Frank Zappa Leaps Out Of The Underground With 'The Mothers Of Invention, Live All Over The Place'

By Lance Loud

Circus Raves, November 1975


Zappa picks writer Lance Loud out of a Florida crowd. Lance joined Frank onstage for a rousing rendition of 'Night Owl' and the incident was reported in another rock journal, which neglected to mention that Lance was on a routine Circus Raves assignment.

Before the gig in the hot, humid dressing room of the Miami auditorium, Frank Zappa sat by himself, casually plucking his guitar. Although he played effortlessly, dynamic shocks of electrical rock came smashing and sliding out of the warm-up amp.

Zappa was using these last few moments to ready himself to go on stage. The rest of the Mothers of Invention, his legendary band of avant garde rockers, were off in another part of the backstage area, joking and priming themselves for the concert. Ruth Underwood, one of the members of the Mothers, ducked in once to ask what song Frank wanted to open the set with.

“Uhm, ’Penguin in Bondage’," replied the powerful bandleader after a few moments of thought.

When she skipped out to inform the others, a young man with long hair and a hippy uniform slunk in and, seeing that there wasn’t anyone barring his way, strode met to Frank and produced a large booklet. “I got some photos here that will really flip you out, Frank,” he said forebodingly. “Really freak you.”

He handed the first one to Frank Zappa, who took it politely. It was a photo of a girl with a ridiculous sexual device looking blankly at the camera.

“What‘s so weird about this?” Frank looked at the photo.

“Well, man. I just caught her at it . . . you know?” He leered. Frank looked up at him, put the photo down and began to play again. But the intruder was undaunted. He sat down next to the guitarist and pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette. After he lit up, Frank took notice again, sniffed the air a minute and then turned to him calmly. “Is that Marijuana you’re smoking?”

“You want a hit?” The boy asked eagerly offering him the joint.

There was a mini-moment of silence and then thunder. “Get that thing out of here!” Frank uttered disdainfully, his tone not outraged but bored to the pain threshold. “Take it and leave or I call the cops." The youth was out the door in a jittery flash, his dreary hipness badly shaken by this slough-off from the unrequited king of Freakiness.

For ten years Frank Zappa has steered a band called the Mothers of Invention. Sometimes that name signified a back-up band for the man himself, sometimes it was a hand that he was equally a part of. Sometimes it existed only as a threat to mothers all over America as what not to let their sons grow up to be or their daughters to go out with. And most of the time the band was far more infamous than it was popular.

For many people, in fact, it was more assuring to think that the Mothers had to be stoned to be able to think up all their incredible zany outrageous approaches to music and black comedy social comment. Yet Frank and his hand’s “way outness” was not the product of artificial stimulation, pills or liquor, it was the work of unbridled genius, although genius shrugged off an underground madness. But with the release oi The Mothers Of Invention, Live All Over The Place (on DiscReet/Warners), as well as the chart-busting success of Apostrophe, the Mothers have burst startlingly into the clean cut aboveground of popular American consciousness. They are at last making it big.

Freak-out history: The Mothers of Invention have a long history that is best divided into three parts. The first is made up of the early years with the original Mothers of Invention formed by Frank in 1964. Their first album, called Freak Out. was mail order only initially, and was called by the pundits oi the time “a totally unexplainable record.” The only part critics cited for description was a twenty minute song in which an electric guitar was “tortured to death.” When they were young, the Mothers received much of the some type of “bad, smart-alec punks” publicity that the Stones got pinned with at the beginning. But the Mothers weren’t the Stones and, surprisingly enough, didn’t want to he.

Several albums and a healthy cult following later, the original band gradually began to dissolve and Frank spent most of his time organizing his own label which he called “Bizarre.” He used his company as a vehicle to record and produce several acts that he thought should be seen by the mass audience. What he came up with was actually a vinyl history of classic moments during the beginning of LA.’s Pop Rock era.

In front of the famed Whiskey a Go Go he met a notorious Sunset Strip loony who was playing a tennis racket and ringing songs that he himself had written. Frank signed him on the spot and the An Evening With Wildman Fischer was the result. It is now considered an underground masterpiece.

