Alchemy, Hagiography & Hieroglyphics VS. The Teenage American Archetypal Theme
Frank Zappa is chief Mother on the
Plotting in his cell, a crazed Artephius, Zappa preserves this vital energy, tends the nerve plants, stores the beauty in Canopic urns, de-fuses the explosives for later use and watches with mild dismay as fads and bubblegum music crash past his garden gate. He rarely goes out, preferring to stay in and grow the tapes, all at 15 inches per second.
Frank Zappa lives in
Moon Unit Zappa, Frank's young daughter hangs out by the pool with Georgie the Alsatian, and Dweedle, new-born son, sits in a plastic bucket on the kitchen table watching a miniature tv.
The house is filled with people: Herbie attempting to de-mystify a sheet of hieroglyphic figures. Don Vliet/Captain Beefheart stalking the garden; GTO's arranging songs; roadies receiving mysterious messages from young girls in
Some Mothermaniacs stay around for days listening to tapes and journalists who get caught-up in the Zappa time-zone find that a week has gone by and they still haven't interviewed anyone and haven't even seen Frank yet. At 5 am in the morning, Gail looks at the dinner in the oven and Janet is listening to her FM radio in her little house in the garden, the walls covered with photographs. And beneath it all ... crouched over his tape machines in the basement like a Ronald Searle English vicar, a black rook peering with sparkling eyes as if the notes would emerge as actual marks on the tape, sits Frank ...
On the door to the basement is a small black card on which is written, in neat white letters: "DR ZURKON'S SECRET LAB IN HAPPY VALLEY." The basement is huge, has baby-blue carpet and shuttered windows covered by soundproof patterned screens. Two huge speakers stand five feet tall and between them, an assemblage of plastic, wood and an auto-hood covers a hatch through which movies are projected from an antechamber. The carpet is littered with instruments and their cases, an antique wheel-chair, life-size dummies, an organ and further assemblage material.
Concert posters and a plaque proclaiming "Zappa's Grubby Chamber" cover the walls. The shutters lock out time as well as sunlight so the room is still until someone moves or music is played, and time is measured by that. Frank works through the night till about 9 am. He has a Scully 280 two-track and a TEAC A1 200U connected by a wall mounted patch-board. He also has thousands of tapes, mostly on NAB spools and labeled:
SOUP AND OLD CLOTHES NO.1
RUSTIC PROTRUSION NO.2
THE MAD GUMMER NO.2
CUCAMONGA ERA NO.2
CRITERIA: RIGHT THERE BUNK
And so forth.
Each one has a carefully indexed contents sheet with such entries as: 'Relaxed Raga Snork Collage with Moody Piano – very boss stereo – slightly deficient in highs. At approx 1:35 goes into up tempo section ..... 2.41
The tapes are the Zappa Scribbledehobble, his musical vocabulary, his archives, sketchbooks and a constant source of new material as he cuts them up and re-arranges them in a new order to create new musical relationships and nuances of rhythm and content. He is a collage artist working with time, manipulating the dynamics as a visual artist would change texture and color. Zappa moves the tensions, image-content and load by speeding up, splicing and fading.
5:45 A.M. and the basement has early morning quietude before the crickets begin. The large electric clock and speakers give off a low hiss. The dog rustles through the crisp semi-tropical vegetation outside, the coffee percolator gurgles imperceptibly Frank sits at his desk, black sugarless coffee and a cigarette at his elbow, both of which he enjoys intensely. He writes music jerkily, pausing to stare into blank space then scribbling several bars of quavers.
Chord clusters grow and pose difficulties which after a while cause him to reach for the guitar propped against his chair. The sound is loud, not so much cutting as superimposing on the silence of the room. His Gibson Les Paul tangled in leads and little petals of discarded paper leader-tape like daisies in a summer field.
When Frank was young and studying music, he began to read Counterpoint, Strict and Free by H. A. Clarke,
Numbers 1 & 2 are very harsh. Numbers 3 & 4 not so harsh are of common occurrence in modern usage."
So Frank played them and said, "Great!" and never read any further. These successions are also used very frequently by Igor Stravinsky who Frank thinks also saw them forbidden in a counterpoint book.
Stravinsky is probably the most obvious classical influence on Frank's work: where Stravinsky uses a fast piccolo passage in front of a slow orchestral statement of theme, Zappa uses speeded up tape flashing past the drums, bass and keyboards to the same effect, particularly on "Lumpy Gravy". Where Stravinsky suddenly stops the development of an idea with an abrupt drum-beat on a bass-tom or side-tom, Zappa will indicate the same organization of time-sections by using a 'snork' or belch. These are not conscious attempts to find present-day equivalents to Stravinsky, they occur as the result of prolonged and attentive listening to the structural engineering of Stravinsky's work. In the above cases, the early work such as "Firebird Suite" and "Story of a Soldier".
Zappa's music combines the present-time organization of time (overlapping time-signatures, dynamic flow of color or texture) with past-time organization of time (nostalgia: references to the early days of rock and roll, manipulation of periods, dates, years).
It fuses musical ideas and themes with a type of music-verite of real-life recordings of giggling acid coffee-clutches and car-freaks soliloquizing on the art of customizing. The conversations sound loaded ("Lumpy Gravy" & "Uncle Meat") but Zappa's excursions into ultimate reality are masterpieces of editing: the telephone call on "We're Only In It For The Money" or Jimmy Carl Black's repeated introduction. These non-vocal (singing) non-musical elements are used as music in much the same way that Eric Satie used the air-craft engine, the dynamo, typewriter and rattles in "Parade" before the first world war.
