Being Perfectly Frank
By Steve Turner
Frank Zappa was staying at the London hotel which possesses the actual loo shown on his internationally famous poster. When I arrived at the reception area I phoned his room: "George Harrison and Friends Mortuary House", came the quick reply which at least assured me that I'd dialed the right number. It was some unscripted humour from Mark Volman and after a quick word with Frank he invited me up to the second floor.
I knocked on the door which had the number I was given and the next door down was opened by Volman. Inside Frank was busy relating his next movie to a visiting journalist. For about fifteen minutes he spun tales of such likely heroes as Billy the Mountain, Howie Krishna, The Magic Pig, Old Zircon and Studebaker Hawk before ending with a warning not to mention a word of it in the article because it was an unfinished project! The other scribe packed his papers and made his exit while I took a seat, my head full of warnings given to me by people who'd seen Frank on The Old Grey Whistle Test the night before where he condemned music writers as being people who were only in it for the albums.
Frank checked himself in the mirror before giving his blessing to the photographer. "Yeah. That's me all right," he said with a rare laugh. He began by telling me that he couldn't really remember what he'd said on the TV show the night before because it was made following a meal during which vast quantities of wine were served. He qualified the statement though by saying that he knew it was at least true in the States on the admission of writers he'd encountered. He wasn't concerned only for the Mothers either – it was the whole music scene that he was considering.
Words and music
As to the Mothers and the material they are currently working on, Frank considers that the emphasis is more on lyrics than it has ever been before. "The main thrust of the old group," he said, "was instrumental especially on stage. There was always a big difference between what the records were doing and what we were doing on stage. Now there's less of a difference between our records and what we do on stage." Of course, the way in which lyrics are treated by the Mothers differs vastly from what anyone else is or has done. Zappa explained this: "The way I set lyrics to music is that when I think of words I think of words as spoken. This differentiates from words as read off a page and there's a big difference in the intensity of the meaning of a word."
"The printed word has definite limitations. I always think of words the way a person would say it and when I'm writing songs for the group I think of the member who is going to be singing them. I try and shape the text to suit the personality so they will be given the chance to really express what is being said." Frank explained that a lot of the recent lyrics were written as he remembered particular situations that he and other members of the Mothers encountered during their work. Often he would surprise the group by arriving at rehearsals with an amusing event of the past all ready and written for the group to perform.
"The best example of that is on the Fillmore album," he told me. "The story about the girl who wouldn't make it with Howie unless he sung her his hit record – it's a true story! He told me about it when he first got in the group and I thought about it for almost a year before I finally wrote the song. I knew it just had to be immortalised."
It seems obvious that Frank's work has changed a lot since the songs about Mr. America, The Brain Police and Hungry Freaks. This is not because he feels that the themes are no longer relevant. In fact, when I commented on the prophetic element in It Couldn't Happen Here he remarked that he thought it was still happening even now. "At the time I wrote them I didn't set out to write social commentary songs – it was just what was going on in my mind at the time. That was a part of my environment and what I produced was a product of things that happened to me. In the same way, when I wrote Mr. Green Genes – that was what I was thinking about then."
The Mothers work usually resembles a string of musical and lyrical ideas edited together in one detailed concept. The reason for this is because Zappa feels that our capacity for concentration is decreasing all the time and therefore extended melody lines no longer have the power that they once possessed. If there's one thing that's shrinking along with the size of the communications network of the world it's the interest span of the audience," he said.
"People are conditioned by TV commercials where in a minute a vast amount of information is driven into consciousness by this special prepared little thing. That means when you have a show playing up against a one minute commercial which is so intense and there's so much happening in it – it tends to make everything else play slow alongside it. Most of the American television shows that surround the commercials seem like vast empty areas. So, consequently in order to make them move, they are using faster editing techniques to keep pace along with the commercials and the individual scenes within a story are shortened. People have become so accustomed to this that they can't stay focused on anything of any length."
Zappa possibly has more knowledge of these advertising techniques than most people in rock because it was in this media that he earned his living at one point in his life – by writing copy. I asked Frank whether he was a believer in slogans to communicate information in an age where the public rejected lengthy explanations and advice. "A slogan has a certain amount of value," said Frank, "but the trouble is that America has been sloganised to death. The most unpleasant aspect of this is the way people have been sloganised, colleges have been sloganised and everything has been brought down to the level of text bearing. About the only thing people do as far as the peace movement is concerned is to quote slogans." Of course, John Lennon is a great inventor of slogans to promote ideas. Possibly his best known and used are Give Peace A Chance, All You Need Is Love and The War Is Over If You Want It.
