Franks Wild Years
By Andy Gill
They warned him. "Don't play the weird stuff they said. But Frank Zappa's corrosive compositions and unlovely demeanour established him as the very antithesis of The Beautiful '60s. Twenty years on, he's an uncompromising songwriter, director of Barfko-Swill Records, barking mad family man and fearless campaigner for civil liberties. Business as usual, reports Andy Gill.
At dead of night, behind barred gates and video security cameras up in the Hollywood Hills above Los Angeles, a tall, angular man with neatly trimmed hair and moustache sits at the console of his home studio. He wears a tracksuit and trainers and looks young for his age – he'll be 49 by Christmas – but every now and then his kidney stones give him a painful reminder of mortality. Frank Zappa is busy remixing his past.
The digital editing suite adjoining the lavishly appointed studio has shelf upon shelf of master tapes of every performance by The Mothers of Invention since Zappa's original engineer Dick Kunc first started recording their gigs with a 2-track analogue mixer and a portable Uher recorder back in 1969. One of Frank's current projects is the compilation of a 13-hour, six double-CD retrospective series of live performances culled from these tapes, called You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore. It's a typically gargantuan undertaking from a man who, in 1984, released a triple-album (Thing-Fish) a mere month after a double-album (Them or Us), and who has already issued both a triple-album and a double-CD comprised solely of guitar solos. Frank's a virtual one-man cottage industry now, figurehead and creative engine of a network of companies with piquant Zappaesque names: Barking Pumpkin Records, Barfko-Swill, Munchkin Music, 818 Pumpkin and, perhaps most unusual of all in its directness, Zappa Records.
Creative and economic differences with all of the major labels formerly associated with his product – MGM, Warner Bros and CBS – have necessitated his assuming total control of his output, including product past, present and future, via a pressing and distribution deal with Capitol Records. Instead of them paying him a royalty, he pays them to press and ship his product. Frank likes it that way. For one thing, he makes the same amount of money per unit as a record company, which means he can survive selling fewer units; for another, he avoids the kind of double-dealing and back-door censorship that have plagued him since his earliest albums on MGM/Verve .
The creative accounting which MGM applied to the first Mothers of Invention LP, Freak Out! in 1966, resulted in stringent financial restrictions being applied to its follow-up, Absolutely Free. Forced to record the final overdubs and mix at MGM's offices in New York, Zappa and the band found themselves barred from the company cafeteria on account of their long hair and were forced to use an unsympathetic engineer – the same man, it transpires, who took a razor to the third album, We're Only in it For The Money, to remove any bits to which the company took exception. In the case of that Mothers favourite Let's Make The Water Turn Black, this involved a perverse misreading of a reference to a waitress's "pad" – on which she took down orders – as suggesting she was serving her sanitary towel to her customers. There are some odd minds at work in the record business, for sure.
Rarely listening to his albums once he's finished them, Frank didn't know about this last bit of corporate barbarism until the following year, when receiving the Dutch equivalent of a Grammy award for the album, he heard the record playing in the background and thought it was skipping. Then the awful truth dawned. (Check your copy: just before the track Absolutely Free, does the girl say "I don't do publicity for you anymore" or "I don't do publicity balling for you anymore"?) Frank refused the award, saying it belonged instead to the editor responsible, and gave the trophy to a Dutch underground music paper.
So now Frank sits in his studio, remixing his past or writing new material for some future magnum opus. Ranged around him in the control room is some of the most sophisticated recording equipment available, including a 48-track desk and a Synclavier, whilst the actual studio boasts amongst other instruments, a Bösendorfer grand piano, vibraphone. xylophone, a sunken drum booth and a small army of guitars resting at shoulder-arms on their stands. For a home studio, it brings new meaning to the term "fully equipped". It's a far, far cry indeed from the days of Studio Z.
At dead of night, in a godforsaken little town somewhere between Los Angeles and San Bernardino, a tall, angular man sits hunched over a primitive mixing desk. He's wearing Levi's, a T-shirt and tartan plaid lumberjack jacket, and has hair just creeping over his ears, and a goatee-style beard. He looks rather like Manfred Mann without those glasses, or John Mayall in his Bluesbreakers period. This is Studio Z in Cucamonga, sometime in 1962, and Frank Zappa is mixing a little under-the-counter tape for the cheesy used-car salesman who came in earlier that day. Bedsprings bounce, a girl's voice simulates arousal, then breaks into a giggle. Frank stops the tape. That'll have to go. He doesn't normally do this kind of thing, but a hundred dollars would go a long, long way towards realising his plans for a movie based on his script, Captain Beefheart vs. The Grunt People.
