Forget the leg a while. It’s ZAPPA on rock, porn and blues.

By Keith Altman

NME, February 5, 1972

He looks a bit like an identi-kit picture of our own most infamous anarchist Guy Fawkes, this much-vaunted, often-maligned rock guitarist who more than anyone else in contemporary music personifies the cult of the Unsuper Star.

The name is Frank Zappa and here he sits in his London hotel sipping dinner in the suitably unorthodox shape of a peach melba – having already returned the wine for a surplus of cork, floating about inside the bottle – and articulating instant copy on subjects as far apart as pornography and John Sebastian.


Eric Burdon once publically referred to Frank as “the Adolph Hitler of rock”, in retaliation for Mr. Z allegedly – Zappa refutes the charges, although it sounds in character – referring to him in print as “the Charlton Heston of rock and roll!”

He gives the impression of being a man of extremes – compassion tempered with hatred – the nice mixed with a fair-sized dollop of the nasty – which makes him, unlike Sebastian, who apparently has no weeds in his garden, a believable human being.

Somehow one gets the impression that if someone had pushed John Sebastian off the stage at the Rainbow, he would have sprouted wings and flown. Not Frank. He went down like a good ‘un, breaking his leg, just like one of us.


I still remember the first occasion on which the Mothers of Invention’s first single was played on the thankfully-extinct “Juke Box Jury” and no one, including David Jacobs (remember him), could take them seriously. “They must be joking” was the general census of opinion, and of course, they were. But the joke was on them.

“I would say there are very few other groups who treat themselves the same way as the Mothers”, said Frank. “We can afford to laugh at ourselves, whereas I don’t think that other pop groups or artistes, in various mediums, actually take the time to consider how absurd things really are.

“It’s not a question of ridicule, but we just take a different viewpoint to the next guy. Ridicule seems like a cruel sort of thing to do. The attitude we take is that we would all be laughing together, if the other guy didn’t take it so seriously. That’s the way I look at it.”  



When Zappa formed the Mothers, the record company promptly refused to allow them to use that name as it appeared to have obscene connotations, and ‘of Invention’ was tagged on to the name. At that time most of the trendy acts about were good looking young men with shining hair and flashing teeth, to wit the Dave Clark Five and Herman.

“Most of the Mothers were unattractive old men. So we immediately had a merchandising problem,” says Frank.

Their first album “Freak Out” was totally ignored by mass media, both here and in America, but it sold approximately 30,000 copies purely by word of mouth and some smart advertising by Zappa who cut their sleeve up into a jig-saw puzzle and had one piece per day, for two weeks, delivered to the reviewers.

Zappa is curiously enough, for such an anti-establishment figure, an extremely acute business man. And one of the “cutest” features of the deal he negotiated with Warner Records is that at the end of their five-year contract the group get their masters back.

“…That’s what I call a good deal,” says Frank. “You make a record, and what normally happens is that the record company owns the tapes for ever – it’s not your music anymore. I happen to like the idea of retaining my so called works of art.”


It comes as something of a surprise – somehow, anything orthodox connected with Zappa is a surprise – to find him happily married to his second wife with a son aged two and a daughter aged 4. His first marriage broke up because the young lady found it “difficult to be comfortable with the lifestyle I was involved with.” He intends his children to go through the formal state education for which he has them “well prepared”.

Zappa describes his relationship with his own parents as “cordial”, although they were disappointed he did not take up something as scientific as his father before him, who was in turn a maths teacher, a physics teacher, a meteorologist, a metalurgist, a barber and then worked on ballistic missile projects.

He says: “My father wanted me to do something scientific and I was interested in chemistry, but they were frightened to get the proper equipment because I was only interested in things that blew up.

“…I don’t think there’s any reason to assume my parents should derive pleasure from what I do for a living. It’s just not their bag! They like cowboy pictures on TV…stuff like that.”


For those of you who have followed Zappa’s early work, and indeed even some of his more recent material, it should not come as too great a shock to learn he holds rhythm and blues dearest to his heart.

