No Commercial Value

Frank Zappa Behind The Controls

By Davin Seay

Crawdaddy, 1970, Vol. 4, #3

Forewarned with the knowledge that I have never set foot in a recording studio, there is only one way that you, the reader, can correctly evaluate this article, which pretends to be about production methods in a recording studio. The true evaluation is conjecture, pure and simple. If you are cynical and embittered, you might tend to think I don't know what I'm talking about. If you are young and optimistic you might think the same thing. Who knows? To me, critics in general are a motley crew; and those who speak with an air of "authority" are usually talking to themselves.

Anyway, in this age of specialists I specialize in sitting around stoned and trying to draw comparisons between records, groups, album covers, what-have-you; and that's mostly what this is about, the records being Permanent Damage (Straight STS-1059), by the G.T.O.'s, An Evening with Wild Man Fischer (Bizarre 6332), Trout Mask Replica (Straight STS 1053) by Captain Beefheart, and various Mothers of Invention albums.

The what-have-you is Frank Zappa, whose rather unique influence can be detected, sometimes insidiously, through these albums. The reason for this influence is that Zappa, like many other producers, discovered, signed, and recorded most of his artists. One exception, Capt. Beefheart, has been his friend from childhood. Unlike other producers, Zappa's reasons for recording in the first place were something other than purely financial, and therefore obviously, much different than anything else in the final result. Not worrying about a producer's fate on Top 40, can definitely enhance the creative headway of all involved, which it has done with singularly unusual success at the Bizarre/Straight recording complex.

The hierarchy of the Los Angeles freak population has been immortalized by Zappa in what can only be called "personality portraits in sound." Which is perhaps the truest way to represent these fantastic and weird individuals.

In Uncle Meat there is a section of some minutes when Jimmy Carl Black, member of the now defunct Mothers, goes into a lengthy tirade over the raw deal he is getting, not enough money, playing and travelling all the time, what a drag the whole thing is. We also hear Frank Zappa lamely defending the whole venture and referring vaguely to a magazine article promoting them. It's funny – sort of, and sort of painfully depressing.

With the Mothers being such kindred spirits and all, it brings you down to hear them haggling over money and publicity and all that dirty stuff. It's not "show biz." It is also rumored that Zappa has on the shelf another singularly unglamorous episode in which the Mothers are busted in a recording studio. When the Mothers played live Frank Zappa took what might be called "liberties" with the audience – at best being ungracious, at worst, insulting.

Many people consider such things to be cheap gimmick, but gimmicks aren't usually designed to be self-deprecation, and so these efforts must be viewed as an attempt at honesty, in not only the music but the portrayal of the artist as a person. Surprisingly this truthfulness is not as popular as it would seem, for while we all deplore the mountains of hype, the concept of 'superstar,' etc., we cling fondly to the cardboard images of our favorite celebrities, and, in the case of the Mothers, patronize attempts at honest dialogue between musician and listener. The attempt to break this barrier as well as musical barriers must have proved very disheartening to the Mothers, as reflected in Zappa's statement when they broke up: "We got tired of people clapping for the wrong reasons."

But Frank Zappa is a man of considerable energy and talent, extending far outside the scope of most rock 'n' roll musicians. In his continuing role as producer and composer he is still hacking away at the tinsel and glitter while at the same time producing works of great value and remarkable uniqueness.

Take the G.T.O.'s for instance. Only Frank Zappa could have produced an album in which talent is incidental to the personalities of the artists, and which comes off as a fascinating and revealing portrait besides being tremendously entertaining.

Consider the problem of recording a group such as the G.T.O.'s. First, word of mouth had established their reputation as groupies extraordinaire, yet there would seem little they could do that could be actually recorded. You could make a record of them relating their sexual exploits and be assured a fairly good market, selling to whoever buys those "documentary" type things. Or, you could give them free hand in making a musical album and hope for the best (not, I admit, a very likely consideration). Chances are, however, you'd look for a safer bet, say an English group. Zappa did all three, as well as a few other things nobody could have thought of.

First, he got them to write songs, or lyrics rather, which proved to be quite good. They must have worked very hard, for the efforts are quite cohesive and well-structured in a way that is at the same time classically surrealistic, and uniquely revealing of their personal attitudes towards their environment.