Frank then encouraged the first band of groupies into putting out an album. The GTO’s (which stood for Girls Together Outrageously) were the most trend-setting of the groupie breed and among the first to publicly come out and admit that it was fun. Under Frank Zappa’s direction and assistance they put together a batch of songs about their brave new lifestyle in an LP that had much in common with The Wizard of Oz in its fairytale like approach to the L.A. rock world of the time. The album also featured the skills of Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck (who is Frank’s favorite guitarist from that era) and the undisputed King of Sunset Strip, Rodney Bingenheimer.

Cooper finder: Frank also discovered and produced a first album for another band that started out as a joke. That band eventually left Frank and became big on their own. They were called Alice Cooper. Frank Zappa, through his understanding of the “theatre of the absurd” which was advancing closer to the rock world every day, encouraged Alice. “Frank knew that if he kept pushing Alice Cooper,” his manager, Dick Barber, explained, “someday they were going to be big, but he didn’t want to take them, it didn’t interest him, he was just interested in giving them their first boost.”

The Mothers reformed during that time and several new members were introduced into the band. Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman were invited to come over and sing with them. These two were ex-Turtles and had a sense of humor to boot. With the effect of the two ex-Turtles, the music became more raunchy, the humor a little less off the wall. Also new was Ian Underwood on keyboards. This version of the Mothers was raucous and absurd, complete with jokes and progressive music, unexplainable song titles. Even though Kaylan and Volman were perfectly charming, the band itself was still dark and untouchable.

During this era the film, 200 Motels, was written, directed, scored, and overall created by Frank Zappa. The film, which is still ahead of its time in the use of combined film and video effects, was about “a group touring middle America and what they find.” It was all enigma and colorful flash and it drew audiences to it as much as it puzzled them.

In the middle of his mind-boggling creative surge, a catastrophe occurred as weird as the Freak King himself. The brooding band leader with the dark curly mane sat back and recounted the past mishap with a Circus Raves correspondent.

Deadly yellow fan: After finishing a concert one night in 1972 at London’s fabulous Rainbow Theatre, Frank was walking off stage when a face in the crowd jumped up onto the stage. A fan had become metamorphosed into a raving madman determined to kill Frank. Why? Because the kinky guitarist had played such a great gig the chap’s girl friend confessed to her date that she was now in love with Frank Zappa.

The rabid fellow tackled Frank and flung him off the stage over a 15 foot drop to a three-point landing on his chest and head. He broke his legs, several ribs and cracked his teeth badly. Recuperation took nearly six months of lying flat on his back. Frank did a lot of writing, and, when he could get up and around, he began reforming the Mothers into what was to become his present band. Although Ian Underwood left and eventually joined Mahavishnu Orchestra, his luscious wife Ruth was coaxed to join Mothers in the newly created role of tympani-percussionist-vibea. These three ingrcdients had never been used by another rock band before. Frank talked the infamous George Duke, ex-pianist with jazz-bluesman, Cannonball Adderly, into taking over the keyboards and assisting on vocals. And, one thing following another, Frank found himself in a palm-fronded cocktail bar in Honolulu where his ears perked up to the singing of Napoleon Murphy Brock. The next week the crooner was on the plane to L.A. to audition for the Mothers. Now “Nappy” not only sings and struts for the Mothers in the grand manner of Wilson Pickett, he takes care of saxophone and flute. Chester Thompson, long famous in the inner circles of bluesland as an outstanding session drummer was coaxed into accepting the job of playing down the basic solid rhythm and Tom Fowler, the third Fowler brother to undergo the Zappa experience, piles on a shuddering bass line. This is the present Mothers line up, and in the words of Dick Barber, “it’s the best yet and they are at their peak.”

Live All Over The Place was recorded at the Mothers’ week long stint at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles and at various live performances in Chicago and elsewhere throughout the midwestern heartland. Each night the house lights dimmed, the console switches were flipped on. Frank walked on stage and the crowd went bananas. He walked up to the microphone and in his best mock “happy face” voice, “the voice with a built in smile” as someone described it, exclaimed. “Hey everybody! Let’s get it on!!” The crowd laughed and cheered him on. “It’s the great American way!” The quiet cautious backstage guitar-doodler was suddenly an electric crowd-whipper.

