F.Z. Blues

By Chris Welsch

Melody Maker, February 19, 1977


‘Pretty soon there’ll only be two records to play – both punk rock’ . . . ‘Straight musicians – they’ll do anything so long as they get paid’ . . . ‘The quickest way to get an audience to shout is to play something quiet’ . . . who else but the ever-controversial Frank Zappa? He reveals his latest thoughts on rock, audiences and, of course, Frank Zappa, to CHRIS WELSH

“THE present day composer refuses to die!” Thus Frank Zappa quoted Edgar Varèse on the 1967 Mothers Of Invention album “We’re Only In It For The Money.”

Varèse must have suffered much at the hands of the critics for Zappa to feel sympathy and encouragement at those words, uttered back in 1921. For Zappa, life is a continuing struggle to get the music he would most like to write performed by musicians who understand what he is trying to do, and recorded by companies willing to back his ideas.

Zappa is amused by the world of rock, works readily within its structure and contributes some of its best and most original music.

But while he refutes any suggestion of paradox in his wearing of man caps, as a kind of master of ceremonies, an astute bandleader, a rock hero and gifted performing musician, he surely would like to be recognised and appreciated as a composer of serious modern music.

At his London hotel, the Dorchester, last Friday night, Zappa played host, surrounded by tapes and dispensing Scotch under the watchful gaze of his bald and muscular bodyguard, Mr Smothers.

Before the occasion when he was pushed from a London stage and suffered painful injuries, FZ was a gleeful raconteur, who would regale one with hardly-credible stories of Wild Man Fischer, LA perverts., and the idiosyncrasies of his fellow musicians.

Since then, he has become much more withdrawn, at least on his infrequent visits to London.

The most sensible way, he feels, to conduct an interview and answer questions about his music is to play the tapes of his compositions on a cassette machine, and place the musical score upon your knees while he silently motions towards the bar 1ines, counting the beam and turning the pages.

How did Frank compare the English of the Seventies with those he first met in the hippie heyday of the Sixties. Did he feel attitudes had changed?

“I’m sure they have, but I’ve got nothing to compare them with. Were the kids shouting? Ah, that’s nothing compared to what we usually get.

“The quickest way to get an audience to shout is to play something quiet. The minute the sound and pressure level drops below the fear of death — they’ll start yellin’.”

Zappa was obviously pleased with his current line-up, which features Terry Bozzio, who replaced Chester Thompson on drums a couple of years ago, and a more recent addition, Eddie Jobson from Roxy Music on keyboards and violin. Was he able to control this motley crew and bend them to his wishes?

“It’s not a matter of controlling them, it’s a matter of providing them with the equipment they need to make music. Once they get out there, they either do it, or don’t do it. It’s not like I’m standing inside their bodies moving their arms. There is some individual initiative involved.”

But he was famed for bringing out the best in musicians, surely?

“Well I do ask them to do things other people wouldn’t. Whether I bring out their best is a moot point. A lot of people have complained about it. But a musician like Eddie Jobson, for example, has improved quite a bit, and when we played our New York shows he played some very challenging music.”

Why did he choose Eddie?

“He asked for an audition.”

Was it purely a matter of economics that Zappa toured with a much smaller unit now than in the days of, say, the Grand Wazoo?

“The larger the band, the more people you have waiting in line to take a solo. And . . . I wanna play the guitar. I don’t want to impinge on anybody’s life-style.

“Although I love to hear a horn section, the guys spend their lives waiting for a chance to play a solo. If I tell them not to play, I feel I’m holding them back or something, so it’s just easier to get a small group and play song; that have some space in em for solos.

“There’s nothing really complex in our show, so we don’t have to rehearse a lot – just two months before we started the tour.”

Did he find it difficult, working in the realm of rock, to introduce the kind of writing evinced by the tapes he had just played?

“Well, you can do that kind of stuff, but try doing it for six months of the year on the road, playing something that hard every night.

“Even that tape is full of inaccuracies, but that’s because I had to stop recording sometime, and I couldn’t afford to keep the musicians there any longer. There are things that are drastically wrong, but with the budget they give me to make an album there is no way I could do it any better.

