[Formula Perfecto] [1]

By James Riordan

Rocky Mountain Musical Express, January 1978


The following interview with Frank Zappa was conducted with the valuable aid of Rick Denhart, guitarist for the Tonguesnatcher Review who perform several Zappa compositions.

When you get right down to it the fact that Frank Zappa was ever allowed to make a record is pretty phenomenal. Especially when you look at the music scene of 1964 when Freak Out was recorded. Here’s this madman with incredibly strange music trying to talk record labels into releasing not one but two records for his first onslaught on the narrow-minded listeners of the early Beatle days. What is truly bizarre is that he did it and has continued to do it for twelve years. How?

“Well, the Mothers Of Invention were signed to Verve Records by Tom Wilson as a potentially hot white blues group. Getting the double album wasn’t easy. I just talked like a son-of-a-bitch and before they knew it they had two records in the pile.”

Zappa has always been as good with his mouth as with his guitar and be long ago earned the nickname “freak with a briefcase.” His successes in both business and music are related in that both require creativity and imagination. Both talents also require leadership and it’s no secret that Zappa is the boss.

“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 set. 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.”

Needless to say Zappa has had his share of problems with musicians.

“It’s hard to explain to other musicians that one note will say more than a hundred notes in certain spots. A guy who’s studied for years to get his chops up doesn’t want to be told to lay out. They take it as a personal affront. But see, what people lose sight of is the fact that if you’re a composer, then you know that the last thing in the world you want to do is have everybody playing as much as they can all at the same time. Because that doesn’t lead to a good design. To me that’s the equivalent of taking a nice piece of white paper and painting the whole thing black. You get maximum density. It just gets too busy and it goes nowhere.”

On Zoot Allures, Zappa‘s last studio album, he played keyboards, synthesizer, bass, guitar, and drums. While he has played most of these instruments on various albums before, Zoot was the first album that he actually did almost all of the playing.

“I just wanted to try it. I played the others before but I always left the drums up to somebody else. There’s a little color here and there on Zoot Allures but basically all the tracks are the way I wanted to have them done. I started out playing drums and the story of me and drummers ... boy ... I’m telling you it’s hard to find a drummer. Drummers have a funny idea of what music is all about. I’ve never met a drummer who liked to keep a beat. It‘s like ... well, did you ever meet a piano player that was interested in chords? Or a rhythm guitar player? How about a singer who liked bands? How about a band that liked singers that don’t play anything? It ain’t easy. When you talk about making a band play an arrangement you‘re talking about building the tower of babble. Every time you try to teach a band a song, everybody’s got their own idea about what should come out. There are certain aspects of the music business that are less appealing than others. I happen to really enjoy playing concerts and working in the recording studio. I don’t enjoy the hassles like at the airport, being searched for no reason or there being a mixup and one guy having to reload eight tons of PA equipment.”

Not surprisingly Zappa has some definite ideas about the state of rock music today. When asked if he thought musicians were
tending to get technically better he in turn asked me it I thought the Ramones were technically better than the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The point was that there are several techniques that must be considered.

“Direct communication is a technique. In their own particular way the Ramones are better than Mahavishnu. I think that over the past few years Rock n’ Roll got really etherealized and laid back to the point where it might make nice background music in a funeral parlor. All those west coast groups with the real quiet drum set, a strum guitar, and the eighteen part vocal with the split pea soup harmony in the background. Everybody’s in love and everything’s real nice. That’s not my idea of a good time. There are other people who thrive on it. Let me tell you something that most students of musical history have managed to overlook. Classical music is formula music. The classical period of composition is formula ... to death. And so is today’s music. Formula to death. Who’s to say that five hundred years from now the formula that goes on today will be accepted as the classical music of the sixties, because while classical is so good it’s so predictable. It‘s just as predictable as the Top 40 single. With a hook, recapitulations of the hook, at little modulation ... it’s the same. [Somewhere a long way back there had to be experimental, combined things. Somebody found some things out, and had some good ideas to create a style.] His friends, who are singularly interested in producing audio phenomena copied his style. One good boogie band ... a thousand good boogie bands. One good piano concerto ... ten thousand played by violins and oboe, and people in tuxedos. If Mozart had some guys in the orchestra that vomited blood with tongues this long, it would’ve been a different story.”

“The early Beatle stuff is formula perfecto. There‘s a lot to be said for the formula. There’s also some analysis that could be made of that formula and see that their (the Beatles) audio success formula, in many ways, was derived from earlier success formulas present in American music. Somebody ought to write a real music history book. Do you know anything about the rules of musical composition? Where do they come from? The way it’s taught today is you get a book and there’s the rules. Nobody asks where they came from. Somewhere in the book in fine print it says, these rules are an assessment of the mannerisms of the music of this period. Somebody sat down and said well everybody that was writing these songs did this so you do this ... eight bars then you do this, another twelve bars and it goes to here. And now you go to music school and they teach you all that stuff. Somebody, somewhere good piano concertos. So one guy does it, one guy figures it out. The rest of the people say that sounds good. I’m going to work in that medium. Viewed from a distance it becomes the accepted norm. All right now ... where does rock ’n roll traditionally come from? Think about it. If you had to spell it out in writing what makes rock and roll songs sound like rock ’n roll? You’d have to go back to the timbre of the music which is the result of the instruments that are playing it, the way it’s being attacked, the typical rhythms, typical chord progressions, and typical lyrics. Formula.“

So the state of today’s music is based on the formula. But what about Frank Zappa’s music? Surely it can’t be considered the typical music of, the period.

“I use the formula but I use it to make fun of itself. One of the reasons people have a hard time dealing with the stuff that I do is because if I want to say something I’ll try to use the setting that is proper to the text that’s being said. And there’s so many different kinds of musical formulas that you can use. They’re all valid. They’re all worthwhile to experiment around with ... in the service of the lyric that you’re saying. I can take any one of the songs that I’ve written and rewrite it by changing the timbre of the setting, changing the speed of the song, and doing it another way. And I‘ve done that a number of times ... in live performances.”

Zappa’s rigid standards extend beyond the music itself and include unusual procedures in regards to the band’s equipment. Most major groups rent at least part of their equipment for the road 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 don’t care about your show but they do care about the equipment. Then you have the lightning 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 have each other’s guts. They could care less whether or not they get along or if your show goes on because as long as they show up with the truck full of stuff they get paid. They get no allowance 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 twenty guys in the crew. Most of the guys in the crew have 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 Clio 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 whores. 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 multilong 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 stations 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 them 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 stream of others 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 imaginations. 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 srong 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 has 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 many hassles with commercialism and poor promotion Zappa continues to be a figurehead in rock 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."

But surely when you become established like Frank Zappa things must get a little easier and you don’t have to deal with the bullshit that you get when you first start out in the music business.

"The bullshit on the bottom is the same as the bullshit in the middle ... it’s the same as the bullshit on the top. Just remember one thing ... whatever level you’re on it’s going to be the same bull. The people that are dishing it out just change costumes, that’s all. At the bottom the guy’s got an apron on, and maybe he’s the guy who’s selling beer at the club you’re working at. At the top it’s the president of some exotic multi-billion dollar record company. They’re still feeding you the same doo doo. I’ve been doing it for twelve years ... and I still can’t get the people at Warner’s on the phone."


1. As the page scans of this interview from Rocky Mountain Musical Express are without title, we retain the original title "Formula Perfecto".

Another version of this interview was previously published as "Formula Perfecto", Musicians Guide, August 1977.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net