What you sniff
Zappa realises the power of music and feels that its subliminal influence is a good thing if it's used in the right way (whatever that is and whoever decides it). "People can be influenced outside of being taken by the arm and led to some place," he said. "A good example of this is the general trend of pop music over the past few years. It's been a feedback situation where the culture has shaped the music and the music feeds back into the culture and then determines how you think, how you dress, how you smoke, what you smoke, what you shoot and what you sniff."
The sound of drawing
Along with Pete Townsend, Zappa is one of those rock geniuses who constantly seeks to push back the barriers of musical expression. What Zappa does today may well become part of the accepted musical vocabulary within the next decade. When I heard that he'd been experimenting with a new piece of machinery, far more complex than anything now currently in use, I asked him a few questions about his discovery.
Beat Instrumental: I hear that you have ideas for turning drawings into music?
Frank Zappa: Yes I've been working on it.
B.I.: Could you tell me about it?
Z: Certainly! The various components of this machine already exist and are being used for other purposes in other fields of computer technology. All you have to do is put your drawing on a certain kind of paper, feed it into a certain type of machine, and the output of that machine can be channeled to operate other electronic devices that will produce music.
B.I.: ... which will relate the mood of the picture you've put in?
Z: Well, it's more than just relating the mood of the picture. You could put in that picture of the horses which is hanging over there if it was on the right paper. Of course, it'd come out the other side but not sounding like the horses on the picture! It just depends on what you explain to the machine about what your picture means, what your picture is supposed to represent. So, a simple example would be the doodle pad beside the telephone. You look at it and say, "I wonder what that is?" It's yours, your own little creation from the subconscious, it's your doodle and you want to know what it sounds like. So you transfer it on to the paper, stick it in and it comes out. In the same way a child with his first crayons, given the right kind of paper and the right kind of crayons, would be able to make an illustration of some sort. I think that would be very good because people would be making their own music.
B.I.: It's never been done before has it?
Z: I don't think so.
B.I.: How did the idea come to you?
Z: I don't remember. Just one day I thought that'd be a good thing to do.
B.I.: You just thought of it as a possibility?
Z: It's more than a possibility – I'm working on it. That machine will exist one day.
B.I.: So do you think anything is possible?
Z : I think that anything is possible although ... and it says this in one of those books I told you about but it was a quote from someone else ... it says all things are possible but all things are not permitted.
B.I.: That's from the Bible.
Z: Oh! maybe that's where it came from. I never saw that in the Bible ... but I was never a big Bible fan.
B.I.: So if I said that you could translate this room and all its furniture into music, do you think it be done?
Z: Yes. In fact I even know the way to do it. You're dealing with equipment that's already been used for things like space technology and stuff like that. The machinery is there, it's just a matter of how you want to apply that machinery.
B.I.: But do you think that just because a thing is technologically possible it makes it worth bothering about – just because the possibility exists ? Imagine you went through all that struggle and found that it resulted in a load of crap whereas an ordinary guy down at the local pub is producing great music simply with an acoustic guitar. Wouldn't you consider it a waste of time ... just because the possibility existed?
Z: I don't think it'd be a waste of time because for instance, you could have said the same thing about the discovery of electricity. I mean candles are fine, so are gas lamps, they provide a nice warm glow. But electricity has added to the vocabulary of musical experience whether it's a Marshall amplifier or wah-wah pedal. Without it I wouldn't have rock 'n roll as it now is and you wouldn't have a tape recorder!
Frank's film, 200 Motels, is the logical conclusion of what he explained about an audience's capacity to concentrate for any length of time. The film is fast on the eye, incredibly fast, and it gives the feeling that Zappa scored the frames in much the same way as he scores music – producing a continuous pulsing effect. His next film, Billy The Mountain, is going to be filmed with the aid of computers so I expect that this direction is to be continued indefinitely.
The "Visual Director" was Tony Palmer who, in his own review of the film in the Observer, described it as being the worst film in the history of western cinema. "Well that gives it some distinction doesn't it," remarked Frank wryly when he heard the review. However, his own view of the film remains unchanged. "I like that movie. I'll stand by that movie."
Personally I find that what the film gains in technique it loses in content. Sometimes it's possible to be too fast on the eye and you feel as though you've just been blinded by a cinematic stroboscope. When I asked Frank what kind of response he would consider favourable after a showing of 200 Motels, he replied that he'd be happy if people just laughed. I suppose I did laugh once or twice but mostly at jokes that I'd already heard on the album.
I feel that Zappa is a man who does have something to say as he's already proved in his songs, but he definitely hasn't attempted to say anything in his film.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net