I’ll give the Queen a backstage pass

By Chris Charlesworth

Melody Maker, January 1, 1977

DECEMBER, 1976, will go down as an especially industrious month for Frank Zappa, a musician whose regular workrate is never exactly sluggish.

Ensconced in a New York Hotel room with his wife Gail, he is directing, producing and rehearsing a band for a series of one-off Christmas shows at the Palladium Theatre that will document the history of the Mothers since their inception in 1967 to the present day. Zappa is importing the kind of liquid light show of yesteryear into the concerts.

Meanwhile, he has a new album “Zoot Allures” out on Warner Brothers, he is writing new material for the Christmas concerts which he hopes to record, and he is involved in a science-fiction movie project with United Artists. Also, he is up to the neck in law suits with his former manager, Herb Cohen, who runs Frank’s previous label, DiscReet.

Zappa has always been a businesslike fellow, running his affairs in a disciplined fashion. His output is staggering, to say the least: by his own calculations there are about 45 Zappa albums released, five on Verve (an MGM offshoot), 11 repackages from those five, 17 on either Bizarre. DiscReet or Warners, and about a dozen bootlegs.

In conversation Zappa is crisp and to the point, uttering statements that often seem to have been previously prepared.

Zappa says his new manager is Bennett Glotzer and he’s been involved with Blood, Sweat and Tears, Janis Joplin, Procol Harum and the Band, a pedigree that seems to satisfy Zappa, who is also quite taken with the name Glotzer.

Zappa’s latest band comprises Terry Bozzio on drums and vocals, Ray White on guitar, Patrick O‘Hearn on bass and Eddie Jobson, late of Roxy Music, on violin and synthesizers. .

The link-up between Jobson and Zappa occurred when Roxy Music supported Zappa at a show in Milwaukee last year. “When they’d finished their set he came over to me and said he’d like to audition for my group,” continued Frank. “I said OK and inquired how long his tour with Roxy was, and he joined us when it was over. He came on the road with us for a few days, tried out and flunked, and went back to Roxy for another six months.

“Then he called me up from London much later and told me that Roxy’s thing was over and asked whether I was still interested in a keyboard/violin player, so I gave him another chance. I wasn’t aware of him at all before he joined. I don’t know anything about glamrock,” admitted Zappa.

The band are all much younger than Zappa (“isn’t everybody?” he quipped when I mentioned this), but he is hopeful they will spend a long term with him. “They’re all very good musicians. And they’re all very well preserved.”

Between times Zappa has produced an album with Grand Funk, a record that will probably be their last, since the latest news from the Funk camp is that the band have split up.

“According to them they had been trying to get me as a producer for quite some time,” explained Zappa. “They first discussed it with me last year, but they thought of me several years ago when they were shopping for producers. I guess whoever was handling them then thought I was too weird.

“But they finally called and I did it. They’re great, and I like them as people, but they actually broke up in the middle of my recording sessions. On the first day of overdubs they split up, even though I had a meeting until four in the morning with them, trying to get them back together. They finished the album and I thought everything was OK, but it seems it wasn’t.

“The last I heard was that they were getting ready to do a tour, but they never toured. I saw them in Detroit when I last worked there and they told me they‘d broken up for good.”

Aside from Grand Funk, Zappa has also spent some time with Black Sabbath, a relationship that culminated in Zappa’s compering their show at Madison Square Garden recently. I remarked that his preoccupation with such heavy metallurgists seemed at odds with his own music.

“Not so,” he replied. “I don’t think those groups are similar at all and if you had to say that in front of Grand Funk they would become quite irate. They’re coming from two different worlds. I think Grand Funk is like an ultimate garage band and Black Sabbath are completely elsewhere.”

Zappa’s last visit to England was a non-performing trip to appear in court in his case against the Royal Albert Hall who. four years ago, banned his stage presentation of 200 Motels. Zappa lost and it cost him about $50,000. “We filed an appeal, but my attorneys wanted another $14,000, so I thought ‘who needs this?’ and gave it all up.”

But is he bitter towards England as a result of this and the incident at the Rainbow when he was pushed from the stage?

“Well, when I first went to England I thought everything was cute. They had the Beatles, they had those little pointed-roof buildings, they had Aquascutum raincoats and those neat bowler hats and umbrellas. Then I went over and came up against the Queen and her pervasive influence.

“I guess I just have a lot more rational view of jolly old England these days. What I once said was that I’m not going back there unless I get an apology from the Queen, but my advisers have informed me that that’s an untenable position. Waiting for the Queen to say ’sorry, Frank’ won’t do at all.

”She won’t apologise for the breach of contract, and that’s what the whole lawsuit was really about, not whether 200 Motels was obscene or not. This point was very clear in the judge’s final statement. It was a breach of contract trial and not an obscenity trial with us versus the Albert Hall, which is the Queen by proxy,

“The judge was right when he said there had been a breach of contract, because we had a contract to play there, and he was also right when he said that 200 Motels wasn’t obscene. But when it came down to whether the Albert Hall would pay damages, the judge said. ‘Well now, wait a minute. The Royal Albert Hall is a royal institution and we can’t go around giving these Americans money‘.

“I would probably have felt a lot worse about it if I had gone through with the appeal and spent a lot more money, but I thought, $50,000 is enough. Besides, I’ll give her (the Queen) a backstage pass just to show there’s no ill-feeling.”

Moving on to the upcoming New York shows, Zappa explained that in 1967 he used to play in New York at the Garrick Theatre. two shows a night for six nights, and attract a regular bunch of fans each time. His idea is to recreate those shows for those people.

