By Dorothy Sirus
OPINIONATED, outspoken, and determined not to conform to make music for the masses, Frank Zappa, in his seventeenth year in the business, is experiencing his biggest hit.
But it is not your ordinary hit song, mind you. It’s pure Frank Zappa: avant-garde, cynical, humorous, and unique. Together with his teen-aged daughter, Moon Unit, Zappa, 41, released “Valley Girl,” easily the season’s most misquoted song.
He claims the music industry’s current state of mind (“… product instead of music”) is akin to the period when he started his career, and the record companies were overwhelmed by the British invasion. “You couldn’t get a job or an audition for a record company unless you looked like what the record guys thought they wanted to buy,” he says.
“When we first got signed, it was an accident... He (the A&R man) was down the street at another club, feeling a girl’s leg, when our manager dragged him, against his will, to the place we were playing (Hollywood’s Whisky A Go-Go). He came in and listened for literally about five minutes, and that was the end of our set. I talked to him and shook hands with him, and he disappeared. And I didn’t see him again until I had another talk about the contract. And I didn’t see him again until the recording session.”
Having thought of Zappa’s group as a blues band from that one-song audition, the A&R rep was aghast at what he heard on the first day of the recording of Freak Out. “He called the New York office and said, You won’t believe what’s going on.’
“The only thing they (Verve Records) tried to get me to do was stop recording, because the budget for that album, when they finally totaled it up, the number of hours we spent in the studio, was an unheard of $20,000. Even though they got a double album for it, nobody ever spent that much for a rock ’n’ roll album at that time.
“In that day and age, five to six thousand dollars, tops. Usually the album contained a hit single, plus eight or nine other stupid tracks that didn’t make any difference, that you recorded as fast as you could in the studio. But we were in for maybe two weeks.
“The album was a total bomb in its first year. It didn’t sell worth a shit. When it came time to do the second album, they wanted to rush us out of the studio as fast as they could.
Zappa didn’t comply with playing ‘safe’ music then, and he isn’t now. So how has he survived all these years?
“Well, I don’t sell that many records, either. I sell enough records and concert tickets to keep myself in business, but there’s no way I could be described commercially successful. It just can’t be. It’s against the law. It’s against the rules of the American musical system.
“But I’m happy just being able to afford my next project. If I can budget from project to project, that’s fine. I’m not interested in megabucks, platinum singles; it’s not my idea of a good time.
“The main problem that I have in the United States is just letting people know that what I’m doing exists, because the best advertising medium for a record is airplay. Radio spots don’t really do it, print ads don’t really do it, TV appearances don’t really do it, video promos don’t really do it. The only thing that really sells records is airplay and concert tours.
“The situation with airplay in the United States now is so dreadful, it’s like back 20 years ago. The playlist is very short, and it’s all dreamed up and executed by five guys, who program 150 of the most important stations in the United States (a.k.a.: programming consultants).
“They (the radio stations) go along with this routine, and consequently, all the major record companies are put in the position that they have to supply product, with a capital P, and they apply pressure to their artists to play only the songs that fit the formula of the radio programmers.
“If you go outside the formula, you won’t get airplay. Unless you sound like Styx, Foreigner, or any of the five other bands that are identical, chances are you’re not going to get any record sales.
“What I’ve tried to do is gear my business to take into account the fact that I’m not going to get any (airplay). And if you’re always planning that each release is going to go platinum, I hope, I hope, I hope... if you live in that fantasy land, it’s heartbreak city every time.
“You can’t do that. You have to face the world realistically. Figure out, what are your chances of reaching a certain segment of the American public? If you can reach them, then your job is to do as good a performance as you can for that segment of the audience that likes what you do. That’s your responsibility. Try to take care of the audience that already likes you. “I don’t think my audience is going to grow. It’s just steady and it’s there. There are people who really like what I do and I do my work for them. That’s my boss, right there.”
Due to the lack of attention Zappa’s music gets from radio playlists, he promotes his records by touring. “I used to like touring a lot less than I do now. I use to do literally five interviews per show, either before or after the show. It would average that. And when you talk to that many reporters during a three-month period, and on your days off, do phone interviews with radio stations in the cities you’ll be going to for the next two weeks ... it’s boring. The only fun you have is when you’re playing.
