Frank Zappa: O.K. Frank, Let It Roll …

By Chris Salewicz (words) and Chalkie Davies (pictures)

New Musical Express, March 5, 1977

Is the conceptual continuity of your output macrostructure still operative?

"Yes," nods Frank Zappa solemnly.

So, in that case, this interview must be part of that?

"Yeah." He nods again. "Doesn't that give you a warm secure feeling?"

It makes me feel happy to know that I’ve become part of a pattern.

"Isn’t everybody? Remember, the pattern is what makes the wallpaper work."

So you consciously perform in an interview?"

"Of course." The sometimes-quiet-intimidating stentorian Zappa vocals boom. “You’re an interviewer. You have to perform like an interviewer. I’m an interviewee. I have to perform like an interviewee.

“You see, if we don’t perform then we don’t function. If we don’t function then we’re not viable. You wouldn’t want to be unviable. If you get to be unviable then you become redundant.”

Of course.

However, situations must surely occur in which the consent of the performance may break down.

“Well, I don’t know what kind of interviews you do. Or the kind of people you talk to. Or what sort of breakdown you’re talking about. I do interviews because it’s part of my job.

“I don’t pretend that anyone with ever talked to me for any one minute of my life wanted to know anything about me.”

One assumes that this is a philosophical and not a morbid stance that our Frankie is talking. However.

“Don’t be so self-deprecating.”

“I’m just being realistic. I’ve got statistics to prove that.”

No, no. You’re quite wrong …

Thinks you are, after all, a major cultural figure. A Spokesman For A Generation. Even if it’s only to pick your brains we want to talk to you.

Why, even young Chalkie Davies, lensman supreme, was just telling me as we came up in the lift to this penthouse suite at the Dorchester that you are one of his heroes.

“Hah. Humbug. Look.” Frank leans across the coffee table that separates us and wags an admonishing forefinger my way. “Let me tell you something about interviews. I do tons of them. I keep doing tons of them. I never read them. I don’t listen to them when they’re on the radio. I only do it because it’s part of my work.

“And you come and you do interviews because it’s part of your job.”

However, I actually quite like doing interviews. I do my job because …

“That doesn’t mean that I hate doing interviews just because I do a lot of them. But I have to be realistic about what they are and what it’s like to do them. They ask me the same questions over and over again.”

Perhaps you do too many interviews …

“There’s no way to do too many interviews when you’re signed to a record company like Warners. Somebody’s got to sell the records!”

Aha! So there’s the rub!


Photographer Chalkie Davies and myself have been engaged in an Interview Situation with Francis Vincent Zappa of Hollywood, USA, for some fifteen minutes now.

During the space of this quarter of an hour it has become quickly apparent that this will not turn out to be the most casual rock’n’roll rap in which either of us have participated.

Perhaps, it is felt at first, we should put it down to the heavy tour-fatigue in which Zappa entourage is presumably drenched as it enters the final week of six months on the road. Perhaps, on the other hand, it’s just caused by some uncomfortable planetary setup that’s affecting this late part of the afternoon.

Whatever, a little more trust and a little less of what seems to be suspiciously close to paranoia would certainly have diminished the severe attack of flatulence that has been rapidly inducted in the interviewer by the tension gathered in the lounge of Frank’s suite.

We are not alone with Frank.

Also present are two not unattractive large-breasted American ladies. One sits on the coach next to Frank while the other leans back in an armchair on the other side of the room glancing of a copy of Rolling Stone.

Casually stretching his close to seven feet across the carpet is Mr. Smothers, a gentleman of confused racial origins. It is Mr. Smothers who, wherever Frank steps to the front of the stage in his shows, hunkers down in the wings, equating protectively like a Zappaesque version of the Presidential Secret Service bodyguard. His gig appears to be to prevent a repetition of the Rainbow incident in 1971 in which Frank was flung offstage into the pit, hardly fracturing his right leg in the process, by the jealous boyfriend of a zealous female fan.

He eyes us with the suspicion that his role requires. Probably he expects Chalkie to leap up and push Frank off the coach.

Anyway, within the first two minutes of the interview Smothers instructs him to point his flash upwards so as not to damage Frank’s artistic eyes. Then he appears to indulge in an attempt to take out plucky photog’s light meter to pieces. Maybe he thinks it’s a bomb.

From the second we’ve walked through the doorway both of us have picked up on the uneasy edge that’s hanging there.

Frank doesn’t seem too strong on wit or articulacy today. Most of my early questions utilize more words than do Frank’s replies.

Conversely, though when Frank gets going with the old verbiage, he indicates a love of the dramatic effect of Pinteresque pregnant poses. On such occasions the flatulent interviewer may become confused and use one of the breaks to put a question. This invariably seems to irritate Frank a little.

And, just to ensure that matters get really perverse at times, Frank frequently interrupts my line of questioning when I’m only halfway through a sentence – thereby frequently misinterpreting it.

There really does seem to be something of a communication problem.


Nor does the adopted line of questioning appear to help matters.

For many years I’ve been fascinated by the self-perpetuated concept of Frank Zappa as Total Cynic. It is a concept with which I feel great sympathy.