I knew one of the G.T.O.'s, Miss Mercy, during the heyday of the Haight-Ashbury, and was somewhat taken aback. Unknowing as I was of the concept of life styles and doing your own thingness, I looked upon her as the sad result of taking too much acid in too short time. I was wrong and now I marvel at Zappa's ability to detect and immortalize the inherently beautiful qualities of Miss Mercy in songs such as I Have a Paintbrush In My Hand to Color a Triangle and The Ghost Chained to the Past, Present and Future.

Such efforts would not have been as rewarding, however, if the girls had written and played the music to these songs. Zappa, perhaps realizing this, enlisted the aid of some Mothers, Nicky St. Nicholas from Steppenwolf, Davy Jones, a guy named Lowell George, and some English rock musicians – Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, and Nicky Hopkins – to write and play most of the music on this album. The result is a cohesive musical effort, and not any number of disastrous alternatives.

Next, consider the spoken parts, impromptu and otherwise. In the latter category, the G.T.O.'s participate in a sort of group chant, in which they relate, in unison, various incidents, characters and attitudes indigenous to Los Angeles freakdom. For instance: "moche monsters," horny old men in "soft cars" who pick up these nubile young things with propositions such as "ten dollars to eat it," or "cones... no, not ice cream cones. Cones are soul brothers with processed points and the tips of their foreheads." They also recite a little epitaph on high school gym class, their male groupie friend Rodney Bingenheimer (who makes a cameo appearance), and their mutual love affair with an eleven-year-old kid who looks like Brian Jones.

One of Zappa's prime concerns, in this and other albums, seems to be the accurate portrayal of what could be called the "L.A. Experience" or "Los Angeles is a state of mind." Many of Zappa's satirical pieces deal with this rampant babylon of plasticity, but to me, a native son of that great flat metropolis, the quality that makes one "of" Los Angeles, while very real and recognizable, is impossible to define outside of saying "that's it." Well, that's it on the G.T.O.'s album.

In the most successful parts of this album, the impromptu banter and spontaneous dialogue, Zappa has succeeded in distilling the essence of the Los Angeles mentality to its purest form. Those freaks living in Los Angeles serve as sort of fun-house mirrors distorting the basic contradiction of existence in a valley of concrete and smog into what can only be called "plastic irreverence." Those who have been there know. Those who haven't, perhaps never will.

One more point worth mentioning in Zappa's portrayal of the G.T.O.'s. Instead of exposing them to crass sensationalism, with long, explicit accounts of their groupie encounters, Zappa has preserved their purity, much as our grandparents preserved lilies 'twixt the pages of Byron or Shelley. He has presented them not as a good lay, or "free loving mods" as they would put it, but rather as moral young ladies, concerned with their futures as wives and lovers. On the album is a conversation between Miss Christine, G.T.O., and Cynthia Plaster Caster of Chicago. During the course of it Miss Christine explains that she doesn't want to be a mother but... uh... well someday you [Cynthia Plaster Caster] will meet someone who'll really object to that 'Plastercastering' and you'll be madly in love with him.

Throughout all, the effect of Permanent Damage is that of an honest presentation, a product of not only an understanding, but a friendship between Zappa and the G.T.O.'s. He has presented them clearly to us, as they must have presented themselves to him.

The same thing is true of the strange relationship between Frank Zappa and Wild Man Fischer. Once again Zappa is fiddling with the dials, and once again, in the studio, one of the muted offspring of the great mother, Los Angeles. In certain ways this is an even more revealing album than Permanent Damage. First, it is a two-record set; second, much more time is devoted to spontaneous rapping and the concept of the record album as a characterization comes through more clearly, and finally Wild Man Fischer is a singularly unique individual.

Larry Fischer is a nice Jewish boy who was once very shy, but decided to come out of his shell and develop his talent for songwriting by singing for dimes on Sunset Strip. Consequently his mother had him committed twice. In the beginning of his album, it is easy to imagine why she might have thought he was a little out of it. In a classic cartoon out-job voice, frenzied, wet, and constantly flying off into high registers, Larry opens by singing what could be considered his theme song, "Merry-Go-Round." He sings all the vocal parts as well as the instrumental breaks, and the failing energy and enthusiasm is startling in itself. Next we hear Wild Man on the streets of Los Angeles asking passers-by: "You wanna hear a song for a dime?" and, with shrieking protestations, fending off a girl who keeps telling him he's insane: "You're insane Larry, you're insane!!"

