Speaking Of Mothers, Meet Frank

By Valerie Wilmer

Music Maker, October, 1967

Defecating on the audience is a necessity in America today, declares Frank Zappa, weirdly bearded leader of the notorious Mothers of Invention. He was, of course, speaking figuratively, although taking some of the Mothers' on stage behaviour into account, you might well find yourself considering that statement literally! "The idea is shock theory." he went on to explain. "Generally the people are so apathetic about any thing and everything that just about the most shocking thing you can do is to insult them. They're used to groups getting up and pandering to their lowest common denominator, so we do that too. We take the crappiest songs we know – things like 'Hound Dog' and 'Blue Suede Shoes' – and give 'em what they want."

      As a consequence, the most requested routine in their outrageous repertoire comes when Zappa and the boys take through their paces 'My Boyfriend's Back', "Hanky Panky" and a half dozen other never-to-be-forgotten items from the nadir of the last decade's pop. "Soft and sh---  soft and sh---,whispers Zappa into the mike, sobbing gently as he falls down on to one knee. "Give it to 'em soft and sh---  because Young America wants it that way and Young America doesn't know any better."

      The Mothers – they were forced to add the latter part of their sobriquet by an unsympathetic recording company who objected to their abbreviated flaunting of America's favourite obscenity – have been appearing six nights a week at Greenwich Village's Garrick Theater since Easter. Their audience, mostly local Villagers, are in the main hip to the combo's put-ons, though there are the occasional masochists who take all the punishment they can stand and then demand their money back. This amuses the Mothers. "We're interested in making people think a little bit, " said their leader. "Music is always supposed to be a vehicle for conveying emotions and I consider that a lot of the things we play can do this."

      During the Mothers' stay at the Garrick they have worked out a routine which is alternately hilarious and musically interesting yet at the same time full of spontaneity. Their lightshow would make their British imitators hang their heads in shame, while their harmonic experiments make Albert Ayler sound like a babe in arms. "We do what we want to do when we want to do it," said Zappa, himself an excellent lead guitarist by anyone's standards. "We don't pretend too much and some of the things we play involve harmonic combinations other than the average rock'n'roll audience is accustomed to. Then sometimes musicians appreciate us while the audience can't. But a lot of musicians resent us for sh------  all over the audience. Things they say about us in interviews are not always what they'll say on the street!"

      Nevertheless the Mothers have had their fair share of admirers and for a 'non-name' group have achieved fantastic record sales in America merely through clever packaging and a 'two for the price of one' deal on their first double album. Zappa, a former advertising executive who is in the process of forming his own recording company, is responsible for all the Mothers' promotion, both graphic and copywriting. His theory for the combo's success among the underground is that in every town there lies "a fringe group of weirdos".

      "All over the world I'm sure there is this one person who has the capability of influencing the whole town because he's strange and though people can't under· stand him. they think that he may have something that they don't have. We sold albums by appealing to this type of person. We made up the record so that just from looking at the cover these people would know where it was at."

      The Boss Mother, as long, thin Frank is known, first became interested in music at the age of 13 through collecting R & B records by such giants as Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Howling Wolf. He also has an interest in and expert knowledge of the work of such straight composers as Edgar Varese. He has written two film scores and a ballet which MGM will be releasing later in the year and is basically more of a straight music man than a rock-n-roller. " I don't think that any of the songs I've written have been properly recorded. That's because it will take a while before we can convince the record company of what we can really do. They signed us up as an R & B group and after the first session the producer called New York and said 'I don't know what we've got here!' They were completely unprepared for us and our projects were themselves more complicated to execute than we ourselves had imagined."

      When the Mothers hit England, the lineup will be Don Preston and Ian Underwood, pianos; Jim Black, trumpet and tymps, Bunk Gardner, woodwinds; Roy Estrada, bass; Billy Mundi, drums and the one and only Boss Mother on lead guitar. "We make a lot more money than people would like to admit from the way we look!" laughed Frank who is possibly the weirdest looking rock n roller extant. He is also one of the gentlest and most intelligent people around the New York scene, a man whose personality is in striking contrast to his appearance. He had an interesting theory to advance about his shaggy, shoulder length hair which he has been growing for the past four years. "I grew it because I just wanted to see what would happen," he explained with his customary curiosity. "A lot of problems arose from this but I soon found out that long hair is more than just symbolic of weirdness. It's actually brainends and I've found out that your degree of perception is extended by the length of your hair. I once read a medical report that stated that the reason people have pubic hair is for more sensuous communication, and I think that long hair increases your empathy.

      "I experiment on myself all the time with my reactions to emotional stimuli of all types and most of the time I've found my theories to be correct. Certain things in my makeup have been refined since I started guinea pigging myself."

      We were speaking backstage at the Garrick and it was time for Zappa to pick up his Gibson and go. He returned to his original point, the apathy of the American audience. "They try to pretend that nothing can surprise them, you know, but if we go up there and play it safe, musically speaking, we get relatively little applause. One interesting point about the Mothers' success is the fact that our records have had very little airplay," Frank pointed out in conclusion. "People have been really surprised that things can sell so well by word of mouth which only shows the difference between what the industry thinks the people want and what they actually do want. And I'm not at all surprised because I have nothing but faith in our project."

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