“So I try to keep them to a minimum. It’s just too taxing, answering the same question over and over again, doing interviews with people who don’t give a fuck about who you are and what you do. And just because they gotta write for some ‘Publication X’ in the town you’re in, that’s stupid.
“And I proved it was stupid when I came home from a tour and tons of interviews, and they sent me about 12 pounds of paper and that was all the talking I had done.
“I looked at the stuff, and I was misquoted, it was stupid, the pictures that went with the articles were ugly, and I didn’t think that was very positive advertisement at all. And the only reason for doing it in the first place was advertising. ‘‘It’s just part of the business side of getting your music to the public. If they don’t know it’s there, then they can’t consume it. I’ll put up with a certain amount of it, just to work.
Some groups think, ‘Wow, now I’m a rock star, I’ll go out and do interviews and I’ll tell everybody what I think about everything, and they’ll pay attention to me.’
That’s really dumb. Don’t ever harbor that illusion, because the people that you talk to don’t give a fuck about what you are or what you think and do. You’re a buy and a sell. You’re a name that they stick on their publication. They sit there and cross their fucking fingers, hoping that your name is going to sell their piece of paper. That’s all it is.
‘‘First of all, don’t trust the person that is interviewing you. You have to remember that the person interviewing you hates you. If it is a male interviewer talking to you, he hates you because you get more than he does. He thinks you make more money than he does, whether you do or not is beside the point. ‘‘He thinks that you’re up there on the stage having a good time; he hates your fucking guts. And he’s jealous as shit, and he’ll do everything to compromise you, your image, your career.
“He’s out to get you, because remember the thing that gets put in print is his ego. His ego is on the line because Joe Blow wrote the article and he gets his name on it. Now he gets to pretend that he’s the all-knowing oracle who is going to pass judgment. “He has to take the position that he knows where it’s at and you don’t know diddly shit; you’re just a plain, fucking musician … out having a great time while he has to do this marvelous, intellectual job of operating the typewriter and telling the world what’s really going on. He’s not going to let you fool them. He’s there to pop your bubble.
“And if it’s a girl interviewing you, chances are she wants to blow you, because she never had a chance to do anything exciting. She’s got to punch a typewriter, too. She’s on the rung above being a secretary. She’s a secretary that gets to go in the dressing room. So if you’re a rock and roll musician, she figures, ‘Oh well. I’m not getting paid very much for this, but maybe I can fuck this guy.’
“Don’t do it,” advises Zappa.
There’s not one person in the journalistic profession who will do anything to help you, period. They’re all in it for themselves. They are not there to help you. “Album reviews are in the same category as interviews; the guy who writes about the album, it’s his ego on the line. Who is he to presume that he knows anything about music or records; and who are you to presume that you know anything about taste if you rely on somebody else’s judgment to tell you what’s a good record or a bad record. “The only way a person who writes an album review can get famous is by saying shitty things about masses of albums. Then he can always look like he knows what’s going on. Very seldom do you ever see a review of any album that is positive. There’s never positive music reviews in any publication. Maybe five percent, tops. Everything else is all negative because you get to be famous by saying snotty things. And the reason a guy does an album review is so he can get famous. He’s not going to get rich from it; he’s going to get famous. The more famous he gets, the better chance he has to get a blow job like the rock star!”
Zappa began his musical career playing drums when he was 12 years old and started writing at 14. He made the switch to guitar at 18 because he was never satisfied with the guitar solos on R&B records.
“I liked the way they sounded, but the solos were never long enough. They didn't play everything I wanted to hear. So I got an old shitty guitar and started playing.”
Making a career out of music eventually became inevitable for Zappa. “I was addicted to it. I just couldn’t do anything else. I wasn’t equipped to do anything else.
“I was very obsessed with writing it, playing it, and listening to it, because it was all that mattered to me. I mean, sex was great, too, but music was definitely something that was more worthwhile than anything else in the world. I leave a little cubicle on the side for peanut butter, coffee and cigarettes, which I also think are worthwhile things.”
