Mother’s Union

By Richard Williams & Michael Watts

Melody Maker, December 5, 1970

MM’s Richard Williams and Michael Watts meet Frank Zappa and the Mothers

TELL ME, Mr. Zappa, what do you think of the critical reaction to your work over the past five years? Well, he said, writers write for two reasons: either they like writing or they need the money. “They make assumptions about my music which are far from reality.”

Don’t you think, I postulated, that it might be rewarding for critics and audience alike if you made more attempt to explain, in musical terms, what goes on in your albums? “Listen,” came the reply, “I tried it on our first album and look what happened.”

How do you mean? “On the sleeve, I put a list of names of people who I felt had been important to me, who may have influenced my musical evolution … Stravinsky, Varèse, and so on. What happened was that for the next five years those names kept cropping up in ‘analyses’ of my albums – but they were always applied wrongly, so that a critic would state that a certain passage was obviously influenced by Varèse, when that was completely untrue. So I don’t see the point of it more.”

In England for his concerts at the London Coliseum and in Liverpool [1], Zappa was in the midst of a day of conveyor-belt interviews, and his eloquence seemed slightly dimmed. To some ears, the music of his current band seems dimmed too when one remembers the vivid explorations of the old, disbanded Mothers of Invention.

“Chunga’s Revenge” his new album, might be a manifestation of this, and I asked whether he was consciously going backwards.

“This band is purposely retarded – but the manner in which it’s retarded is still creative. You can actually get off on this band – that is an average person can. Weirdos get off on the old band.

“The format of this band may be conventional, but the material is as complex as the earlier Mothers. The rhythm is always strong but then the weakest thing about the old band was always the rhythm section.

“The lyrics certainly exceeded the old Mothers and I’ve got the opportunity to get them across better because of the two singers. They penetrate the sound mass.  When there was just me singing, the baritone voice was in the same range as the guitar and it got buried. Howie and Mark sing high and can come across better.”

There is, he maintains, no lack of flexibility in the new band. ”George (Duke) plays trombone on 30 or 40 per cent of the material, and I was never really satisfied with the old horns anyway. They had positive elements, but lacked good intonation within the section. They could read and feel the music, and the solos were generally good, but the ensemble sound was harsh – the ‘bugs’ were put through acoustic amps so it was always a little brash. Amps can alter the feeling so much: if we’d put the horns through Marshalls, it would have been completely different.”

Is this a band with specified life-span? “Nope. Bands change as they change, and I don’t mess with it. In the old Mothers, Ray Collins left three times and rejoined three times, which makes it pretty difficult when you have a repertoire built around the lead singer so that when he leaves you have to revamp the book completely. Eventually I had to stop letting him back in.”

Frank’s major project, of which “Chunga” is a fore-taste. is “200 Motels” a movie apparently about rock and roll lifestyles. “It’s coming along excellently,” said Frank, “but I can’t say any more at the moment.” He did divulge, though, that it would require an orchestra of between 90 and 115 pieces, and a 30-voice choir. “There is some film already made” he said.

What about the Uncle Meat movie? It’s in the basement – I still don’t have the money to finish it.” The last old Mothers album, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh,” was, he says, in the nature of a sampler of all the material he also doesn’t have the money to put out.

Zappa is obviously upset about the lack of recognition gained by the early Mothers. “Some people got it, sure” he says “and I’m not out for everybody all over the world to dig it. What I’m asking is some appreciation of the work and ingenuity which went into the concept. When the Mothers were appreciated, it was often for the wrong reasons; the group was fashionable at the time within certain social areas.”

JEFF SIMMONS is probably the least celebrated of all the Mothers, yet last May he released an album, “Lucille Has Got My Mind Messed Up,” which is one of the strongest of the year. It revealed that this 21-year-old bass guitarist who also sings and plays piano and guitar, has a rare talent for writing. His songs like “Appian Way” and “I’m In The Music Business,” have a feeling which owes a little to Frank Zappa (on who’s Straight label it appeared) and a little to Captain Beefheart, yet possess a distinctive flavour all his own.

