Enjoying the glandular arena

By Karl Dallas

Melody Maker, January 26, 1980

Frank Zappa wasn't feeling too good, which made two of us. He was suffering from some sort of stomach ailment and was sitting in a room behind the marble portals of the Hyde Park Hotel looking pale and wan and living on herb tea. I was still trying to figure out the central message of his latest opus, "Joe's Garage", which made the whole massive enterprise worthwhile.

We began by talking about his new movie, "Baby Snakes", which he was over to promote. It's been advertised in USA as being about "people who do stuff that is not normal". Without getting ourselves diverted on that perennial question of what is "normal" anyway, I asked Frank what was his attitude to such people.

"I'm in favour of them," he replied unequivocally, " because without deviation, progress is not possible. I think society should be more sensitive to the contributions of people who do stuff that is not normal because it's to their advantage,"

But, in Zappa's work, not-normal tended to mean sexually abnormal, didn't it? There was, after all, a great deal of sexual stuff in "Joe's Garage", wasn't there?

"Wait a minute, let's define our terms here. Let's try 'a great deal'. Would you tell me what constitutes 'a great deal' of reference to abnormal sexual attitudes?"

I am not about to get snarled up in a statistical analysis of Zappa's opera on a blowjob-by-blowjob basis, but I give him an instance of what I have in mind: the Closet scene, when Joe picks up a bionic sex-aid, takes it home, and plooks it to death.

"That's not necessarily sexual abnormality, it's social abnormality too. And that's only one of the songs out of six sides, which is not a great deal. Not more than 50 per cent of the content of the album, so it is not dominated by sexual activities of an abnormal nature,"

Later, it emerges that Zappa is somewhat paranoid about what he feels is a conspiracy among the rock media to portray him as disgusting – his own word.

"I don't think there has been one single person in rock 'n' roll history who has been reviled as extensively as myself – not for what he writes, but for who he is. I read things by people I've never met who don't talk about my records but do personal attacks on me as a person. It leaves an impression in the minds of the public that aren't already consumers for the stuff that I am a disgusting person, which is Not Good,"

He is not such a person?

"No, I'm a groovy guy."

But, since he raised the question, doesn't he do all the things he portrays on his albums?

"No, none of it."

He leads an ordinary straight sexual life, as ordinary and mundane as the rest of us?

"No, it's not ordinary and it's not mundane, but it does not involve golden showers and appliances. I enjoy what I do in the glandular arena. I have a lovely wife and four children, a marriage, the works."


Back to the album, and the lines that have caught most people's attention at the end of the three albums: "They're pretty good musicians / But it doesn't make no difference / If they're good musicians / Because anybody who would buy this record / Doesn't give a fuck if there's good musicians / On it."

Turns out that this is a kind of in-phrase within the band. "One night after a rehearsal I'm on my way to the car and these three veterans of the band come out and start giving me this ration of shit and the line came up, I think it was from Ed, like 'Hey, you know, we're pretty good musicians', and I said 'That's all you are, just pretty good musicians and don't you forget it. There's not one virtuoso in the band and if you don't co-operate it's not going to get done.' And so the whole 'pretty good musicians' syndrome is built into that song for the amusement of the band."

Isn't this, how shall we put it, just a touch self-indulgent?

"I wish somebody would tell me what the fuck self-indulgent means. This is not committee art. It's not my function to make sure that everything that is said and done on a record is 100 per cent accessible to 100 per cent of the listening population of the earth.

"I make music that I make for an audience that has a special affinity for that kind of stuff. It's for them. A lot of the people who make the music are also part of the audience for the music and they need to services, so it's not self-indulgence.

"And for the people who can't follow it there are plenty of really accessible groups with the old mundane, totally sludgeworthy stuff on their records."

The song carries on: "Because this is a stupid song / AND THAT'S THE WAY I LIKE IT." Does we have a special liking for writing stupid songs?

"I absolutely do. I've said it many times before, and I'll say it again, like hydrogen, stupidity is one of the building blocks of the universe. As you come to grips with the splendour of stupidity itself, the process of being alive not only becomes more tolerable but can even be enjoyable."

But Zappa himself isn't one who would suffer stupidity in others gladly, I venture.

"A person who is drunk and vomits on you is pretty stupid and I don't like that, likewise someone who is stoned on dope and trips over your furniture and break things. But there are things like the pronunciation of the lead singer in the group that did that white person's version of 'Louie Louie', that's stupid, but I can enjoy it."


There's a live album in the pipeline, but he rather hopes to make his next one a dance-oriented piece, done in the studio he's just completing by the side of his home.

"I have a lot of specialised synthesizer equipment, and it might be interesting to take the idea that the basic pulse of the rhythm is always going to be danceable and you can go apeshit on top of it. There'll always be four kickdrum beats to the bar but you can do a lot of things with 4/4, you don't always have to subdivide the bar into twos and threes. There are other ways to do it, so long as that boom-boom is there.

It'll sound like disco on the bottom, but harmonically and melodically you can do things that are very surprising.

The other thing is that there is a chance that a couple of Zappa's major orchestral pieces for symphony orchestra, needing 110 musicians, will be done by the Vienna Symphony in the summer of 1981 – but Zappa doesn't want to wait that long. Wasn't it frustrating that this side of his music was never represented?

"Of course. I think what I do in that realm is easily as good as anything else that anyone else has done or will do. I'm a good composer, I can write for orchestra, and I think up things that no one's ever heard of and you'll never hear of until I can get somebody to do it. So I continue to write the stuff in my spare time."

Why bother, if it's seldom or never performed?

"I always think about what happened to Varese. He got so pissed off he stopped composing for 25 years and I think that the world was the worse for it.

"I'm not interested in selling to classical consumers.

"This music is for the people who already buy my records only they don't know it yet."