"I am not," he screams, "don't say that!" It is here we discover that the question of insanity is one very close to Wild Man Fischer. Thus, we get our first true glimpse of what this album is really about. Besides being funny, this album is about a real human being, whom a lot of people would consider mentally ill and in need of help, or "readjustment." With beautifully skilled subtlety, Zappa slowly develops the character of Wild Man Fischer on many different levels, which evoke many different responses from the listener, some contradictory, just like real life. Again, the "image" created is actually not an "image" at all, but real episodes from the life od a real person. Slowly, as the portrait unfolds, we begin to empathize with Wild Man Fischer and his plight in modern-day society.

I think this album is actually the best of Zappa's efforts in this area. In skillfully edited sections, Larry Fischer and the whole feeling of his life style comes bubbling forth from the speakers, as the Wild Man frantically tells all, even very personal incidents from his life, in an honest and tremendously funny style that gradually grows on the listener until you are his friend.

In one long section Larry tells of his relationship with his mother (who is pictured with a butcher knife held to her throat on the cover), and while it is hilarious, it is also a disturbing, even frightening account of an overbearing. Hysterical, Jewish mother's ravaging effect on her offspring. Larry takes many parts in this account of his unfortunate childhood – that of his principal, sternly admonishing a younger Wild Man not to sing in class, of Wild Man's brother David, the responsible one, the stabilizing influences in a raucous household, and, of course, the two main characters, Larry himself and his mother.

Larry's portrayal of his mother is a superbly frightening one full of screaming tirades, hysterical pleas for the peace of a dying woman, and finally, choked determination to do what's right by committing the hopeless child to a mental institution. The account continues with Larry leaving the institution "cured," getting a job, getting fired for singing, and then more hysterical tirades, louder and more frightening, ending in the mental institution again. Wild Man Fischer's account of this is one of sound and fury, a story inherently full of senseless pain and misunderstanding. Yet Wild Man is somehow sublimely above that, relating all with humor, and a strange sense of optimism.

Another high point in the album is the odd assortment of characters who pop up intermittently throughout: the girl who insisted, upon meeting Larry, that his brother had sold her an ounce of grass in Phoenix, or the girl who, in a beautiful little section, tells about the first time she met Wild Man Fischer, singing at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. She keeps referring to his "kerage" and finally in her admiration says:

"Oh, Wild Man, jest come with me, Wild Man!"

Finally there are the songs of Wild Man Fischer, most of which are sung solo and unaccompanied. These are the greatest testaments to the spirit of Wild Man and L.A. life in general, mostly written and sung in '50s-style rock 'n' roll. Wild Man is very serious about his songwriting, and hopes someday to make a name for himself. I wish him all the luck in the world, but the most beautiful artistic touch of the album is rendered by Zappa, who in the last few moments has let us hear a bit of between-takes conversation, and through this we realize, with a start, that Larry Fischer is a real live person, with, as Zappa says in the liner notes, "Something important to say to you." In this brief section, Wild Man is on a bummer, discouraged and embittered with the people who messed around with him. He asks Zappa what he can do.

"You can start by smiling," says Zappa.

"It's no use, Frank," says Wild Man as his mood deepens. "You got me thinkin' about the past."


The circumstances were somewhat different from that of Permanent Damage and An Evening With Wild Man Fischer, in the recording and production of Trout Mask Replica,, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's auspicious debut on Straight Records. First of all, the reputation of the band, such as it was, had already been established. Secondly, there was no uniform image to mold onto wax. The image, for those who knew of it, was already there. And lastly, there was no need to augment the talent, be it with famous back-up musicians, or skillfully edited sections to establish character. But Frank Zappa has once again produced an album with a unique aura, and that aura, again, has been the same one surrounding the artist – in this case it's Captain Beefheart cosmic consciousness. Although this double record set is almost entirely Beefheart's music, it is presented in such a way that you hear not only his musical prowess, [ but "feel" the .... in which it ] seems, get a glimpse into the depths of that incredible individual Don "Capt. Beefheart" Van Vliet.

