Zappa: Past Flops And Future Shocks

By Richard Williams

Melody Maker, August 25, 1973


HIS ARMS AROUND a red-haired girl whose ample chest was covered with a Mighty Thor t-shirt, debonair Frank Zappa (32) sank deeper into the couch, flexed his bare bronzed torso, refused a Gitane – "Too strong for me" – and concentrated his mind on the latest edition of the Mothers of Invention.

"This is the first of my bands," he said, "which possesses the technical facility to play the harder stuff from memory."

The band, an octet, is currently on tour in Europe, and makes its only British concert appearance at the Empire Pool, Wembley, on September 14. The new lineup, which has already completed two tours of America and one in Australia, comprises Zappa on guitar and vocals, Jean-Luc Ponty (violin), Ian Underwood (clarinet, bass-clarinet, flute, synthesiser), Bruce Fowler (trombone), George Duke (keyboards), Tom Fowler (bass-guitar), Ralph Humphrey (drums), and Ruth Underwood – Ian's wife – on marimba, vibes, tympani, and assorted "small percussion."

It is not, said Frank, in any way a successor to or continuation from the 20-piece Grand Wazoo/Hot Rats orchestra which appeared at the Oval cricket ground last year.

"It doesn't sound like any band of any sort that you've heard any place – the instrumentation alone gives it a completely different tone quality. As a result of the widely differing timbres of the instruments, you get a lot of contrast."

Much of their material, too, is unfamiliar. 'St Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast', 'Don't Eat The Yellow Snow', two blues called 'Penguin In Bondage' and 'Slough My Throng', and lastly something called, 'Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?' which Frank describes as "an instrumental with choreography."

They'll also be playing some old favourites, specifically 'The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue', 'Green Genes', 'King Kong', 'Chunga's Revenge', and – for the first time in five years and by popular demand – 'Brown Shoes Don't Make It'.

To coincide with the tour, there is (inevitably) A New Album – by the same personnel plus trumpeter Sal Marquez. It's called Over-Nite Sensation, and contains none of the compositions mentioned above. Instead, it sounds like another sneaky attempt by the Mothers of Invention to get their cruddy music on the radio.

There didn't seem much more to say about this new band until we'd all got a chance to hear it, so Frank discussed the Grand Wazoo tour: "All the concerts were great – except the one in London.

"It's tough to take a 20-piece electric band to a frozen cricket ground where the audience is trying to tear down the goal-posts (?) and burn them to keep themselves warm. But we broke all records at the Felt Forum in New York."

The Grand Wazoo seemed, I suggested, like a pinnacle of his career, the object he's always been aiming at right from the days of Freak Out.

"It would have been that kind of a climax, if the band had been able to memorise the arrangements, and if the technical equipment had been of the right quality. The only thing that's important is whether you have the opportunity and the money to present your crazed ideas properly.

"200 Motels wasn't done properly because there wasn't enough time or money. The Wazoo tour, for instance, did five concerts and grossed 90,000 dollars – and I lost 2,000 dollars of my money on it. There was no way that I was going to make any.

"I gauge the success of something by whether I can appreciate the outcome on a personal spectator level. If all the parts aren't audible, it isn't right – and that goes back to the technology and the money to provide it.

"On 200 Motels, the orchestra beat the shit out of the music – they just didn't play it properly. I couldn't even recognise it when they'd finished. Most of the actors were non-professionals, and the whole thing was shot in 56 hours. We all needed more time, and if I'd had it, I've have gotten better performances out of everybody, because they were the right people for those roles.

"In spite of that, I think it was a good film, and I believe that over a period of years you're going to find out how many strange predictions in the script actually come true."

Such as what?

"Well, pay particular attention to the dialogue between Mark, Howard, and Aynsley. No matter how twisted you think that plot is, it's based on things that had happened, or on things that were based on suppositions extrapolated from mathematical predictions of people's personalities."

Returning to technology, Zappa explained that they've brought the PA system which used to belong to Chicago. It's a 52-input stereo system, with all kinds of "studio-type facilities" like limiters, compressors, tape-delay, phase-shifters, and variable equalisers.

"The guy who's mixing it all for us is Gary McNab, who engineered our last six albums. We finally got him out on the road. He's the third mixer this band has had – the first one was Stephen Desper, who's worked with the Beach Boys. I bought half their PA, and he came along to mix it – but he resigned because it was against his religious principles to be on stage with a band that sang our kind of lyrics. He eventually decided to quit showbiz, and went into a Christian Science college, in Boston, Massachusetts."

Frank also divulged that he's working on another movie – "but it's too far in the future for me to start promoting it now."

He would say, however, that it was a "monster movie" – including perversion, hamburgers, a children's belt with little yellow holes, and dry ice – "any movie that's any good has dry ice in it. I'm cutting it now – most of it was actually shot in 1970, before 200 Motels."

