Carry On Composing
By Karl Dallas
No Edgar Varèse trip for Frank Zappa, who's just sold out four shows at the Hammersmith Odeon (not bad for a hippie in '78, eh?). His idol may have given up writing for 25 years because of hassles, but, despite problems with Warners, Frank's gonna keep on, he tells Karl Dallas
FRANK ZAPPA's hero, the French avant garde composer Edgar Varèse, once gave up composing for a quarter of a century because the New York musical establishment was giving him a hard time. Now, thanks to a dispute between Zappa and his record company Warner Brothers, it may be five or six years before any new Zappa records come into the shops.
But Zappa intends to continue composing, to carry on recording, even if the work never ever sees the light of day.
"I like to make music, you see," he explained. "I get my jollies from hearing what I write.
"I don't think Varèse did the right thing. I've never met the man, but everything I read about him led me to believe that he had a very strong, individualistic personality.
"And I think that not composing for 25 years means he took an awful lot of s--- from somebody and he shouldn't have done it. In 25 years he could have written a lot of works and his total catalogue isn't that big. I just wish there was more of it.
"I feel bad that America is the kind of place that forced that situation on a man like Varèse."
One important difference between Zappa and his idol, however, was that he has access to the mass media for his fairly advanced music, and Varèse didn't. Perhaps, I suggested, this sort of mass exposure also carried with it the sort of business hassles he was currently having with Warners. Didn't he find it frustrating that he has spent the better part of a year on the law suit already, and expects it to drag on for another five?
"Well, absolutely," he said. "It's no fun at all. But if there's a choice between bending over for Warner Bros and being more of a lawyer and less of a musician, guess what I'm going to do? I won't deny that the legal fees that I've incurred already are enormous and they haven't stopped yet and it don't look like they're going to be stopping, but I'm not going to stop either."
Even if he was so convinced he was in the right, I suggested, mightn't it make more sense to his career as a musician just to walk away from it and make some music in another direction?
"Not this time," he said flatly. "I couldn't live with myself if I did that. If I thought there was any way that there was any question of the morality of the thing, I would say 'OK, perhaps that's the easiest, cheapest course to take, and let's go make music.' But I don't. I'm absolutely right. And they're absolutely wrong.
The dispute concerns the four albums which he was due to deliver to Warners last year and which he says he did deliver. The contract expired at the end of 1977, and by that time he says they had not paid him the 60,000 dollars advance per album he was due on delivery of the master tapes of each album – sums which did not cover his production costs, which he pays himself.
He re-edited the albums then into a four-album boxed set under the overall title of "Lather" (pronounced like leather) which first EMI, then Phonogram considered releasing, but decided not to – for rather suspect reasons, he believes.
Insult was added to injury, he says, when WEA advertised one of the four albums, "Zappa Live In New York" in the US earlier this month.
Now, having a profound belief that the only people who make money out of law suits are lawyers, I won't venture an opinion on the rights and wrongs of the case, but I will tell you this. To paraphrase his own words: I feel sad that America (and its music business) can force that situation on a man like Frank Zappa, and deny his audience what is perhaps his most perfect, most definitive statement since "We're Only In It For The Money."
I can say this, because the day after we spoke Zappa played me the entire work – that's eight album sides, lasting for over 3½ hours. It's not the ideal way to listen to this music, with its dense structure, overlapping layers of sound, micro-second edits, cross-references and dazzling solos, including a full symphony orchestra on some tracks. I was, quite literally, punch-drunk, and by the time we got to the end I could barely remember how it had begun.
I even asked him if I could plug my cassette machine to his stereo, so that I could recollect them a bit more carefully in tranquility, but he said, not surprisingly, no. (The entire work did have one New York broadcast, so don't rule out the possibility of the odd bootleg getting across.)
THE titles of the four original albums were: "Zappa Live in New York," "Hot Rats III," "Studio Tan" and "Zappa Orchestral Favourites."
Fragments of each of these have been spread across the re-edited work, so that live cuts are spliced into studio takes, and a linking narrative – if that is the right word – added, featuring famed American radio announcer Don Pardo.
There are occasional echoes of earlier Zappa work, like the words, "It can't happen here," sotto voce at the end of the hilarious "Legend Of The Illinois Enema Bandit" at the conclusion of side two, "I see God" at the opening of "Honey Don't You Want A Man Like Me" on side four, and "The Duke Of Orchestral Prunes," a reworking of a theme previously used on "Absolutely Free" (May 1967), on side six.
