Total Freak Out
By Hugh Fielder
FRANK ZAPPA and HUGH FIELDER occupy opposing corners for a classic ‘Them Or Us’ confrontation. Who is FRANCESCO ZAPPA? Who's suing who? Read on. . .
MAYBE FRANK Zappa's mellowing in his old age. Last time I interviewed him I was ushered into his presence by his archetypal bodyguard, and when I put my tape recorder on the table Frank promptly produced his own and we spent an hour talking into our respective machines.
This time he's alone, sitting benignly in the press offices of EMI, his latest record company. He's pausing between a European tour and an American tour which will keep him on the road until December 23. On Boxing Day he begins a TV special for French television and then takes his band off to Japan and Australia.
So he's busy, but then he's only got a couple of lawsuits out against Warner Brothers and CBS (plus a couple of American promoters) so life must've been getting dangerously close to being mundane. Oh, and he's just fired his manager, not to mention his press officer.
Past experience, and reading too many articles on Zappa that just turn into long diatribes for or against the man, have taught me that you get the best results by just asking him what he's up to. And when I venture to suggest that ‘Them Or Us’, his first EMI release, is more cogent than the last few albums he's put out he's on to me in a flash.
“I'm glad you admire the cogency,” he sneers. “Personally, I don't ﬁnd anything admirable in being cogent.”
Beyond saying that ‘Them Or Us’, “is just what the band were doing at the time” and that the tracks with George Duke date back several years I drew a blank, so we move swiftly onto the next album. Just out on EMI's classical division. ‘Boulez Conducts Zappa’ which consists of three Frank Zappa compositions, one of which was commissioned by noted classical conductor and composer Boulez himself.
This time he's happier to go into the album's background, if only to rub CBS' noses in it. Boulez and Zappa were both on CBS at the time Boulez commissioned the piece, and when Zappa put the idea of an album to them CBS seemed interested.
“But then they started changing the terms and putting conditions on me that went way beyond the call of duty. Finally they wanted me to fix up the London Symphony Orchestra for free so i gave up.
“When I went to the premiere of my piece in Paris at the beginning of this year I found out that Boulez had a non-exclusive contract with CBS, which meant that anything they rejected he was free to take elsewhere. So I rang my contact at EMI and a deal was struck within ﬁve days. The album went straight into the American classical charts on its first week of release.”
FRANK'S INCREASING involvement in the world of orchestral music – “Correction, return to that music. That's where I started, I didn't write a rock and roll song until I was 21” – will be manifesting itself further with an album called ‘Francesco’, being the hitherto unheard works of Francesco Zappa, a little known composer of the 18th century. When Frank discovered his name in the Groves Dictionary Of Musicians he was naturally curious and started to track down manuscripts of his string trios and symphonies.
“He was a contemporary of Mozart who toured around a good deal and gave music lessons to the Duke Of York and taught in Le Hague. I tracked down some of his pieces – unfortunately the Berlin archives wouldn't give me the manuscripts they had – and put them into a Synclavier. So for the first time in 200 years you can have accurate performances of stuff that nobody wanted to listen to in the first place!”
Back in the world of contemporary music. Frank has written and recorded a three-album opus called ‘Thing-Fish’ which will presumably come out when EMI decided that enough people have bought ‘Them Or Us’.
‘Thing-Fish’ has a plot that makes ‘Joe's Garage’ look like a soap opera, part of which has the American authorities introducing AIDS into the gay communities as part of a campaign to weed out ‘non-reproductive people’. It's an intriguing idea that sounds more feasible each time you think about it. It was written as a musical and includes the return of such popular blasts from the past as ‘You Are What You Is’ and ‘The Torture Never Stops’. But so far Frank hasn't found a backer to put it on Broadway, his declared aim for it.
He shown us some publicity stills for ‘Thing-Fish’ which consist of some exuberantly proportioned ladies in various states of undress doing unusual things to each other. They have already appeared in Hustler, a magazine which is not high on the list of required reading for the Daughters Of The American Revolution. . .
BUT NOW for some good news for all you ageing Zappa freaks whose brains are probably as scrambled as the sound on your original copy of ‘Freak Out’. A boxed set of the first seven Mothers Of Invention albums is coming out in America. The bad news is that it wont be available here for a while, if at all.
“The problem is this,” explains Frank. “It's not part or my EMI deal, and I've not had a reasonable offer from a record company. In America I'm selling it by mail order for 100 dollars. That's because I've just ﬁnished a law suit which cost me a lot of money in order to get all that material back.
“Plus there was three months of studio time and the re-mastering costs just to ensure that you get a quality product from a piece of tape that's 20 years old. There was a lot of science in that.”
I asked whether he was aware that the majority of people who go to see him in Britain go mainly because of those early albums.
“That's a pitiful mistake. In England there's this attitude that ‘We know best because actually, we're perfect ourselves’ so everything I do here is judged against ‘Hot Rats’ which was my biggest hit album here.”
Which brings us back to Frank's well-known scepticism of the English.
“My attitude to England deﬁnitely changed when I was looking up from the bottom of that orchestra pit at the Rainbow theatre thinking ‘what the f*** happened here?’.
“That was compounded when I came back later – still with an orthopaedic brace on my leg – to play at the Oval cricket ground. The promoter held a press conference and I'm sitting there answering questions when a girl comes up and hands me some flowers.
“The word went out that this was the girl whose boyfriend has thrown me into the pit because I was supposed to have winked at her. It wasn't. He'd just hired someone to do it. One's respect does tend to diminish over things like that.”
AND THAT'S even before the Royal Albert Hall debacle, an he was prevented from appearing at that prestigious venue by the hall's management.
“That was the icing on the cake. It proved everything I'd suspected about the British. It was a simple breach of contract case except that it was a Yank versus the Royal Albert Hall. The Hall management tried to prove that what I was doing was obscene. But the judge said that it wasn't obscene and the Hall had violated the contract. But I was a Yank and this was Royal, so go f*** yourself.”
But then Americans love coming over here to see our Royalty.
“Yes, and the British love to come over and see Disneyland. I'm just glad that you've got Princess Di and we‘ve got Disneyland.”
I see what he means. At least everybody can get to ride Disneyland. Frank's face creases into a smile for nearly three seconds. I ask if I can say he said that.
“No. You said that.”
If I hear him use it, I'll sue.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net