Listen With Mothers

By Chris Welch

Melody Maker, July 11, 1970

What made me come here? – A large sum of money.

Frank Zappa has emerged as one of the most interesting, lucid, energetic, entertaining and creative figures in contemporary music. He has frequently complained of being misunderstood, not to mention misquoted.

But Frank has not always kept to an easily definable, straight and narrow path. His image and output, opinions and actions often seem at variance. There is plenty of room for confusion. But even that is all part of the game of rock.

“Lots of people see Frank as an ogre,” says one of his new Mothers, ex-Turtle Mark Volman.

And the man who could pass for a cross between a Sicilian bandit and one of the Marx Brothers is always available for the scaring season. In truth, he is one of the few to command respect in rock on many levels, not the least being his now recognized talent as a guitarist.

In the past Frank has been alternately hailed and vilified as a representative of the underground, an enemy of the underground, a serious composer, a freak, a materialistic cynic and a voice of reason and honesty.

Mr. Zappa strikes me as an enthusiast with a schoolboyish delight in appearing outrageous, off-selling a massive streak of normality.

He has a tremendous command of musical technique and has contributed much advanced writing comparable to “serious” contemporary music. Ever questing and searching, there have been successful projects and only a few duds in the last few years.

Even the “duds” – whether a specific concert or album, or film – are only matters of opinion. Whatever Frank presents us it is found to be stimulating and provocative.

And the most important factor in the Zappa make-up is that he cares. He places huge importance on his fellow musicians and greatly admires men like Ian Underwood, Aynsley Dunbar, and all who have become Mothers Of Invention or Hot Rats.

He can be hurt by criticism, or petulant under attack. He seems surprised when students or journalists begin to assail his views on politics, unrest and extra-musical matters in general.

Armed with a sharp tongue which can deliver a deft gulp or bizarre story, he has no malice. When his face screws into an evil smile, his eyes glare like underwater headlights, his mustache withdraws like a swing-wing jet, and he laughs like a dream. The world tends to laugh with him.

His aim would appear to be seek and create – and not search and destroy. As he told angry London students once – he wants to be comfortable and doesn’t find that shameful. He applies logic and expects to find it in others. And as a logician, nothing is more funny to him than the illogical -- or bizarre.

Last year the Mothers Of Invention broke up – much to the disappointment of his many British fans. Hot Rats appeared as their replacement and produced a hot selling album. “Straighter” than most, it was nevertheless greatly satisfying as an example of heavily instrumental modern rock.

Then the Mothers reformed with Aynsley Dunbar on the drum chair and reappeared at Bath Festival. During their brief visit – Frank and Aynsley did some recording at London’s Trident studios.

Said Frank about the reformed Mothers: “It’s a completely different group. If I ever stayed still – I’d be a dead man. Aynsley and I cut about eight tracks at Trident the other night. We just started to play and we’ll finish of the tracks in the States. ‘Rats’ wasn’t too successful in the States, and the bulk of our sales are in Europe for some peculiar reason. I think the public here are ahead of the States.”

Was Frank upset when he had to break up the original Mothers?

“Sure I felt depressed. I quit work for a while. It was an insane situation. There were no personal problems at first, but when the group separated, the guys come back to me and asked me what I was going to do about it, like I was going to look after them.”

Would the emphasis of the new Mothers be on instrumentals – a la Hot Rats?

“No, on the contrary, we have some great ‘live’ in-person four part harmonies. I won’t say we sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash though.

“Before we came to Bath, we did a TV show in Amsterdam and the press were good to us, except one guy who was very excited. He thought we were the Byrds and complained that we played all the numbers in one rhythm. I like ¾ time. There’s no reason to function only in 4/4 – I don’t hear things that way.

“But generally there is more acceptance for our music now because the style has changed and we’re doing vocals which are more acceptable.”

Can you dance to it?

“If you’re desperate. This band is only three and a half weeks old. We’ll probably keep together. It’s such a different band, even if we played the last repertoire, people wouldn’t recognize it.

“There will be a new Mothers album out soon called ‘Weasels Rip My Flesh’.”

Frank displayed the proposed album cover depicting a man enjoying a shave with a weasel, appearing to lose as much flesh as hair from his cheek.

“The guy is wearing a 1950 suit and hair cut and shaving with a weasel,” explained Frank carefully. “I like the cover, but nobody else does.”

He looks pleased with himself, I observed.

“That’s why he’s saying RZZZZZ.”

Looking more closely, it become apparent that a speech balloon featured the said curious expression – RZZZZZ. “It’s getting him hot,” said Zappa.

Whatever happened to Captain Beefheart, who sang one track on the Hot Rats album?

“Captain Beefheart get married and his personality changed. He’s still singing, but he hasn’t called to see me. I guess he doesn’t like me anymore.”

And what happened to Wild Man Fischer – whom Frank put on record, a frightening double album which bared his innermost soul?

“Wild Man Fischer became too obnoxious. He never had any doubts that he had become a star. There are still some things I’d like to do with him, but in general I don’t want to do too much record production for other singers now.

“Fischer took me three months to get together and the project didn’t make money. That wasn’t the point – it was just something I felt had to ne done. But I’m still trying to finish the Uncle Meat movie. When I showed the backer some of what I’d cut – he withdrew his backing straight away.”

Frank shrugged this off as one of the great problems that face any creative artist.

“Nothing is permanent – this group was put together for a tour. The way I work – it will be for a collection of engagements. Nobody want to be committed to a lifetime of being a Mother Of Invention.

How serious was the situation now in America?

“Not too serious – if you like that repression. America is a great place for repression. If you put a lot of them in Germany, they would be happy. People there like to join sides and be against somebody else. We’ve got to get rid of this whole concept of winning and revolutions before we can get some improvements. If all we ever got was free drugs and rock and roll on the streets, that wouldn’t be any better. I think ‘sides’ are a load of crap. You can’t just talk about good guys and bad guys all the time.

“I’m not in favor of violent protest. All we’ll get is the soldiers coming back from the Vietnam – the black soldiers going back to the ghettoes and using their violence, the white rednecks will go out stomping on the hippies.”

Frank pulled on his soft blue cap and began to take on the appearance of a French painter, as well as a Sicilian bandit and a Marx brother.

One last question – why did he choose Bath particularly for his British come back?

“A large sum of money,” he said slowly and with great conviction.