Zappa: In it for the Money
By Maynard Stubbs
The Mothers of Invention are laconically setting up. Jim Pens, the bassist, is skinny, blond and non-descript. Behind him slouches Ian Underwood, a veteran Mother and musical superman (he has a masters in music) who handles the saxes and the keyboards. His eyes are glazed and his skin is the color of old paste. He looks undernourished. Aynsley Dunbar, pounding away in the rear, is the drummer. Dunbar, appropriately cool and English looking, comes to us via the proven John Mayall route. Upon graduating from the Bluesbreakers he formed the 'Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation', a group responsible for two of the thousand or so mediocre British blues albums. He taps the skins quietly and tries not to look bored.
To Dunbar's left, playing a rather obscure role in the group, is Bob Harris. He sits calmly behind his electric piano and laughs a lot. Kicking around in front of it all are two annoyingly familiar characters – one is short, sorta cute and has a full beard. The other one, about the same height, is fat as hell, sports an overgrowth of curly black hair and a pair of black hom-rimmed glasses (the kind your mother made you wear in ninth grade). You know who those two are, there's no doubt about it, and you tear your wretched brains apart trying to figure it out. It sits arrogantly in your cranium, lodged like a piece of feces that stubbornly refuses to be pushed out. Soon, it begins to drive you crazy.
Suddenly, out of the darkness comes a massive dose of Ex-Lax that knocks it loose and deposits it, with a splat, in your lap. It lies there, hot and steamy, until your relief is overcome by an incredible surge of horror.
Yeah, you've seen those two before, all right. Only last time the scene was slightly different. They were all clean and whiskeriess, looking really keen in their fancy suits dancing around on T.V. to the wishy-washy strains of "It Aint Me Babe", "Eleanor" and "Happy Together". Yep, you guessed it gang, Frank Zappa has raided the ranks of none other than the Turtles and has come away with their two lead singers!
It takes awhile before you can digest your disbelief and try to imagine those two lames as card-carrying members of the Mothers. I suppose you have to look at all this in the light of Zappa's flair for the unpredictable (I mean, what self-respecting big time Rock and Roll star would; ask Howie and Mark of the Turtles to join his group?) and I guess, his intelligence as a musician. It takes about five minutes (used mainly in chasing away your prejudices) before it hits you that once again Zappa has pulled off a major musical coup. It strikes you first that those boys can sing – shit, how they can sing! Volman and Kaylan's voices merge so smoothly in Zappa's intricate harmonies I that you are willing to forget their shady past and I forgive them for their moment of weakness (". . . after all, we gotta eat!").
Not convinced yet, huh? Well, watch. Those two are more than just "vocalists". They're a two man theater group – jumping around, acting perverted and bringing the warped fantasies of Frank Zappa into a startlingly immediate reality.
I first heard of the Mothers about four years ago. In those days he would spit at the audience, curse at them (in his kinder moments), flick his snot at them, throw cauliflower at them (during "Call On Any Vegetable"), jerk-off at them and generally gross everyone out with a leering smile plastered on his face. All that time he was slyly sneaking in some good music while they weren't listening. It soon became evident that the rock audience wasn't ready for him and the let-down served only to increase his cynicism and bitterness. Various Mothers came and went – Jimmy Carl Black (the Indian of the group), Billy Mundi, Henry Vestine, Roy Estrada, Don Preston, Ray Collins and a host of other weirdies.
A transition point was reached at apparently the same time as the Mother's change of labels. Though the switch from Verve to Bizzarre (Wamer Bros./ Reprise) was definitely a step upward technically (the difference in recording quality between the two is staggering), it is debateable whether the Mother's (Zappa's) music also improved. Zappa has grown a bit more self-conscious of late, and his music has been reflecting it. Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Weasles Ripped My Flesh, and Chunga's Revenge all suffer from this. Zappa has assumed the trappings of the avant-gardist enriching the ignorant rock world with large doses of good healthy music. Now, he saves his insults for use sparingly as interludes during extended musical exercises. With the new Mothers Live at the Fillmore album Zappa has dragged himself notably closer to his musical maturity. He seems more comfortable with the new Mothers, more confident now that the group is the full embodiment of his complex and intriguingly warped imagination.
See Zappa – that's an order – you'll never forgive yourself if you miss him.
This is a preview article to Mothers of Invention concerts next day, October 16, 2015, at 8 and 11 P.M.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net