“The group that Ruth Underwood used to be in with George Duke and the rest of the gang, we had a book of very difficult pieces
which we managed to make sound pretty good in rehearsal but after a while on the road, well, y’know, a couple of sloppy notes here and there . . . the audience can’t tell but it drives me NUTS.

“I wrote it and want to hear it right and if I can’t hear it right I’m not going to play it. I’d rather play something that was less complicated and get a better result out of it, so that the piece is true to itself in performance.”

Why, as Frank had told me earlier, were the recordings he’d played me still “in the can” after two years?

“That album right there? It’s only one – of many. The ballet is only one side of a disc, it’s 22 minutes long and I’ve got tons of other stuff. The record company is going to get it pretty quick though. As soon as I’ve finished this tour I’m gonna deliver four albums to Warners.”

“Four?” I repeated with some incredulity.

“And then my contract with them expires.

“Album making is expensive? It’s cheaper than the movies. In fact all my music could be worked with movies. I’d like to see a movie of ‘Penguin In Bondage’ . . . Torture Never Stop‘ would make e real nice movie. I’ve got a guy working on animation for some of the music you just heard.”

Frank obviously hadn’t been idle since last he came to our shores.

“Oh, I’ve been working,” he admitted.

“You’ve only heard two bits of the stuff that’s sittin’ around.”

How much did Frank feel the music scene had changed. Was it as open to new ideas or was it more conservative now?

“Its more conservative. Definitely.” Frank muttered with the low vehemence of a shell-shocked victim. “All over the world. Stick with the hits. Shorter play-list. Every year the play-list gets shorter and the number of releases increases. Pretty soon there’ll
only be two records to play, both punk rock . . .”

But Frank perseveres in his fight against trends and the trend-makers and played me another few miles of his own extraordinary creations.

“A challenge to musicians,” I observed as another 20-minute segment wound to a seemingly chaotic but cunningly-wrought conclusion.

How did he get on with ‘straight’ musicians in America?

“They’ll do anything so long as they get paid. That’s what it’s about. In Hollywood, money talks, nobody walks. Those musicians have no qualms about sitting in studios just playing whole notes for months, as pads for vocal tracks.

“In fact, most of them would rather do that than play anything interesting, guys who have studied for years to mater their instruments, all they do is play whole notes. They call it ‘laying the eggs.‘ And not only that, I’ve dealt with guys who wanna be paid MORE if they are playing something interesting. ‘Your music is hard. Pay me more to play it.”

Would they say that to Stravinsky if he were alive?

“Probably.”

You seem to have a lot of problems with orchestras and straight musicians.

“You have problems with all kinds of musicians, and all different kinds of problems. Basically, everything is resolved by paying people.

“Did you know the English musicians have a little trick? The string players. When it gets to the end of the session and it’s time to wrap up, you always get one or two who want to go to the toilet or make an obvious mistake.

“That’s just some of the stuff you have to go through. You have to book another session – see?

“The difference between classical and rock musicians is that classical musicians are interested in money and pensions. And rock musicians are interested in money and getting laid.”

Did Zappa feel the three major fields, jazz, rock and classical music, were now further apart than ever before, despite so many attempts to fuse them?

“I don’t think they’ve EVER gotten closer together, or will ever get any closer together. Just because a jazz musician plays something that sounds like a disco record, doesn’t mean he is parting the great barriers.

“And just because a disco manufacturer puts in a jazz sax solo – that’s not bridging any gaps, And just because an English group
hires an orchestra for a backing to a love song, doesn’t mean it’s the missing link between serious music and rock and roll.”

But surely Zappa himself was dedicated to bringing those various forms together. Wasn’t that what he’d like to do?

“Mmm. I just want to be able to play any kind of music that I feel like doing at the time, so that it‘s consistent with the way I’m
living.

“It’s got to be a direct expression of myself and I want to deliver that to the audience as quickly as possible after I get the ideas. Then it doesn’t get outdated. And I want no get those things performed accurately, properly recorded . . . clean pressings! (Frank grinned). On-time delivery. Nothing much!”

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