The Mothers Of Invention

By Fred Vassi

Escapade, November, 1967

Four years ago, advertising executive Frank Zappa had an idea. Two years went into planning, and two more into working out the fundamentals and shaking down the personnel until the proper group was formed. He's now at the take-off stage, and the hippest, most cynical, most talented music group in the United States is poised to begin raking in the dough. Frank Zappa will soon be a very wealthy man. And it's all going according to schedule.

He calls his group "The Mothers of Invention," and the lineup looks like this : Frank Zappa, composer/ arranger / conductor/ guitar; Ray Collins, lungs / ingenuity; Bunk Gardner, piccolo/ flute/ clarinet/ bass clarinet/ bassoon/ soprano sax/ alto sax/ tenor sax; Jim Black, percussion/ bass trumpet/ vocals & rain dance; Don Preston, piano/ electric organ/ organ/ electric clavichord/ bass clarinet/auxiliary percussion/ nuclear effects; Ray Estrada, electric bass/ arcane gestures; Billy Mundi, percussion/vocals/high-pitched noises. And a soulful little girl with tattered jeans who submits to being smeared with rotten oranges, being almost raped, and goosed into singing odd snatches of unintelligible lyrics; she goes by the name of Uncle Meat.

It's difficult to describe their act. It lasts a little over an hour, and the whole time is considered a single piece of music. Frank, a very sophisticated musician, begins with a deadpan satire on teen-station disc jockeys. "We are going to lead off," he intones, "with a piece of shit. But we'll go slow, so you can get used to us.

"From that point on, almost anything can happen. One night the theatre manager brought a bagful of fruit and vegetables and dumped it in front of the group. There followed a fifteen minute garden rumble, with lettuce getting thrown into the audience, and bananas being squeezed and stomped, and Uncle Meat being forced to swallow chewed-up apples. Another time a lobster was brought on stage and crushed to death. And e 70 a singular performance featured Frank Zappa's inviting three slightly drunk Marines to come up on stage and sing an old rock'n'roll piece, and then having them rip a doll to shreds by throwing it at their feet and yelling "That's a gook baby. Go to it!"

Like happenings are interspersed with vague wanderings around stage, long silences, high-pitched whines made by bringing the mikes up close to the eight-foot speakers, and ultimately . . . the music.

The music that the Mothers make is something that has to be heard four or five times before it begins to happen inside your head. It's free-form, but segmented, so that differently rehearsed portions can be cut in at a signal. This allows for freedom of expression, but forces the group to maintain an overall musical structure. It's loud; your ears hurt at the end of the show. It's complex; for the first few listenings it's difficult to relate to it. It's moving; for days afterwards, everything else you hear sounds flaccid and weak.

Zappa has long explanations about his music which constantly bring John Cage's name into the discussion. But that is not important in terms of listening. What is important to understand is that the entire performance feeds into, grows out of, and is music. Doubts about this are dispersed watching Zappa bring about difficult musical changes with abrupt hand motions. There is an instantaneous exchange of varieties of chaos.

The "message" of the group is fairly simple. "American culture is based on violence," says Zappa. "So we give the people what they want. We do the most outrageous things on stage; we are vulgar, vile, ugly, strong, loud, and above all . . . violent. And, of course, this is what they want. The Mothers of Invention is no different from television. We're just more direct."

The Mothers is an experience that shouldn't be missed. If you can't get to see them, their two albums, "Freak Out!" and "Absolutely Free" on Verve Records are more than worth the money.

The Mothers as a phenomenon is something else.

The concept of marketing in America has reached levels of sophistication that even many business executives don't understand; the general public is absolutely nowhere in terms of knowing how it is being dissected, seduced, and manipulated.

And The Mothers epitomizes this mentality. All in a good cause. The music they play is good; the entertainment they provide is good; the manner in which they satirize America's predilection for violence is good. What seems slightly terrible is the cool and calculated way all this was brought about. And this negative reaction betrays, possibly, the last vestige of the liberal mentality.

Because in this country nobody does anything without there's a buck in it somehow. And even the noblest of the so-called folk-singers pile up six-figure bank accounts. Money is America and America is money. So why be shy? Why put on airs and pretend that there are other motivations? (Oh, there are other reasons; no act is without complexity. But it's naive to mistake the garnish for the meat.) What The Mothers has done is to rationalize what exists. Sure, they have a good time, and sure, they build good relationships with their audiences, and sure they are fine musicians. But money is the motivation. So why not go after money with all the coolness and calculation that modern marketing methods can devise?

This isn't being cynical, this is being realistic.

Item: The Mothers has formed its own advertising agency, so Zappa is now in the unique position of being paid to do his own publicity.

Item: The Mothers has formed its own record company, and for starters has signed on Ravi Shankar.

So, while they decry the lousy aspects of American culture, and while they sing and antic their way into the hearts of a million followers, they reveal that underneath it all they are just red-blooded American boys acting in the finest traditions of their country-making a bundle.

And, since there are no other worthwhile values around, there are no grounds on which to knock them. It's one of the things that goes along with living in a decadent age.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)