Frank Zappa: The controversy and touring hell of 1970-71
By Dave Thompson
Goldmine, November 29, 2002
Between mid-1970 and the end of 1971, Frank Zappa was at his peak as rock's premier satirist and spokesman, an 18-month period during which he released three albums and one movie that laid the foundation for the reputation that would pursue him for the remainder of his life.
No longer the wacky beardy whose music was largely incomprehensible unless you were a card-carrying hippie – in which case you'd probably hate it – Zappa had reinvented himself as a virtuoso cross between the conscience that '70s rock never had and the consciousness that it never wanted, able to slip from disgusting groupie parodies to pure, unadulterated pop in a breath – or even less.
It was a period that saw him unleash some of his most devastatingly brilliant music and one that paired him with some of the most creative musicians of the age. Mark Volman, one half (with fellow ex-Turtle Howard Kaylan) of the Flo & Eddie backing vocal team that accompanied The Mothers Of Invention throughout this period, remembered, "Frank always admitted that it was one of the most talented groups of individuals he'd ever had. Of all the Mothers' lineups, this was the only one made up of people who could have been a group leader."
Reflecting on a lineup comprising Jeff Simmons (bass), George Duke (keyboards, trombone), Ian Underwood (sax, organ), Aynsley Dunbar (drums), and, later, Don Preston (keyboards), Volman said, "In very many interviews, Frank came out and admitted it was the most exciting group he'd ever had, because everyone had been the leader of their own group at one time or another. It was brilliant. Frank could play drums, but Frank was on guitar, Aynsley on drums and, between them, they made up this improvisational style. It was the same with George and Ian. Ian bought a real classic flavor, and George brought a real jazzy flavor. Then, when Donny [Preston] joined, we brought a whole other element in, another jazz influence."
Of course, such creative energy could not be harnessed for long – another reason why this period is so precious. But Chunga's Revenge, 200 Motels (both the movie and its soundtrack LP) and Live At The Fillmore East only scratch the surface of the group's legacy. They can be heard in full flight, too, on Zappa's Just Another Band From LA and on side four of John Lennon's Sometime In New York City, both released during 1972; they reappear on the archival Zappa releases Playground Psychotics and Freaks & Motherfu*#@%!; and the majority of the lineup then pop up on Flo & Eddie's own first two albums.
The group is even name-checked in Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water" – and it seems hard to believe today that, across much of mainstream American radio, "Smoke On The Water" was to be Frank Zappa And The Mothers' first-ever mention on the airwaves. Or maybe that's not so surprising after all. The Mothers were scarcely the most radio-friendly bunch around, even in 1972.
This lineup, the mother of all Mothers, coalesced over a period of months in early 1970, following the dissolution of the original band – only Underwood survived from that earlier period. Flo & Eddie then arrived in the aftermath of a Mothers show at UCLA's Pauly Pavilion May 15, 1970.
Volman, Kaylan, and Zappa were long-time friends – indeed, Kaylan was a second cousin of Zappa's manager, Herb Cohen, and over the years, they often hung out together. They were dark days for the singers, however. The Turtles had just broken up, and Volman recalled, "We were at a very low period of our career. We'd filed a lawsuit against [our record label] White Whale. They would file a lawsuit against us, and we were just realizing that the ramifications of these lawsuits were going to prevent us from being able to be The Turtles or even Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. It wasn't just the demise of the band, it was the demise of everything we knew."
Backstage, however, Zappa had a surprise waiting for them, an invite to a family barbecue he was throwing at his home the following Sunday – and all they had to do was bring the saxophones they hadn't squawked since their days as The Crossfires surf band, earlier in the decade.
"We brought our families. It was really fun, and we ended up downstairs in his makeshift office, where he wrote music and hung out during the day – his dungeon," Volman continued.
"He put up these music stands with this sheet music and he said, 'Well, can you guys play this?' Howard could read a little, but I couldn't read at all, and we both kind of looked at it. Howard honked around a few lines and I just stood there smiling, and I think Frank realized almost immediately that the sax concept was a waste of time."