Thematically, the albums are an almost complete amalgam of musical themes and attitudes familiar throughout Zappa's work over the past decade plus, though without the strongly political comment that distinguished his first few albums. He denies that he has abandoned social comment, incidentally.
"If you mean, by social comment, saying that government sucks" I heard him tell another interviewer, "that's something everyone knows by now." The sexual commentary of much of his lyrics today was, he maintained, as valid as straightforward politics.
There's an 11-minute instrumental on side six of the set, now called the same title as the album (itself a play on words) but originally titled "I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth." I wondered how a title like that could be justified in terms of instrumental content and at first he was unwilling to go into it.
His low opinion of the rock press in general, and the British rock press in particular, is fairly well known.
"If you want to talk about music on a theoretical level, which I believe has little or no place in the British pop press because all they are interested in is what the guys are wearing, we can get into that. I can show you how all that stuff works, that information is transmitted through every note and even every rest in a piece of music, no matter what.
"Who is going to read it? What are they going to, do with that information? I don't think that people who read these publications give a rat's ass about that stuff."
"It's so simple, you know, I don't understand why people haven't figured it out already," he said. "All right, the way a melody works – let's be real basic – the way a melody works is that it's a line which is composed of pitches. Got that much?"
"The interpretation of what those pitches signify is based on the harmonic climate in which they function. In other words, the same three notes played against the C major chord mean one thing, as against if they are played against an F sharp minor chord.
"The psychological and emotional information of the pitches versus the harmonic climate is one type of information. The speed with which the pitches go by is another type of information, so you get into the realm of rhythm.
"Any time there is an absence of movement, like a rest or any kind of a cut-off or a space or a break, that also conveys information.
"These things are functioning on the same level as the type of psychological information conveyed by basic geometric patterns in advertising layouts, the triangle being a very simplistic surrogate replica of a female pubic region, or the way in which they compute that a circle resembles a breast.
"These are all factors that they actually deal with on the advertising agency concept level, you know. They have people who charge you a fortune per hour to analyse the motivational aspects of layouts.
"You can intuitively combine these things to convey information that is not in the written text itself or in the illustration. It's the same thing with music. It is not the notes that matter in rock especially, it's the timbre.
"The best example of that is, imagine 'Purple Haze' played on an accordion. Take the exact same notes and exactly the same rhythm and put them on another instrument and you have a completely different message, and all you've done is change instruments."
We argued, briefly, about whether these musical archetypes were universal, or culturally conditioned, and we agreed eventually that a Chinaman listening to Beethoven – or Zappa? – would have a different response from that of a Westerner.
Likewise with a Western listening to Chinese music.
"WHAT does it mean to you?" he demanded. "You listen to these lines and you wonder to yourself whether or not they are out of tune. Or, what's really going on here? Why is this guy yelling? Why are they beating that drum there? Why are there so many gongs in it?
"To a person who grew up with that, if it contains condensed codified cultural information that is part of their way of life, it means something."
And Zappa's music ... ?
"Absolutely, absolutely. It contains codified information not only about the American way of life but it contains codified information about psychological processes which are common here, too, all over Europe."
Earlier, when we had been discussing social messages, he had mentioned a number of themes outside the range of simplistic "protest" – for instance, his deep belief that the entire drug-oriented "counter culture" was actually a CIA plot – which, so far as I could recall, he had never dealt with in his music.
"Well," he said, "in 'We're Only In It For The Money' there are a couple of things – the song about 'cop kill a creep, pow pow pow,' that kind of stuff – that were apropos of the time.
"The thing that was radical about 'We're Only In It For The Money' album was not that it was social commentary in the grand sense of the word. It was the only time that anybody ever dared to say anything bad about flower power while it was happening; you know.
"You don't think that takes a little bit of guts to alienate the largest possible percentage of the youth market that is buying the records? I couldn't stand it because it was so patently fake.
"In five years from now, there are going to be people around saying, 'Huh, punk rock, who are you kidding? Did you used to really have safety pin in your cheek? What a nurd.' You know, it'll all blow over, it all blows over, because it's all manufactured."
Now, this was really getting interesting, because to me there's a lot in common between Zappa and the punks, so far as subject matter is concerned. They both deal with the same kind of "forbidden" subjects, bondage, for instance.
