Why Zappa chose Albert Steptoe as his new bass player
... or how base can you really get?

By Caroline Boucher

Disc, November 27, 1971

Frank Zappa was in London last week for the premiere of his first film – “200 Motels.” He was staying at his usual Kensington hotel, and attacking life with his customary vigour – outlining his plans for the forthcoming year with such accuracy you could set a clock by them.

Not content with backing on the retrospective glories of “200 Motels,” Zappa has already finished writing his second film, “Billy The Mountain,” and brandishing the thick typescript he sang, chanted and recited his way through the opening act for my benefit.

Characters in the film include Billy the Mountain and Ethel the Tree, who lives on his head and wants to go to West Virginia for a holiday, so the mountain, who lives in California, walks her over there, squashing everything in his path.

Then there’s the Shortest Girl and Squat Pig, and for most of the first act everybody talks in German because God talks in German which he means HEAVY BUSINESS. It’s a fairy tale and it looks as if it will be very funny and very difficult to put on – especially if your film features a mountain strutting across America.

“I felt tired out after I’d done “200 Motels,” said Zappa. “but after I’d sat [...] for a […], while the idea of this film occurred to me so I started do that.”


Last week found Frank rather despondent though, because he arrived in England to find Tony Palmer – the producer he had hired to work on the film – had been saying the most extraordinary [...]  things about it in all the papers.

Palmer claims to have demanded to have his name removed from all the credits – […] why nobody knows – but Zappa says he never heard, or received written note of it until he arrived here. That depressed him along with totally uncontracting put-downs.

“It does hurt my feelings because I made that film in order to give people a pleasant emotions, an enjoyable time. I feel like I’ve wasted that person’s time, money and energy if I couldn’t live up to their expectations. The reviews in the USA have been favourable really.”

From the looks of things in the States Zappa has a hit film on his hands. Already it is one of the top three box office draws. If it continues in this way Zappa won’t have to trudge round different companies with his recent film.

Looking back on the making of “200 Motels” it’s a wonder Zappa is still sane and keen. To start with the budget only allowed for one week’s shooting at Pinewood, so everybody had to learn their scripts well in advance. Frank cast everybody – from Ringo down to his own band and the GTO’s.

Then two weeks before shooting started, Jeff Simmonds (bass) quit the Mothers of Invention and with it a very large part in the film.

At its with end, Zappa decided he’d have to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, and if he couldn’t get a good bass player he’d get a send-up. The result was Wilfred Brambell (the actor who plays Albert Steptoe) was to be billed as the oldest bass player in the world with a long wig on and in rehearsals he shaped up face.

“We arranged everything – the bass was to be played on two keyboard Fender basics which were flown over specially from LA. He rehearsed for a week and he was fine – the characterisation was great.

“Then we got out to Pinewood. He shows up, walks in, and he’s shaking, he’s pale. He said he’d been up all night and drunk a whole bottle of whisky which he never usually does: he put my head on his heart and it was practically jumping out, and he said he just shouldn’t do it, it would kill him, please need he?


“So we all went into one of the dressing rooms and sat there and we got to the stage when we said the next person who walks in will do the part. The door opens and in walks Ringo’s chauffeur, Martin Lickert, and we said “you.” He had one week in which to learn 60 pages of script and the bass notes.

“Wilfried had said that the script was hard enough because it was in a ‘double foreign language’ – colloquial West coast American. But it turned out that Martin had once played bass in a little group – he learnt the script and he was great.”

Now Jeff Simmonds was replaced on the European tour by old Turtles’ bass player Jim Pons. That, along with Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, makes the Turtle total in the Mothers up to three. Don Preston, from the old Mothers, is back on keyboards instead of George Duke, and Ian Underwood is still there, although at one point he thought of leaving and forming a band with his drumming old lady.

“That what happens with the Mothers really, they leave and then decide to come back again,” says Zappa. “One of the main things that would impress ne, if someone wanted to join the group, is the desire to act that way, to get onstage and play that kind of stuff, because some people take themselves very seriously and aren’t at all comfortable in that position.”

Onstage they’ll be playing a veritable pot pourri of Mothers music ranging from the new “Billy The Mountain” to “Cruising For Burgers” bits from “200 Motels” and “Call Any Vegetable.”

Also looking ahead, the nine-record set, promised for so long should be due out in March. Zappa hopes to be back here again some time after that for shooting “Billy The Mountain” which he wants to do at Pinewood because the video tape technique is more advanced in this country.

He hopes United Artists will take it up because they were so good to him over “200 Motels.”

But as for his plans for petting a house over here semi-permanently the Zappa veneer cracks slightly when he confesses to slight pangs of homesickness for his basement in LA. He was over here for four months for shooting this year, during which time he looked around for a house.