Although Zappa composes contemporary orchestral music, and has worked with symphony orchestras, he has had no formal musical training. “Well, how formal can you get? I never went to a conservatory, and I never went to college for it, but I went to the library and read books. That’s pretty formal. When you go to a conservatory you pay somebody a huge amount of money to show you some manual demonstrations and tell read this and go do that.”
Since the time Zappa, then a drummer, was fired from his first band, he has been bandleader. “I think the best way to make a band work and survive is to have somebody be a leader. You take a four-piece group where everybody’s the leader, that’s bullshit! It ain’t gonna work. It’s nice to be blood brothers, but ultimately it’s going to be a disaster. You’ll wind up hating each other’s guts.
The one leader will never have any friends and everybody will always hate his ass, but he will get the job done. Ultimately, unless you’re a real businessman, you shouldn’t be doing business. Unless you’ve got some concept of it, you shouldn’t do it.
“It depends on what you expect to do if you’re forming a band. If you’re just out there to get famous, get some cocaine up your nose, and get a couple blowjobs, do it any way you want. But you’re not going to be in business very long. If you want to stay in business and do a good job over a long period of time, somebody’s got to make decisions.
“A band will work better if they have a manager they can trust. They’ll never find one, but ... if you ever find one,” laughs Zappa, “and he can take care of the business for you, that’s better. It’s no fun getting up early in the morning and making bunch of phone calls, and then having to play the gig. The music business is based on the telephone and the telex, boring stuff like that.”
Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, Zappa’s latest LP (of 33 in all), is his sixth release from his record label, Barking Pumpkin, which is distributed by CBS. Zappa claims he has as “little as possible” to do with the operation of the company. “I make the music, and I am involved in the advertising, but as far as the mechanical stuff, I don’t do it.
“I’m a businessman to the extent that I have to supervise the activities of various people that I have hired for jobs that I am not qualified to do: read contracts, make deals, ship equipment, do all that kind of stuff. I know just enough about those things so I can supervise their activities. But to do them myself, I’m not qualified.”
After all the rock ’n’ roll horror stories, it appears to be impossible to find a trustworthy manager. Not unless there’s a freak of nature or some atomic mutation,” confirms Zappa. “It’s like waiting for oranges that taste good to come back. Nature has seen to it that certain things that we felt were not necessary to our evolution have just withered away. Food that tastes like food, honest managers – they don’t exist anymore. It’s all gone. We didn’t like it when it was here, and it’s gone. It’s not coming back.”
Zappa claims he’s confident with his choice of his third manager, Bennett Glotzer, although, he adds, “I’ve been wrong before. “He really knows his work. He works real hard, he’s got a good imagination for putting things together, doesn’t sit still for a minute, and is a compulsive worker. I can get along with a guy like that.
“I used to do all the stuff myself, that’s why I know that I’m not qualified to do it. By the time I got my first recording contract, I had a manager. From the earliest days, I was the guy who went around making appointments with all the clubs for auditions for us.
“I was the band’s first roadie, because I was the only person dumb enough to own a station wagon. So I used to carry the equipment. You know, everybody else had a normal car. I had to have a fuckin’ station wagon!”
As if making a career out of music isn’t challenging enough, Zappa points out another pitfall: “On top of that, if you’ve decided to become a musician, you have to have the knowledge beforehand that on the evolutionary ladder – the ladder of social acceptance – in the United States of America, you are about as necessary to the survival of the species as some kind of a fungus. Nobody gives a fuck about musicians, you see. You’re already on the outside of the real world.
“If musicians were to cease desist, and they took all music away, it would be a very boring place to live. The people who consume it, and are not musicians, might find that they miss it very much. But meanwhile, they certainly don’t treat the people who play the music very well.
“If you’re a musician and you ever went into a bank to get a loan, you know if you tell them that you’re a musician, you won’t get the loan. Nobody trusts you, nobody likes you, nobody needs you. You’re unloved – except by those specimens that come backstage to ... And they’re there for anybody.
“So basically, you’re in a profession that has a very short lifespan, and nobody wants you to be doing it in the first place. Nobody ever had a mom and a dad saying, ‘Great, I want my son to be a rock ’n’ roll musician!’ Nobody wants their children to grow up to be that. My father wanted me to be an engineer. He wanted me to get a real job and make real money.”