Studio Z was a five-track facility, originally called Pal Studio, which afforded overdubbing capabilities otherwise only available at that time in Les Paul's original eight-track studio. Using money he'd made scoring a grade-Z Western called Run Home Slow. Frank bought the place off its owner/designer Paul Buff when the latter ran into financial problems. Zappa had been introduced to Buff by a fellow guitarist, Ronnie Williams (one of the brothers Kenny & Ronnie featured in Let's Make The Water Turn Black), and was soon doing sessions there, playing on R&B demos and novelty tunes.
It proved an invaluable apprenticeship, furnishing Zappa with his first composition credit – for The Penguins' Memories of El Monte, a doo-wop number released on Art Laboe's Original Sound label – and unexpected success when another of his songs, Grunion Run, was the B-side of a novelty single called Tijuana Surf, which was Number 1 in Mexico for almost a year. "My ASCAP royalty cheque for Memories of El Monte was 75 cents," Frank recalls. "In the case of Grunion Run, although there was never a complete accounting, when I needed money, the time I got arrested in Cucamonga, I went to Art Laboe and he gave me an advance of $1,500."
Frank's arrest, of course, was on charges of "conspiracy to manufacture pornographic materials". The cheesy used-car salesman turned out to be one Detective Willis, apparently quite famous locally for his assiduous pursuit of cottaging gays. When Willis returned the following day to pick up the tape, he offered only half the agreed fee; Zappa refused, but was arrested even though the tape never changed hands. It all sounds, to the uninvolved, like some bizarre farce. Frank doesn't quite see it that way.
"Oh, it's pretty funny, if you like going to jail," he says sardonically. "It sounds ridiculous, but all true. It's just one of the kinds of things that can happen to a creative person when they're stuck in a right-wing-oriented obscure town."
Nevertheless, the Studio Z days did provide Zappa with his earliest recording experience, a brought him together for the first time with early Mothers vocalist Ray Collins, a falsetto style who had sung with Chicano group Little Jul Herrera & The Tigers. Under monikers like The Heartbreakers and Baby Ray & The Ferns, the pair released singles of Zappa compositions such as How's Your Bird?, The World's Greatest Sinner and Deseri. Eventually, Frank replaced the guitarist in Ray's weekend bar band, The Soul Giants. They were a decent little group, thought, particularly the bassist, a Mexican American called Roy Estrada, and drummer Jimmy Carl Black, the Indian of the group. All they needed was a little push in the right direction . . .
"I had fun playing with The Soul Giants," Frank recalls. "I liked the way they sounded, but I thought that without original material there was no way they were going to do anything but stay in the bars. I suggested we develop our own stuff and try and get a record contract, and the leader at that time, a guy called Davey Coronado, said, No way, because if you learn original stuff, bars won't hire you. So he quit. And he was right: we stayed together, changed our name to The Mothers, and we did get fired."
Life was no picnic for these Mothers, and least of all for their new leader, whose aspirations went some way beyond the others'.
"It was not really easy. You've got a bunch of guys and they're not all that wild about exploring new terrain in music – there's always that factor: Let's work, let's eat. What do you want to do weird stuff for, because if we'd just kept playing Louie Louie we'd be working right now – and any time there was a difficulty, the band would immediately revert to that Louie Louie mentality, Let's don't do anything new, just play Louie Louie or in The Midnight Hour, give the people what they want, don't play this weird stuff."
Up to this point, Zappa's recorded work had given little indication of his desire to "explore new musical terrain", but had The Soul Giants been able to peek back through his childhood, they night have gleaned a few clues.
An habitual outsider of predominantly Sicilian parentage, the young Zappa's interest in percussion led him to the school marching band, from which he was expelled for smoking in uniform, and to the school orchestra. At Antelope Valley High School, his music teacher Mr Ballard flowed him to conduct the orchestra, a job to which he brought a typically experimental approach.
"A high school orchestra in those days tuned up a box which put out a tone. It had two switches, A and B flat. The B flat was used for tuning up the marching band, and the orchestra tuned to the A. So I took the first violins and tuned them to the A, and took the second violins and tuned them to B flat, guaranteeing that whatever they played would be dissonant, no matter what was on the page.
"Another thing was, he had these musical staves on the blackboard, and he would let me write out these completely dense chords on the blackboard and tell all the different musicians which note of the chords was going to be theirs, then just conduct a downbeat to hear these chords. Some of them were so dense it just sounded like wind – there wasn't even any harmony coming out. But how are you going to find out what these things would sound like if you don't get a chance to hear them played by instruments? He saved me a lot of effort in later life just by letting me hear things like that. Of course, the other people in the orchestra thought I was out of my fucking mind."
