The Great Zappa Put-on

By Derek Roltwood

Record Mirror, October 5, 1968


THE thing about Frank Zappa is you don't know where you stand with him. You meet him. You introduce yourself. He says "hello".

That word!

"Hello". Is he putting you on? What does it mean? It must have some deep significance. Damn it all, someone like Zappa just can't say "hello" as if he was just an ordinary person – perhaps he's being satirical.

"I just have to go on stage," says Frank Zappa, "and say 'good evening, ladies and gentlemen'. And the audience nudge one another and say 'Did you hear that? I don't know how he gets away with it. Man, he's really significant'."

Now here's the problem. Is Zappa putting you on when he says he's not putting you on? Take it from one who knows (yes friends, I too have been a victim of Zappa's satirical and biting wit – or was he putting me on? Or am I putting you on?) – be crafty. Play it cool, baby.


When I went to see him for the first time I disguised myself in an ankle-length trench coat and a trilby hat with a Press card in the ribbon. But he sussed me out immediately. He knew I was a reporter.

"It was your notebook and pencil that gave you away," he said. "The trouble is when people meet me for the first time they always erect some kind of barrier – they have a defence mechanism which immediately comes into operation when they talk to me. People never trust one another anyway – but it's even worse with me because they think I'm always putting them on.

"When people come to see us at one of our concerts, they don't come to listen to our music – they come to see us in the hopes that we might do something obscene and nasty on stage. Even the most ordinary things we do are full of significance as far as the audience is concerned. If my shoe flies off my foot halfway through the act people think it's a satirical comment. A good example of this is when we did our last performance in England at the Royal Albert Hall – about halfway through the show a guy jumped up on stage with a trumpet and decided to join in with us. He wasn't very good – he couldn't play the trumpet – but we made music.

''That was when we used the big organ at the Albert Hall to play 'Louie Louie'. In fact, the whole sequence with the trumpeter was very entertaining – but I'd never met him before in my life, though everybody was under the impression that the whole thing was rehearsed and that it was a biting social comment or something. But It was nothing of the sort – it was completely impromptu. Fortunately I happened to have a small tape-recorder with me, and I was taping the concert myself – so the trumpet sequence was recorded. and in fact we're using it as a track on our next album.

"But that incident is mild compared to some of the things that happen. In fact something happens at every concert we give – and the reaction is always the same. People think it's all part of the act. We gave a concert in Chicago once, and while we were playing a fire broke out backstage. There were flames and smoke everywhere, and I made some witty adlib comment like 'Man, there's a fire backstage' – it got a bit out of control in the end and we had to stop the performance. But the audience loved it and thought it was all part of our act. There are probably still people wandering around Chicago saying 'Man, that Frank Zappa is really something – he even set the whole theatre on fire just to make a biting satirical comment about Jimi Hendrix'."


"I would say that out of all the people who buy our records and come to our concerts, at least 50 per cent don't understand what the music is all about and don't really want to – they just take an interest because we're a fashionable thing. That's why our records sold is the first place – there's one guy in a neighbourhood, for example, who's really ahead. He has the status of 'trendsetter'. So he buys a Mothers' album – and he talks about it. Then everybody else buys the album just to keep up with him. They don't really appreciate it, they just want to be 'in'.

"I honestly believe that the reason our first album, 'Freak Out'. sold and established a name for us. was because of the packaging. It was a double album, and we spent a lot of time and effort in putting it in an attractive sleeve. In America you can never hear an album before you buy it – they're all sealed up. So even the trendsetters bought the thing because of the sleeve design rather than the music – from there on it sold by word of mouth. And it's on the strength of that that all the rest of our albums have sold – not really on their individual merits, or even their musical merits. And when all these people come to our concerts it's not to hear our music or to see what we're seriously trying to do – it's because they've heard that we defecate on stage or something. And they want to see if it's true."

The interesting thing about that whole story is it might be a big put-on.

Somehow I don't think it is.