Frank Zappa: The Original Freak Strikes Oil as the Sheik
By Dennis Broe
Deh words "Number 32 with a bullet" have a peculiah ring to dem.
At least they do in the case of Frank Zappa. Zappa's latest release, a double-album with a disco-parodic title, Sheik Yerbouti, is going where few Zappa albums before it have ever gone. In these days of rapidly escalating record prices, it's hard enough to break an album onto the charts that sounds even a trifle, well, out of the ordinary.
But there it is, a double album no less, by the master of non-commerciality, zipping up the Billboard charts faster than you can say Weasels Ripped My Flesh. The album, which is Zappa's satiric look at the modern music scene, even contains a genuine, grade A, suitable for FM airplay number called "Dancin' Fool," which has the Sheik discoursing on one of his favorite topics: "The disco folks all dressed up like they's fit to kill." The song is set to a typical Zappian off-rhythm which illustrates the clumsiness of the Steve Martin "disco crazy guy" lead character. "Fool," though, ends up being, on second and third listening, a bona fide dance song and the title, repeated during the chorus, is none other than our old friend "the infectious hook." Can (gasp, chortle, wheeze) AM be far behind?
Well, let's not get too carried away. The success of the album, as Zappa is quick to point out, has as much to do with the way it is being distributed as it has to do with the specific sound. Throughout his career Zappa has leveled charges of underpromotion at the record companies. That situation reached its peak in the 1978-79 season when Warner Bros. released almost without a whimper two albums which Zappa claims are bootlegs. In a lawsuit currently on the docket of a California court, he charges that Warner Bros. has released three albums without his permission: Zappa in New York, Studio Tan and Sleep Dirt, and that the company has refused to pay him the proceeds from any of the albums. Warner Bros., according to Zappa, claims for their part that they have put $400,000 in an escrow account. But Zappa contends that he knows of no such account. A Good Times call to Warner Bros. legal department on the coast was met with a quick "No comment." The company claims that since the case is still pending, they cannot talk about it out of court. Zappa says that cases in California civil court move very slowly and that it may be three to five years before the case comes to trial. By that time, he adds, it will be even harder to recover the royalties from the three albums.
Zappa has now signed a new contract with the Chicago-based Mercury Records which may help keep him in the musical spotlight for some time to come. The contract grants Zappa complete artistic control of the content of his albums, with Mercury acting as the distributor of those albums. In addition, the company will also give Zappa the money to produce three albums by other artists to be released on his own Zappa Records and to be distributed again by Mercury.
So, Zappa credits the success of the current album partly to the distribution arm of Mercury, which he says is solidly behind him. "I think we can use the word enthusiasm with a capital E," he says in regards to the company's treatment of Sheik. And, he adds, "It's partly that and partly that the album sounds good."
Mercury, though, has recently faced lack of distribution charges from one of its former artists. After leaving the label, the English rocker Graham Parker recorded his own aural indictment of the company called "Mercury Poisoning." Zappa, nevertheless, says this is a different company from Parker's days. "Most of the people in the company now are different people from the time that we started negotiating with them. The guy who is the president of the company has now been moved up to the chairman of the board and they've got a new president, who was formerly with CBS and is very aggressive. I don't want to go around blowing Mercury's horn, but it looks like they're trying to make a record company out of it."
As the original '60s freak heads into the '80s, and by the way, turns 40, his career, far from having lost momentum, is definitely in one of its peak periods. While The Sheik climbs the charts, the freak is preparing to jam with, hold on to your hats, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. This summer, as part of the prestigious Vienna Arts Festival, the Symphony will be playing concert meister Frank Zappa's music for a 120-piece orchestra. Also in the works is a new film which takes its title, Baby Snakes, from one of the songs on the Yerbouti album and which represents Zappa's first foray into that medium since 1971's critically acclaimed 200 Motels.