Now, of course, such subject matter would not normally be broached at the beginning of an interview with, say, Ian Anderson. With such a fellow one would first soften him up with a few stock questions, win his confidence and then number him.

With Frank Zappa, however, it is felt that the empathy quotient will inevitably be considerably higher. Why – does not a listening to the fellow’s platters suggest a closely related soul? Do we not now and then experience a tension of delight at the sometimes uncanny mutuality of the perceptions therein included.

Dive in, therefore. Rapidly search out the roots of such finely matured cynicism. Remember, we only have an hour before we turn in to Chris Welch.

Frank doesn’t want to play, though. Thus (in a weary defensive tone):

“There’s nothing wrong with being cynical. But see, when you start an interview off with that and you start approaching the word ‘cynic’ as a negative value I start wondering that you’re dealing with …”

“But it’s not being given a negative value at all. I’m a great believer in it.”

A not particularly trusting nod of the head: “It’s the only key to survival.”

Well we seem to have got off on the wrong foot here, but no matter. Forge ahead. Give him something he can get his teeth into.

“Do you think that Americans understand your music and your lyrics any better these days?”


“Do you think that Europeans understand your music?”


“Do you think that Europeans understand more than Americans?”


“I would’ve actually thought that they did.”

“I don’t.”


Now, by this time, not only is the flatulence increasing but I am quite frankly beginning to feel that perhaps a major reassessment of Our Hero is necessary.

It is decided then that something must be done to save the situation. There is truly one weapon left to use. It’s crazy, it’s dangerous, but it might be work.

“Look, I must tell you you’re not exactly living up to the reputation you enjoy amongst English journalists for delivering Rent-a-Spiels.”

The Zappa features contort in a mixture of fury and amazement.


This is The Moment That Changes The Course Of The Interview.

From now on Frank doesn’t exactly sparkle, but he does.

Come to think of it, he does turn up a Rent-a-Spiel. First, he presents The Treating On Interviews that opened this piece and we found out just why everyone is seeming like such cross patches.

Then – and interrelated with this – he claims that earlier that afternoon his record company, Warner Brothers, had cancelled a television interview he had been doe to take part in “because they were afraid that I would go on and say things about their record company.”

Then, it must be said, is somewhat at odds with what The Man From The Press Office had told to Chalkie and The Interviewer in the lift. The burden of his viewpoint being that he cancelled it, not Warners.

“I did not cancel it. They made it look like there was a mix-up between the management and somebody down there. But the source that I have says that Warner Brothers are the ones who actually cancelled it. I agreed to do the television show this afternoon. Apparently someone from Warner Brothers called over there and cancelled the television show.”

Smothers calls Frank to the bedroom telephone. Frank returns with the first hint of a smile we’ve yet seen from him.

“That was the record company setting up a television interview for when I come back from Scotland.”

Call Chalkie’o’Chris. Bad kharma de-vibed instantly.


However, it must be remembered that Zappa is currently engaged in litigations with his former manager, Herb Cohen. So maybe he’s just down on the music business in general?

“No, it’s just Warners.”

So what is it particularly that they’ve done?

“Do you want the list? I mean, is this going to be relevant to your article?”

Well, possibly. I needn’t put it in if …

“No-o-o-o!” the Zappa vocals bellow, “I’m happy to have it in wherever it’s possible. Just jam it in there. Okay?”

There then follows the standard Warners Bros Sucks soliloquy which – apart from the fact that Frank already delivered it to NME via Miles (issue dated Dec 4 1976) – is not really too fascinating to anyone who isn’t into music as “product”. Which Zappa apparently is – since he says the term frequently (and totally without irony) during the obsessive diatribe which ensues.

Of course, all this does seem to bring out something of a contradiction in Frank Zappa. Maybe it’s just the background he had in the advertising business before becoming a full time musician, bet he does seem to thrive as much as the most cliched marketing man on discussions of sales records and other related matters, all of which are spoken in the appropriate Music Biz-ese.

Later on in the interview he is reminded that he has spoken in the past of the need to retain Absolute Freedom. To hang on to that in the Musical Business, he replies, “I have to learn to talk about what they want to hear. They don’t want to talk about music and they don’t want to talk about art so they’d better be talking about units. Until you find out what a unit means and what it is and how much it means to them you’ll never be able to carry on a conversation with a record company. They don’t give a fuck about what’s in the music. It’s the units.”

He pours a hefty slug of Chivas Regal into his glass.

“I’ve been associated with Warners for five years and I just think it’s time to go someplace else.

“Just to find somebody who’s enthusiastic about what I do at the record company.

You know, I go in the studios and I really think I'm doing something wonderful. And there are people who buy the records who think it's wonderful, too.

“But there isn't anyone at the fuckin' record company who'd agree with that. As far as they're concerned it's a box of shoes."


It is pointed out that there is something of a massive irony working here, that Zappa’s stance of Total Cynic to all things has, in the case of the music business, been thoroughly vindicated – even though it’s Frank himself who got screwed.

“That’s the way it goes,” mutters the man, raising his glass in a mock toast.

