Metamorphosis of Frank Zappa

Questions put by Richard Green

New Musical Express, December 5, 1970

THE sweet-looking, much-loved blonde lady walked nervously to the mike at the front of the stage and began to sing “Penelope wants to – the sea” and the Mothers Of Invention immediately picked up on the tune and joined in. Not so surprising for one of their concerts? Perhaps it becomes a bit of a shock to realise that the singer in question was one Joni Mitchell!

Only Frank

Surely only Frank Zappa could bring out such a side of Joni in public and he took delight in relating the incident to me when I called round to his London hotel for tea. He sat relaxed in slacks, open-necked shirt and sleeveless pullover with his legs crossed and feet resting on the coffee table.

“When we played the Fillmore last week, Joni Mitchell was in our dressing room and I asked her if she wanted to come on stage and sing with us,” he said.

“She is very shy and we had to lead her on eventually, then I said to her ‘Look, we don’t play any of your songs and you don’t sing any of ours, so just make up some lyrics and we’ll follow you?

“When she sang that first line, she blew all the kids’ minds. They couldn’t believe it was coming from her. She did another song that sounded a bit like ’Duke of Earl’ and we finished up doing that song. The next night, Grace Slick wandered on from the side of the stage then went off again. We got her back on but she wouldn’t sing, she insisted on conducting. So there she was, wearing a white coat and pregnant out to here, conducting the Mothers.”

Frank was making plans for his London concert and trying to fit in time to find a flat here. He was dismayed that the weather had taken a turn for the better as he wanted to test properties’ heating out in the cold and the sun had foiled him. But he’ll be around until mid-February by which time the elements should be more to his liking.


Despite his popular image, Zappa is a considerate interviewee, giving serious, considered replies to questions, expanding on subjects at length and not ducking any issues. Our talk covered a wide range of subjects from his association with the classics to Captain Beefheart to drugs.


Q. When did you first start writing with classical music in mind?

A. The first thing I ever wrote was a drum solo… a piece for snare drum and it was called “Mice.” I wrote that when I was about fourteen and I performed it at school – you know they have these little instrumental competitions.

Q. Do the classics influence your writing now?

A. In as much as I’m writing for orchestra and some of the techniques I use are standard orchestral techniques from that world of music. A lot of thematic material doesn’t derive from classical music.

Q. How different is the music you’re writing now from the music you were writing when the Mothers were at their height, say, three years ago?

A. Mmm, it’s hard to say, I think it’s all an extension of one thing. There’s only one area of consciousness in music I’m interested in exploring, I wouldn’t diverge too much from that area I’m checking out just now. I just keep working in that same vein.

Q. What led to the end of the old Mothers and the beginning of the new band?

A. For one thing we’d been touring such an awful lot and sustaining huge financial losses. One of the other problems, my attitude was getting very sour because we were working in places were it just seemed like I was banging my head against the wall ’cause we had developed the music of the group to a stage where it had really evolved. We could go on stage and we didn’t need to play any specific repertoire, I could just conduct the group and we could make up an hour’s worth of music that I thought was valid.
On the spot it would be spontaneous and new and interesting, it would be creative because the personalities of the people in the group were contributing just as much as their musicianship, but you stick that in front of an audience that wants to hear songs that are three minutes long and with words about boys and girls in love and it just doesn’t work.

Q. But that type of song was never the image of your band anyway, was it?

A. Correct, but even groups that were performing so-called underground material were singing boy and girl love songs, only with fuzz tone. Bobby Vee wouldn’t work with a fuzz tone, but it was the same text, only with a different bunch of clothes on, so we’d go on a concert and there’d be another underground group, or maybe two groups that had already set the audience up with that type of material and to them that is the real rock and roll world.

No matter what you do instrumentally, get those words about the boy that falls in love with the girl or the girl that leaves the boy – that is the real world.

Anything that is apart from that is not rock and roll, it doesn’t belong in their teenage concert hall, it’s not something that they can identify with easily. So, nobody knew how to take the band, they didn’t know if we were Spike Jones with electronic music or whether it was serious or what it was. I just got tired of it.

Q. Did you just tell them, then, it’s all over. And did they take it normally?

A. No, at first they were extremely angry at me for breaking up the band, not because they wanted to play the music but because I had been supporting them. Suddenly I had taken away their income. I said to them: ‘Look, am I supposed to kill myself going out and doing this over and over again? Well it’s not any fun for me anymore.’ I was really depressed about it, I couldn’t do it anymore.

Q. How did you form a new band?

A. I was off for about nine months and then I got interested in playing more guitar and that’s when I started working with that Hot Rats group. I wanted not just to play more guitar but play it in the context of a stronger rhythmic feeling ’cause if there was one weak point of the old Mothers it was the rhythm section because it was too static.

