Mother's Day memories

By Barbara Charone

New Musical Express, May 25, 1974

Frank Zappa celebrated the 10th anniversary of his Mothers of invention by stopping off in Chicago for a very special show. After all it was Mothers' Day, so why not bring out the plastic inflatable lady and really get it on?

In the past Zappa has avoided being a jukebox of old hits, but this tour is something special, with anniversary cards in the hall lobby and a musical run through from the Mothers' history.

At midnight Zappa announces it's officially Mothers' Day, while the sold-out crowd screams delighted faaar-outs. Then the man gives us a 15-minute rap about those early days, before kicking off an hour-long medley of the “freakout” album. As he puts it, “You're gonna hear 'Freakout' till it's coming out of your ass.”

“This tour is different, this time I'm going out there to play oldie mouldies,” he told me beforehand. “Most of the songs haven't been played since the earliest days. It's gonna be an improvement over the 'Freakout' album, and, who knows, we might even get a live version on tape.”

I mumble something about “Freakout” being a definitive time-warp album, all about living in the 60s.

“If that's what the 60s were like we're in trouble. We couldn't keep a beat on that record,” Zappa says in disbelief. “The main weakness was the beat – it was sloppy and lopsided. But now we're playing everything stronger, and those tunes sound like top 40 only better.”

Of course, the current band is far removed from the early Mothers – so much so that they've had to learn the numbers from the old records.

Zappa commented: “Those songs are all so easy compared to what we've been doing recently. In rehearsal we learned two and three of them a day – which is sickening, because when we first put out 'Freakout' it took weeks just to get one little song right. No-one knew how to play their instruments.

The current 10-piece band is a far cry from the early 60s drum/bass/guitar syndrome. One wonders what a synthesiser will sound like in the middle of 'It Can't Happen Here?' And how relevant are the social problems of the 60s in these blase 70s.
“Of course I've had to change the old arrangements to suit our present instrumentation.

“Much of the appeal of the 'Freakout' album was because it was something kids of that era could relate to. But I think audiences will still enjoy it because the songs are short. There's a beat, a tune and a bass line. And the basic feel is easy to understand.
“What I'm going to do,” says Zappa with restrained excitement, “is play twenty of those things in a row, and I think the audiences will love it. Last time we toured Europe we put 'Brown Shoes Don't Make It' into the set and the response to that one song was amazing.

“Today 'Freakout' sounds like a bunch of demos to me. But you've got to remember our first three albums were recorded on a four-track machine. There wasn't any 16-track then. The biggest amp you could get was the Vox Superbeatle – they didn't even have Marshalls!”

For some reason the Zappa audience always seem to expect him to be some freaked-out druggie who has to be wheeled on stage or pushed up against the amplifier. On the contrary, he's a strictly disciplined musician, who runs the band with a firm hand. In concert, the outfit impress with their expertise. There's so much natural energy on stage it's refreshing.

Says Zappa: “In my band anybody caught using drugs on the road gets dismissed immediately. What they do in their spare time is their business, but as long as they've working for me it's got to be disciplined.

“Kids assume that anyone they like is as stoned as they are. The drug problem in the United States is of sufficient scope that many of the people in a rock audience are chemically altered and have to perceive everything from that point of view. I mean 90 per cent of the rock audience are more concerned with appearance than music. Have you seen Kiss? Oh God!”

On stage, Zappa's new band resembles an all-star broadway musical, and singer Napoleon Murphy Brock has the charisma of Jagger as he stalks the stage straight out of Porgy and Bess.

“Rock has always been a what-else-can-you-show-me thing except in its earliest days – when kids didn't want to be shown anything different, just more of the same.

“Now that same idea is transmitted today, because people obviously don't want to see anything new. They'd hate it – because it wouldn't be rock 'n' roll. But there are certain characteristic elements that you can hang on to so that the music will sound rock'n'rollish. Like, if people hear a horn, they think it's jazz.

“The public don't really demand anything – what dictates trends is always some office opinion of what will sell. So many bands are manufactured. So you've got all these bands that receive lots of hype but have no musical substance.”

Undaunted by the critical reception of his '200 Motels' film of the celluloid media still fascinates Zappa – who prefers spending his money on media projects than fast cars and dope.

He says: “The next feature film I do will be totally animated, but it's a long way from completion. Lately I've been working on a movie for television; a combination of animation, straight scenes, and footage of the band on the road.

“A guy who runs a food and beverage service in Colorado Springs let us use his restaurant for part of the film. He gave the band busboy uniforms and we brought a bunch of kids back from the concert to act as customers. Our road manager made this mysterious salad of garbage, dry ice and stuff. The customers ate it and pretended to die. It's just a quick little scene but it looks funny.”

Right now Zappa is just finishing up the last dates of his anniversary tour. He's just finished reading the 'Secret Life Of Plants' which he highly recommends, and he wants to take the band to Japan.