Zappa started writing his own "classical compositions at age 14, but bereft of outlets for their performance, he turned instead to his other musical love, R&B. Fascinated by the guitar breaks on records by such as Howlin' Wolf, Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Johnny Guitar Watson, he learned to play by copying their lead lines, and joined a string of high school R&B bands, including one, The Black-Outs, which caused a stir in Antelope Valley due to its "shocking and stylish" multi-racial line-up of three black kids, two Mexicans, and two or three white kids, including Frank and his baritone-sax honking chum, Motorhead Sherwood. It was the start of a tradition of integration which has continued through all The Mothers' line-ups.
In the heady atmosphere of the mid to late '60s, however, nobody really thought of The Mothers as a right-on multi-racial band. To hippy devotees of flower power, they were just a bunch of ugly guys, particularly offensive at a time when "being beautiful" was all – a distinction they set out to exploit, and in which they were helped by the equivalent distinction in Los Angeles between hippies and freaks.
"Hippies were a very conformist group, with an established uniform, vocabulary and lifestyle," says Zappa, "whereas freaks could be anybody weird. LA has always had people who are weird, of all persuasions, of all different kinds of clothes, vocabularies and modes of behaviour, and the only thing that could unify them as a group you could call freaks was that they were individually freakish. And there were a lot of those kinds of people in Hollywood at that time.
"The scene was kind of interesting then; today, you hardly see people at night walking around on the street in Hollywood – the scene now is to be seen driving a certain kind of car, to be seen getting out of the certain kind of car you drive to walk into a place that is fashionable, then you leave the fashionable place and are seen getting into the certain kind of car you drive, and you leave. That's life in Hollywood.
"In those days, most of the people who were on the street, they wouldn't even have a car. They'd walk around, and there'd be places to go, coffee shops, places to hang out. Some clubs would have bands booked in regularly, but other places you could just walk in with a guitar, get up and play. The scene would continue way, way into the morning hours, and then you would go to Ben Frank's (an all-night diner, still there) and sit there for a few hours, then go down to Canter's delicatessen until the earliest hours of the morning. So there was more of a street scene, and these unique personalities were highly visible at that time. Today, I'm sure there are freaks in Los Angeles, but there's no place for them to go, no reason for them to go there, and nothing for them to accomplish if they went there!"
These "unique personalities" – the United Mutations of Los Angeles – can be glimpsed on the inner gatefold sleeve of Freak Out!, names like Carl Franzoni, Suzy Creamcheese, Kim Fowley ("featured on hypophone") and Pamela Zarubica. Chief mover and shaker of the LA freak scene was Vito, a sculpture teacher in his mid sixties.
"He had a long straggly beard and moustache, long straggly white hair, used to wear tights all the time, and part of a tablecloth taped over his chest. He had a very young wife named Sue and an infant named Godot, and Sue used to wear basically just doily-type tablecloths and sandals, and there was this group of people that hung around with them who wore anything they'd made themselves. They were this Bohemian bizarro group, and every night they'd go out dancing, and as soon as they arrived, they would make things happen, because they were dancing in a way nobody had seen before, screaming and yelling out on the floor and doing all kinds of weird things. They were dressed in a way nobody could believe, and they gave life to everything that was going on."
The legendary Suzy Creamcheese, however, was but a figment of Zappa's fertile imagination that grew from myth to become a reality of sorts.
"She could have been anybody at the time," admits Frank. "That little story on the Freak Out! album was just something I made up, and shortly after that I had people coming up to me in droves introducing themselves as Suzy Creamcheese. When we did our first British tour, we had a specific request – from the British promoter, I believe it was – that we manifest some sort of Suzy Creamcheese on the stage. So I hired a girl named Pamela Lee Zarubica to be Suzy Creamcheese. All she did was sit on the stage when we played the Albert Hall – didn't do anything!"
Though The Mothers inspired little besides intense revulsion in most who heard them, especially A&R men searching for the next Byrds, they were fortunate enough to find favour with Tom Wilson, then working as a house producer for MGM. Though his name rarely figures in rock histories, Wilson evidently had some kind of a gift for the '60s seminal: besides the first three Mothers LPs, he also produced Dylan's Bringing it All Back Home and The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat. albums of disparate style but immense influence.
"As a producer he was probably the most visionary guy at the time, because everybody else we went to turned us down; he was the only guy who signed us. He took the chance, he put his butt on the line with the Freak Out! album, because you can imagine, making a double album with an unknown artist – especially an unknown artist doing the kind of stuff we were doing – he certainly exposed himself to a quantity of ridicule at head office."