But he also knew the pair could sing, so he folded away the music stands, played some notes on his guitar, "and asked us to do some musical things and muck around. Then he said, 'I'm going to England and Europe. We're doing seven concerts including a TV show [for Dutch television]. Would you guys like to come? I'll pay you as members of the band.'" Of course they agreed. Now all they had to do was break the news to their families.
"When The Turtles were just getting started," Kaylan recalled, "I remember bringing home Freak Out and Absolutely Free and playing them really loud in the house, and my father coming into the room and saying, 'What the hell are you listening to?' So, I showed him the album covers, and he started laughing so hard – he turned red and tears came out of his eyes and he said, 'This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard! The guy's face is the stupidest thing I've ever seen! And I can't believe this guy's name. Who the hell would call himself Frank Zappa and put out trash like this and look like that?' And I said, 'Dad, this is the best stuff you've ever heard.' 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.'
"Years later, The Turtles had broken up, and my mom and pop were just in just horrible frames of mind – they thought it was all over for me," Kaylan said.
"'Great, the bum is a bum again. He never went to school. There's no education left....' And then I told them I'd joined Frank and they went nuts. My father, particularly, said, 'Oh man, that's it. It's all over.' He started making calls – he even called my cousin Ruby who ran Budget Rent-a-Car in L.A. and tried to score me a job at the rental car office. It really was all over as far as he was concerned."
But it was just beginning for The Mothers. Gigs in The Netherlands and the U.K. included an appearance at the Bath festival in Shepton Mallet, England; there was also time for some recording in London before the group returned to the U.S. for a string of more shows and a handful more recording sessions. Though he had already released two albums during 1970, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Zappa wanted a new record out before the end of the year.
Volman recalled, "We went into the studio and did some recordings, which made their appearance on Chunga's Revenge. And that was the first record where we were credited as The Phlorescent Leech And Eddie. Frank asked us how we wanted to be credited on the record and, because we couldn't use our real names due to the litigation, we said 'Let's just go with Phlorescent Leech And Eddie.'"
Interestingly, Flo – Volman – becomes Eddie on the album, as the acoustic guitarist on "Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink."
Altogether the duo appeared on six of Chunga's Revenge's 10 tracks, including a live recording, "The Nancy & Mary Music," recorded in Minneapolis, Minn., July 5. Intriguingly, the remaining five songs are the only studio recordings of this particular lineup ever to be released on an album; two other tracks, "Tears Begin To Fall" and "Junier Mintz Boogie," appeared on 45 in August 1971, but that's it. The group lived, died and was immortalized on the road.
Chunga's Revenge was released (oddly, as a Zappa solo album) in October 1970, just as the Mothers prepared for a return to Europe. Close to a month of shows included gigs in Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Austria, France, and Belgium, by which time The Mothers Of Invention had taken on an entirely new complexion, as Zappa passed more and more of the performance over to Flo & Eddie, abandoning every reference to the maternal favorites of old as he did so.
The three live albums that document this period trace the group's development. Volman explained, "From the early days, with pieces of the old Mothers – 'Concentration Moon,' things like that – we kept moving until we eventually had the Fillmore album, aiming towards 200 Motels and then 'Billy The Mountain,' until we had a whole new show, 2½ hours of our own material. It took a while to get to, but we did it."
Such developments were not given an entirely smooth passage by Zappa's audience. Kaylan recalled one of the band's earliest appearances in L.A.
"Jane Fonda was there. She came backstage in between the acts, and I was being very friendly with her. We all were, and it was an honor. Then she went out to listen to us, and I saw her get up after two minutes, throw down her program and curse at the top of her lungs and just run screaming out of there. Because she'd never heard anything that chauvinistic and closed-minded and was convinced that it was aimed directly at her. That's the way she took it, as a personal affront to her female liberation."