“The first band I ever played in was a group called the Ramblers, in which I just played drums. I used to listen to rhythm and blues a lot – Johnny Watson when he used to play guitar, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, the Orchids and the Nutmegs. Our repertoire consisted of early Little Richard stuff…

“I still enjoy that music, and it may seem a little absurd – but if I were in the proper circumstances, and I told the guys in the band this, I would be just as happy playing R and B. That’s because I love it, it sounds good to me. It has definite musical merit.

“Just because it could be considered to be musically illiterate in some instances by academic standards, that has no relationship to what the real value of that music is.

“The emotional quality of the music of the ‘50’s, and the feel of those performances – everything they have is cheap. But the sound that comes out is just great, it inspires you. When they have the cheapest stuff they come out with a piece of art at the end.”


A greatly underrated guitarist, Zappa talking on what makes a good guitarist is interesting: “I listen for melodic and emotional content in the playing, and interesting rhythmic influences, technique and harmonic.

“Depending on what style of guitar playing it is, if it’s rock or blues-type playing, I listen for the generalised feel of what the guitar is sounding like, rather than trying to figure out whether that guy is faster than Alvin Lee or not.

“I think that generally, the criteria most pop writers use is how fast is that guitar player, it doesn’t matter a shit to them whether the guy can actually invent a melody on the spot.

“Think back over how many guitar solos you have heard over the last ten years. How many of them could you hum?

“Is there any melodic content at all? Is there any structural relationship at all between the line that’s being played, and a challenging set of chords that’s happening?”


Today there are very few if any sacred cows in Zappa’s morality, and he refuses to accept unconditionally, or standard of behaviour, advanced by the Establishment under the guise of morality. An active social conscience, he attempts to expose and explore the motives of our Society in order that we might put a few of those so-called principles into perspective.

His sense of the absurd stretches to those who most closely identify with him and even himself. Could, for instance, anything be more absurd than Ringo playing Zappa in his film “200 Motels” which deals with some of those social anachronisms?

“One of the things which worries me most about the youth of today is their inability to laugh at themselves,” says Frank.

“For example, if I appear at the Roundhouse and poke fun at that dirty old middle-aged man, it’s O.K. But if I make a reference to dirty, long-haired drug-infected hippies there’s an immediate ‘you can’t talk about us like that’ attitude.”


Zappa commands attention by adopting a position of attack as the best form of defence, and his shock tactics usually produce the desired result – reaction.

His heart-felt shriek is ‘Why?’ when it comes to the question of morality, and his concern is usually for the despised, or those held in contempt by a Society inbred with hypocrisy at high levels.

“I never realised groupies were a persecuted minority until Rolling Stone began writing about them as if they were dirt. Some people assume that any girl who takes her pants off for a guy in a rock and roll band must be a pig, a dog or some kind of preying mantis.

“To me, groupies are girls you meet on the road. Some are nice, some are nasty, some have a sense of humour, some have none, some are smart and some are dumb. They’re just people.”


Zappa believes, quite fervently, that obscenity is usually bred by ignorance in the mind of the individual, and his film and his music often reflect his frustration of illogical ethics. He may not be Mary Whitehouse, but he does make some kind of moral sense.

“I would say obscenity exists for the edification of people in the legal profession. People in the politics business, and people in the religion business, perpetuate a myth like that in order to gain control of certain sectors of the human consciousness.

“Outside war and certain types of physical distraction, there is no such thing as an obscene act. But then you’re just juggling a word around and making a semantic application. Ordinarily death and destruction are not considered obscene. As a matter of fact, they’re commercial!

“I can see pornography in a different light, when I look at it in the terms of radically-orientated photographs, or things you can place in that category designed for the purpose of stimulating an erotic sensation.

“Pornography is something designed to stimulate you sexually. For people who get stimulated by pictures or hot books, it serves a function in society when they do not have ready access to sexual intercourse, or find it difficult to get off on some other things. Pornography serves a function to those people, and it should be made available to them. Because those who are mal-adjusted sexually will wind up doing things like having wars, and committing murders, and doing a lot of other stuff because of repression.” 

See also the second part of this interview: "Concluding Frank Zappa on Death Rock Writers Money".