Zappa: Continuity Is the Mother's Mother
By Barry Hansen
Ever since Frank Zappa arrived on the international rock scene in l965, he's been good copy. He was one of the first pop musicians to abandon the usual ways of image making in favor of a purposely outrageous bizarreness (the kind of thing that, nearly a decade later, is becoming de rigueur). He was incontestably the first of the pop freaks whose music had the impact to give his outrage real authority.
1974 marks the tenth anniversary of the Mothers, the group (or succession of groups) that has been the most prominent format for Zappa's music making. Though Zappa and the Mothers have had a large world-wide following since the release of the first Mothers album, Freak Out, l974 has been Frank's most prosperous year ever. Apostrophre ('), his 16th album (counting both solo and Mothers projects) has been by far the biggest seller of his career – the first, in fact, to break into the Top 20 on album charts.
The Mothers began in Pomona, California, a funky but not very pretty burg of 90,000 which is just far enough away from L.A. to escape the glitter but just close enough to suffocate in smog. Born in Baltimore in 1940, Frank and his family moved to the clearer skies of California's high-desert Antelope Valley, where he spent the Fifties listening alternately to R&B 45s and to the works of avant-garde composers such as Edgard Varèse. As he listened, he began to formulate the musical language that would bring such far-flung musics as these together within an eclectic but supremely original style.
That style and force, while not universally embraced by rock's critical establishment, has at times inspired cries like "genius" or "one of the most innovative artists." Mark Volman (Flo of Flo and Eddie, and a music reviewer for Phonograph Records), attempting to verbalize what it is in Zappa that elicits such a level of praise, says, "Frank's whole thing is that it's always been possible for him to be heavy and still have a sense of humor. He's just very inventive – he never stagnates. He's the only guy in the world who can release 15 albums a year, he's got so much stored up." Volman and Howard Kaylan (Eddie) played as Mothers for two years, and departed saying they'd loved every minute of it.
Before the Mothers came into being, Zappa was already on record with about 3 dozen singles released under a variety of artist credits (Ned and Nelda, Baby Ray and the Ferns, Brian Lord and the Midnighters) by such labels as Emmy, Vigah and Original Sound. These were cut in a makeshift studio in Cucamonga, California, a few miles from Pomona. Frank sang, wrote, played numerous instruments, engineered, produced and eventually bought the studio.
In 1964 Frank decided to join a group known as the Soul Giants, working at a Pomona beer bar called The Broadside. Among the members were Ray Collins (who had recorded with Zappa), Jimmy Carl Black and Roy Estrada, Zappa quickly became the group's leader, changed their name to the Mothers, and banished the works of Wilson Pickett and James Brown in favor of those of F.Z.
The Mothers were promptly tired, not only from The Broadside but from "all the places between Pomona and Torrance," as Frank recalls it. Suburban beer guzzlers weren't Frank's idea of an audience, anyway. In search of an audience eager to hear rock & roll played in an unconventional manner, Frank took his Mothers to Hollywood in l964.
The Mothers moved into town, grew their hair, and worked their way through various Sunset Strip dives up to the world famous Whisky-a-Go-Go. While some of the patrons of this notorious establishment objected strenuously when the Mothers changed tempo during a song, insulted the customers and refused to play "Midnight Hour," many others became Mothermaniacs. The Mothers were loved and hated, but never ignored.
That sort of response inevitably got record companies interested. With the recording of Freak Out in l965 (the first double album by any contemporary rock group) the Zappa controversy became a world-wide affair. Sixteen albums (not counting repackagings and bootlegs), one feature film and ten years of concertizing later, Frank Zappa has entered the consciousness of several million people. Though some non-positive response continues, he has inspired something close to reverence in many listeners, reaching as he does the intellect as well as the audio-erogenous zones.
When I visited Zappa's Hollywood Hills home for a recent interview, I was primarily intent on coming up with a detailed history of his career, to mark the Mothers' aforementioned anniversary. Though Frank himself is commemorating the occasion by adding a 40-minute medley from Freak Out to some of the Mothers' concerts, on the evening of the interview his mind was very much in the present and future.
He was at one end of an enormous workroom that occupies the lower half of his house, editing film – an abstract short of puppet animation made by Seattle filmmaker Bruce Bickford, with music by the Mothers. As I was about to compliment Zappa on composing music that so perfectly fit the Hadesian mood of the film, he told me that the music had not been written for the film at all, but had been extracted from live recordings of Mothers concert which took place before Frank had ever seen the movie. "I got the work print," Frank explained, "and edited that without sound. Then, just last night ... I put the [Mothers] tracks on, and it worked. It's so unbelievable ... when you think what it would take to actually score a film like that, and last night I put on this music, which was something constructed for completely different purposes, spontaneously at another location and another time, and I put them together and they worked perfectly."
Surprised and delighted as he was at the mesh of audio and video, Zappa had a rational explanation for it, based on an idea that has infused and governed all his work through the past decade. This is the idea of "conceptual continuity," Zappa's belief that everything he creates and performs in any medium is part of a single continuous artistic and communicative experience. Each unit of creation – a guitar solo, a song, an album, a concert, a film, whatever – is considered not only as a carefully designed end in itself, but as a part of the overall output macrostructure.
Many listeners have noticed Zappa's technique of punctuating albums with brief, often startling, quotes from his other recordings, such as the line "Is that a real poncho or is that a Sears poncho?" that appears in both Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe ('), or the continuing poodle business. That is, indeed, one of the ways Zappa makes listeners aware of the ongoing continuity. A more subtle manifestation would be the way in which the concert tapes matched the Bickford film, whose choice and editing was, like the Mothers' music, part of Zappa's continuity.
Zappa takes great pains to preserve a record of the continuity, taping all his concerts and often filming them as well. Five-foot stacks of tape and film line the workroom's walls along with such artifacts as the remains of the guitar Jimi Hendrix burned at Monterey.
Such is Frank's concern with macro-structure. His equal concern for micro-structure was evident the day I visited the DiscReet Records complex to see the Mothers rehearse. In a warehouse-like structure, the Mothers have erected a concert-hall-sized stage, on and around which the people who operate the band's elaborate sound and light systems can rehearse their cues along with the musicians.
This rehearsal was devoted to the meticulous honing of several especially angular and asymmetrical instrumental passages. The musicians worked diligently, oblivious to the light crews who scurried about in their midst, setting up strobe lights and such. Except for the flashing lights, and the scarcity of music stands, the process resembled a symphony rehearsal far more than the usual loose rock session, with nary a beer bottle or joint to be seen.
Zappa is a perfectionist, but what may be more remarkable is his prodigious energy level, which enables him to be a prolific writer/composer despite a heavy touring schedule. Unlike most of us who feel a frequent need to escape from the rat race into hobbies, sports, drugs, or other diversions, Zappa is so absorbed in his work that he appears to need no other pleasures.
"When I'm home, I have a work schedule that goes like this. If I'm not rehearsing, I spend about 16, 18 hours a day down here [in the workroom] writing music, typing, working on film ... and if I'm not here, I usually do about 10, 14 hours in the studio, seven days a week, until rehearsal schedule starts. The only thing I would see as a worthwhile interruption would be l00% concentration on a feature film." Is another feature film in Zappa's near future? "Yes." (He didn't elaborate).
I commented that not many people seemed to be as thoroughly committed to their work as he, nor enjoyed it as much as he seemed to. His reply: "What else you gonna do, work in a gas station?"
Barry Hansen is better known to listeners of his syndicated radio program and to readers of Warner Bros.' 'Circular' as Dr. Demento.
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