What's A Mother To Do?

By Ken Paulson

Triad, October 28, 1977

Frank Zappa has never been America's most lovable musician, but on his current tour he's out for blood.

In addition to crusading against commercial pap in general and ignorant audiences in particular, Zappa has launched a legal assault on his former record company for damages in excess of $5 million.

Litigation doesn't appear to be paramount in Zappa's mind, however. Rather than dwell upon his difficulties with Discreet Records, Zappa has created a new label to be distributed by Phonogram and begun a national concert tour, including an appearance Nov. 4 at the Uptown Theater.

Although Zappa maintains his present band is "the best musical ensemble I have ever had the pleasure of unleashing on that jaded, disgusting world of Pop music," Zappa believes most of it is wasted on his audience.

"Well, they do derive something from it," Zappa explains. "It's just like in America, the reading comprehension is so low that it's hard to think of America as a literate country, but people do read. That doesn't mean they comprehend what they read. Americans also listen to a lot of records, but that doesn't mean that they know what they hear or hear what they listen to."

"I don't think Americans have the criteria by which to judge. It's just the way the educational system in the culture works. We have an industrial, mechanized, consumer-oriented society. All art is based upon the consumer's goals."

Zappa says his music is consumed, but it's not designed to be consumer material. "Many groups today write their material for program directors of radio stations. I don't."

That point has been self-evident since Captain Glasspack and his Magic Mufflers changed their name to the Mothers of Invention, unleashing Freak Out on an unsuspecting world. This clearly was not the stuff of which AM playlists are made.

But Zappa wasn't content with revolting program directors and developing a faithful cult following. He wanted to go for mainstream America, so he decided to place ads for We're Only In It For the Money in a previously untapped medium.

"It was the first ad for an album ever placed in a comic book:" Zappa says. "At that time, the largest audience for comic books was servicemen. They would have sold better if the PX's would have put them out. The PX's wouldn't stock them."

Zappa also had the satisfaction of sending a special selection of materials to those who responded to the ad. "We had a kit," he recalls. "It contained the Constitution of the United States for quick and easy reference in case you wanted to see if you had any rights left."

As a result, Zappa had to chalk the campaign up as a very expensive curiosity. That one ad cost $7,000. ''I've got one framed on my wall from an Aquaman comic."

When Zappa's assault on the Armed Forces faltered, he set his sights on protecting his particular musical interests. Toward that end he created two new record labels with a distinctly different slant than parent company Warner Brothers.

"The way the thing was originally structured, it was a distribution deal with Warner Brothers for a label called Bizarre. Our deal specified that anything that Warners did not wish to distribute that we brought them for Bizarre, we had the right to take elsewhere. And since we had some other products that Warner Brothers wasn't too enthusiastic about and didn't want to distribute on Bizarre, we could make up another label which would have independent distribution. This was not originally distributed by Warner Brothers, but Warners eventually bought it."

The latter project became Straight Records, a home for non-conformist musicians, including Alice Cooper and the GTO's. While Cooper has gone on to become a successful crooner, the fate of Girls Together Outrageously was a little more obscure. According to Zappa, "one is dead and the rest of them got married."

Although a few of Zappa's albums have warranted critical condemnations, the bulk of his work has been favorably received by the rock press. Ironically Zappa is one of his own worst critics. For example, his collaboration with Jean-Luc Ponty on "King Kong" has become standard fare for FM programming, but Zappa looks back on the album with regret.

"First of all, that album was produced on a very slim budget. It cost $8,000. The whole album was done in two sessions and that's cutting it too slim for that kind of stuff. Basically, what happened with that album is that they were sight-reading; you can't just take a bunch of musicians into the studio, hand them the music, say 'read this' and expect to get an impassioned performance. Basically they just don't care."

Although Zappa is frequently described as a "multi-media musician," he continues to avoid American television because of his failure to sell A Token of His Extreme to the networks. The film of a Mothers of Invention concert has been shown on prime time TV in France, Germany and Switzerland, but remains in limbo in this country. Zappa says the show was rejected because "the American television broadcasters want specials with stars on them, just dozens of stars walking around, getting next to each other in front of television cameras. They want Cher, Bette Midler and Elton John. They want television personalities for television functions. "

Zappa's approach to making a television special is a touch more cerebral. He said A Token of His Extreme is worthy of broadcast because of its minute detail.

"It's perfectly recorded and it's edited very tightly, so that every time something important in the music is happening, you can see it being played," Zappa said. "It's the kind of editing that's impossible to achieve without spending hours and hours of time. It's remarkable from that standpoint."

Zappa's latest project is Läther, an album that Zappa characterizes as "the most incredible album ever to be made available for universal consumption." While that contention is open to debate, there is no denying the musical competence of the band playing on both the album and the current tour.

Adrian Belew is the rhythm guitarist, Ed Mann plays percussion, Patrick O'Hearn is on bass, Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars are the keyboard players and Terry Bozzio is the drummer. This all new line-up reflects Zappa's philosophy about keeping his options open. "I change every year," he says. "The benefit is that the people who want to go can go and the people who want to stay can stay. It gives me a new set of variables to work with every year. It's always different. You change one guy and the sound of the band changes."

In the months to come, Zappa faces a number of challenges. He must complete his tour, promote his album and still find time to escape the brewing legal quagmire. Yet for Zappa, all of these difficulties pale when compared with the daily responsibility of having to go out and play for an audience. "It's a challenge every day," Zappa asserts. "Just to go out in a hall and make a note come out you're going up against all the laws of physics. How's that for a challenge?"

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