Kicks in the ear

Zappa on his musical motivation

By Jim Smith

New Musical Express, January 26, 1974

Frank Zappa was ensconced in the Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto – a place where only the very best people stay. You know what I mean: People like Rex Harrison or the Burtons.

Tha attractions of the Windsor begin with the intimacy and extend right through to the corniches. It has a sort of Old World charm about it, a comfortable Establishment feel.

Frankly, Zappa doesn’t look like he would choose the Windsor Arms (actually he didn’t make the booking). Frank doesn’t have that Old World charm. In fact, Frank doesn’t have any kind of charm. He sits in his corner of the overstuffed chesterfield and glares at the interviewer.

He’s talking about money, and he says: “Nobody has combined music and theatrics the way I have. And I don’t think anyone will. I’ll tell you why – they’ll have a hard time making a living at it. I wouldn’t say I’ve done badly, but it could have been better.”

Monetary sorrows? This is a man who can attract 15,000 fans to a Toronto concert with hardly any advertising. Let’s fact it, he’s a cult hero.

But what he says is: “I’m looking for scope in music. My problem is economics. A lot of people think I’m a millionaire and I’d just like to say I’m not, nor is there any chance in the near future of me becoming a millionaire. The reason is that the largest percentage of my money has gone back into equipment.

“Then you have to hire the technical people to move it, plug it in, and repair it. For every person you see onstage, there’s another person off stage helping to make it happen.”

So Frank Zappa isn’t here just to make money (though he’ll take it) and he doesn’t consider himself a normal musician. What is he looking for?

“I’m still looking for exactly the same thing I have been looking for all my life – to have my music performed exactly as it is written. So many things can go wrong – from musicians to sound system. I’ve never heard my music played the way I intended it to be played – and I doubt that I ever will.”

So Zappa is both composer and musician and he takes the roles very seriously.

“I started writing when I was 14 – pieces for orchestra, which had nothing to de with rock and roll. I didn’t write anything resembling rock and roll until I was 20.

“All that time, I had absolutely no success at getting a piece of music performed. That was the beginning of my greatest problem, which has always been getting my music played so I can hear it.

“I’m particularly keen on hearing my music performed because I get my kicks through my ears. So, when I couldn’t hear it any other way I decided my only hope was to put together my own group.

“I began looking for a small ensemble – but it was difficult finding musicians who had chops, finding musicians who could play my music. It continues to be difficult, and I don’t believe it’ll get any easier.

“There are plenty of people interested in playing with the group and there are good musicians among them. But the ones who are technically skilled don’t have a sense of humour. And the ones who have a sense of humour usually don’t have the mechanical chops.

“I usually find that if a person has good manual skill when he comes to the group, then he can increase that manual skill by being exposed to new instrumental challenges within the group. But, if a person comes to the band without that manual skill, his ability is not particularly built up.

“Whether it’s easy of hard to play with me depends on the character of the person involved. Some people like a challenge and other people like it soft. For the second group, it can be a traumatic experience playing with me.”

In a sense, it’s remarkable the Mothers of Invention even exist on record. Conditions were not conductive to itellectualised rock when Zappa and his band first appeared on a California stage in 1964. And it is safe to assume that Zappa wouldn’t have got a recording contract had the company really known what the group was about.

But MGM didn’t know until it was too late. Or, as Zappa explains it: “The producer of our first two albums first heard us in a club in Los Angeles in 1964. He stayed just long enough to hear one song, which happened to be about the Watts riots, and he must have walked away saying, ‘Hey, a white rhythm and blues band. We’ve got the Righteous Brothers, now we’re getting the Mothers of Invention.”

“MGM gave us 2,500 dollars and we went into the studio. The first song we recorded was ‘Anyway The Wind Blows’ and they must have thought, ‘Hey, that’s kind of a nice tune.’

“The second song was ‘Who Are The Brain Police?’. And at that point the eyebrows started going up. The music kept getting weirder and weirder.

Zappa followed up the initial session with all-night recording dates attended by the freakiest Californians he could find. And when it was all over, MGM had a record that they didn’t know how to promote.

The first Mothers album was just a minor league hit. But its impact on the music business was great. Suddenly Zappa found himself influencing an entire generation of musicians. Which doesn’t thrill him greatly.

“I know that I’ve been an influence on Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and the rest. But that doesn’t mean I subscribe to what they do. I do what I do, not what they do.

“You see, all I’m after is one thing – accurate performances of my music. Nothing else matters.”