By Kim Martin
"Anybody who's got the idea that a rock 'n' roll band, or at least the Mothers of Invention, goes out there and just jumps on stage and makes a bunch of stupid noise is having a delusion."
Frank Zappa, artist-composer and driving force behind nearly ten years of Mothers, came to that conclusion after a three-hour sound check before his concert in March at Dallas' Memorial Auditorium.
"Some of the things that are asked of the players are things that nobody has ever asked a musician to do before – and not just once. They have to do it over and over again every night. The odds against making that work are astronomical," he said in an interview before his performance, as he also struggled to consume the Nation's Innkeepers version of a hamburger.
Talking about his approach to writing, Zappa said that "part of the challenge of writing a lyric is how much you can say in how short a time in a way that is unique." Songs about dental floss farms, penguins in bondage, and slime, all Zappa originals, are indeed unique.
Zappa, a dynamic innovator, continually challenges his musicians to master more and more difficult material. "It's like a floating music school", he said. "As long as there's a challenge, they rise to that challenge and they keep improving.
"Look at it from the musicians' point of view", he explained. "If you already have a lot of skills, the only way that you're going to get a chance to improve those skills is by being placed in a situation where demands are made on your skills maybe surpassing what your skill is.
"Studio players have a certain advantage in that you learn a lick, or some hard thing to play, for a session and then all you have to do is get it on tape one time and you can forget about it. They do it, spew it and walk away. But in our band, we have to do it every night.
"Everybody's got something hard to play. That means in order for a perfect performance to occur, everybody has to play it perfect, the sound in the room has to be right and the guy who's mixing the show has to do all his cues."
He noted that perfect performances are rare. "However, it's something to shoot for."
Shooting for and achieving that goal in the Dallas performance were nine equally talented and hard driving musicians. Drummers Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphrey, working with percussionist Ruth Underwood and bassist Tom Fowler perfected the rhythmic base of Zappa's creations.
Lead singer and sax-flute man Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke keyboard, Fowler brother Bruce on trombone and Jeff Simmons on guitar, all followed Zappa's every direction on stage to form a tightly woven fabric of sound and movement.
Zappa's compositions, like the visuals in the show, are usually satirical put-ons. His ideas come from anywhere and everywhere.
"Somebody left a box of dental floss on the sink and I got up in the morning and looked at it and I thought 'Well nobody's written a song about that!' "he said, explaining the origin of "Montana".
As for "Dinah-Moe Hum," from the same album, Ovenight Sensation," he said philosophically, "It's not based on any incidents that have occurred, but it's a hypothetical situation that could occur at any time to anybody".
He related the following story, however, about a real life experience with the situation described in the song:
"When we first went to Australia, the album wasn't released yet and I had a cassette of that particular tune. And after we played our first concert, there were these two girls in the show who were interested in coming back to the Hotel with us.
"One of them was – how shall we say – 'free form.' And the other one was more conservative, except that the one that was more conservative had a much keener mind than the one that was free form. They were both interested in erotic gratification, but they didn't want to participate in a joint effort.
"So, Contestant No. 1 was the free form contestant and she was so free form that after we had had our jumping up and down, she left the room and went over and attacked the body guard.
"After Contestant No. 1 left, Contestant No.2, who had been in the bathtub all that time, came out and asked me to put the cassette on again. I played it again and she laughed some more, and she said, 'Well, play it again and let's act it out.'
"Well, you know, that might sound like an interesting theory. The only problem with it is that the events that are described in the song go by so fast, you know, in telling it. If you try to do it in time – buns up kneelin' and all the rest of that stuff – it's very funny.
"And...we did it, but it was like an old time movie".
For the record, Zappa didn't lose the bet, either.
He takes his absurdities seriously, however, when it comes to the actual performance.
Explaining the unusually lengthy sound checks before each concert, he said, "The guy who's running the (sound mixing) board, goes to rehearsals and mixes the tunes while we're rehearsing. He also has to know how to wire it together, how to lift it and set it up and plug it in and worry about it. That's his gig – just like a musician.
"It's a pretty complex wiring job," Zappa explained. "We have something like 302 different sound sources that are worked down to approximately 45 inputs into the board.
"I go through every microphone one at a time with a sound check-start with the kick drum and work my way all the way around the place. Then we balance the tone quality to match the room. We do it every day. It takes at least three hours!"
And his immediate interest right now is the band. "I like this band, and it's in its earliest stages of development. I want to develop it as far as it will go because it has the potential to be something extremely rare because of the personalities".
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net