Finally, while talking about the present, how long will this group last? Does it have a definite expiry date like the Wazoo mob? Frank was playing it close to his lithely muscled chest.

"I know what the lifespan of this band is," he murmured, "but it's not for publication."

WHEN THE formal part of the interview, dealing with the present and the recent past, was over, I started talking to Frank about his early days in the music biz, around 1963, when the Mothers were a distant future projection. He came up with a lot of memories which I haven't seen published anywhere before, and I thought you might be interested to know about what he was doing in the pre-psychedelia days.

It all began when he started collaborating with an electronics wizard called Paul Buff, in the very early Sixties. Buff had been working for a missile company, and when he left he decided to build a recording studio – in Cucamonga, California, which Zappa says is the world's unlikeliest place for such an enterprise.

Being an ingenious guy, Buff built himself a five-track recorder – the only one in the world – at a time when most of the professional Hollywood studios were using only two- or three-track machines.

"He's a real unsung hero," said Frank. "He taught himself saxophone, piano, bass and drums – and learned just the basic rock 'n' roll licks, so that he could make all the records by overdubbing himself. He wrote songs, too – and they sounded like every other song you ever heard, because he wrote them to a formula."

Frank worked with him, and eventually bought the little studio, while Buff went to invent several important items of recording equipment, like the Kepex noise-reduction unit, and he now heads his own important company.

In those early days though, Frank continued, Los Angeles "was a lot of fun. We made records that we knew we couldn't sell to anybody, but we'd spend days on them. Things were so absurd."

Frank's first record was 'Break Time' by the Masters – who were Frank, Buff, and a guy called Ronnie Williams – on Buff's independent Emmy label.

Then there was 'Every Time I See You' by the Heartbreakers and 'How's Your Bird?' by Baby Ray and the Ferns – both for Bob Keene's Del-Fi/Donna company.

"Baby Ray was Ray Collins – that was the first record to feature a snork, which we have since featured more strongly. The B-side was 'The World's Greatest Sinner'. We also did one called 'Hey Nelda', by Ned and Nelda – guess which hit inspired that one."

Around the same time, roughly 1963, Frank worked with "a label that's so obscure that if you found any of their records, they probably wouldn't be worth anything."

It was called Vigah Records, and among the product was 'The Big Surfer', on which they used a San Bernadino disc-jockey who did a good imitation of President Kennedy. The DJ impersonated Kennedy judging a teenage surf dance contest, and the last line was that the winner's prize was to be the first member of the Peace Corps to be sent to Alabama (social commentary!).

Capitol Records bought the master for the unheard-of 700 dollars, but unfortunately Medgar Evers was killed in Alabama just as it was released, thus knocking the record on the head. The DJ played it on his show, though, so it was a hit in San Bernadino.

Hanging around Capitol Records, Frank remembers being in the studio while producer Jim Economides was mixing a couple of early Beach Boys tracks – 'Surfer Girl' and 'Little Deuce Coupe' – as well as Dick Dale's 'Secret Surfer Spot', all in the same session. Interestingly enough, Zappa is positive that Brian Wilson wasn't present – and Economides spent most of his time trying on new Italian sports coats, sent up from a nearby men's outfitters.

Frank also got involved with DJ Art Laboe's Original Sound label, and with Ray Collins he wrote and produced the beautiful and now-classic 'Memories Of El Monte' by the Penguins, which was cut in mono at Laboe's studio.

For those who don't know it, the record celebrates and quotes from some of the hits of the golden era of vocal groups – the Flamingos, the Heartbeats, and so on. Lead singer Cleve Duncan of the original 'Earth Angel' Penguins is featured, but the rest of the singers were "a bunch of guys from the car-wash."

Zappa loved that kind of music – it inspired, of course, the Ruben & The Jets album – and he draws a sharp distinction between black group music on the East and West Coasts.

"The West Coast music had a sense of humour, but the stuff from the East was kinda desperate. Group music was brought to California by black people from Texas, and the ghetto situation in LA wasn't as nasty as it was in Harlem, so it developed a different aura – do you know the Coasters' 'Shoppin' For Clothes'? That's the sort of thing I mean."

He wrote and made almost a dozen flops for Original Sound – including something called 'Mr Clean' by Mr Clean – and the Penguins' record didn't sell at all, although it's now quite a rare oldie.

But he did write the B-side of 'Tijuana Surf' by the Hollywood Persuaders, which was "number one in Mexico for 17 straight weeks!" The group, needless to say, was Paul Buff again, overdubbing every single instrument.

"The scene isn't the same now," Frank concluded. "People are taking it seriously."

Source: Chris Warner zappa-list@yahoogroups.com

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