Zappa: He Are What He Is
By Bill Milkowski
Irreverent ravings on radioplay and Barking Pumpkin Records
Ever since his honorary induction into the rock & roll Hall of Fame with his 1967 debut album, Freak Out, the name Frank Zappa has been associated with irreverence. His discography to date may very well rank alongside the collected works of such renowned cynics and social commentators as Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and H.L. Mencken – all first-class upstarts in their own right.
Zappa seems proud of his cynical streak. Though he prefers to think of his attitude more as common sense realism, he admits, "I don't think that being cynical is necessarily a bad thing because if you're not cynical then you swallow the whole enchilada. You have to sit down and evaluate what people tell you. You have to read between the lines, and there's a lot of lines to read between."
He's been doing just that for the past 15 years, but his outspoken manner has branded Zappa as an undesirable in some circles; blacklisted to a point.
"I wouldn't want to put it that bluntly," he confides, while sipping tea in his Park Avenue apartment and sounding off about the 'plot' to censor his latest LP, You Are What You Is, "but it has some elements of that. There are many broadcasters who turn crimson at the mention of my name and just can't stand the idea of putting my stuff on the air."
In these days of play-safe playlists, Frank Zappa is being squeezed out. His material has been deemed too controversial or too cerebral or somehow too dangerous for radio exposure, a grim reality that accounts for the bitterness in his voice as he explains the political machinations working to undo him.
"Today radio is not like it used to be. Most of the stations that matter are programmed by five people who are not even located in the same town where the radio stations are broadcasting from. I'll give you a good example: When we played in
Fighting the Formula
"The station had just changed its format and had become an Abrams station, which meant that it was being programmed from remote control a zillion miles away. Somebody in another city was telling the people in
"So I told the audience the next day at the concert what had happened and they were upset about it. When I spoke to some of the kids there they said that prior to the time when the station became formatted, it was a better station," he says, concluding, "People are grasping at straws in order to make more money during the present economic crunch. And when a programmer in another city says, 'If you take my formula and use this formula, you will win in the ratings war, which means that you can charge more money for advertising,' then a lot of people go for that. And that's what has happened. Out of 150 stations that matter, they are all formula."
Apparently, there is no room for Frank Zappa in this air-tight formula. His new album is receiving virtually no airplay outside of
So what's the problem, Frank? Why won't they play your music?
"Because in the wisdom of the people who program stations, a song with an idea above drugs, sex and rock & roll or a boy-girl situation is something that they don't want on the air. They are successfully removing all social, moral or aesthetic content from what goes on the radio. You will hear the same ten songs for the rest of your life now. That's what it's down to. As long as stations in an area refuse to take the responsibility of picking their own music, when they turn it over to an 'expert' some place else and the 'expert' sends them a list and says, 'Play this and you're gonna win in the ratings war' ... as long as that's all that matters that's all you're gonna get."
So what's a frustrated artist to do? Some comprise their integrity and play it safe to ensure what little radio play they might be able to muster. Others, like Zappa, stubbornly stand pat, refusing to sell out or change one iota. But rather than withdraw into bitter seclusion and angrily accept his fate, Zappa has leapt into action by 1) forming his own label, Barking Pumpkin Records, and 2) devising a new marketing scheme that precludes any dependence on radio play.
No radio? Is it possible?
Not only is it possible, it's working very well, thank you, and could signal a trend for other artists to gain more artistic control over their products. On the inner sleeve of Zappa's You Are What You Is there is a curious message to listeners: "Are You Hard Core? For those of you who would like to hear a whole album of Zappa guitars solos, Barking Pumpkin has the answer (actually three answers) ... AVAILABLE NOW BY MAIL ORDER ONLY! Three special albums available individually or in one exciting lump, containing F.Z. at his fiendish best on guitar solos in many different styles...No songs to wait through. No lyrics to disturb your imagination. All instrumental music. All selections never before released. If you are a guitar player or a guitar fanatic, these albums are a NECESSITY for your collection.
Avoids the Hassle
Zappa's by-mail-only campaign is a shrewd way of avoiding the hassles of record company bureaucracy and radio politics.
"If I released it as a normal commercial release in the
The three instrumental LPs – Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More and Return of The Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, is, however, being released as a commercial product in
Zappa did manage to score one commercial success among the stream of albums he has produced over the years – Apostrophe. And that was sort of a fluke, as the prolific composer explained: "That was the first album that we put out that went solid gold. But the reason that it happened was because of this disc jockey in
But nobody seems to be picking up the lead of
Zappa has seen this constrictive, play-it-safe trend escalate over the past few years. "This year it's really taken a nose dive ... since the Reagan Administration has gotten in," he notes. "It's frightening. We're looking at the prelude to the New Dark Ages here. If you know anything about history, the Dark Ages we're going into now is gonna make the first one look like a company picnic."
Moral Majority Musings
One of Zappa's prime targets in this era of the New Dark Ages is the Moral Majority movement, which he crucifies on such biting tunes as "Dumb All Over" and "Heavenly Bank Account." But rather than describing the proliferation of the Moral Majority as a national shift toward the right, he calls it a national shift to nowhere.
"It's toward fake security. People withdraw into themselves, they keep their mouths shut, they're scared shitless. The reason why the Moral Majority has had success in stifling creativity in the
He continues, "If everybody in the
"I don't want to bend over. I never did want to bend over. I have no desire to bend over. When you're 40 years old and you bend over, it's hard to stand up again. And everybody should realize that. Don't bend over!!"
So how long can Zappa continue to sound the trumpets of rebellion? How long can he endure, being ostracized from the record-radio magnate? Can the core of Zappa fanatics realistically subsidize his art?
"Well, understand that if the core doesn't grow to keep pace with the costs of doing what I'm doing, then ultimately I will disappear," he says. "Because if I don't generate enough of a profit from each year's output to finance the next year's output, then the output goes down. Remember, it's my money that make these things. If I get a sales of a concert ticket, part of that money goes back into buying equipment and the airplane tickets for the next tour and paying the salaries of the people who go out. And the costs of making the records keeps going up too. So it's just like any other small business. The capital comes in to keep the business running so that people can consume it. I mean, I don't stick the money up my nose and I don't buy a yacht. It goes right back into the music."
But Zappa is definite about sticking to his guns. He will continue to outrage people, and in the process alienate some as well. But as he says, "If I stopped speaking out right now, that doesn't mean that I would suddenly sell millions of units. They don't trust me anymore anyway, so I might as well keep on doing what I've been doing. If sales go down to nothing, well ... tough touchas. I'm not gonna suddenly start singing Pat Benatar songs."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net