And, for the first time in almost a decade, Zappa is once again actively involved in producing. The first album, by L. Shankar, the Indian classical violinist who has done most of his previous work with John McLaughlin, is due out shortly. And, of course, Zappa is, as usual, hard at work on his next album. It's tough to summarize a career that is as prolific and bizarre as this man's. The first album, Freak Out, with the old Mothers of Invention firmly cemented Zappa's image as the ultimate pot-smoking, long-haired L.A. baby. The only trouble is, Zappa never fit the image. The album is, an at times brutal put-down of the tinsely L.A. scene by a man who was, even at that time, speaking out against the use of drugs of any kind. And, although the cult prominence of the band coincided with the emergence of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, musically Zappa has always said he owes more to early 19th century composer Edgar Varèse than to Jerry Garcia. Ultimately though, Zappa is a true eclectic. One moment he is citing Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen, as a current favorite, and the next moment, or at the same moment out of the other side of his mouth, he is telling you that "Varèse is the best, the coolest. He was definitely a cool guy, with Stravinsky and Webern following closely behind. Those are my faves."
The current album is loaded with takeoffs of a variety of musical styles and could probably only have been done by a musician like Zappa who incorporates all and falls prey to none. "I don't involve myself in movements because I don't believe in them," Zappa says about his own eclecticism. Then he adds in his own inimitable fashion, "The only movement that matters is a bowel movement."
Sheik opens with Zappa framping Peter Frampton. He takes Frampton's sickly sweet ballad, "I'm In You," and on the song titled "I Have Been in You," literalizes that title. Zappa, in his best dirty old man voice, hisses "I'm going in you again – ahhh, in you again, ah!" The inspiration for the song? Well, says Frank "Somebody brought the original to my attention during an interview on WBCN in Boston and I said, 'Good god, we must do something about this.' " On "Flakes," Zappa's long time guitarist Adrian Belew apes a '60s Bob Dylan voice to lyrics that absurdly literalize Dylan's abstract metaphors: "I asked as nice as I could if my job would be finished by Friday...' N they didn't do nothin' but they charged me double for Sunday." "From what I understand Dylan doesn't sing like that anymore," Zappa says. "But that's the Bob Dylan everybody remembers from the '60s. The rest of the chord changes in that song are kind of folk rockish, so that's the reason why that voice went in there."
On "I'm So Cute," punk rock gets its sendup with drummer-turned-vocalist Terry Bozzio (now of U.K.) swinging from Ramones-style nihilism to Patti Smith-style screaming self-glorification. Contrary to popular opinion, though, says Frank, "That's not a Patti Smith takeoff. I found out after the fact that she has a tendency also to have a rising inflection on the end of her lines. The song is actually based on some guy that Bozzio and (Sheik's keyboardist) Peter Wolf met in Los Angeles named Billy Star, who when he sings on stage is guilty of gross rising inflection. I've never met him but the guys heard something that he performed and went around imitating him so I have put that imitation in the song."
"Dancin' Fool," which Zappa originally performed last fall on Saturday Night Live, has Frank poking fun at what he takes to be the current most obvious manifestation of the trashy character of American life. "Disco," Zappa says, in that halting way that signals he is about to zero in for the kill, "is good for people who like it. It serves a useful social function. It provides the necessary rhythms for people with no natural rhythm, and it's easy enough for even the most moronic to move their buttocks up and down to. Anybody who can get lost in a beat like that needs hospitalization. It's the basic common denominator and the pulse of civilized America."
Sheik also exhibits what Zappa says is the most elaborate manifestation of a recording technique that he is increasingly coming to favor. Zappa has been at work for some time now on combining the live and studio recording. Yerbouti, which has not been advertised as a live album though the majority of the songs were recorded in concert at London's Hammersmith Odeon, significantly blurs the distinction between what constitutes a live and a studio album while giving Zappa the best of both worlds. The basic track is recorded live. In the studio Zappa then eliminates the crowd noises and begins overdubbing.
"The main thing that you gain from this method is the enthusiasm of the band playing together at the same time instead of putting their tracks on one at a time. They get hot in response to the audience and it gives the tracks an attitude that you sometimes can't arrive at in the studio. In the studio you can control the audio perfection of it all, but it's sometimes hard to motivate everybody to great heights." In overdubbing Zappa says, he mainly concentrates on eliminating feedback on the vocals, adding background vocals on the harmony parts and adding some synthesizer sound effects. The audience is purposely used during the concert to help the band generate excitement, but the audience tracks are then eliminated because, Zappa says, the noise would be distracting on record. Thus Zappa has achieved the ultimate hybrid, a raucous studio album with a live feel to it.
