Mothers Of Invention

By ?

Fifth Estate, June 3, 1971

I laugh at things that would send most people to the hospital.

 – Frank Zappa

Last weekend’s Frank Zappa concert at Oakland University [1] was probably the major rock event of the year in Michigan – and a lot of people even got in free, through nearby woods and over fences.

It was important, not because of the crowd, which was massive, or the gate-crashing, but because of the music itself. Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention are not just a great rock group. Their performance is theater and burlesque, backed up by some of the most precise music in the business.

The group is truly professional. The sound is like classically trained guitarists and piano players who get turned on to rock and develop a dynamic style of their own. The end result is high power, precision music.

No other rock leader directs his group like Zappa – the band follows his cues exactly in changing their rhythms, and cutting in and out with their instruments. The Mothers work together more like a symphony orchestra than a rock band, seeming to share a close relationship of mutual respect.

The Mothers are a many-headed musical beast. The band’s array of instruments included two guitars, bass, drums, organ, electric piano, and judicious use of the flute, saxophone, cowbell and tambourine. Many of the numbers were presented partially as skits, with some of the band-members as actors.

Zappa’s subject matter was as wierd as ever. One song was about Billy, who is a mountain in California, with two caves for eyes and a big cliff for a mouth. Ethel, his wife, is a tree growing off his shoulder.

The plot: Billy comes into some money from royalties on his postcard pictures, and decides to take his wife on a vacation to New York. On the way to New York, Billy destroys most of America, and finally meets up with Studebaker Hawk, a patriotic superhero who tries to save the remaining portion for democracy.

The outcome was unclear, as the skit dissolved into a long instrumental piece. The message was open to wide interpretation (Fascism vs. Communism? Ecology vs. Capitalism?) but this made it no less funny.

The Mothers also presented a number about pop-star sexism. They did it so grossly that they effectively satirized the image of the sexy and seductive pop star. The song was a put-down on macho pop stars and groupies, showing how they view each other as sexual objects. In the skit, the groupie says, “I’ll ball you – if your song is on the charts.” The reply was that though the band makes great music, in bed they’re probably just as bumbling as anybody else.

The song ended with a crescendo of screams from the band that “We just can’t stand it, we just can’t stand it,” with all the musicians writhing around the stage, knocking over instruments and microphones.

Zappa and his band had an attitude toward the audience which went from artistic independence and aloofness to occasional disdain. At the beginning of the concert, somebody threw a sparkler into the air, and Zappa commented, “That wasn’t smart. You could burn somebody.”

Later, when Zappa was explaining the plot of “Billy the Mountain,” noisy members of the audience started interfering. He yelled out, “This audience is too noisy!” and soon followed with “Cool it!.”

Somebody from a front row replied, “Shut up and play music!” Zappa challenged, “Stand up and identify yourself!” The man did so, at which point Zappa yelled at him, “Fuck you!” The audience dug it, cheering Zappa.

The concert as a whole came off well, in contrast to the Zappa concert two weeks ago at Olympia, where the acoustics were terrible and the audience so small that the promoter lost thousands of dollars. On Saturday night, the sound was excellent, with the dish-shaped concert area and a large wooden awning keeping the music in, and the setting was beautiful, as 8,000 people enjoyed a clear moonlit night, lots of cheap wine and good dope, and the artistry of The Mothers of Invention.

1. Saturday, May 29, 1971. No tape of this concert is known.