Zappa knew exactly what he was doing, however, as Volman continued with the history lesson. "With Howard and I up there, Frank had two Punch And Judy dolls who could personify all the ugliness that the Mothers was – the comedy, the satire, the vast pudgy rock stars, the drugs. And Frank could stand on stage and whip out his guitar solos; he could put his cigarettes on the end of the guitar, look disdainfully at the audience and play a seven-minute guitar solo that would make everyone cheer – and then put his hand out to us, and say, 'Take it away, you fat, dopey clowns.'
"When you think of it in that context, it was perfect because it took a lot of the pressure off him on a night-to-night basis, because, musically, he had such a strong band that it really became this whole wild concept, this goofiness and this rock thing up against this really strong musical group."
Kaylan agreed. "It's almost too innocent and stupid to be filthy. I think Frank was wise, using us to do that, because we were lovable buffoons – we weren't those street creeps to be feared that he had worked with before. We're just pussycats up there, so to hear us do some of those things, it's obviously a joke. It took some of the harshness away from it, and it made even Zappa's caustic humor appear palatable not only to those people who knew us in the audience but to those who didn't, to those of the audience who had no idea from whence we came. We were still nonthreatening."
Indeed, when Kaylan's parents caught a show on that early summer tour, "They just didn't get it. My mother said, 'I know it's supposed to be filthy, but I don't see how.' She really didn't understand a lot of the verbiage that was being thrown around or the allusions that were being made."
Throughout this period, Zappa was formulating his most grandiose vision yet, the 200 Motels movie. Much of the concept had been premiered at the Pauly Pavilion show back in May 1970; in the New Year, he and the Mothers traveled to London's Pinewood Studios, to begin shooting. The visit would then climax with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Feb. 8, 1971.
200 Motels was a sprawling project, lining The Mothers up alongside British filmmaker Tony Palmer and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic had been adopted in the same role at the Pauly Pavilion). For all its ambition, however, it was never to be truly fulfilled.
Volman explained, "If you take the Live At The Fillmore album [recorded and released later in the year], there's a way to combine that with the movie, and you have an idea of what the movie could have been. Unfortunately, we never really finished the motion picture. The whole section with the pop star and the groupies that appears on the live album ["Do You Like My New Car"] was supposed to be in the movie, with the closing of 'Happy Together,' and that doesn't appear. So you have this absolutely astounding gaping hole in the middle that was meant to feature Howard and I riding through the streets, doing that entire routine.
"The problem was, we only had five days to shoot the movie, and when Frank ran out of money, United Artists [the movie's backers] wouldn't come up with any more because it would have meant sitting through a weekend, then coming back to the studio the following Monday or Tuesday, and there was no way they were going to spring for that.
"Once they saw where the movie was going, they were doing anything they could to end shooting. At the point they were coming to Pinewood and seeing what Frank was doing, they were pretty much sorry they had got into it. It was only a $630,000 project, really small-time, but they certainly weren't looking to spend any more."
The group spent 10 days in preproduction for the film, only for Zappa to realize that there was no way he would be able to fit in everything he wanted.
"So he had to reinvent it during the five days of filming," said Volman. But, despite shooting on videotape, with four simultaneously running cameras, Zappa made his way through no more than two-thirds of the total 320-page script. "So, when they went to edit the movie, it had to be reinvented again."
However, time and money strictures were not 200 Motels' only problem. Jeff Simmons quit during rehearsals; he was ultimately replaced by Ringo Starr's chauffeur, Martin Lickert, after attempts to plug the void with Wilfred Bramble, Paul McCartney's grandfather in A Hard Days Night, fell through.
"There's a lot in the back story that makes for fabulous Entertainment Weekly stuff," Volman observed. "But, in the long run, it wouldn't have made it a better movie. It was never going to be a great movie. It was never going to be Almost Famous. But that was never the point."
The orchestra delivered further problems. From the outset, in rehearsal, the musicians were hostile.