Anything anytime: The Mothers‘ live performances are as unique in the rock world as they are masterful. Although the Mothers complain that they never have enough time to rehearse, it never shows on stage. Their show is, according to the critics, one of the most inventive of their inventions. Frank is liable to do anything on stage, but the rest are so experienced they slide along as if they knew all the time. If Frank wants to choose three nubile lasses from the audience to perform a dance contest on stage, the band coasts right along behind as if they were expecting it. If he calls someone before the lights to sing an old favorite, the band picks up the song in an instant, backing vocals and all, as they did when Frank charmingly coerced Circus Ravces’ correspondent into leaping on stage and revealing his slicked-back roots by performing a 50’s classic, “Night Owl.”

“The greatest thing about the Mothers,” revealed Dick Barber, who has been with the band since 1967, “is that every concert is new. Something is brand new, tailor-made for the audience.” Thus Live All Over The Place is tailor-made for everyone who listens to it. On the one hand, Frank emphasizes his powerful guitar work more than ever before, producing licks of such high quality he could easily become the next Golden Idol of electric rock – if he wanted to. But guitar riffing is really only a small part of the LP. What totally engrosses Frank is the music as an entire concept. A conglomerate of various styles and blends, it is a patchwork of influences. There is a classical structure, some contemporary jazz tempos, a sudden twist of blues. And always there are those razor slashes of guitar Frank punches out so casually.

Far out Mothers: The Mothers’ music has always been new and constantly challenging. But it has been obscure. Even aficionados would turn off their systems and scratch their heads: why were Zappa’s music structures like that? What does it mean when he’s joking? When’ is be joking and when is he serious? Such questions stopped a lot of people from picking up on the Mothers in the past.

The day after the Miami concert Frank sat in his hotel and listened to his cassette of All Over The Place. The music began with a complicated ingenious song called “The Bebop Tango for the Old Jazz Men." But the threatening obscurity of the work lessened immediately when Zappa announced, “this is going to be a hard one to play.”

Songs for you: Instead of assaulting them with his challenging sound, Zappa is now putting his listeners at ease. “My progressing to this point has come by way of a natural progression of events,” he explained to a query about his new openness. “I don’t feel bad that I have never been this open to the public before. Neither do I feel that it is a move that was premeditated or forced out.

“After the Rainbow accident I spent a long time just thinking things over. We began to work again, me and the band just began to move in this direction.” He paused and then added, “Making people feel at ease with the music is half the battle.”

And he does so supremely in this record set. After a particularly complex instrumental break, his voice dead pans out of the speakers: “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.”

“Penguin In Bondage” is an outrageously masterful piece in which Frank shows off the band as a rampaging, rocking symphony machine. Zappa is responsible for scoring all musical parts for each and every instrument and he has put extra work into this album. One moment the band sounds bluesy, and the next they are climbing rhapsodic heights and balancing complex tempos.

“We work hard because I still believe that what I am doing is creative and worthwhile,” Frank stated flatly. “Rock and roll today is mostly only a mass produced product, there is NO art in it, it is all in the packaging and promotion. I seem to remember that real rock and roll was a natural thing, not just something you tried to get the cleanest version of.”

“One of the songs on the upcoming album is called ‘Village In The Sun’,” Zappa offered. “It is a song that I wrote a while ago about an area outside of L.A., like the one where I grew up, one of those places that is set up with supermarkets and schools and everything right in the middle of nowhere.”

“A Little More Cheapness Please” is Zappa’s tribute to the grade Z monster movies. It is more like a light opera than a song. Then the instrumentation hits your ears and the Mothers begin to create their own monster of sound. Suddenly we are back again with Frank in his radio voice narrative as be describes thc horrifying monster as looking like an “upside down Ice Cream cone with teeth on the bottom.” Next he tells of a gigantic round poodle that absolutely runs amok in a small community. Could he be making a tongue in cheek statement on today’s mix and match sexuality? “Perhaps. it’s only a movie,” he smiles.

He makes one dedication on the album, on the last side, that seems to be fitting for the entire record and sums up his new attitude and accessibility better than anything. “This is dedicated to those people who have never tried it before . . . who have never thought of trying it before.”

Live All Over The Place is a record that capsulizcs everything that I have been doing since I started,” Frank said finally. It is his way of telling you that the Mothers of Invention are now ready to have visitors to their own special vision of rock music. It has been ten years, but for anybody who picks up a copy of the album, it was a wait well worth it.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net