Let us briefly consider this magical band's image. To begin with looking to the opinion of other critics and reviewers the consensus seems to be that Beefheart is the king of Dada rock. On this point I wholly agree, but let me add that this dadaism extends beyond merely his music and seems to typify his lifestyle and that of the members of his band. Just looking at the front and back covers of Trout Mask Replica is sufficient to establish this fact beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Zappa, in this enthusiastic presentation, has provided us with another piece of unassailable evidence, a libretto. Here Beefheart's weird genius shines most brightly. Not only does he make great music, but he writes fantastically. The titles themselves are beautiful pieces of surrealism. Frownland, Ant Man Bee, Dachau Blues (those poor jews),, Old Fart At Play, Pachuco Cadaver, and Veterans' Day Poppy – all these pieces are written by Beefheart and played by such people as Zoot Horn Rollo and The Mascara Snake, with perverted brilliance and truly psychedelic inspiration. There is little you can say about Captain Beefheart's image and imagery that wouldn't be evident the first time you hear him. Try to imagine Hieronymus Bosch's illustrations to Alice in Wonderland or perhaps a praying mantis in a grey flannel suit...

Okay, so that's who Beefheart is. How do you present that on a record? The answer isn't as simple as it seems. If you go too far in the direction of total audio freak-out, the group comes off as a gimmick, and even though gimmickry is an integral part of the charisma of many rock group – i.e. The Who – many people feel cheated if they think they've been tricked by a gimmick.

[ ... ] tend to stifle the group while making the group commercially palatable Zappa has avoided both of these extremes, and the middle road as well by doing a unique thing in comparison to other record producers. He has recorded them as they actually sound, minus echo chambers, minus big production numbers, minus Top 40 material, and minus that self-conscious "funkyness" that mars many other attempts at being "real." This album is well recorded, mind you. You can hear everything, but it is a good recording of what is essentially rough, ragged, and often spontaneous.

There is something else in the recording techniques of this album, that is very rare and intangible. It is the feeling, the "spirit," in which it was recorded. Throughout the album, are beautiful little bits of dialogue, impromptu and otherwise, that describe to the listener that spirit.

During the instrumental break of Ella Guru, a voice proclaims in visionary ecstasy, "Yes, yes, the Mascara Snake, fast and bulbous!"

In a break between the songs, we hear the faint voice of Captain Beefheart, discussing with two kids, whose presence is unexplained (perhaps even to them), one of his pieces, titled Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish. "It's a bush recording," he mutters. In the background is the strangely melancholy sound of a barking dog.

In a fantastic song, "China Pig," we hear Beefheart explaining to a guitarist the type of slow blues he wants him to play in accompaniment to his impoverished plea: "I don't wanna kill my China Pig."

But the spirit of this album is best described by the good Captain himself in a song titled The Blimp, describing the primordial sexuality of dirigibles: "It's the blimp, the blimp! Daughter don't you dare, oh mother, who cares! It's the blimp, the blimp!" In the beginning of this apocalyptic narration we hear a tiny voice, excitedly proclaiming: "Master, master, this was recorded through a fly's ear and can only be seen through a fly's eye!"

That, in essence, is the secret of Frank Zappa's phenomenal success with the artists he chooses to record. What might be called "the fly's ear approach" to recording is relaxed and totally natural, while being tightly organized and skillfully edited. Zappa's results are proof of the adage "what you leave out is as important as what you put in." Zappa is a master in the art of electronic representation of not only talent, but personality and life style. Indeed, he may have invented those branches of the art.

His ideas are refreshing and they are new. They embody honesty and good intention to both audience and artist. To me, the field of rock music is woefully lacking in this way. Rock 'n' Roll is indeed a musical renaissance, but it has done little to bridge the gap between "star" and audience. This gap, what has been called "the show biz air of mystery," has made cynics of us, made us mistrust our former idols. Mistrust breeds suspicion and paranoia which breeds bad vibrations. Altamont California with all its shady underhandedness, is the ludicrous post logical extreme of this principle.

It is precisely for this reason that Frank Zappa and his recording empire are such a refreshing change. You can't mistrust Zappa, because he doesn't hide anything. We're Only In It For the Money may or may not be a statement in fact, but it doesn't matter. What matters is he said it, and he said it in answer to Sgt. Pepper, the big hit of the Summer of Love. Zappa was right as the Summer of Love slowly came to realize.

Finally, is the fact that Frank Zappa enjoys what he does. And he enjoys it because he does it well. He knows it and so does Wild Man Fischer, Captain Beefheart, the G.T.O.'s and hopefully many more.