"They hated it. They hated us. They hated Frank," Volman recalled. "They got paid, and they just couldn't wait to get out of there.
"Here were 70 or 80 people who've trained to play instruments their whole lives, and Frank is just leading them through... there are parts of 200 Motels that are glorious for the orchestra. If you handpick the sections, you can find these wonderful, wonderful movements. I don't remember all the names because every minute or two Frank renamed everything. But there was the semi-fraudulent ballet, these fabulous movements that were beautifully scored for the orchestra. But, in and out of what we were doing on stage, they had serious problems."
As word of the nature of the upcoming live performance filtered through the British music establishment, so it did also to the management of the Royal Albert Hall. When band and orchestra arrived for their first rehearsal, they found the doors bolted against them.
The Hall's objections dated back a few weeks to when Zappa was asked to submit a libretto of the intended performance. Volman picked up the tale: "They wanted to know the songs, pre-editing us, make sure what was going on. So Frank could have very carefully sent them things that wouldn't upset them, but he went right out and shipped them the words to 'Penis Dimension.' He shipped them the words to 'What Will The Evening Bring.' He purposefully sent them probably the hardest, rudest stuff that was going to be the worst for them to see on paper.
"If you look at 'Penis Dimension' as it is on stage or on record, it's really fun. There's nothing sexual in it at all. But written down, it really looks bad. You don't hear any of the little snickering and jokes that's going on. Frank mailed them that stuff, and the Royal Albert Hall banned the show."
The controversy would explode across the British press to be painted as the latest confrontation between an authoritarian establishment and the forces of art and anarchy. Four years later, it would wind up in court, as Zappa sued (unsuccessfully) for breach of contract.
According to Volman, however, "The ban was probably the best thing that ever happened, because we really didn't have a show. Frank had built it up as if we were going to perform the movie, when really there were only a few things in the movie that we could have done at that time."
The material that the Royal Albert Hall saw "really wasn't that dangerous," insisted Volman. The controversy occurred, however, at the height of a period when the establishment had started taking rock very seriously, as a major threat to the so-called British way of life – not because it was, but because the country was experiencing so many financial, social and cultural problems that there had to be scapegoat.
A bunch of long-haired, smelly rockers running around preaching sex and drugs and brain-damaging cacophony was as good a monstrosity to blame as any, and the courts were already choked with home-grown hippie dissidents and subversives, lining up to be made an example of. The arrival into this ferment of a bunch of Americans, apparently hell-bent on creating even more problems, simply could not be countenanced, as Volman acknowledged.
"It was a really bad time for England, and here was a bunch of Americans making this project at Pinewood – the pride of the British film industry. We had Tony Palmer involved, the pride of British filmmaking. We had the London Philharmonic, the cream of British orchestras. We were using the best of Britain, and all people could see was Frank pissing on them.
"They didn't see the collaboration; they saw the RPO guys waving their batons with crocodiles running through the orchestra pit, while [The Who's] Keith Moon was leaping around in a nun's outfit and someone else was singing about the size of your dick. It was just lunacy, but what it became was a slap at the English way of life. And, of course, when we went to the concert hall and they locked us out, it was such a big deal and all it really did was build publicity towards the release of the movie."
With the errant Simmons replaced by one of Flo & Eddie's own Turtles bandmates, Jim Pons; early Mother Don Preston filling the departing George Duke's shoes; and another keyboard player, Bob Harris, briefly on board, the band embarked upon another round of touring, culminating in June with the New York concert recorded for the Live At The Fillmore East album.
Released in a plain, white sleeve purposefully designed to resemble a bootleg (a subject guaranteed to constantly enrage Zappa), the set stands today as one of the great live albums of all time, capturing the full mayhem of a period Mothers show, a concept piece (dated though its groupie obsessions sound today) that nevertheless captures the boiling preoccupations of the age.