“In England, though, we’ll be doing a lot of new stuff. We’ll be doing this piece called ‘Punky’s Whips’ which is about our drummer having a peculiar fascination for the lips and hairdo of a singer in a band called the Angels. There’s another new song called ’Titties And Beer’ in which the drummer gets to play the devil.

“There’s a whole bunch of new things that haven‘t been recorded on any album, but we are, in fact, recording them at the Palladium. The idea is not so much a live album, because I may well overdub things, but I’m just hoping the quality will be good enough.”

It seemed, I said, that he was extraordinarily prolific, with a new album released and yet more new, unrecorded material to play. “That’s just by contrast to other people who are so busy chopping a line of coke to put up their nose that they don’t have time to do anything in the music business. At the last count I had 45 albums out.”

This statement seemed an exaggeration, but Zappa went on to enumerate. “I made five for MGM, and out of those they repackaged 11, and that makes a total of 16. It’s incredible to think about it but it’s true – and actually it’s worse than that because the 11 are actually repackaged out of the first three.

“They didn’t repackage ‘Lumpy Gravy’ or ‘Ruben And The Jets’, which means that all the repackaged albums were made from the first three albums. I have no control over it, and what happened was that every time a new album would come out on Warners, MGM would repackage old material and have it on the stands whenever I was touring. In many instances their distribution was better than Warner Brothers, and people who didn’t know any better would pick up these old albums thinking they were new just because they had a new cover.

“People would go to the store thinking I had a new album out, and whichever one they’d see they’d pick up. They probably didn’t know what the title was, so who knows what happened?

“On top of these there are 17 on Warner Brothers and about a dozen bootlegs. Most of the old stuff on my records was never really played perfect, but gradually, as the quality of the musicians I can acquire for the group improves, and as I get people with more technical skill, I can get better readings of the tracks.

“The difficult part with me has always been getting the right attitude towards the vocals in the things. Sometimes I’ve picked up people as vocalists who don’t know how to put an idea across from the early days, and that’s why I‘m always writing new material.”

The new band is simply called Zappa. The Mothers of Invention, it seems, have finally been laid to rest. “This is so far removed from what the Mothers were. It’s about time people stopped asking to see Jimmy Carl Black and those people, though Flo and Eddie were going to do the Christmas shows with me but their schedule didn’t work out that way.”

Writing, it seems, is Zappa’s favourite occupation, his raison d’etre for running the band. “I’ll take the trouble to run a band so I get the chance to write for it,” he said. “The writing is what I want to do, and I’ll put up with all the peripheral s— so that I get a chance to hear what I write.

“I can’t help it if people aren’t yet ready for my texts,” he continued, referring to the frequent banning of his tracks by radio stations and general controversy that surrounds Zappa’s lyrics. “That‘s the way I talk. Can you imagine me sitting around and writing a bunch of love songs? The ideas come from the kind of life I live.”

Zappa tapes almost every live show he does and retains the tapes for ever. The only ones he misses are at halls where a fee is demanded, such as the Felt Forum, which charges a $5,000 “origination fee” for the right to turn a tape recorder on.

“I have a warehouse of tapes, and I’ve listened to most of them. I average 100 shows a year, and I’ve been doing this since 1971 so I’ve now got about 2,000 boxes of tapes in store. I enjoy playing the music, and I enjoy playing it back and comparing things.

“Some of my bands are more improvisational than others. When George Duke and Ruth Underwood were in the band we used to make up a lot of stuff on the spot and come up with really amazing pieces some days.”

These tapes, or some of them at least, may one day be released as part of a 10-record set, a project that was first mooted by Zappa three years ago but which has yet to reach fruition.

“There are some logistical hassles to putting out something like that, but we’re still working on it. Possibly it will be released in Europe before the US because these things have worked well in Europe before.

“It’s got things like the earliest discs I ever did. Side one has a cut that was done in 1958 with me, Beefheart and my little brother recorded in a machine in the English department at school. It is the first recording of Beefheart singing. We do a blues called “Lost In A Whirlpool”? The first couple of discs have stuff, that runs chronologically from 1958 to 1968, some documentary stuff, some songs that were recorded and left off albums, and some demo material.

“For example, the ‘Hot Rats’ album was going to be a double record, and there’s a whole extra album of stuff with Sugarcane Harris which I’ve just hung onto. On each album there’ve been songs that we couldn’t fit in.”

Zappa is working on a price tag of $50 (about £30) for the record which, as well as live and extra material, will include what he calls “documentary” items which amount to tape recorded conversations concerning the Mothers and their career.

“People won’t be able to live without it because it has all the hot poop on the band. We have a recording of Jeff Simmons quitting the group just before we did ‘200 Motels‘ – Mark Volman had a recorder going in a canvas bag on a chair during the discussion and he gave me the tape later. They’re not re-enactments, but the real thing.

“Also there’s a recording of the old Mothers rehearsing the material from the ‘Freak Out’ album. They’re learning how to sing ‘How Could I Be Such A Fool’. There’s also some policemen raiding our recording session when we were recording the ‘Uncle Meat’ album. They’d had a noise complaint.”

Few of Zappa’s bands have been particularly stable and the current one is no exception. “I just form bands to see what they can do,” he said, as we wound up the conversation.

”I think there are people waiting in line to join my band, simply because you can join the Mothers or whatever. You can’t join the Beatles and you can’t join the Rolling Stones, but you can join in with what I do because it changes all the time.

“Some people join me because it is a logical stepping-stone to the next phase of their career, and they won’t stay no matter how good the band is. Once somebody claps for them and they get the spotlight on their clothing, they will want to go off and get an individual record contract. I just perform the function of a talent scout.”