Zappa – Mother Of 20

By Caroline Boucher

Disc, September 2, 1972

Understandably, it was a difficult and bitter decision for Frank Zappa when he accepted an offer to play England again – nine months and one week after he was pushed offstage at the “Rainbow.” But it’s good news to all Zappa fans that he and his new 20-man Mothers are poised to play the Oval on September 16.

“But I have mixed emotions about coming back,” crackles that familiar sardonic voice across the line from America. It is around eight o’clock in the morning in England, and somewhere after midnight in Los Angeles – the only time Frank is available to talk now that he’s working full-time again. It is a horribly early hour to be pitting one’s wits against Frank Zappa.

It was December 10, 1971, at the first show of the Mothers at the “Rainbow” that someone in the audience ran on to the stage and pushed Frank over the 12-foot drop into the orchestra pit. It had been an ill-fated tour from the outset when the group had had to flee from the burning Montreux Casino, losing most of their equipment. They managed to salvage a cowbell, reduced to a molten lump.

After the “Rainbow.” Frank was in the London Clinic for some weeks and under medical care for several more months in America. He spent a while recuperating in Hawaii.

“I’m still on a full leg-brace and walk on crutches. It was a terrible break and I’ve still got another two months,” continues the menacing voice at the other end of this bright-and-early phone call. “Some people wonder whether or not the “Rainbow” had any insurance that night or not. We’ve filed a claim. But haven’t recovered much yet.”

Zappa managed to record the latest album, just out here – “Waka/Jawaka - Hot Rats” – three months ago while he was still in a wheelchair, and the group has already recorded another album, due out in September or October. There has been a complete rejigging of Mothers since their last appearance here. The two ex-Turtles – Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan – have formed their own group and Aynsley Dunbar has joined them. Judging by the shotgun delivery of “I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be playing with Mark and Howard again,” they have obviously fallen out of Frank’s favours.

The new Mothers include only two familiar names – stalwart Mother for some years off-and-on, Ian Underwood, a brilliant classical pianist and flautist – and Jim Gordon, drumming. The rest of the massive line-up comprises six brass; six reeds; two concert percussion; two guitars; bass; keyboards; electric cello and Frank.

“The whole band is electric, even the percussion, and I conduct – because you need a conductor to hold that many people together – and play guitar whenever appropriate.

“We’ll be playing a variety of things – ‘Big Swifty’ off the latest album, two or three long orchestral-type pieces, and we’ll also be playing ‘Penis Dimension.’ And we’ll do a march I wrote a ten years ago as an encore. We’ve been together about two months now and we are rehearsing once a week.”

The Oval won’t be the first appearance of the group. They’re making their debut at the Hollywood Bowl on September 10, and then do Berlin, England, Holland and Copenhagen.

After the unexpected success of “200 Motels,” Frank had planned to do another film – probably called “Billy The Mountain” who had a tree called “Ethel” living on his head, but plan haven’t progressed any further with it. Frank says he’s still undecided about when to make another film but has lots of other plans – too early yet to talk about – in the offing.

But Frank Zappa could never be idle for long, and during his convalescence he’s written approximately three hours worth of music, a script for a musical, organized the new band and learnt how to conduct properly – a feat much more difficult than it may sound. His old drummer, Jimmy Carl Black, who has just had his first album out with his new group Geronimo Black, recalls that when Zappa first joined his group (Zappa was fresh out of jail and looking for something to do) he had taken the whole group over in three days, reorganised them, changed their name twice and never looked back. Jimmy also remarked that Zappa was pretty difficult to work with. That’s as may be, but life would be pretty dull without him.