"The Mud Shark," documenting the piscatorial interests of a young lady whom Vanilla Fudge encountered while staying at a Seattle hotel, has of course ascended into legend. But the true highlight is Flo & Eddie's raunchy showcase, "Do You Like My New Car," as the band and a pair of female fans ("We are not groupies, and we told Robert Plant that.") grapple with the protocol of the evening's entertainments.
The discussion ends only when the band... Flo & Eddie, of course... agree to perform "their big hit record" – cue the riotous rendition of "Happy Together" with which The Mothers now ended their live performance.
The Fillmore show also saw The Mothers joined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono for a jam that would be released separately, at the tail end of Lennon's own next LP, Sometime In New York City. A driving take on the R&B shouter "Well (Please Don't Go)," introduced by Lennon as "a song I used to sing... at The Cavern," is followed by an improvisational sequence that was so completely remixed for inclusion on Sometime In New York City that plans for further Lennon/Zappa collaborations were promptly abandoned, as the latter listened in horror to Lennon and Ono's handiwork.
Volman recalled, "We spent about four days with John, putting all the stuff together for that one night at the Fillmore. John then remixed everything, which caused a lot of problems with the two of them. When the thing came out on John's album, Frank was very upset. John and his compadres had gone in and redone the tracks... they hadn't re-recorded them, but they took out the essence of those songs, vocal parts that were imperative to the music and the movements."
The Lennons even co-opted one of Zappa's own songs – "King Kong" was retitled "Jam Rag" (a British euphemism for tampon) and credited to the Lennons. Volman continued, "John wanted the album to be centered around John and Yoko and not The Mothers Of Invention, and it caused a real riff between John and Frank."
Zappa eventually restored the original mixes on the 1992 Playground Psychotics collection.
Two months after the Fillmore show, at an Aug. 7 UCLA show in Los Angeles, another gig was recorded for future release. Just Another Band From LA would appear a year later, with one side of the vinyl devoted to the outline of another projected movie project, "Billy The Mountain." That never got off the ground, but the track itself became one of the group's most popular numbers, as Volman recounted.
"If you listen to the different versions that I know that are out there, every one's a different show, with different jokes. Frank used to give Howard and I the job of going into every town we went to and researching things like the hip places to go and what the kids would laugh at. If we played a university, it'd be our responsibility to find out the people to use in the show to make fun of, and that was Frank's way of keeping the show alive.
"Every time we played it, 'Billy' had little idiosyncrasies about the town, all the psychedelic dungeons, the places you'd go to eat, the hip pseudo-intellectual spots where pot was smoked, the professors who were in trouble because they messed around with girls in class. Whatever it was, we'd use these things, and it was a very clever way of taking the show to the next level.
"It made the show very three-dimensional, because it wasn't just us performing, we were using places that the audience would recognize in the show, to show [how] important they were as well. It brought you into the show."
Again, not everybody appreciated the performance. Kaylan recalled a Florida show where the local law simply couldn't believe, as he put it, "that we would end our show with a least 60 separate passes of 'a mountain is something that you don't want to fuck with... you don't want to fuck with... don't fuck around....'
"Those were the ending lyrics to 'Billy The Mountain,' and we ended it with a kind of an in-your-face thing, left the stage and [the police] pulled us right off. In fact, they wound up taking Mark and I to jail – not Frank, because we were the ones who were singing those lyrics. As far as they were concerned, Frank had nothing to do with it.
"So, we sat in the can until Herb Cohen eventually arranged to have us released. We kept telling them, 'These are performance pieces. We did not invent these words. We're just singers.' And when it was finally known to them that we were not the authors of the work but merely interpreting, they let us go. But that was the deal. Frank didn't want to be that guy saying all that rudeness – and I can quite understand it!"
Kaylan continued, "traditional singers in our sense were not really needed by The Mothers. It was the exact antithesis of what Frank was trying to do. To use us in an anti-pop sensibility was, I think, very perceptive of the man. Anybody would have thrown us into our usual roles and had us sing background on songs like 'Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink' or whatever, ad nauseum. But, I think that by having us say these incredibly chauvinistic lines, it softened it a bit and it also took the pressure off Frank. So he wasn't the guy verbalizing these opinions, we were."
