The Mother Of Perversion
By Peter Townshend
Always controversial and never afraid to buck the system, Frank Zappa spent practically his whole career being held accountable for his "offensive" work. But besides his desire to attract adverse criticism Zappa was a master musician. His death from cancer has halted an unprecedented flow of superb albums. Here we pay tribute to his life, his career and his talent.
Rumours concerning Frank Zappa are never ending. There's the one that recalls accounts of Zappa taking a crap on stage, and another about a 'gross-out competition he held with Alice Cooper, in which he did various inhumane things such as stepping on baby chickens, and eat crap on stage. They are though, fortunately, rumours, to the disappointment of some fans of course who thought this was the coolest thing any musician could ever have done.
Zappa did, however, enjoy shocking people, particularly those in authoritative positions, with his outspoken manner. He was locked in a constant struggle against the record industry.
Frank Zappa grew up in a lower-middle class family, with a combination of Sicilian, French and Arab lineage. His father had several diverse jobs: barber, data clerk, teacher and metallurgist. To boost his income he volunteered for the human testing of chemical warfare agents - the army applied a 'patch' to his arm, bandaged it up and told him to come back in a couple of weeks, when they removed it, noted the results and paid him ten bucks per patch.
Mrs Zappa was less daring, simply looking after the Zappa family and keeping house.
Frank's first formal taste of music came when he was in his teens at Antelope Valley High School, from which he graduated in 1958. He took a special harmony course in his senior year. He also listened to a lot of music, played in various bands and took a keen interest in literature.
The aforementioned band work began essentially when he met Don Van Vliet (later renamed by Frank as Captain Beefheart), and other progressive rock fans in the late 60s. His first band was called The Blackouts (named after a Peppermint Schnapps drinking session when a few of the adolescents blacked out). Not until 1964, though, did Zappa form the group that would eventually see him to stardom. Initially called The Soul Giants, they became simply The Mothers until they later changed their name to The Mothers Of Invention.
The Mothers became masters of the avant garde. With their music being only a part of their overall act, they relied on total band-audience involvement, including satire and grotesque comedy, combined with their own style of a combination between rock, r&b, orchestral and soul. A Life Magazine journalist described one of their shows: "On stage there is the possibility that anything can happen. Dolls are mutilated. A gas mask is displayed. A bag of vegetables is unpacked and examined. There are spaced intervals of 'honks' and suddenly the Mothers perform Dead Air. They stop, sit down and ignore the audience. Zappa might get a shoeshine from Motorhead, the percussionist. They keep this going for as long as it takes to get the audience unsettled, uncomfortable, and angry. Then Zappa calmly approaches the mic and says: 'It brings out the hostilities in you doesn't it?'" Their audiences loved the weird shows.
1964 was also when Zappa had his first encounter with the law. Having recently opened Studio Z, Zappa was starting off his movie career. His script Captain Beefheart and the Grunt People immediately attracted interest from the San Bernardino County Vice Squad. When Zappa put out a casting call for local people to play in his movie, one particular used car salesman came to the audition, but never got cast. Two weeks later the guy returned to ask Zappa if he would make an 'exciting film' for friends he was inviting to a party. Being the good natured man that he was, Zappa obliged, suggesting that it should be audio rather than visual to save costs. His new employer agreed, detailing a list of sex acts he wanted Zappa to include on the tape.
The next day, after the tape was finished, Zappa was instantly arrested by police who confiscated all his tapes and equipment, closed down Studio Z and charged Zappa with 'conspiracy to commit pornography'. After a rather humorous court appearance, Zappa was sentenced to 10 days in the San Bernardino County Jail.
Zappa continued to play small gigs with The Mothers which led to the group's first studio work. While The Mothers were working at the infamous Whisky-a-Go-Go, MGM Records' staff producer Tom Wilson wandered in. They were playing their Big Boogie Number as Tom walked in, which was really totally unrepresentative of the rest of their material. He immediately offered the group a record deal (thinking he had acquired the ugliest looking blues band in southern California) and an advance of $2500 dollars. So Freak Out was born.
Freak Out was the first rock double LP, and cost MGM Verve $30,000 - a ridiculous sum in those days. However, the album reached US number 130, and sold a paltry 30,000 copies - not exactly a hit. On paper it was a flop and showed that The Mothers actually owed MGM money.
