Up against the wall, Mothers

By Billy Altman & Woody Graber

The Spectrum, October 28, 1970

Two years ago the Mothers of Invention played in Clark Gym during Spring weekend. Anyone who was there could have told you how unbelievably brilliant they were that May evening. The band was at its highest point musically, and Frank and the crew put on the most forceful example of expert musicianship we'd ever seen. Bu the crowd was so rude and unruly that it seemed that they had played for nothing. After an hour of "King Kong," which left us and a precious few others flat on our faces in awe, the folks still wanted "Louie Louie.'' When they finally finished their three-hour show, the audience started a vicious chant of "More, More" that angered Zappa so that he said: "This sounds like the audience we played to in Germany. And they thought it couldn't happen here."

The State University of Buffalo concert was not unique, however. Everywhere the Mothers performed they were harassed, misunderstood and threatened. It finally reached the point where none of them could stand it any longer, so they dissolved their musical unity. The sad thing is that they were the most innovative group in America, bridging the gap between rock and jazz the right way (Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago being the most notable wrong ways).

Old versus new

Friday night the "new" mothers came Buffalo. It's really hard to express how unbelievably ashamed we felt watching the concert. To anyone familiar with the Mothers' music it was a disastrous disappointment. The Mothers did not exist in Frank Zappa's head. They were people like Ray Collins, Roy Estrada, Jimmy Carl Black, and Bunk Gardner. They were Don Preston strapping on his plastic boobs and Motorhead blowing through a gas mask. They were cabbages being thrown all over the stage, the Laurel Canyon Dance Troupe, Pachucos, cheeseburgers and Suzie Creamcheese. They were a living history of America gone haywire. But Zappa is not Roger McGuinn. He cannot turn anyone into a Mother. Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (formerly Kaplan) were absolutely obnoxious in their attempts to be "freaky." Their little acts were contrived and utterly pretentious. Their vocals sounded like a Turtle song at the wrong speed. And even with Zappa on the same stage as them, they were still Turtles.

Musical deficiencies

Instrumentally, the music suffered greatly. Jeff Simmons, Doctor John's old bass player, was just awful. When he didn't feel like playing, he'd turn his volume up and let the feedback carry him through. Intensive bass playing has always been a much needed, if not much noted, part of the Mothers' music, and Roy Estrada was vastly underrated in his playing. Simmon's playing left sizeable gaps that couldn't be filled by the rest of the group. The rest of the group tried, but somehow it just didn't work. Aynsley Dunbar, one of John Mayall's old drummers, was fantastic, but it was often left to him to carry the songs through, something a drummer shouldn't have to do. Ron Duke, on organ, was adequate, but mostly unheard. Ian Underwood, the only holdover from the old Mothers, was allowed only one sax solo. The rest of the time, he was stuck on piano trying to enhance the weak foundation the band was working from. And Frank himself, hampered by a cold, seemed quite bored with the whole affair. He woke up for a few jibes at the audience and some tasteful guitar work every 15 minutes.

There were some bright spots, though. Zappa put some words to "Holiday in Berlin" and the piece worked remarkably well. A new song, "Easy Meat," featuring Underwood on rhythm guitar, was also good. Underwood's Bach interludes during intermission were a delightful reminder of his classical schooling. And the encore, with the groupie satire and a chorus of "Happy Together" brought a smile even to Zappa's yawning face.

Only in it for the money?

The crowd, ot course, drank it all in. After years of booing the Mothers, they've finally gotten what they wanted – an accessible, amusing band that they can laugh at and not worry about. But the Mothers weren't formed to amuse people. They were out to destroy our old conceptions about rock and roll. They called us plastic, taunted us about our phony existences and generally helped us to become better individuals. They experimented and altered the nature of popular music. We, in turn, destroyed them with our ignorance. Zappa's new group has succumbed to the will of the people. The one man whom we thought would never sell out has. This tour has been conceived to make money for Zappa's many creative ventures. As such, we guess we can excuse the show Friday night. But an artist should always go forward and, at least, it appears at this point, that Frank has regressed. We sincerely hope he proves us wrong.