Such an interpretation seems obvious with hindsight. At the time, however, The Mothers' metamorphosis into this mad revue of wild, experimental humor, wacky pop and filthy insanity did not pass without comment among Zappa's own supporters, at home and abroad.
"It really wasn't The Mothers any more," Volman acknowledged. "The show built up and up to 'Happy Together' and, I think, at some point his comrades-in-arms who he listened to came to him and said, 'You know, you're losing your base. You're losing your thing here.' But I really don't think he paid much attention until he started noticing it for himself and realized he needed to re-evaluate."
That moment was approaching fast, but, perhaps in keeping with the anarchic nature of the group, nobody could possibly have imagined the cataclysmic catalyst that would bring about the lineup's downfall.
The 200 Motels movie and soundtrack album arrived in October, with the film promptly entering Variety's Top 50. Having toured the U.S. exhaustively through summer and fall, The Mothers then flew to Europe in November. It was their final act.
Gigs in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and then Holland were followed, on Dec. 4, by The Mothers' first-ever Swiss concert, at the Montreaux Casino. During the show – as Deep Purple would relate, "some stupid – with a flare gun burned the place to the ground." $50,000 worth of The Mothers' own gear went up in smoke.
Stunned, Zappa wanted to return to the U.S. immediately and cancel the rest of the tour. The remainder of the band, however, disagreed, and on Dec. 10 – three canceled concerts later – The Mothers were back in action at London's Rainbow Theater.
But Zappa's presentiments were not misguided. As the show reached its conclusion, one of the audience members, the jealous boyfriend of a besotted fan, leaped on stage and shoved Zappa 12 feet into the orchestra pit, knocking him unconscious and causing injuries including a broken leg and ankle, a crushed larynx, a fractured skull and spinal damage. He would be in a wheelchair for the next nine months, but the consequences of the attack would remain with him far longer.
This time, there was no alternative but to can the remainder of the tour; also dumped were plans to begin shooting the Billy The Mountain movie, together with a spoken-word album developed by Zappa, Volman and Kaylan while they toured, enlarging even further on the more anarchic elements of the live show. Elements were included in the Playground Psychotics collection, but the entire album remains unheard.
For some months, the band simply sat around, awaiting Zappa's recovery, uncertain whether he would ever return to action.
On one memorable occasion they were offered the chance to go back out on the road without Zappa but turned it down. Instead, the core lineup of Preston, Dunbar, and Pons killed time accompanying Flo & Eddie on their self-titled solo debut album and tour, later in the year.
There was a flicker of hope when Zappa released the year-old live album Just Another Band From LA, but only a flicker.
"The group that we were in was now done," Volman reflected. "Emotionally, spiritually and morally, it had now run its course, and Frank wasn't going to go backwards. He could only go forwards." Although Dunbar, Preston, Duke, and Simmons would all be involved in Zappa's next project, "he brought in a whole different energy, and his next album, Waka Jawaka, became a wholly instrumental thing, a distinct 180 degrees from where we were. There was nothing funny about it. There was no comedy, there was no satire, there was no tongue-in-cheek pop and there was no 'Happy Together.' There was nothing."
Volman is convinced, he said, "That European tour set Frank back emotionally a lot. He took a lot of it on himself spiritually. He suddenly looked at what we were doing on stage – things like 'The Fat Floating Sofa,' which was God making the porno film with the nun and the dogs... there was some pretty ludicrous but morally low material there. Spiritually it was the lowest he'd ever sunk. And I honestly think the effect of the fire and the incident at the Rainbow made him start to re-evaluate spiritually what he was doing – the thought that there may have been some sort of karmic payback going on, a slap in the face: 'Take that.' Back to back, these two concerts wiped him out for almost a year."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net