While Zappa regularly puts his band through rigorous musical exercises (after, of course, they have survived the audition, which Zappa will discuss in the next issue of Music Exchange), he feels much professional musicianship is sub-standard.
“The market is saturated by musicians. The reason why it is, unfortunately is because most of them aren’t very good. The reason why it is, is that the media has made it possible for the most mediocre performers to make billions of dollars … mediocre specimens are shown television, played on the radio, movies.
“The mediocre stuff goes up there and every Joe Blow in world says, ‘Hey, I can do that!’ And they’re all out there trying to do it. There’s millions of them, waiting to be mediocre, to be the next most mediocre thing that’s a big hit. Mediocre expendability on the rise.
“Based on what I know about the record business, the only thing that gets you signed is stupidity. The stupidity of an A&R man or a person from a company who makes the decision, who points a finger at a group.
“Think of it like this: take a big company, and what happens in a big company? The guy at the top is afraid of losing his job because the stockholders and program directors are looking at him, and he’s got to turn a profit. He puts the pressure on the next echelon down. And if they don’t want to lose their jobs, they’ve got to turn a profit. The next echelon down puts on the pressure … it finally gets down to the guy who’s got to listen to the cassettes or go and see a band.
“He ain’t gonna take a chance on nobody, unless it sounds exactly like what’s on the radio. He’s not going to go out and look for some new unique art form, some great musical experience that’s still being developed in their own hometown. He ain’t gonna buy it. He’s going to buy a band that looks and sounds like Styx. He’s going to buy a girl who sounds like Pat Benatar. He’s only going to go for what’s safe. That’s what all these companies are doing now.
“If you fit into the category that’s already existing, that’s recognizable, that is a commodity category, you may get signed. Guess what. There’s at least 10,000 other bands out there who are in that same category. The competition is very stiff in the rock world. And that’s what gets signed. If you’re mediocre-proven, you have a better chance of getting signed than if you’re doing something worthwhile.
“If you’re doing something worthwhile, then don’t expect to make any money off it. Don’t increase your expectations. Learn to be satisfied with making good music for yourself and for your friends and your own circle, because good music in the United States does not go out to a mass audience, nor will it in the future.
“Give up. We’re looking straight into the face of the Dark Ages all over again. Any country that decides that economics is more important than art is in big fucking trouble. There’s no reason why that country should continue to exist. It’s only the music and the art and the beautiful things that are made that set a country apart and give it an identity over the eons. Right?
“Ancient Greece has survived because of artworks and beautiful stuff – even though it’s being eaten by sulfuric acid in the air – but who gives a fuck about ancient Greek economics? Nobody cares. Somehow or another they managed to make beautiful statues, nice temples. Stuff that lasted, stuff that mattered. And things that related to music, too.
“The beautiful stuff that a society makes is important. That’s all that should survive. The bottom line – who’s going to give a fuck about it in 500 years? Who cares about your bottom line? It’s all that Americans care about now. That bottom line.
“All their aesthetic decisions are being made by accountants. They’ve been hoodwinked into believing if the balance comes out correctly on the bottom of the page, we are living a good life.
“Life is a poop without art, without music. Without something beautiful, there’s no reason to be here doing it. A society like that should just perish. It should just fucking decay, go up in smoke, whatever. There’s no aesthetic reason for it to continue, If you don’t want to live a beautiful life, then you shouldn’t be here. You’ve got one chance at it, you know? Try and go for something beautiful.
“Same thing for a musician. He should realize that the way the world is right now, he has little or no chance of doing something on a mass scale that promotes beauty. You can’t do it. The people who control distribution won’t let you. They’re not in the business to sell beauty, they’re in this business to sell mediocrity.
“If you want to make money: become mediocre, control your ideas, don’t do anything original – only be the same. Dress the same, act the same, sing the same, play the same – maybe you’ll get it.
“If you’re out there to make interesting music, if you get one performance in your life, you’re a lucky guy! Be thankful for it. But don’t expect that you’re going to be as big as the Beatles.”
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net