Frank's turtles in disguise

By Steve Peacock

Sounds, December 4, 1971

First part of this interview – Sounds, November 27)

The time is right, thinks Frank Zappa, to unleash on an unsuspecting public the long-awaited nine-album anthology of Mother's music, together with a 30-page booklet. It's set for release next March.

A year ago, I asked Zappa when he'd ben releasing the set, and he said: “In about five or 10 years when they assume more historical importance.” Things have obviously moved a lot faster than he'd expected.


“I think now is the time, because what with the release of “200 Motels”. I think if anybody has any questions about where things come from in that film, it would be appropriate to answer them through this set. There's a lot of documentary stuff on it.”
The nine albums go right through from 1962 to now, and none of the material has been released before. A lot of it's live, and about 20 per cent of it is live versions of stuff that's been on other albums.

“There's a lot of improvisation,” says Zappa. “The old group's strongest point was collective improvisation, where the group itself would put together a piece on stage from nothing. There's some good examples of that. A lot of it was recorded in Europe – there's a bunch of stuff from the Festival Hall concert we did here in '68, some stuff from the Albert Hall in '69, quite a few American concerts, some stuff from Copenhagen. And then from the most recent Mothers there's some things we recorded on the last tour.


“Then there are examples of what our rehearsals sound like – I've got a tape of the original Mothers from before we recorded “Freak Out”. That's us doing “How Could I Be Such A Fool”, on side two of the first album; and then it goes forward in time to '68 when we had a 10-piece band rehearsing a song called “Boogie For Berkley”, and the third one is the Mothers 1970 rehearsing “Fluted Transoms” – the new organised Mothers rocking out on a sort of atonal jam.”

The anthology will obviously be of great interest to people who already know the Mothers, and who've followed them through from the early days, but Zappa feels that an important reason for putting it out will be to give people who have only picked up on them recently a chance to find out about their history.

“The number of people who own all our albums, or who've heard them all, is very small. I meet people who think that “Hot Rats” was our first album, or that “Chunga's Revenge” was our first album, and there are even people who think the Fillmore album was our first. And then there are the people who have only the “Freakout” album, and who don't know about the others. They're amazed when you tell them there are 13 albums.”

We got on to talking about the way the Press had treated the Mothers in general, and the film in particular. Zappa does feel a bit ill-used, especially in America, though there “200 Motels” has had better reviews than here.

“I can sympathise with somebody who earns his living as a critic – I should think that would be a very difficult thing to do, to be put in a position where you have to tell people what's good and what's not.”
Was that how he saw the job of reviewers?

“That's what it usually comes down to. Most of them don't really do the formal service of saying 'this, this, and this could have been improved' – and be able to say it because they know something about the medium in a technical way. It's usually so subjective that it doesn't deal with technicalities at all. They don't perform a service for the artist – it might be handy to have someone who knew what a mix was supposed to be – listen to an album and say: “I don't like that mix because there's not enough of this or there's too much of that.


“But normally what happens is that the person is involved with his own job of being a writer, in expressing himself as a writer rather than being involved in what he's writing about, and so the basic game of being a writer is to collect words that are going to provide for the reader the sensation that the person who's writing is really hot shit. Therefore anything that looks good on paper is generally what comes out in reviews, so if it seems attractive to call “200 Motels” a home movie, well then that's cool. But I wouldn't say it was a home movie – you should see some of my home movies.”

How much did criticism affect him, especially put-downs based on half-grasped ideas?

“Well, it depends on the person who's doing it, and the generalised intention behind why they might say what they say. Talking about the film, I made it for people to enjoy, so if nobody enjoys it then it affects me – I should feel I had failed in my duty as an entertainer, because it's supposed to provide a pleasurable experience for the audience that sees it. But anyway audiences vary in their sense of humour, and it's especially un-natural when people who write about films go to see them in the presence of other people who write about films.

“You're there with all the other people in your trade of film writing or music writing, or whatever it is, and everyone's there to be who he is, or do what you do, and the general attitude is 'Oh, let's see what we can enlighten the world with about this Zappa movie.' I've been to a lot of screenings with Press and watched the reactions, and I've also been to theatres where the film's been on display for a regular audience – and there's a big difference.


“But the final decision is usually left to the people who'll go and see it when it's on general release. They'll either enjoy it or they won't. It wasn't made for critics, it was made for people, and if some day a critic decided he wants to become people, then maybe he can get off on it.”

In one way and another, the things Zappa's thinking and talking about at the moment tend to relate to his films – this one, and the new project “Billy The Mountain” (see last week's SOUNDS). When he gets back from this tour he has to finish off the script, music, and organisation for that, write the book for the anthology, edit live recordings they'll be making of their British dates in December.

He'll also be playing guitar on a few sessions that the Turtle/Mothers are doing to complete a double Turtles' album for Bizarre. Come to think of it, now Jim Pons is with them on bass, the present Mothers are almost Turtles in disguise.

“It's fairly evenly balanced – three Turtles, three Mothers, and an Aynsley Dunbar. There's a comedy group if ever I heard one.”
Ah, yes the comedy group. That's something which has grown out of Press reviews – in America for a long time  the Mothers seemed to be regarded in the same way as the Barron Knights were seen here – and they stress it a lot in the film. The point is, of course, that they're musicians who happen to enjoy being funny as well, but people seem to find this hard to accept. Even, apparently, their former bass player, Jeff Simmonds couldn't take the combination. Was his leaving the group really as it was shown in a cartoon sequence in the film?

“It's pretty close. He was being counselled by his girlfriend or his wife or whatever she was, that he was too heavy to be in the group. I feel sorry for Jeff because he had great comedy ability, but he has this feeling of ambivalence about being funny and being a heavy musician at the same time, and his main interest lay in being recognised as a heavy musician. He figured nobody would ever believe he was heavy if he had a sense of humour, and that opinion was being bolstered by his old lady.”
It's a combination of approaches that the Mothers seem to have come to terms with, but did he ever feel that the comedy sometimes took away from the music?

“Only in as much as some people can't comprehend certain musical aspects of the group, so the comedy predominates for them. I do it because there are certain things that strike me as funny, and I like to share that with people who are similarly interested. I don't see any reason to go on stage and treat the whole thing as a solemn affair – life is too short.


“There really is a lot of funny stuff, and I think we need some of that these days. Spread it around a little bit, give somebody some relief. I think a lot of people relate to the comedy and don't even realise there's music there – that's why we keep referring to the Comedy Group in the film, that kind of stereotype that's been laid on us.”

But he never felt tempted to tone down the funnies so people would get more directly to the music?

“No. I'm certainly not going to throw away the enjoyment that I have out of having humours sensations on stage in order to accommodate someone who doesn't have a sense of humour.

“Look, if you're going to play 22 jobs in seven weeks, you better have a sense of humour. You better.”