Simmons is from Seattle, on the West Coast, and began playing bass in 1967, and had a band of his own in his town called Easy Chair , with a two-guitar/bass/drums line-up.

He met Zappa when Easy Chair played a gig with the Mothers in Seattle, after which they gigged at the Tropicana Motor Hotel in Los Angeles.

Then he made the album, with several friends including guitarist Craig Tarwater, formerly a member of San Francisco bands The Daily Flash and the Sons of Adam, and drummer Ron Woods, who was with Buddy Miles and is now with Pacific Gas and Electric.

“Frank helped me to finish the album,” he says. “He played on a couple of tunes, ‘Raye’ and the title cut, and you might say he re-produced it after we’d done quite a lot.” Frank is credited on the sleeve under the name “LaMar Bruister ” for contractual reasons. Jeff’s verdict is: “Some of it’s good and some is a little too sensitive, you know, that philoso-rock bullshit.”

The band broke up after the album, however, because of hassles with the Bizarre management, and Jeff joined the Mothers this summer, appearing with them at the Bath Festival.

“That’s about all I’m doing at the moment, though I play acoustic guitar in my room, and want to get an electric piano. I’m just cruising, and maybe this winter I’ll go home to Seattle, or maybe Vancouver. There’s a good scene there.

There’s a lot of music in Seattle, a lot of clubs, and musically it’s influenced by San Francisco and even more Chicago. For instance, when I started playing, the first people I heard were the Spoonful and the New Vaudeville Band. But It wasn’t long before I forgot them and got into Little Milton and Magic Sam”.

AYNSLEY DUNBAR is just the latest in a long line of drummers who have worked with Zappa – people like Billy Mundi who played on Dylan’s “New Morning” album, and Art Tripp, who is featured on the Jean Luc Ponty L.P., “King Kong.”

He says he finds it complicated more so than when he was with Retaliation.

“The arrangements are more complex – all the accents are watered [written] down for a start – but I wouldn’t say it was completely arranged. I’m allowed a free hand a good deal. All my fills are free, for instance.

“But this is a lot different to Retaliation. That was a blues band, for blowing the blues, but that can drive you mad if you want to go further musically and become more adventurous. Some of the music was so rough at times, though. The last five gigs the band did were the best ever because everyone knew they were finishing.”

There must be more good memories than bad ones since he is thinking of getting together with Retaliation’s old members again, and maybe working with them as a sideline to the Zappa engagements. Victor Brox, the old organist from Retaliation, is already making steps in this direction, and the plans, tenuous at present, may become concrete during the next two months, when Dunbar will he staying here.

“Yes, we’re going to try and get it together again,” he said. “I’ll do a gig with the old members. But everybody wants to get it together – those who were with me – because all the band is a bit low on bread. I’m down to my last million pennies – new pennies, though,” he laughed.

How did he feel about working with Zappa on a personal basis, seeing that Frank has a reputation for hiring and firing? “My position in this band is as permanent as ever I want it to be. But when I go back to the States I’ll be producing, and then I have a lead part in a film. This’ll be something on the lines of ‘Tom Jones,’ you know, that thing with Albert Finney. I’m really looking forward to it. Actually, though I’ve already done a lot of filming in the States with Frank.”

Aynsley seems well content with the role that Zappa has offered him. Working in the States, particularly, has its advantages, he points out. Over there you can take a month off from work and it won’t hurt your pocket. Do it here and you’re dead, you can’t afford to live. People over there, as well, are more interested in music. The scene in the States is more interesting because everybody is involved in what the musicians are doing. In England, the musicians start off interested totally in the music, but then they start to think how much bread they are losing, and anybody who wants to get into money goes to the States.”

Besides “Chunga’s Revenge,” Aynsley can also be heard shortly on an album with his improvised band called Blue Whale, among whose members are Paul Williams on vocals, Tommy Eyre, from Mark-Almond, Roger Sutton and Ivan Zagni, “There’s a lot of solos,” he promises.