And anyway, how did he get off, dismissing punk (or any other popular music) as manufactured, when he has this deep-seated affection for the equally manufactured and artificial musics of the Fifties and Sixties, doo-wop and the like, even devoting a couple of albums (eg, "Ruben And The Jets") to loving re-creations of the genre?
"You're treading on some dangerous territory here," he warned me, "when you start talking about rhythm and blues. Unless you're an expert about that stuff, don't you even discuss it with me, because the manner of making records in those days and the way the business was conducted, the motivations of the people who were making the music, I think would be extremely alien to the music business of today and the people who are making music today.
"If you want to talk about that Fifties era, those songs about your girlfriend, that kind of stuff, I feel there is real emotional content in there. Not only that, but there is some real good singing, some of the most adventurous diatonic music that has ever been written.
"If you listen to that stuff. I don't know how you feel about suspensions and irresolutions, but the quintet vocal harmony of the Fifties is frightening, it's frightening, what's going on in there.
"You get a bunch of guys that could really sing that stuff and forget that they're singing about their girlfriend. If you saw it on paper it would be amazing."
I objected that when he spoke about punk, he had not dismissed it as music – which is a valid point of view, from someone as skilled as Zappa – but because of the socio-economic way it was produced.
"OK, I'll talk about the socio-economic way it was produced, too. In those days, suppose you were a black kid and you're going to High School and you wanted to sing.
"This guy with a cigar in his mouth who had a tape recorder down the street, you knew he was going to rip you off. You went in there and you sang your song. He gave you ten or 20 dollars.
"All you could drink and a 100 copies of your single when it was released, and he never saw you again. Or you came back and did another one under the same terms. I mean, none of those guys made any money but they kept on doing it"
Me: It sounds just like Malcolm McLaren to me.
FZ: I don't know who that is.
Me: He's the guy who manages the Sex Pistols.
FZ: Oh yeah? Is he the guy with the cigar?
"Yeah, but do you really believe that the kids who are making that music today are doing it just because they want to sing and want to play? That's the difference."
I assured him I believed exactly that.
"I find that hard to believe. I find it hard to believe that any place in the civilised world today there's a band that wants to get together just to play, not just to make a hit record. I believe that is the basic motivation.
"I mean, even then people thought about having a hit but, you know, if they didn't have a hit they would be just as happy to sing. Not only that, they could sing. Today you have people who want to have a hit and they can't even play. That's the difference that I see."
EARLIER in the afternoon, Zappa had castigated another interviewer for making assumptions about the situation in America based on what he'd learnt from the media, and it began to dawn on me that Zappa, in his own way, lived a pretty protected life, insulated from many of the matters he concerned himself with.
He did not have any idea, for instance, of how deeply ingrained a grass-roots social movement punk had become in this country, compared with the artsy decadence of the New York and West Coast punk bands he knew from back home.
"My knowledge is gained from TV reportage in the United States, hearing some of the stuff on record, and just talking to various people in the business about what's going on. You are the first person that I've talked to who describes it as a grass-roots movement or any thing of real significance.
"All we know in the United States inside the business is that it's a hype. Everybody knows it's a hype and it's a little bit confusing to me to hear an apparently intelligent person telling me that it's a grass-roots movement here.
"In the United States, it's like when surf music came out, you had people in Kansas buying surf boards and woody wagons so that they could look good. So when they hear that punk rock is happening you have people who haven't the faintest idea what your socio-economic-political basis is for this cultural event, just jamming a safety pin through their cheek and wearing a leather jacket with a zipper on it."
I wondered if Zappa was so against the punks because, to a certain extent, they had stolen his clothes, diminishing the outrage of what he was doing.
"I don't ask any favours of anybody. If you want to be outraged – fine. You want to think it's boring – fine. I don't give a f---. I'm doing what I do.
"I'm sure I'm quite eccentric by quite a lot of different types of standards. But by my own standards I'm normal. I think that's a prerequisite for being eccentric. In order to be a true eccentric you have to think that what you're doing is just perfectly normal and weird to somebody else, because if you think you're eccentric then you're manufacturing it.
"That's also a new trend, manufactured eccentricity.
"This is the greatest country in the world for eccentricity, by the way. It's one of the few things that I will give the British credit for, just being the best, most genuinely eccentric people on earth alive in this century, I think."
Perhaps that's why we take Frank Zappa so tight into our hearts.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net