To Be Perfectly Frank

By Edwin Pouncey

Sounds, January 23, 1983

My first encounter with Frank Zappa was during my mid-teen years at an electrical shop in Leeds that also had a selection devoted to selling records.

I originally visited the shop to buy some Stevie Wonder tunes that had been buzzing around my head for days, but while browsing absent-mindedly through the rack prior to making my purchase, I came across a win looking album cover with, what looked like a procession of contorted weirdos parading along the bottom overshadowed by the outline of a sinister-looking mad genius beatnik type and the legend ‘MOTHERS’ sprawled thickly and crudely across the top.

The titles of the songs were even more crazy sounding: ‘Plastic People’, ‘Call Any Vegetable’, ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’.

I became intrigued. I asked the proprietor of the shop to let me listen to a little of the LP. Begrudgingly she put it on for me to make some form of snap judgement from within one of those little stand up listening booths that were once the norm for such an establishment.

The music that assaulted my senses was like nothing I had ever heard – where was the beat, I wondered, what’s happenin’?

Halfway through side two and I still couldn’t make up my mind about what I was experiencing, what was worse people were beginning to look at me curiously.

“What the hell is that row he’s listening to?” I could almost see them mouth.

In sheer panic I paid up for the weird record and left feeling hollow, the shop-woman’s imaginary laughter burning my ears.

Back home, my worst fears were confirmed. I had conned myself into buying a worthless piece of unlistenable junk. I played through it twice but nothing stuck. I stacked it neatly beside my copies of “Help” and “Tamla Motown’s Greatest Hits” and promptly tried to forget about it.

It refused to be forgotten though. Occasionally a small particle of the ‘crazy music’ would filter through into my subconscious and nag at me to try and remember its source. Eventually I found I had submitted myself to it, the ‘crazy music’ had won me over with its erratic, jumpy little segments. Ultimately, I found myself trying to turn my strict Tamla oriented colleagues on to my new discovery. Few could take it though, and apart from one I was left alone to my devices.

Zappa’s music had touched a spot at the point when I was most vulnerable and from that day he gradually became a source of fight through which I would eventually discover my own persona.

Zappa captured my imagination and held it tightly through my most tender years. I still listen to his records when he puts them out but have heard little on them recently to raise my spirits in the way that ‘Absolutely Free’, ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’ or ‘Uncle Meat’ did.

However, the news that Zappa was planning to perform and record a selection of his most choice compositions with the London Symphony Orchestra whetted my appetite for a return to former glories and I attended the recent concert at London’s Barbican Hall full of expectation.

The resulting concert was not only a step in the right direction but a return to values I had mistakeably felt he had abandoned in preference for a succession of intricate guitar solos. The LSO, conducted expertly by Kent Nagano, showed that Zappa truly is a great American composer, a master of modern music.

Frank Zappa is an itch I had long wanted to scratch and the Barbican concert was the perfect opportunity to do just that.

In the flesh he appears to have changed very little, gaunt, hair swept back, his trademark beard and moustache firmly in place and a mind that is quick and to the point. As I had already read in an unpublished Sylvie Simmons interview with the man, he treats interviews as work.

And so, feeling distinctly uneasy, we proceed to get to work.

How did the concert with the London Symphony Orchestra come about?

“Well, I originally didn’t want to do a concert. I just came over here to make the record but doing the concert was part of the problem that every composer has in getting a new piece played, for instance.

“If musicians have never seen the music before they have to rehearse it, they have to learn how to play it. If you’re going to make a record there is no union scale for rehearsing for a recording, if you’re going to do a recording then the minute that the musician comes in you have to pay a recording salary which would make the cost of the project enormous.

“There is, however, a rehearsal scale for doing a concert, so what you do is rehearse at the rehearsal rate for a concert, play the concert and then do your recording at a higher rate, so that’s why there was a concert.

“I didn’t come over here to do a concert though, it was just something that was kind of inflicted upon me. I’m glad people liked it but it wasn’t a very accurate performance of the music. There were a lot of wrong notes in the show and the acoustics of the place were really shitty. If they liked it then then the record will kill them because only on the record will you hear what the things are really supposed to be.”

What was the reaction of the orchestra to your music?

“Well, the LSO has an air of professionalism about it that goes above and beyond most other orchestras that I’ve been associated with, which is not a lot, but I’ve been associated with a few. I like the attitude of the LSO and whatever the liabilities might be from some of the individual performers, or the attitude of some guys in the orchestra, the net result of working with them was really positive.

“They got onto it, they took it seriously, they did it like it was a professional job and some of them actually loved it. Then there were other people in the orchestra who couldn’t care less because they’re doing this as a job.”

A lot of them appeared to be enjoying themselves, with all the stumping and shouting they had to do during the performance.

“I think orchestral concerts should have that in it. I think the audience should feel relaxed and happy when they go to see an orchestra play, because it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle that you can get a hundred people to do something together, let alone play music.

“In spite of the fact that it wasn’t as accurate as it should have been, that evening was a fantastic event. It was a miracle, people should appreciate that.”

Do you think people are put off orchestral music by the false impressions they are given at it at school, for example?

