By Pete Crowther
Speakout, Summer/Autumn, 1986
The big man gets Frank ... Pete Crowther gets nervous!
Frank Zappa is something of a paradox.
On the one hand, he is an established and extremely respected musician throughout the entire music industry, while on the other he is an outspoken – possibly even feared – critic of that industry. And now he has taken on American society at large, through his well-publicised verbal battles with the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC), a Senate subcommittee investigating ‘rock’ music’s alleged harmful effects on young people.
The lyrical content of Zappa’s own music – both with his Mothers Of Invention band, formed during the mid-sixties, and his subsequent prolific output over the past 15 years – has been cited as a prime example of all that is ‘bad’ in contemporary popular music. In response Frank has mischievously included a track called ‘Porn Wars’ on his ‘Mothers Of Prevention’ album (only available in this country without the offending track) which features an over-track of US senators quoting what they believe to be examples of offensive lyrics.
Is Frank really a ‘political’ person, wanting to hammer a message home, or is he, in the words of the old ‘Mothers’ album, only in it for the money?
“Well, basically the only message I’ve had all along is ‘The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes’,” he says softly across some 6,000 miles of telephone cable.
“When you have people making ridiculous statements – as they are doing – and you’re in a position to answer them back, then if you don’t do it you’re going to have to live with your conscience about it. The foolishness of the rhetoric that is involved in this is mind boggling. I mean, for instance, it’s even been suggested that rock music is the major cause of incest in the home! Some of the things they’re stating are just so absurd! Things like rock music causes murder, causes suicide ... it’s the main cause of the increase in the teenage birth rate, and all the rest of the stuff. It’s just ignorant.”
Talking to Frank, you can tell he feels strongly about what he says. He is articulate, well mannered and quietly intense ... and all at 1.30 in the morning. You see, Frank’s working hours are 5.00pm to 5.00am.
“Yes, ordinarily I work at night,” he says in a slow, clipped drawl. “But I see the kids before they go to school, and I’m usually awake when they get home. But my usual sleeping hours are during the day.”
Frank’s kids, incidentally, are Moon (18), Dweezil (16), Ahmed (11) and Diva (6). “They all like my stuff,” he says, thoughtfully, “but I guess they prefer dance music!”
What made him take this kind of non-commercial stance in his music?
“I’ve always made music that I like listening to – I’ve never cared much whether any one else wanted to hear it. I figured that if you’re going to perform, then you gotta please yourself first otherwise, why even do it?”
Despite his campaigning, Zappa is still one of the most prolific – if not the most prolific – artistes in the business. How does he find time to do everything he does?
“It’s real easy: I don’t have any social life and I like what I’m doing. So, it’s easy for me to spend a lot of hours doing it.”
Zappa’s ‘MOTHERS Of Prevention’ album is a bit of departure, even for the unpredictable image he has built up – cultivated? – over the years. I make my first mistake and suggest that the material featuring only Frank on the synclavier (computer) may be a little off-putting to many fans.
“Well, that’s the stuff I’m doing now,” he says almost wearily. “So I guess if you find it boring, you should just go ahead and write me off!”
Gulp!! Change subject quickly. Bearing in mind that Frank and the Mothers Of Invention came to the fore in the sixties, what does he think of those times? Does he even have an opinion? You bet!
“I didn’t care for it too much because I always thought the ‘love and peace’ movement was a fraud. I didn’t think that the people who were out marching really believed for a minute what they were talking about. They were enjoining the marches simply because they were the social events of the times.”
OK: What about the seventies?
“Well, punk – which was, I think, pretty big in England – didn’t hit in the States ’til the late seventies. What was really happening here during the seventies was ELO and ELP type music.”
And the eighties – What does he think about today’s music?
“It tends to lack content, and is just basically dance orientated.”
So have the times of actually sitting and listening to music disappeared?
“Some people still do it but I think there’s probably less content to the music now. There’s less stuff to keep your ear intrigued over a long period of time than there has been in the past. It’s pretty easy to listen to a modern record and say ‘okay, I’ve heard it’ after, like, one or two plays ... you know, you can listen to everything that’s going on in there in that time. I think it’s designed to be more disposable – or to be disposed of faster so that they can get on to the next event. Record companies tend to support that because they have no long term investment in developing any major artistes. They want to get on to, you know, the next group with the next hairdo and the next set of zippers and have ’em make one or two albums. Then when the albums show signs of not selling, move on to the next case. There’s no long range thinking ... which is a pretty good reflection of the way society is, too.”
Sounds depressing. Has a lot of the ‘fun’ gone out of the music for Mr Zappa?
“The fun hasn’t gone out of the music, but the fun has been out of the music business for a long time.
“The trend started in the seventies with the advent of corporate rock – that period of American musical history when the method by which groups were chosen to record was placed in the hands of the accountants and executive types within the industry who had no musical taste and who were signing groups based on a weird type of aesthetics which seems common to accountants. So you got a lot of bland music being recorded.”
Didn’t that sort of approach start in the sixties with The Monkees?
“Yes, but that was a novelty. Also during the sixties you had Jimi Hendrix, which was slightly different (laughs). I don’t see any equivalent to a Hendrix type band working in records today!”
But Zappa is still working in records, despite his seemingly obstinate refusal to acknowledge passing fads and styles. He has a colossal output but is that necessarily a reflection of his success? The PMRC, for example, recently stated that their ‘battle’ with Zappa had revived a dying career.
“Well,” he says quickly, but without animosity, “whatever they feel about me probably has very little to do with reality. There’s no question that the amount of exposure I’ve received arguing with these women on American television is good for me, but I didn’t do it intentionally to sell records.”
So what’s next then?
“I was thinking about doing a tour later this year, but the problem is that people may not be interested in buying a ticket to see me push the start button on the computer that I’m using to make the music.”
Is there no chance then of Zappa touring with a band again?
“Well, I’m just not working in that medium now. In fact the chances of me ever working in that medium again are not good. I’ve changed my mind before, but, basically, I spend all my time working with a computer – like, 12 hours a day. And that’s an easy day!”
Over the years, I suppose I had formed an opinion on what Frank Zappa would be like to talk to, and he didn’t fit that image too well – in fact he seemed very serious. I mentioned this to him.
“Well, a lot of people – especially in England – are very partial to the early Mothers albums. In fact, particularly in England, fans seemed to know the ‘Hot Rats’ album and not much else. Now ‘Hot Rats’ was a nice record but certainly not the best thing I ever did in my life, musically or otherwise.
“People want to talk to me and they want for me to be a kind of really zany guy with a lampshade on my head. But that kind of humour belongs on the record – it doesn’t necessarily belong in the conversation you’re doing for an interview. I mean, you’ve got a job to do – you want to do an interview with me – and intercontinental phone calls being what they are, I didn’t think that you’d expect me to give you a comedy routine. You’d want me to give you straight answers to your questions. I’m actually a pretty normal guy. Really!”
We believe you, Frank. We believe you. (Whew!)
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net