Besides producing his own albums Zappa was at one time a highly creative producer of other non-mainstream talent. On his late '60s Bizarre/Straight label he put out an early Alice Cooper album and a two-record set called Trout Mask Replica by a weirdly anachronistic artist named Captain Beefheart (Don Von Vliet) whose disjointed blues sound Zappa has himself at times emulated. Zappa has returned to producing mainly because of Shankar, one of India's foremost classical violinists whose foray into the rock world has included stints with Zappa's band as well as McLaughlin's. "I haven't produced albums for a long time and I don't like to do it but Shankar needed a producer. I though he was an artist who needed to be signed; I couldn't think of anybody else who would be good to produce, and he demanded that I produce the album, so I did." The result of this collaboration, Zappa says, is not a classical, but rather a rock and roll violin album. "Two songs are straight rock, boogie music; one is a fusion song; three are MOR, one is a reggae number on which he sings and one is a disco song."
The album's special guest star is Van Morrison, who laid down a vocal track on "Dead Girls of London," that Zappa says sounds like the "hard-singing Van" of the early days when he was fronting the Irish street band Them. Zappa says Morrison responded quickly to the invitation to be on the album. "I got a call from Van while I was in London making the album and I said, 'Hey, have I got a song for you. Come on over.' So he came in. He was on his way to a club called Dingwalls, and it took him fifteen minutes to sing it and leave for the club." Zappa also has his eye on one of the hottest unsigned groups in the nation at the moment, Atlanta's B-52's, the spaced-out, space age dance band who look on-stage like Ozzie and Harriet and who move like Devo. "I made a bid for the B-52's and had my manager flying all over the place to see them." But at this point, he is not too hopeful of closing a deal. "Warner Bros. has bid $350,000 to sign them and CBS has put in a bid too and let me tell you, I ain't got $350,000."
While he may not be able to afford the B-52's, Zappa is about to see one of his dreams realized, when in June the Vienna Symphony Orchestra plays the music of Frank Zappa. Zappa is always at work on concert pieces but in the past when he has appeared with large-scale orchestras he has ended up footing the bill. But this time the orchestra has come to him. And the city of Vienna is putting on the performance. Zappa's music for a 120-member orchestra includes a 20-minute selection called "Peter's [Pedro's] Dowry" and a 24-minute piece in three eight-minute sections: "Mo's Vacation," "Herb's Vacation," and then "Mo's and Herb's Vacation" played simultaneously.
Zappa, a busy man indeed, is also putting the finishing touches on his latest film, Baby Snakes. If he is regarded as a musical and recording innovator, his first film, 200 Motels also enhanced his reputation as an experimental artist in that medium as well. Zappa, who scripted, shot, scored and supervised the editing on that film also pioneered a video-to-film technique which was new at that time, in which the shooting is initially done on video and then transferred to film.
Zappa is cautious about disclosing the content of Baby Snakes, which has now reached the final edit stage. He will say only that it is "about ideas, ideas that people have as opposed to ideas that non-people have." He will say however that at least one half-hour of the film is animation. Snakes is not a video-to-film project, but in the editing stages Zappa is using an innovative device called a lem which enables the editor to watch three camera angles at once on any single shot and then select the one he wants. Once the angle is decided, the device then enables the director to run three different soundtracks over each image and again choose the one he wants.
But in all this talk about innovation, have we not lost the real Frank Zappa? No, not quite. The Frank Zappa of the freak-out days still surfaces occasionally, most notably in the street language, which is about three levels below that of an early Zappa idol, Lenny Bruce. Raunchy, sexist language is featured prominently on the Sheik album and Zappa continues tirelessly to defend his right to say what he pleases. But with Zappa now a composer whose work is respected in both the popular and classical fields, as well as a man who has a legitimate claim to being an innovative film director and studio impresario, it is getting increasingly harder to give more than passing credence to the freak facade. The man, let's face it, is a full-blown artist, no matter how you define the word.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net