Tragedy Comes To Frank Zappa: ‘They Called Us Entertainment’

By Sue C. Clark

Rolling Stone, April 27, 1968

Everybody who interviews me doesn’t know a fucking thing about what we do. They always come in and say ‘Hi! Who are you?’

Speaking his feelings in no uncertain terms was Frank Zappa, the extremely talented, witty and perceptive producer, musical director and guitarist of The Mothers of Invention. It seems that not only are broadcasters “deaf” to the Mothers’ music, but they don’t want the public to hear it either, and have managed to keep The Mothers records off the airwaves as much as possible, The Mothers, however, were invited to play at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science (NARAS) dinner in New York.[1] The resultant rumors in New York music industry circles cried for a little clarification.

The first rumor concerned The Mothers’ playing “psychede1ic” music, which Frank introduced with “All year long you people manufactured this crap, and one night a year you’ve got to listen to it!” He continued with “your whole affair is nothing more than a lot of pompous hokum, and we’re going to approach you on your own level.” In further describing the “psychedelic music” Frank added, “so we played some of the ugliest shit we could do . . . they expected that we play ugly shit . . . I have the program which says ‘Music By Woody Herman; Entertainment by The Mothers of Invention.’ They figured it was part of the ‘entertainment.’ They booed us after we were finished.”

Even Frank doesn’t know how The Mothers were selected to play NARAS. “I guess everybody thought it would be a good gag. A lot of people were really offended that we were there. There were some people that really liked it. I thought we played very well. I’ll tell you a couple of receptive people: there’s John McClure, who is head of Classical A & R for Columbia Masterworks, one of the last people in the world I would expect to like what we do, came up – you see we played twice: we played during the show and we played while people were putting their coats on; you know, the relief band. Woody Herman already had packed up, collected his bread and split. We’re still honking away – and he said, ‘When you get tired of that dip shit label you’re on, why don’t you come and make a deal with Columbia Masterworks.’ I though that was kind of nice of him.”

“And then Jerry Wexler comes creeping out of the woodwork and he says, ‘My son’s in college and he has all of your records.’ I said, ‘Gee, I hope it hasn’t affected his work!’ He was really nice. He really liked it.”

In further discussing the “entertainment” concept, Frank observed, “I think it’s sort of tragic when you turn out to be the ‘entertainment’ when you happen to be one of the best musical organizations operating, and wind up being used as the ‘entertainment.’ You know if people really perceived the music we play properly, it might ‘entertain’ them, but they’re more interested in the superficial aspects of of what we do, such as our packaging, and so on and so forth. If that entertains yah – you’re fucked!”

The Mothers are currently spending many hours recording the soundtrack for the film “technicolor extravaganza” Uncle Meat – “The Mothers’ Movie, a surrealistic documentary on the group,” as Frank described it. “We’re trying to get it done before The Mothers move back to California in May, to Los Angeles.”

When asked about the reason for the move, Frank began with, “Because we don’t like San Francisco. No, we’re moving because we don’t like New York. I don‘t like New York, which is probably the basis for it. It makes me sick to stumble over people dying in the street. It’s a drag. I don’t like it. I don’t like the weather, and so on and so forth and so on and so forth.”

All instruments played and sounds made on the soundtrack are done by The Mothers themselves. There’s one sound that appears to be a trumpet, but is “really a clarinet. There’s this box that Gibson makes. 210 tracks have been made and are being mixed on a 12-track machine.[2]

Frank is very interested in “upgrading American musical tastes. Most Americans weren’t trained to hear music as music. Kids used to learn about social conduct from the records they heard. It was a complete handbook. Today, if you buy the right batch of albums, you may become the enlightened teenager.” He feels, though, that “people are more intelligent than record companies imagine them to be.”

Frank refers to The album Lumpy Gravy as “the supressed record” which is used as a political football. Capitol signed him to produce an LP with an orchestra, without the Mothers. After it was completed, although Frank is not technically signed to MGM (only as a member of The Mothers), MGM threatened to sue, and in the end bought the LP from Capitol. However, MGM has not put it out.

1. This dinner happened in Hilton Hotel, New York, February 29, 1968 (Frank Zappa Gig List)

2. C.Ulrich: "The '210' figure seems implausible. Maybe he said '21' – though in fact there are 28 tracks on the Uncle Meat LP."

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