In order to synchronise both drummers they had to be limited in the types of things they could play so that the beat stayed pretty monotonous. I heard Aynsley play at this pop festival in Belgium and I really liked the way he played. So I brought him to the United States, in the first place to make the successor to the Hot Rats’ album which was what ’Chunga’s Revenge’ turned out to be but somewhere along the line all these other plans were popping up.

I had an opportunity to do something I’d been wanting to do for about fifteen years, which was play with a symphony orchestra and they wouldn’t play my music unless there was a rock group on the bill called the Mothers Of Invention but we didn’t have a Mothers Of Invention so what I did was put together various guys who had been in the Mothers in the past, not just from the last group. I went all the way back to the beginning.

We did about a six day tour in the United States, went back to Los Angeles and played the Fillmore. When that was over, I disbanded that group. The night of the concert in Los Angeles, the two members of the Turtles who are now the lead singers with this group came up to me after the show and told me how much they liked the orchestra thing.

The Turtles didn’t exist anymore and they were out of work, and I’d always admired the things they could do on stage ’cause I’d seen the group several times and thought they were excellent on stage. So it occurred to me to try something with them. We weren’t even going to call it the Mothers, we were talking about doing something else, but the easiest way to get a group off would have been to call it the Mothers so we just put together another Mothers.

When we played the Bath Festival the group had been together about twenty days, ten days of which was rehearsal, and the group hadn’t really got together psychologically and the personalities still hadn’t meshed in, but since that time a whole bunch of changes took place and now the group is more organised in terms of personalities and they work together better.

Q. You’re very happy with the sound you have now, are you?

A. It’s the best band I ever heard.

Q. Is there room for improvement?

A. Always is, but the essential thing I like in a band is now present in this group – there’s a group spirit that transcends just friendship among the members of the group and there is now a certain devotion to some mythological cause and I think it comes across on stage.

The guys really feel like they’re doing something and not just playing. They know now that they have their whole musical world within which they can operate and anything they do in there is fine by me as long as they play the songs. They have freedom to express themselves in a number of different ways. In the old Mothers I was the only guy that talked to the audience, in this group the communication with the audience is divided up into several different areas – I do direct communication with the audience, I address them and more or less act as M.C. for the show and I introduce things that are about to happen on stage… it’s like a play in a way, I comment about things that have already happened on stage and sometimes I do straight man things for gags that they’ve set up.

Then Mark and Howard have special lyric monologues that they do within the songs and then Jeff has things that he does, so it’s just generally more immediate audience contact with this group.

On top of that, the rhythmic foundation is much more rock and roll orientated because of Aynsley’s playing. There’s more of a jazz-blues feel to it which is probably the result of having George Duke in the group because he’s from that world and, er, even the old Mothers Of Invention tunes that we play in our repertoire have been re-arranged to the point where it’s not even the same song anymore, for instance we do ‘Who Are The Brain Police?’ but it sounds like Canned Heat.

Q. What are your views on the use of drugs by young people?

A. I still don’t use any drugs. I think that if a person wants to use drugs that’s his business but they should know in advance that certain harmful side effects can occur and I don’t think that you can legislate against the use of drugs because the reasons that drive people to drugs are so complex that a mere piece of paper with someone’s signature on it is not enough to stop millions of people from using it.

It’s just unfair, especially in the United States, drug legislation is too harsh. I think a lot of people smoke for the hell of it, they do it to get out of it which, to me, that has some merit if your environment is so bad that you have to get out of it in order to survive. But the negative aspect of that is that when you get out of it you can’t do anything to alter it because you’re not only removed from the unpleasant stimuli of your environment, the drug insulates you, puts you in a world where you don’t feel that pressure so much.

But then you’re so vulnerable to that environment you can’t really do anything if it attacks you, you’re just there. The environment itself will not be improved by drug-orientated culture I don’t think.

Q. What would be your reaction if you found that your children had started taking drugs?

A. Well, I think that they’re entitled to lead the kind of lives that they want to lead but I’d certainly tell them anything I could find out about the chemical side effects of anything they might be using, the potential dangers to their offspring, especially in the case of LSD.

Q. Do you think there is a serious drug problem among younger people?

A. Yea, I think the problem is not that they’re using drugs but that they’re abusing them. It’s the overuse that’s unpleasant and dangerous.

Q. What’s the position with Captain Beefheart now?

A. I never see him.

Q. Is it an irrevocable split between the pair of you?

A. I don’t think so. First of all, he’s so changeable, he’s so weird. I don’t stay away from him, he stays away from me. When I’m in Los Angeles I never leave my house unless I have to go to work so anybody I see is somebody who comes to my house, he hasn’t been over in nine months

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