It was largely down to Wilson's enthusiasm that The Mothers were able to make Freak Out! a double album; he even concurred when Zappa wanted to hire $500-worth of percussion equipment, bring all the freaks from the Sunshine Strip into the studio, and record a free-form freak-out one night, the results of which formed side four of the album, a track called The Return of The Son Of Monster Magnet. And whatever MGM's opinion of them, their albums evidently sold well enough to enable them to keep making more of them. When it came time for the third album, a dazzlingly acerbic satire on the hippy movement called We're Only in it For The Money, Zappa wanted to use a parody of the Sgt. Pepper cover as the sleeve, and was introduced to Cal Schenkel, a brilliant artist who went on to provide the so-ugly they're-beautiful collages for albums such as Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Schenkel, it turned out, was every bit Zappa's equal as regards weirdness.
"One of the things he did was, he didn't dump his garbage. What he did with it was, he put all his garbage in plastic bags and stapled them, these little bundles, to his ceiling. The entire interior of his house had these blobs of garbage hanging from the ceiling, like soundproofing. Now this is cruel and unusual punishment, if your pet is a goat . . . and he had a goat! Think of it from the goat's point of view, spending its days looking up at the ceiling. "
Schenkel's cover for We're Only in it For The Money was so good, with the band's name picked out in vegetables where "BEATLES" had been in flowers, that brave MGM, fearful of possible Fab Four litigation, turned it inside out, exposing instead the inner gatefold shot of this peculiarly hirsute, obese and repulsive group clad in dresses against a bright yellow background. One of the era's more questionable marketing strategies.
By 1969, The Mothers had grown in both size and musical diversity, and had become renowned as one of the best live bands around. In order to realise Zappa's ever more complex compositions, horn and woodwind players (including Motorhead Sherwood) and other musicians like guitarist Lowell George and keyboard player Don Preston were drafted in, until the band became virtually unmanageable. Ultimately, it simply became uneconomic to run a full-time touring band which included instruments like bassoon, bass clarinet and marimba.
"It was next to impossible," Zappa concedes especially if you were doing the stuff we we’re doing. The jobs didn't pay well, and you have your transportation costs, shipping costs, and hotel costs to pay on top. An average tour, like the 1969 tour, I had to take $400 out of my band account just to go on the tour. And at the end of the tour I was $10,000 in debt. Everybody else had been paid – I had to guarantee them their salaries. They had their food paid, their hotel paid, their salary paid – they got a weekly cheque, whether they worked or not. It was the only way I could keep the band together. They were basically of the opinion that their services were so fantastic they were being underpaid for their services, so they wouldn't work too hard. They weren't willing to learn new stuff, they wouldn't grow. When I said, OK this is it, I'm not keeping the band any more, they were mad at me because it was like having their welfare cheque cut off. It never occurred to them that they didn't put any effort into it, that they weren't doing anything to make the group more fabulous and successful, they weren't footing any of the bills for what was going on. And I was taking my record and publishing royalties and re-investing them into keeping a live band going. So how smart is that?"
And so the band dispersed, drifting into session work and forming other bands; Zappa even helped Lowell George and Roy Estrada's new group, Little Feat, get a contract with Warner Brothers. Even before this, however, the strain had shown: Billy Mundi, one of the group's two drummers, had been enticed away from The Mothers by Jac Holzman at Elektra Records to form a group called Rhinoceros. This was super-group season, and Holzman had the idea of forming a group composed of the best musicians from touring bands of the time. "He offered Billy Mundi a huge amount of money, a place to live, the whole package – we'll make you a star, you'll work with these top-grade musicians instead of those comedy guys, we'll make a supergroup and call it Rhinoceros. And where the fuck is Rhinoceros now? But I don't blame Billy for taking the job, because at that time we were so poor he was living in the Albert Hotel and he couldn't get enough to eat – he used to come in and tell us how he'd quell his appetite by drinking the hot water in the shower in the Albert Hotel, which could be a life endangering experience. When somebody comes up to you and says, you're going to get something to eat, and not only that, you'll be in a super-group called Rhinoceros, I couldn't even advise him to stick around."
Since then, Zappa has attempted to take more and more control over his own business and his own music. To an admirable extent he's succeeded, though not without occasional setbacks. In pursuance of his classical ambitions, he has hired orchestras to perform his compositions, paying enormous sums – upwards of a quarter of a million dollars – simply to have the various parts written out. The results have been, for him, universally disappointing, and to this day he despises the London Symphony Orchestra for their disrespect and slapdash work on his pieces.