After completing Freak Out and retuning from the promotional tour, Zappa was 'introduced', as he puts it, 'to a fascinating little vixen employed as a secretary at the Whisky-a-Go- Go, Adelaide Gail Sloatman whom he married . Frank recalled his wedding thus, ''We got married a couple of days before I left for the first European tour. She was nine months pregnant, with delivery imminent. We went to the New York City Hall, arriving just before closing time. I didn't have a wedding ring - in fact Gail still doesn't have a wedding ring. There was a vending machine on the counter where you picked up the license that sold ball point pens with 'congratulations from Mayor Lindsay' printed on them: 10¢ a piece. I had to buy one in order to fill out the form. We then rushed over to one of the little 'marrying cubicles'. It was green inside and reminded me of a pool table. In the middle was a cheesoid Formica replica-pulpit. On it was a time clock, the kind you would punch-in on when you went to work. The man in charge punched our card, recited the formula, and asked for the ring. I told him I had a ballpoint pen, and pinned it on to Gail's maternity dress. Yes folks, I do have something in common with my 'brother-in-Christ' Pat Robertson - except I never lied about it."
Frank Zappa remained married to Gail for the rest of his life, and in that time they had four. children together, Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva.
Due to the lack of success of Freak Out, MGM would only give The Mothers $11 ,000 to record their second album, entitled Absolutely Free. This didn't give Zappa much latitude which made recording schedules tight, hence making it impossible to perfect anything on the album.
Very shortly, Zappa experienced his first problems with a multinational record company, going through a major struggle with MGM over royalties of their first LPs, which took about eight years to resolve. Part of MGM's defence was that they had a fire and a flood in the part of the building where they stored their royalties records.
The problems with MGM were never ending. The Mothers' third album, We're Only In It For The Money, (with a sleeve that parodies The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and mocks the psychedelia of 1967) won the Dutch equivalent of a Grammy. Zappa, who apparently never listened to his records until they were released, heard a song from the album for the first time at the awards ceremony, where he noticed that whole chunks of the song were missing. Someone at MGM had been offended by the lyrics and had arbitrarily chopped portions of them out - in one instance, about eight bars, as Frank recalled later: " ... just enough to f**k them up."
The big offending line had been, "And I still remember Mama, with her apron and her pad, feeding all the boys at Ed's cafe." Years later Zappa discovered that an MGM executive was convinced the word pad referred to a sanitary towel, and became obsessed with the idea that a waitress somewhere was feeding sanitary towels to people in a restaurant.
At the ceremony, after realising that the record had been censored, Zappa told the audience, "I can't except this statue. I prefer that the award be presented to the guy who modified the record, because what you are hearing is more his work than mine."
Eventually MGM made a mistake that allowed Zappa to create his own record company. They forgot to send the little piece of paper that says, "We pick up your option - you are still under contract to us - we still want you to make records for us." Such a move would have secured him to MGM as an artist, but instead he found the freedom to negotiate a 'logo deal', and consequently Bizarre Productions was created - a label within the MGM company structure. The Mothers' next two albums, Cruising With Ruben And The Jets and Mothermania, were released on the Bizarre Verve label, distributed by MGM. Cruising With Ruben And The Jets apparently 'fooled people' when it was released. The band's name was not prominent on the cover, instead the cover featured the words, "Is this the Mothers Of Invention recording under a different name in a last ditch attempt to get their cruddy music on the radio?" One DJ in Philadelphia was reportedly playing it like crazy until he found out that it was a Mothers record, when he promptly yanked it.
Zappa said this of the album , "I conceived that album along the same lines as the compositions in Stravinsky's neoclassical period. If he could take the forms and clichés of the classical era and pervert them, why not do the same with the rules and regulations that applied to doowop in the 50s? The listener wouldn't really think that a song like Stuff Up The Cracks was an honest-to-goodness 1950s song."
Following a short Canadian tour in 1969, Zappa disbanded The Mothers Of Invention, reportedly ''tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons" and also because of the heavy expenses of keeping the band on the road. Frank Zappa was now going to concentrate on his solo career, the first album of which, Hot Rats, sneaked into the Billboard charts at 99 and rapidly vanished. Zappa had produced another flop, but conversely Hot Rats, as a catalogue album, has outlived just about everything else released in 1970, and in the UK it stands out as the only good Zappa album ever released.
Even worse than the failure of Hot Rats, though, was the disaster of Zappa's 1971 European tour. The Casino de Montreux in Geneva caught fire in the middle of his show, where 2500 people were crammed into the building. No one was killed, but all the band's equipment was destroyed (Deep Purple later wrote a song about it called Smoke on the Water). Zappa had to delay the tour, canceling weeks of work. The bad luck carried on though at his next concert in England.