“Well, the problem with most symphony concerts is that they on play the same things. You go see a bar band, how many times do you want to hear ‘Louie Louie’? How many times do you want to hear ‘Beethoven’s Fifth’? How many times do you want to hear any Mozart? To me it all sounds the same. I don’t like that music – it’s all tweedlydeedlydee.

“But orchestras play that music for several reasons. 1. The composer is dead, you don’t have to pay him any money. 2. It’s easier to play than any contemporary music, no matter how hard they tell you it is it’s still easier, they don’t even have to think about it they’ve been playing those same licks since they were in school.

“But if you take a brand new piece of music you have to start thinking about it, you’ve got to count, you’ve got to look at new notations for inflections, there’s a lot of new orchestral sounds in that concert that didn’t exist before and they all had to be taught to the orchestra and they had to think about it and do it.”

How long did it take for the orchestra to get used to playing your music?

“Well, they’re still not used to it, in fact. It might take them a long time to recover from it, but we rehearsed for it considering that we didn’t really start laying anything down on tape until the end of the second session. On the that day they had about 38 days of rehearsal.”

How did you meet Kent Nagano, the conductor of the concert?

“He came to one of our concerts when we were working in Berkeley, he conducts the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and he had heard that I wrote music. Some friends of his brought him to that show and he came backstage afterwards. I said, ‘Yeah, sure I write music, want to see some scores?’ and he said ‘Yeah’ so I sent them to him and he flipped out, he loved them.

“That guy is a world class conductor and the orchestra really appreciated him. On the last day one of the guys enough a sign, something that you should find around dangerous electrical equipment. It said DANGER LIVE CONDUCTOR and he had it hanging on his podium and they gave him a big round of applause, they were really delighted to have worked with him. In fact I may even stick that part on the album.”

What, as a little tribute to him?

“Yeah, I mean he’s fantastic. He’s 33 years old. There are guys who’ve been conducting 50 years and can’t do what he does.”

How does one of your compositions start in take form?

“Well, it can happen in a number of different ways. It could just start as a title you know? I just try and imagine with that title what the scenario for the event would be and then I colour it in, just write whatever’s appropriate to that idea.

“I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like painting a picture, you get a blank piece of canvas and put your favourite colours on it and that’s your picture whether it looks like a vase full of flowers or a pile of slop.”

Do you feel more comfortable having an orchestra play your music or being in a rock band playing it?

“If I could just sit down and earn a living by writing music, as hard as I want it, as complicated as I want to write it, and know that somebody will play it and all I would have to do is record it, that’s it it’s done. Y’know, I’d be happy doing that for the rest of my life, but I can’t. I’ve got to do other things.”

Do you enjoy playing live on stage?

“I love playing the guitar, but if I had to choose between playing the guitar and writing orchestra music I would be writing orchestra music.”

What other orchestral pieces do you have in the pipeline?

“I do have a piece that is called ‘The Dog Breath Variations’ arranged for a chamber orchestra that has ‘The Dog Breath Variations’ and ‘Uncle Meat’ built into it. It was originally written for the Netherlands Wind Ensemble but I don’t think they plan to perform it. It’s written for their instrumentation.”

Your composition ‘Bogus Pomp’ parodies ‘movie music’. Does it offend you that film theme music is the only popular source of orchestral music?

“No, because writing music for films is a difficult craft. It requires a lot of special skill to write successful movie music and it has to be considered as such. What ’Bogus Pomp’ talks about is the extremes, the ridiculous abuses. If you’re hired as a film composer your job is to make the movie look good, you should write stuff that’s subservient to the dialogue, that sets the mood of the scene and functions in a film.

“But some guys go into that like ‘Ahhh now ooohhh, I’m the composer of the film’ and do all this shit that gets to the way of it all and you wind up with a score that intrudes on the story, that’s the wrong way to do it.”

What’s the worst example you’ve experienced of that?

“Oh, the ultimate worst is in a Mexican science fiction movie called The Brainiac.”

What’s that?

“Oh God, it’s one of the worst movies ever made and when the monster appears, not only is the monster cheap, he’s got a rubber mask that you can see over the collar of the guy’s jacket and rubber gloves that don’t quite match up with the sleeves of his sport shirt.

“When the monster appears there’s this trumpet lick that isn’t scary. It’s not even out of tune. It’s just exactly the wrong thing to put there, it doesn’t scare you, that’s the greatest example I can think of.

“Did you ever hear the song ‘Debra Kadabra’ its be found on the Zappa/Beefheart collaboration album ‘Bongo Fury’? That’s what that song is about, and when you hear in the background DA-DA-DA-DA-DAHH, that’s making fun of that stupid trumpet line that’s in that movie but nobody’d seen it over here so you can’t appreciate the humour of the song.

“When he’s saying ‘Make me grow Brainiac fingers’ that’s what he’s referring to, because Vliet and I have both seen that movie and it’s so fucking stupid. Mexican monster movies are great. The Aztec Mummy’s Ghost, that’s a good one too.”

Apart from your own work in the field does the idea of composing music for films appeal to you at all?

