotape and use the film as an educational series. "It will give the kids the information they want to know. They get harmony lessons in school, but they are told not to use parallel octaves and fifths because descriptions of what people were doing and not doing years ago have become elevated to rules about what you can and cannot do. But parallel fifths and octaves are what’s in pop music, so the congress also has the potential of updating musical textbooks to what people are actually doing today.
"It’s important for people to really find out about music. There are certain chord progressions that invoke instant nostalgia, melody is closely tied up with emotion. I hope to help people appreciate it more because I think music is the best thing in the world."
Frank’s own taste in music is – as you might expect – extremely wide-ranging. He admits to being influenced by classical composers like Varèse and Stravinsky, but he can do an album like Ruben And The Jets which was really only 40 minutes of nostalgia about the rock and smooch music of the late 1950s. "Yes, Ruben was pretty much just nostalgia," said Frank. "That was good-time music. You’d get drunk with some of the guys and go out and play away and really enjoy it, which is very different from today’s scene."
When asked which was his favourite English group, Frank sat and thought for a while and decided on the Rolling Stones. He said he liked "one or two songs" on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper – which the Mothers took off with the cover of We’re Only In It For The Money – but the best Beatles songs were Paperback Writer, Strawberry Fields and I Am The Walrus. "I don’t like the rest too much," he said.
One kind of music he doesn’t like is country and western music. Someone at the LSE meeting asked him what he thought of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album to which Frank replied: "I don’t like it. I don’t like cowboy music. It doesn’t make my ears feel good so I don’t listen to it, and I can’t really identify with it. It’s really the only stuff I don’t like." Later, he added: "If you like country music you like it and that’s OK for you, but the sound repels me. I grew up with these people and I know what they’re like. I suppose it’s a good thing that Dylan is getting in there and working with them because it might change them, but it’s not for me."
A phenomenon of the music scene over the past year has been the large number of British groups who have toured America with great success to the extent that it’s quite a rare thing to hear bands like Procol Harum, Jeff Beck and Ten Years After on their home territory. All of which is quite surprising when you consider the fantastic number of home-grown groups there must be in the States. "Americans have a fantasy image of England," said Frank. "They think that if a band is British they must know the Beatles, and that’s been behind the success of English groups in the States since the days of the Dave Clark Five."
As well as being a composer and musician – he plays vibes, drums and piano apart from guitar and in fact started out as a drummer – Frank Zappa is now a businessman too. "I play the business game on the same terms as them," he told me. "I always wear a suit at business meetings, because you have to do that if they are going to take any notice of you." The Mothers now record on Frank’s own Bizarre label which he hopes will solve the problem of the great time lag there has been between Mothers’ albums being recorded and the record actually coming out. For instance, Uncle Meat, the latest long-player, was recorded as long ago as October 1967 to February 1968.
Bizarre records are now being released through Warner Brothers and the other Zappa label, Straight Records, are being distributed through CBS in Britain. Artists on Straight include – Captain Beefhart and the GTO’s while Bizarre has Wild Man Fisher, Lenny Bruce and the Mothers themselves on its books. "There is no separation between the clean and the weird on the two labels," said Frank, "as seems to be the case with Apple and Zapple – yes, it is a bit, isn’t it? I don’t make those kind of distinctions?
In addition to the record companies, Frank runs New Dawn management which handles the Buddy Miles Express and a film company, Intercontinental Absurdities. He showed an 18-minute section of his film "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" at the LSE. It is part of over 20 hours of film that he has in his basement waiting to be cut, and the music in the film is taken mostly from Uncle Meat. One interesting point about the film is that it was cut to fit the music instead of the other way round.
This shows yet again that Zappa is first and foremost a musician and not a political commentator or anything else, but that does not stop him from talking about politics. "I am a composer," he says, "but I happen to care enough about politics to talk to people about it." He believes that television and the media generally need to be radically altered and that the way to do this is to work in the media and bring about change from within.
"There are so many shows on television," he says, "which are describing situations that don’t exist. People compare themselves to the clean all-American wife with her clean all-American kids on television and they model themselves on these stereotypes which then become real people. Then people in the ghettos compare their lives to the whites on television and so you get negro spies and negro astronauts turning up. They’re just sprinkled in."
When he tried to get this point across at the LSE he met a lot of opposition from the militants at the college who were arguing for a violent revolution to change society, but Frank told them that he felt that gradual but deliberate change was the way. "I asked the kids at a college in the States what they were going to do after the revolution. Who’s going to run the sewer company? But they have no plan for this kind of thing.
"The same kids who a year ago were wandering round with beads and all that gear are now yelling ‘Kick out the jams’. They are at the mercy of the establishment when they act like that. The establishment looks at these kids and sees they are not going to do anything, but if a guy comes into the office and acts on his choice to try and change it, they are going to be hard-pressed to stop it."
And that is what Frank Zappa has done in his own sphere of music. He admits that the only tracks that get played on American radio are "non-offensive" ones from Freak Out and Ruben and the Jets, but he has had his film shown on television, and he is working on his music all the time, which can only influence the music establishment for the better. One effect the Mothers’ music has had is to counter purely escapist entertainment, to show the other side of the coin.
"People require escapist entertainment," says Frank, "and the escapist potential of Hendrix and the Beatles is fantastic. The further away from nasty reality you get the better, the more it will sell. That is the attitude, but, worse still, it is called great art."
So when you hear the Mothers’ new album, listen to the music, because it is the music that is Frank Zappa. Similarly, listen to more music and different kinds of music. If more people appreciate music of any sort, then Frank Zappa for one will be pleased.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net