At the end of the first show, Zappa remembered walking back on stage for an encore and then waking up in the orchestra pit in pain. A member of the audience named Trevor Howell had run up on stage and punched Zappa, knocking him 15 feet down into a concrete-floored orchestra pit. The fall gave the unfortunate star a fractured leg, broken ribs, a crushed larynx (which caused the pitch of his voice to drop by a third, and stay like that) a paralyzed arm, and a hole in the back of his head. Talk about suffering for your art!
Howell gave two stories to the press, one being was that Zappa was making eyes at his girlfriend, the other that he was pissed off because he felt he wasn't getting value for his money. He ended up spending a year in jail on a charge of grievous bodily harm.
Zappa spent the next month in the Harley Street Clinic. His leg refused to heal, and he stayed in a wheelchair for a year. During this time he refused to do any interviews or have his photograph taken. Yet, he still wanted to make music, and managed to produce three albums, Just Another Band From LA, Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. He also wrote a science fiction musical called Hunchentoot, and a sort of musical fairy tale called The Adventures Of Gregory Peccary.
This entire time gave Zappa such a deep love for England that, in 1975, he decided to sue the Crown for breach of contract. His claim arose as result of a cancelled performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and The Mothers Of Invention, scheduled to coincide with the conclusion of principal photography on the 200 Motels film. Venue officials declared that the libretto 200 Motels (the score that was to be featured) was obscene and refused to have it played. After a long and tedious court drama, Justice Mocatta's final verdict was that the material was not obscene and the Albert Hall had breached its contract. However, as the Albert Hall is a Royal institution, it would be improper for an American musician to prevail in a case like this, so 'yankee go home'. Undaunted, Zappa did complete the 200 Motels movie, a fictionalised documentary of the Mothers, with guest appearances by Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and others.
Zappa was to appear many times in court in the future. In 1975 he won an out-of-court settlement to regain ownership of all the master recordings originally made for Verve, plus a $100,000 dollar cash payment covering unpaid royalties. In 1976 he sued ex-manager Cohen and Warner Bros to gain full control of the early albums, and cut ties with Warner.
After releasing the 200 Motels movie, Zappa spent more of his time composing and producing largely instrumental pieces. He was always criticised on the lyrical content of his songs. The press attacked Zappa harshly - one newspaper in Colorado described him as a 'degenerate' and a 'menace to society'. He was not only attacked because his lyrics were supposedly crude, but sexist as well. response was, "If you take lyrics I have ever written and analyse how many songs are about 'women in demeaning positions' as opposed to 'men in demeaning positions', you would find out that most of the songs are about stupid men."
The Anti Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith complained bitterly and demanded an apology over the single Jewish Princess, although Zappa refused to apologise, saying, "Unlike the Unicorn, such creatures do exist - and deserve to be 'commemorated' with their own special opus." Such incidents did not help Zappa get much radio airplay.
During the mid 80s, when not recording , or doing in-person shows, Zappa made determined oppositions to various groups that sought to censor rock lyrics or force record companies to provide album covers with warnings about so-called suggestive or obscene material. Zappa even testified before Congressional committees about his belief in freedom of speech.
His musical career continued until his death, (six weeks before his death he released Yellow Shark). Out of the 55 albums Zappa released , only Apostrophe made it into the US top 10. He did however win Best Rock Instrumental for Jazz From Hell at the 30th annual Grammy Awards.
Zappa became very interested in politics. At the back of his autobiography he expresses himself on certain topics: ''There was no other vehicle for putting out my political views ... " His 1980 US tour was designed to be a pre-election consciousness raiser, which mobilised the voting audience. The tour managed to enroll 11,000 new voters. He also had paid an interest in the Communist Bloc, and made a few trips to the Soviet Union, where he was recognised as a skillful manipulator and a respected businessman. Because of this he met with the Czech President Vaclav Havel in Prague, in 1990, and the Czech government announced that Zappa would be its new Trade and Culture Emissary.
Perhaps one the most drastic events happened to Zappa in 1990, when he contracted prostate cancer, thus being unable to pursue his political interests.
The full impact of Zappa's music has yet to hit us. I believe that he will only be understood in years to come, at which point his influence on the music of the time will be felt more than any one musician has ever influenced the music world. Let's hope that somebody will take over where Zappa left off and continue the fight for freedom of speech, so someday musicians will be able to say what they fucking like in songs, and express themselves in whatever means they like.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net