“Not really, because they would have to pay me an awful lot of money to do it and most films don’t spend money on composers, they spend the money on cocaine for the executives, they try to keep the music budget down. For somebody to acquire me to do that job they’d have to pay a lot of bucks because it’s a time consuming job. It’s not something you knock off in a week, you’ve got to devote half a year to writing the whole score for a picture.

“I wouldn’t turn it over to someone else to record it. I’d have to supervise it the whole way through, so you’re talking about using up my earning power for half a year.”

Has any of your music been trusted to an orchestra without you being present?


Would you allow that to happen?

“It would depend on who was conducting it and what the situation was, but I believe that concert at the Barbican was the only time that music will ever be performed live. The people who were there got the one chance in a life to see it because I don’t think anybody will ever play it again because it’s too hard. It costs too much money to rehearse it, to get it right and I would rather not have it played at all than to have it played wrong.”

The interview pauses while I leaf dazed through the proof copy of the soon to be published, long awaited Frank Zappa Guitar Book, a tome that should prove to be a boon to every student of the electric guitar – although to me it might just as well have been Arabic, a tea of dots and swirls.

I decided to move on to other areas of his career that had long puzzled me.

Are the early Mothers Of Invention albums ever going to be re-released?

“Yes, but not until I’ve recued them, remastered them and in some cases re-mixed them to bring them up to modern audio quality standards. It’s unbelievable what ‘Lumpy Gravy’ sounds like now. It’s fantastic.”

Whatever happened to the promised ten album ‘Life And Times Of The Mothers Of Invention’ set you were going to put out?

“Well, here’s the thing. You can only release so much product in a year or people will just go ‘what the fuck’. So this year’s projects are ‘The Man From Utopia’ album, the London Symphony Orchestra album and the re-release of that old Mothers catalogue. Now that’s 36 albums, so to stick a ten record set in all of that is pushing it a little but one day it’ll come out. It’s sitting there waiting for its turn down the assembly line.”

Whatever happened to the Uncle Meat movie?

“It’s not done yet but I’m going back to work on it. I’ll try and … it is.”

Is it true that it’s going to be 18 hours long?

“No, that was some stupid thing that a guy from Rolling Stone put it there. It was supposed to be a joke. He wrote it was going to be 18 hours long and you had to pay to get out, stupid smartass.”

How long is it going to be when completed?

“[…] minutes.”

What about the Baby Snakes movie?

Baby Snakes has been cut down from two hours and 43 minutes to 88 minutes. I just finished the remix of the audio track just prior to coming over here to do this concert. It’s going to be available for theatres in Europe and I’m also going to make a laser disc of it and advertise that through mail order of the albums.”

How did you meet Cal Schenkel, who did the cover art for many of the early albums?

“He was the boyfriend of a girl named Sandy Herberts, who used to be our opening act at the Garrick Theatre in New York and he did an album cover for “We’re Only In It For The Money” and she recommended him. He came up from Philadelphia with his portfolio and I hired him.”

Who’s the artist who did the cover for your forthcoming ’The Man From Utopia’ album?

“He’s an Italian named Tanino Liberatore. He’s an illustrator for a magazine in Italy called Frigidaire. I saw his work in that and arranged through some friends to meet him. He doesn’t hardly speak any English, he’s a great guy.

“This illustration will be understood better in Italy then any place else because the character, the way he’s painted me there is based on a character he uses in the Frigidaire magazine, a robot named Rank Xerox.”

You originally advertised the ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’ album in Marvel Comics. Whose idea was that?

“Take a wild guess. It was the very first time a record album had been advertised in a comic book.”

Do you like the comic medium?

I used to like the original DC comics. I used to really like Wallace Wood and I really used to like Jack Davis and Jim Steranko, who I hear is an alcoholic now in a hospital. Do you know who came to my house to visit me one time? None other than Jack Kirby (creator of such comic meisterworks as The New Gods and Forever People to name but two). What a nice guy.”

How was he?

“He’s OK, he had a very bad automobile accident but he’s recovered now, still drawing.”

How did you come to produce Grand Funk Railroad?

“They called me up and asked me to do it and I said, ‘Well it’s preposterous’. But I went to their studio, I listened to their tunes. I liked them and I liked the guys so I said I would do it. They asked me to produce their comeback album too but I refused.”

Are there any artists currently around who you admire especially?

“One group that I like is Tom Tom Club and I like Grand Master Flash.”

What do you like about Flash?

“It’s correct for what it is. It’s the real shit.”

Apart from your lyrics do you write anything else, stories for example?

“I’ve got a stack at film treatments over there that I did during the Christmas holidays, treatments for three films and a Broadway show. I cranked them all out in the week. Now I’m going to go out and try to sell them.”

Don’t you eventually get exhausted?

“When I got tired, I go to sleep. But when I get up I go back to work. I mean, of course you supposed to sleep. You’re supposed to eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re dry, sleep when you’re tired and the rest of that there you should do what amuses you. It amuses me to work.”

With my questions at an end and another interviewer waiting outside, I took my leave of Francis Vincent Zappa so that he could get on with the job of amusing himself.