HOWARD KAYLAN – a slab of American prime beef with a moustache stuck on somewhere near the top – is one of the two main vocalists with the band, along with Mark Volman. On “Chunga’s Revenge” they are billed as Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. The day we spoke to them, at the Londonderry Hotel, he was answering to the name of Phlo.

Both of them were with The Turtles – five years, since its inception – and they are still having hassles with the contract they signed, although they are making their own album. Hence the billing on the album as Phlorescent etc and not Kaylan and Volman.

“The two of us are tied to this contract with this record company and the company thinks it owns us,” he said laconically.


How did he come to be with Zappa? “Well, we got broke up – The Turtles, that is – and Mark and me went to see a Mothers show, and Zappa saw us, and said, hey listen, how about joining us, so we did. We were pretty glad we got the job. We started out with The Turtles playing real good, but it became a mutation, like when we were doing “Happy Together” – that crap. We had to sound like that to make bread, and really it did not allow us any freedom to do what we wanted. We’d take the commercial way out and so the whole thing flaked out.”

Speaking of freedom, all Zappa’s bands were pretty well regimented, weren’t they? Didn’t he make them jump through the hoops when he wanted to? “Man, it’s fun, it’s really great. It’s like working in the old jazz days, the sort of atmosphere we got. It’s a lot like what we were doing before, but this time it’s Frank pulling us through.

“He makes all the musical directions, but also he’s keeping us from going through any tremendous hassles. There are not a lot of big differences between working with him and The Turtles, the travelling on the road bit is no different, for instance, but working out with all the various instruments we got here isn’t what we are accustomed to, so I’ve had to discipline myself.”

Could he say what “200 Motels” would be all about? “No, man, that’s up to Frank to tell you, not us.

MARK VOLMAN is about five foot ten tall, and built like one of those squashy foam rubber chairs that you see in modern furniture design catalogues. He looks comfortable, you might say. Like Kaylan, he was in The Turtles, but he does not want to go into all that business, really, because it’s such a drag. Lets talk about “Chunga’s Revenge,” we say. There is a connection between vocals on the second side and the next Zappa album, “200 Motels” is there not?


“Yeah, they’re like a preview. That album is something about going on the road and how it affects you. But we can’t really talk about the next thing. Frank doesn’t even tell us about it. With ‘Chunga’ it’s an obvious attempt to become commercial in a way, and yet it’s like his other albums because it’s been pieced together. Where was it done? Practically all of it in the States – there was only one track done at Trident, here in London. It’s certainly pretty funky stuff, based on actual conversations – that second side, at any rate.

“Now we’re rehearsing lots of new material and playing it on the show. The whole thing about working with Zappa for me is that it’s offering me a chance to get into other types of music.

“It’s great working with such good musicians as George (Duke) and Ian (Underwood). I’ve got a lot of space to work in. Frank doesn’t tell me how to sing, even if he is the boss.”

Most of Zappa’s songs appeared to be parodies, often of late ’fifties rock styles. Did he know why Frank was absorbed in that particular idiom?

“I don’t know whether he consciously making a point. As far as I can see, he’s just creating another song. He doesn’t care what interpretation they put on his music. In the past 12 albums he has not given a f--- what people think he is trying to do. It seems to me, though, that now he’s using vocals a lot more; ‘Chunga’s Revenge’ has a lot more vocal than most of his previous stuff. I don’t know whether it’s just the way the voices are treated that makes it different. And ‘200 Motels’ will just be a bit of everything he’s done in the past. With Ruben and The Jets, for example, he showed he could do music that was like the stuff in the ’fifties and early ’sixties send-ups, as you call them.


“There’ve been other groups that have tried to do what he’s done in that direction, like The Bonzo’s, but they’ve never gone that far out; they’ve done nothing like Frank. There’s sickness in America and he’s shown it up. There are different kinds of schools, and it’s all to do with the fact that Britain is different from America.”

1. Liverpool - November 26, London two shows - November 29 (plus Manchester, November 27). See zappateers.

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