It is also pointed out, though, that there are many fans of The Mothers Of Invention who find Frank Zappa’s current output slight in comparison to the fearlessly uncompromising epics of his early days.

“A total cop-out” was how one member of the staff of this paper described the recent albums.

“Maybe you’re just getting old,” he replies, a little sourly.

Certainly am. No question of that.

Finally, the forces of articulate defence gather:

“There’s a lot of people listening to the records now that wouldn’t touch any early staff with a ten-foot pole. There are people who think my first album was ‘Apostrophe’.

There’s no accounting for taste,” he adds, a little disappointingly. “If you don’t like it there’s somebody else who does. And that’s the attitude you have to have when you’re making music. Who wants to go out and make music that is satisfactory to every person in the world? What kind of mishmash would that be?

“Somebody likes it? Great. If they don’t then great too. There’s plenty of other stuff for them. That’s the only positive approach you can take.”

The implication was, however, that you could be making more “direct” statements.

“Are you trying to tell me that the statements I’ve already made are invalid and don’t apply anymore?”

No, Frank. On the other hand …

“Now just remember this: not only are they still valid but they’re still available on record. And I don’t feel any need to repeat them, paraphrase them, or chew them up and spit them out again. I’ve said it once and it’s still true and there it is and those records are still available.

“And a lot of people who are listening to the stuff today, if they like ‘Zoot Allures’ – or whatever the latest album happens to be – might go into the stores and check out the others and work backwards. Twenty-two albums worth.”

Mmm. Quite an armful.

Forgive us for saying so, but you seem a little more concerned with Commercial Potential that you were in the days of the Mothers.

Frank Zappa stares into his glass of whisky:

“Every record I ever made I always thought was a hit. (Pause) …. That’s how crazy I am. I thought ‘Freak Out’ was a hit.”

An atmosphere of melancholy intrudes. The interrogator listens patiently while Uncle Frank drones out the Verve Records Sucked Also spiel.

Can Frank Zappa, one is at last forced most seriously to consider, have possibly become a boring old fart?


Politely I wonder it the more … “dilated” music on the recent Zappa albums had been an indication of the on-set of middle age. It’s interesting that, though he’s now thirty-six, the new Zappa band is probably the youngest he’s ever had.

Does he, perhaps, hope “that it’ll make me younger minute by minute by standing on stage with them? God forbid.”

Eddie Jobson was telling me that you rehearsed with an almost fanatic stringency, that you’re a very hard taskmaster.

“Ah, that’s a bunch of bullshit. I’m a nice guy.”

Then, smugly cracking the joints of his long index fingers:

“Somebody’s got to. If they can’t discipline themselves then it has to be applied externally. If they can’t take it from the outside and develop their own internal self-discipline then they’re not going to be in the group. I mean, I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life going around disciplining people to make them do stuff, you know. All I say is ‘I want it good. I want you to learn it and get it right and play it constantly right.’

“After that, the rest is up to them.

“A lot of people, just wrap. And then they can’t admit to themselves or to anybody else that it was them that fucked up. They always leave the group and say I was driving them too hard or something like that. But what it comes down to is they just couldn’t control themselves.”

Have you possibly felt for some time that what you’ve tried to do has all been a bit too much of a fight?

“It’s never easy,” he shakes his head resignedly – before swiftly staking off despondency by spoofing an archetypal Positive Thinking Americas accent, “Course, I’m not a losing kind of person.

“But I wouldn’t mind having it a little easier than it is because I also like to sleep. I’ve just found this last year I spent a lot of time worrying about things that were not musical.”

Then, maybe just to make us go home a little happier, Frank Zappa tells of the inspiration behind the ‘Miss Pinky’ track on ‘Zoot Allures’.

“It’s a device that was advertised in a Finnish pornographic magazine. I might even have a copy of it here,” he says, making an abortive search of his dark tan leather attaché case.

“It was a vinyl head. About this big” – Gestures the size of a human head with his hands. – “With short hair. Mouth open about like that. Sponge rubber throat. Two speed vibrator attached to the throat. A squeeze balls on the side underneath an ear that makes the jaws collapse.

“And that is Miss Pinky – that was the only thing that was in English in this ad.

“And I think ‘Jeez-zaz K-Rist. What is this?” Zappa is now actually laughing for the first time since we’ve been in the room.

“So I said ‘Well, we’ve got to get one of these.’ So we looked all over. Couldn’t find one until we got to Amsterdam. Smothers went into a se shop and found two of them. So he bought them both.

“We put one on the crew bus for the boys to have fun with. And we used another one onstage and had it suck all the microphone a couple of times.

“And so I wrote the song about the little rubber head. It’s just straight reportage. ‘I got a girl with a little rubber head / Messes around every night just before I go to bed / She never talked back like a lady might do / And she looks like she loves it every time I get through.’”

Does this kind of life, dear reader, look interesting to you?


“I hope you get all your problems sorted out,” I tell Frank from the doorway as Chalkie and I are leaving.

“Yeah, I’m sure I will,” he nods. “Then I’ll just get a whole new set to replace them …”

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