Zappa: He Are What He Is

By Bill Milkowski

Good Times, December 1-14, 1981

Irreverent ravings on radioplay and Barking Pumpkin Records

Ever since his honorary induction into the rock & roll Hall of Fame with his 1967 debut album, Freak Out, the name Frank Zappa has been associated with irreverence. His discography to date may very well rank alongside the collected works of such renowned cynics and social commentators as Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and H.L. Mencken – all first-class upstarts in their own right.

Zappa seems proud of his cynical streak. Though he prefers to think of his attitude more as common sense realism, he admits, "I don't think that being cynical is necessarily a bad thing because if you're not cynical then you swallow the whole enchilada. You have to sit down and evaluate what people tell you. You have to read between the lines, and there's a lot of lines to read between."

He's been doing just that for the past 15 years, but his outspoken manner has branded Zappa as an undesirable in some circles; blacklisted to a point.

"I wouldn't want to put it that bluntly," he confides, while sipping tea in his Park Avenue apartment and sounding off about the 'plot' to censor his latest LP, You Are What You Is, "but it has some elements of that. There are many broadcasters who turn crimson at the mention of my name and just can't stand the idea of putting my stuff on the air."

In these days of play-safe playlists, Frank Zappa is being squeezed out. His material has been deemed too controversial or too cerebral or somehow too dangerous for radio exposure, a grim reality that accounts for the bitterness in his voice as he explains the political machinations working to undo him.

"Today radio is not like it used to be. Most of the stations that matter are programmed by five people who are not even located in the same town where the radio stations are broadcasting from. I'll give you a good example: When we played in Tucson, Arizona, the station that was cosponsoring the concert asked me to come on the air and be a DJ like I did here on WPIX one time. I flew in the night before the concert from Las Vegas, went to the station to do my DJ shot, I go in there, shake hands with the DJ, they announce that I'm the air, I say, 'Great, you got my albums? They say yeah. Fine. I stick it on, play it, but as soon as I started playing my album the program director called up and told him not to let me do it. So I said on the air, 'What is this? You invite me in to be a disc jokey and you won't let me play my own records? I'm not gonna stay here for this. Thanks. Goodbye!' And I left.

Fighting the Formula

"The station had just changed its format and had become an Abrams station, which meant that it was being programmed from remote control a zillion miles away. Somebody in another city was telling the people in Tucson, Arizona what they must hear," he continues in a huff. "Prior to the time that they became an Abrams station, they had a record catalogue of 2,000 LPs. After they became an Abrams station they threw out 1,500 ... cut their library down to 500 albums, including none of mine. They went on a total formula of what to play and what they wanted me to do on the air was play Pat Benatar, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon and Journey and sit there and be a DJ announcing those records. And I wasn't gonna do it. There's no reason why I should have to front for somebody else's music when I think that what I'm doing is perfectly fine and that the audience would enjoy hearing it.

"So I told the audience the next day at the concert what had happened and they were upset about it. When I spoke to some of the kids there they said that prior to the time when the station became formatted, it was a better station," he says, concluding, "People are grasping at straws in order to make more money during the present economic crunch. And when a programmer in another city says, 'If you take my formula and use this formula, you will win in the ratings war, which means that you can charge more money for advertising,' then a lot of people go for that. And that's what has happened. Out of 150 stations that matter, they are all formula."

Apparently, there is no room for Frank Zappa in this air-tight formula. His new album is receiving virtually no airplay outside of New York, Long Island and Connecticut. "It's totally dead every place else in the country," he sneers. "The album is not selling at all. It's one of the best albums that we've ever made and most people don't even know that it's out there."

So what's the problem, Frank? Why won't they play your music?

 "Because in the wisdom of the people who program stations, a song with an idea above drugs, sex and rock & roll or a boy-girl situation is something that they don't want on the air. They are successfully removing all social, moral or aesthetic content from what goes on the radio. You will hear the same ten songs for the rest of your life now. That's what it's down to. As long as stations in an area refuse to take the responsibility of picking their own music, when they turn it over to an 'expert' some place else and the 'expert' sends them a list and says, 'Play this and you're gonna win in the ratings war' ... as long as that's all that matters that's all you're gonna get."

So what's a frustrated artist to do? Some comprise their integrity and play it safe to ensure what little radio play they might be able to muster. Others, like Zappa, stubbornly stand pat, refusing to sell out or change one iota. But rather than withdraw into bitter seclusion and angrily accept his fate, Zappa has leapt into action by 1) forming his own label, Barking Pumpkin Records, and 2) devising a new marketing scheme that precludes any dependence on radio play.

No radio? Is it possible?

Not only is it possible, it's working very well, thank you, and could signal a trend for other artists to gain more artistic control over their products. On the inner sleeve of Zappa's You Are What You Is there is a curious message to listeners: "Are You Hard Core? For those of you who would like to hear a whole album of Zappa guitars solos, Barking Pumpkin has the answer (actually three answers) ... AVAILABLE NOW BY MAIL ORDER ONLY! Three special albums available individually or in one exciting lump, containing F.Z. at his fiendish best on guitar solos in many different styles...No songs to wait through. No lyrics to disturb your imagination. All instrumental music. All selections never before released. If you are a guitar player or a guitar fanatic, these albums are a NECESSITY for your collection.

