Frank Zappa: A Study In Survival
By James Riordan
Zappa has managed to get away with more than most in the music business by using a unique combination of musical outrageousness and business savvy.
When you think about Frank Zappa you have to admire the ability the man has to get things done. Every musician must have some sort of business head even if it is knowing when to nod yea or nea to his manager's whims. Actually, it takes a good business sense just to find a decent manager anymore. Imagine what it must have been like for young Frank Zappa trying to talk labels into signing the Mothers of Invention back in 1964 (when fusion had something to do with the bomb). Not only did he do it but he managed to get rock's first conceptual double album released as his first lp. How?
"It wasn't easy. I just talked like a son-of-a-bitch. Before they knew it they had two records in the pile."
And so it is with Zappa. He just does things that most find impossible and then goes on. It's the same in his music.
"On 'Zoot Allors' I played most of the instruments. I just wanted to try it and I feel it's closer to what I wanted to achieve on a per album basis than the others. I had played keyboards, synthesizer, bass, and guitar before but I always left the drums up to somebody else."
It's no secret that Zappa has worked with some of the best musicians in the business or that it is plainly understood that he is the boss of the band.
"That's my job. I buy all the equipment, I pay all the salaries, I pay the crew, I provide the transportation and I'm the boss. I select the repertoire and just like in a symphony orchestra . . . the guy waving the stick tells you when to start and when to stop. Being in my band is the best musical education any of my musicians will get. Some of them realize it but a lot of them don't until they're out of the band. Besides that, you get paid to learn and you get to travel around the world while you're doing it."
Sounds like a nice gig. The competition to join Mr. Zappa's band is usually pretty high but the standards are even higher.
"I look regularly for percussionists. I like percussion stuff but so far there's only one percussionist that I've worked with that can do what I dish out. And that's Ruth Underwood. I'm spoiled because I know if I give something to Ruth I'll get it played. She just happens to be the best. I can give her the hardest stuff and if she can't sight read it she'll take it and learn it. She'll have it memorized and play it with very good consistency for the duration of the tour. Her time concept is precise. She's got an internal atomic clock that ticks off fractions of sixty-fourth notes. She'll make the rhythm section sound like it doesn't know what it's doing because she's so exact. If I could find two or three people of that quality who were roadable I'd use them regularly but it's hard to find people that are suited to the stuff that I do. There's millions of musicians out there but not too many of them can fit into this band."
Zappa's rigid standards extend beyond the music and include detailed assessment of the group's stage equipment. Most major groups rent at least part of their equipment but not Zappa. "To me renting equipment is a bad way to do it for two reasons. One, when you rent the equipment you never know how well it's maintained. Two, you get a crew with that equipment. They work for the sound company and the only thing they care about is that equipment. They don't care about your music and they don't care about your show but they do care about the equipment. Then you have the lighting company. Now they have their equipment that they care about and they don't care about the sound and they don't care about the show. What happens is that a lot of groups go out with three separate crews. They have their roadies to set up the band equipment, the light guys, and the sound guys . . . and they all hate each other's guts. They could care less whether or not they get along if or your shows goes on because as long as they show up with the truck full of stuff, they get paid. They got no allegiance to you because as soon as your show is done they go out with the next guy. To me that's a bad way to make music. I got five guys in the band and I got twenty guys in the crew. Most of the guys in the crew been with me for three or four years. They're one of the best crews on the road. I own all the equipment so there's no squabbling between the light guys and the sound guys. They all help each other out. It's two forty-five foot trucks full of equipment and they can set it up in three hours and tear it down in an hour and a half."
Zappa has amassed a great deal of respect in the music business since the Mothers came on the national scene in 1965. Among the honors as an innovator is a Cleo award for the music to a Luden's Cough Drops commercial that he did in 1967. The hit single and total commercial success have eluded him however, and the biggest reason for this is lack of airplay by the nation's broadcasters.
"Listen, broadcasters are pigs. They'll play anything that can keep the ratings up. There used to be a time when if your single was over two minutes and thirty seconds you best not even mail it to the stations. It's stupid but that's the way it was. Now they got Frampton's multi-long band job number and it gets played. Hey wow, is this a trend toward longer singles? No, it's just different. Every once in a while a smart promo man will slip one of those things in there and a radio station will play it, and people will buy it and somebody will start the trend. People make the music for various reasons. Some people do it just so they can get a hit record and make a buck, some people do it as an experiment . . . some people do it ‘because it's an easy way to get laid‘. There's all kinds of different motives for getting into the music business but the final arbitrator of taste for the American people is what gets played on the radio. Now you get into another set of emotional problems. You have people who program stations because they are behind the ratings of another station which is highly formatted and they have to compete by playing what they describe as the "hit format." So it's the hit format versus the standard formula and as soon as the station that's behind in the ratings takes over then they become the formula and the other station wastes away. I was talking to a guy at a radio station in Toronto who said they could have the best ratings in town by playing something like "Stairway to Heaven" eighteen times a day."
Zappa is also highly regarded as a producer and he gets a steady steam of offers to produce other acts. Last year he accepted one from Grand Funk Railroad. ("Good Singing, Good Playing").
They called me up and asked if I'd like to produce an album for them. I told them I'd never heard their music before because I don't listen to the radio. So I went to their studio and they played me some tapes. I met the guys and watched them play. I thought they were nice guys and we could get along together so they gave me a bunch of their old albums to listen to and we got together again and decided to do it. Producing's hard work. You have to take the responsibility for, shoulder the emotions of, and technically knead your way through the material of somebody else's imagination. I figure that a producer's job, the way I see it, is to be the intermediary between the band and the engineer. In this case I was the engineer so I didn't have much trouble there. They do the music and you get it on the tape. And you mix it to their specifications because it's their song. I consider them (Grand Funk) good musicians. They know what it's supposed to sound like. If you have a group that has a strong direction and has some idea of what they want to express then that's what the producer ought to do."
Zappa loves to do movies. He plans for several and his "Two Hundred Motels" was a landmark "rock movie."
"I'd love to do a monster film. I want to do a comedy, musical, pornographic monster movie. "Two Hundred Motels" wasn't pushed very much. It came out at the same time as "Fiddler On The Roof." They were both filmed and released by the same company. Ours cost six hundred and seventy nine thousand dollars. 'Fiddler' cost twenty-two million dollars. Which one do you have to get your money back on first?"
In spite of his many hassles with commercialism and poor promotion Zappa continues to be a figurehead in rock and fusion music. The reason he has survived so long in the business is because he knows how to talk the language of the people in the music business.
"It's all money. That's the only thing. It's not what the music sounds like. You could be a hunchbacked gnome. They don't care."
A poor attitude you might say but one which has enabled Frank Zappa to accomplish an incredible amount without sacrificing his personal integrity as an artist. In a business based on making concessions, Frank's only ones are the popcorn and tee shirt stands outside his shows. And yet, as of this moment, Zappa is completing a new record deal that will see the birth of Zappa Records with a four album set to be out very soon. All in all it's not too bad for a freak with a briefcase.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net