The musical value is located as one of dynamics in much the same way as the erotic passages in Henry Miller's "Tropics" give the books a television and flow, humour and seriousness.
The literary content of the inserted monologues and conversational clips is treated as if they were words to a song, songs without music, with a consequential contribution to the overall social-statement of the albums.
(Zappa as social-historical). His use of songs without music extends into his productions of Wild Man Fischer and of course Trout Mask Replica by the great Captain Beefheart. At the other end of his usage comes such selections as the usher at the Royal Albert Hall in
In his film Zazie Dans Le Metro, Louis Malle parodies his earlier film Les Amants by using the same overhead shot of the couple and string-quartet soundtrack. The difference in Zazie was that it was speeded up and Zazie was running round the couple in circles, thus changing the whole meaning of the scene by altering two elements only.
Zappa does likewise with a night-club, easy-listening version of "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" on Lumpy Gravy, thus elevating recorded music from reproduction (as it was), little time-warps in plastic, chronicling the event, to an art-form complete with self-criticism and parody within the bounds of its own medium.
This element has been done less consciously by The Beatles (as ever) when they tagged "She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Yeah" on the end of "All You Need Is Love".
Zappa uses it rather more meaningfully when he strips the early rock and roll triplets of their themes and reveals them naked and trembling, bereft of nostalgia by a weird time signature. All that really remains is a time-date-tag and the inherent power of a particular note formation. It is not surprising therefore that Zappa does not use electronically generated sound, if he did, his 'electronic' sounding pieces would loose one of their most important elements: That of an approximate time-reference (referring to 1956 for example) on every note and phrase.
The juxtaposed time-references are essential elements in the structure of these pieces and are not limiting to the rhythm or melodies concerned. In manipulating the medium itself he is looking over his shoulder and he can see that "it's getting good in the back."
Frank Zappa is like the alchemists, they would repeat the same process or experiment, month-in, month-out, often for many years, until the materials they were working with became so unstable that they developed new properties and, one day, gelled into the philosophers stone. Frank is working with a set of themes, the same old ones he always uses (he just gives them new names now and then to confuse you). He's still working on them, sneaking up on them from new angles, surprising them with strange orchestration and weird time-signatures, slashing them to pieces on his editing-block – the mad razor man, Swamped by strings, strobed by speeded tape, they have become archetypal units of their own ... "Wasn't that 'Status Back Baby' just then?" They have been overloaded enough to make them strong as metal, they can withstand mid-fifties rock treatments or a poly-rhythmic breakdown and still come through!
Zappa is the master of image overload! Thus Frank's themes become conglomerations of Burger-cruisin' in your father's car, hub-cap stealing, panty raids and the memories of what you were doing when you first heard Frank's version, "Well I was with this chick and ...... " We have heard all the stages, the sketches, the trial runs, the dress rehearsals. Now when we hear the variations of "Dog Breath" on Uncle Meat it's possible to say, "Oh, that used to be over there and what's happened to ..... ?"
Frank has moved it. By attacking these teenage themes with a complete arsenal of modern musical forms and techniques an ever changing relationship is created between them and their many musical forms. It is this relationship which makes Zappa's music special.
To do all this Zappa needed a group of masterful musicians who could un de r stand all his handsignals and happily change from 3/4 to 7/4 without a thought, also know all the arrangements by heart and have 'teen' appeal on stage. The Mothers of Invention were such a group, having a higher standard of technical ability within this area than any other band, classical or pop, in the world. The music however lacked commercial potential and a group that big costs several thousand a week to keep together, so ... they disbanded. The new smaller group which played at the Fillmore East the other week consisted of: Jim (Motorhead) Sherwood on sax; Ian Underwood on sax flute and keyboards; Don Preston on keyboard; Billy Mundi back again on ·drums; Ray Collins on vocals; Jeff Simmons on bass; Aynsley
They have all been busy, Underwood having formed a little combo in which he plays lead guitar ("I like the sound better than any other instrument") and his sister plays drums, Jeff Simmons having released an album on Frank's Straight label called "Lucille Has Messed Up My Mind" which features Underwood on brass and Zappa playing lead guitar OQ two of the tracks. Most interesting new change is the addition of ex-Jeff Beck drummer Aynsley Dunbar from
In adding an ex-Mayall drummer to the group Frank must have seen the humour of at last capturing one of the British blues musicians which have so long dominated US record buyer's tastes. In having
With this new group, the indications are (though Frank will probably disagree with me) that Mothermusic will become more open and simple, the breaks and time changes will "flow" more, though remaining distinct, and that the group sound will actually (though inadvertently) become more commercial by being heavier and more rhythmic. It will give people something to tap their feet to.
When the Mothers disbanded (again they beat The Beatles and no one noticed!), they did not disappear, just like the amoeba they became many. Frank's productions and arrangements such as the Jean Luc Ponty album will knock you out and the forthcoming Excerpts from 200 Motels, for Mothers and Orchestra is going to be well worth waiting for. Frank once said "The Mothers are designed to creep up and strangle you in the night" and they are doing just that. Don't be fooled.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net