Avoids the Hassle

Zappa's by-mail-only campaign is a shrewd way of avoiding the hassles of record company bureaucracy and radio politics.

"If I released it as a normal commercial release in the United States, it would be doomed," he reasons. "Radio stations wouldn't play it because they don't play instrumental music. So I figured that by doing it the way I did – letting the people who already bought the other album know by putting an advertisement on the inner sleeve – it's direct marketing to the people who would be most likely consumers for it. And it's done better than any of the other albums I've had out recently. It's doing much better than You Are What You Is. To put it bluntly, within two weeks of the first orders coming in, the album had paid for itself, which is more than you could say for any of the albums that we've had out. The response has been very good and we've gotten letters back from people who say they really love it and want to have other episodes or editions. So I intend on putting out some more."

The three instrumental LPs – Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More and Return of The Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, is, however, being released as a commercial product in Europe through CBS International. That decision was made, according to Zappa, "because in Europe they have an appreciation for instrumental music, and the fact that there are no lyrics is a plus because there's no language problem."

Zappa did manage to score one commercial success among the stream of albums he has produced over the years – Apostrophe. And that was sort of a fluke, as the prolific composer explained: "That was the first album that we put out that went solid gold. But the reason that it happened was because of this disc jockey in Pittsburgh. This guy had a format of playing novelty records from the sixties – like "Itsy Witsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" and stuff like that. Well, this guy listened to the Apostrophe album and heard "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and thought it was a great modern-day novelty record. So he cut it down from 10 minutes to three minutes himself ... we were touring Europe while this happened ... and he put it on the air. It went to number 20 in one week. It became a top request. That station was part of a big chain so it went across about 200 stations, so suddenly we had a hit that wasn't even released as a single. And because it got all this radio exposure, the unit sales of the album went up. It was all an accident."

But nobody seems to be picking up the lead of New York stations like WLIR in Long Island and WPLJ in Manhattan, two stations that are playing tunes like "Goblin Girl" and "Doreen" from the new album. As Zappa says, "It's all a matter of dollars and cents. Believe me, if they thought they could get rich from playing my records, they would do it. But nobody else will take the chance."

 Zappa has seen this constrictive, play-it-safe trend escalate over the past few years. "This year it's really taken a nose dive ... since the Reagan Administration has gotten in," he notes. "It's frightening. We're looking at the prelude to the New Dark Ages here. If you know anything about history, the Dark Ages we're going into now is gonna make the first one look like a company picnic."

Moral Majority Musings

One of Zappa's prime targets in this era of the New Dark Ages is the Moral Majority movement, which he crucifies on such biting tunes as "Dumb All Over" and "Heavenly Bank Account." But rather than describing the proliferation of the Moral Majority as a national shift toward the right, he calls it a national shift to nowhere.

"It's toward fake security. People withdraw into themselves, they keep their mouths shut, they're scared shitless. The reason why the Moral Majority has had success in stifling creativity in the United States is because if you take any small group of people and if they make enough noise, they can sound like a lot of people. The Moral Majority is neither moral nor the majority. There's not more of them than there is of us. They just make more noise."

He continues, "If everybody in the United States who wanted to hear variety or any kind of expression on the air would call up the station and demand it, they would get it. But no, they keep their mouths shut. So the automations are being controlled by these little agitation groups. For example, leader of Group A says, 'OK, today we are going to send thousands of telegrams to Congressman X and make him vote a certain way.' And the Congressman gets to his office and there's a thousand telegrams on his desk saying, 'You must do this!' And he thinks, ' Hey, the world wants this!' But it's not the world. It's a manipulative mailing campaign that influences that opinion. And the same with phone calls. People are engineering this stuff, and it's made to look like more than it actually is. So people must realize that they still have some control over their lives – you can still make noise, you can still open your mouth, you can still fight back! Don't expect to win in just 15 minutes, but you don't just bend over.

"I don't want to bend over. I never did want to bend over. I have no desire to bend over. When you're 40 years old and you bend over, it's hard to stand up again. And everybody should realize that. Don't bend over!!"

So how long can Zappa continue to sound the trumpets of rebellion? How long can he endure, being ostracized from the record-radio magnate? Can the core of Zappa fanatics realistically subsidize his art?

"Well, understand that if the core doesn't grow to keep pace with the costs of doing what I'm doing, then ultimately I will disappear," he says. "Because if I don't generate enough of a profit from each year's output to finance the next year's output, then the output goes down. Remember, it's my money that make these things. If I get a sales of a concert ticket, part of that money goes back into buying equipment and the airplane tickets for the next tour and paying the salaries of the people who go out. And the costs of making the records keeps going up too. So it's just like any other small business. The capital comes in to keep the business running so that people can consume it. I mean, I don't stick the money up my nose and I don't buy a yacht. It goes right back into the music."

But Zappa is definite about sticking to his guns. He will continue to outrage people, and in the process alienate some as well. But as he says, "If I stopped speaking out right now, that doesn't mean that I would suddenly sell millions of units. They don't trust me anymore anyway, so I might as well keep on doing what I've been doing. If sales go down to nothing, well ... tough touchas. I'm not gonna suddenly start singing Pat Benatar songs."

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