From time to time he still takes a band out on tour, though it's only a temporary working unit these days. Even so, it can be a fairly fraught experience – though it's unlikely that he'll ever have a tour quite as bad as 1971's, when all the band's gear was destroyed in a fire which broke out as they were playing at the Casino de Montreux in Geneva, and Frank subsequently broke a leg when a deranged punter pushed him off the stage at London's Rainbow Theatre. And it can still be a prohibitively costly process, too: 1988's Broadway The Hard Way tour involved five trucks of gear and a 43-person entourage, with Zappa footing all the bills. Despite the positive financial projections of his (then) management firm, Frank ended up losing $400,000 on the tour – though as usual, everybody else who worked for Zappa got paid.
"How long can you be enthusiastic about music as an art form, never mind music as a business," asks Frank, "when it involves other people that you have to rely on, and they piss on your shoe. Why do you have to put up with that? The more I can rely on myself, the better I like it. "
So now he stays at home as much as possible and works on his music, as his wife Gail runs the business side of things.
"Stuff goes out the door regularly. Since we have so much of the catalogue in circulation right now, from time to time some of the older albums jump up in sales for a month. Right now we have Joe's Garage taking a jump – people are buying Joe's Garage CDs and cassettes in the last few months. Thing-Fish went up for a while, then went back down. The best-selling album we ever had was Sheik Yerbouti which did about a six million world-wide, and the lowest-selling album – probably something like Sleep Dirt or Orchestral Favourites – did about 50,000 world-wide, so they generally sell somewhere in between."
Life slips by fairly peaceably now Chez Zappa, especially since his eldest children Moon Unit and Dweezil are in the process of shooting 13 episodes of a television sitcom, Normal Life, for CBS. ("I won't say it's based on this family, but there are certain similarities to the way this household runs"). But now and then the routine is interrupted by visitors, some more unexpected than others. Like Bob Dylan.
"About three or four years ago, he wanted me to produce an album for him. He'd been calling the office for about a week – I'd been getting messages saying that Bob Dylan was trying to reach me. I thought it was a joke.
"Then one night he showed up at the gate. I hadn't seen a picture of Bob Dylan for so long I couldn't tell if this guy on the video screen standing down there in the middle of the night wearing just a shirt on a cold night was actually him, so I sent the engineer, who was more pop-aware than I was, down to the gate to see who it was. It was Bob. He brought him in, we went in the other room and he played some of his tunes on the piano and I went through the stuff and made suggestions on how the stuff might be arranged and what could be done if he wanted me to produce it.
"We agreed to go ahead. I was going to produce this album. I made suggestions on musicians might use, got ready to book studio time and rest of this stuff, then I got a phone call from him – and this was something that I really had to twist my schedule around to accommodate, because had a tour coming up – and he said he couldn't it right then, he had to take a vacation. He was going to the Bahamas. That was the last I heard from him."
Although the Dylan/Zappa project remains but a tantalising idea. Frank has more than enough to occupy time at the moment, thank you very much. Quite apart from the enormous You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series, he's just written his "polemical autobiography", and has long been an assiduous campaigner for civil liberties, sounding warn bells about the sinister influence of televangelists, and firing off sharply worded missives to Senate Committees and even (then) President Reagan regarding the censorious incursions of PMRC, the Washington Senators' Wives organisation which successfully blackmailed the record Industry of America Association into stickering albums according to their sex, violence, "occult" content. He's even considered run for political office, but "hasn't gotten deranged, enough to do it yet". To this, as to everything does, Zappa brings his peculiar, seemingly paradoxical attitude of intolerant libertarianism.
It's brought a new, sharper focus to his recent recorded work too, particularly the Broadway The Hard Way album: the songs may be as risque as ever, but the names this time are real: Ed Meese, Surgeon General Dr. Koop, Jesse Jackson, Oliver North, Admiral Poindexter, CIA chief Bill Casey, televangelists Pat Robertson, Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker, Michael Jackson, Reagan and Bush.
"Broadway The Hard Way was very very specific," Zappa agrees, "because it was about the 1988 election and all the televangelist stuff. But that kind of specific stuff, although it gets stale very quickly in the short term, in the long term it may be an interesting historical document the same way We're Only In It For The Money. Because at that time, in '67/'68 when we did that, it seemed almost redundant to sing about flower power, because we were right in the middle of – so who could give a fuck? But listen to it today and it's the only album from the period that raises an eyebrow about flower power and what hippies were all about.
"And I happen to think I had it right. "
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net