Frank Zappa

By Pete Frame

Mojo, November, 2018

Twenty-five years since his death, an extraordinary unpublished interview with the ailing Frank Zappa is an ornery blast of the fourth MOJO cover star’s unique voice – on music, politics, stupidity, pornography, Anglophobia and more.


I INTERVIEWED FRANK ZAPPA AT HIS HOUSE IN the Hollywood Hills in February 1991, for a BBC Radio documentary. He would have been amused that I thought the tapes worth keeping; he was certain that the custodians of history had misread him and would continue to do so.

“Few people know or even care that I exist,” he assured me. “I don’t think there’ll be anything of what I do that will survive beyond my lifespan” – but we both knew he was kidding. Beneath that superficial resignation, he hoped that his contribution would one day be recognised by the grisly breed (he continued to hold them in the lowest esteem) who write about rock music.

Producer Kevin Howlett and I were granted two two-hour sessions, on consecutive days. I don’t usually get anxious before interviews, but I was pretty nervous about this one. The word was out that Frank was dying, and he knew that we knew. Moreover, he didn’t suffer fools, so I’d made sure to familiarise myself with over 60 albums, from 1966’s wild Mothers Of Invention debut Freak Out! to his latest Synclavier experiments.

During the interview he sat in an easy chair, drinking black coffee and chain-smoking; caffeine and nicotine had become his staple diet, he said. He had grown his beard, which was now full and grey, giving him a biblical aspect. His gaunt face and ponytailed hair were also grey, adding to an unsettlingly monochrome, old-movie look. We proceeded to delve into an utterly sui generis career of uncompromising and complex music, sidetracking into politics, religion, and late 20th century culture generally, often returning to his catchy maxim that “stupidity is the building block of the universe”.

What he really wanted was a confrontational discussion, a good argument in which he could air some of his many theories – but I was after the facts, the stories that set his work in context, and there were barriers to overcome. Not only was he physically weak but he was exhausted and jaded by decades of being interviewed. To compound matters, he had a highly developed loathing for England and all things English. We got through it OK.

One of my favourite Zappa moments comes about six minutes into Call Any Vegetable, on 1972 Mothers album Just Another Band From L.A., when he suddenly exclaims “It’s a great time to be alive, ladies and gentlemen… it is so fucking great to be alive!”

After our meeting, he hung on for another two and a half years. He died, from prostate cancer, on December 4, 1993. He was, and is, irreplaceable.

It was lucky that, after a nomadic childhood, you fetched up in Southern California.

You don’t have a choice, when you’re a kid, about where you’re going to live. My father was working in civil service and he was moved all over the country, and, by a process of elimination we wound up in Southern California. We almost wound up in Dugway, Utah at one point because he had been offered a job at this place where they were developing nerve gas during World War II. He came home one day, with photographs of this area, and asked how we would like to move there. No way! It was hideous! So we got off lucky on that one.

So you lived in San Diego and Los Angeles during the ’50s, when the radio was great if you knew which stations to tune to.

Yes, I remember riding in a car once, with my parents, when we lived in Claremont and they turned on the car radio. They were flipping through the dial, and there was some kind of a rhythm’n’blues song, which was startling to me, because I’d never heard anything like that before. They wanted to change the channel, but a few bars was enough for me to start looking to find what it was, why I liked it, and where it came from. That’s what got me started on it.

Which records got hold of you first of all?

The Story Of My Life by Guitar Slim [Specialty, 1954] had an impressive guitar solo. The first time I heard it, I said, “How’s he doing that?”, because very seldom was a guitar distorted in those days. I think he was probably the only guy who was using distortion and whose whole approach to playing a solo was shredding the notes. He was one of the first guitar shredders.

You were also drawn to black vocal groups.

Yes, I liked the way they sounded and became an advocate of that kind of music. I remember one time at Antelope Valley High School, our English teacher had us giving speeches in class and I decided to give a lecture on R&B vocals. I brought in my records, played some examples and tried to explain to the cowboys in this class why they should like it, how the complicated interweaving of all these different vocal lines was very much like classical music. Well, you can imagine that this was not too stimulating to the son or daughter of an alfalfa farmer! But yes, I’ve always liked that music: it’s pretty straight ahead but it’s deceptive. The chord changes were really very simple but, in the really good quintet records, so much was done with those chord changes. The way that the different vocal parts would move around each other and the transient dissonances that were created was fascinating to me.

Going back to your guitar style and how it developed, I guess Invocation & Ritual Dance Of The Young Pumpkin [on Absolutely Free, 1967] was the first time people sat up and thought, “These guys can play!” Before that, The Mothers Of Invention were thought of as just a bunch of weirdos, weren’t they?

Well, I don’t know whether people ever stopped thinking of us as weirdos.

You hardly looked like a conventional band.

Why should we?

Well, if you were trying to make it in the rock mainstream…

We weren’t trying to. I always thought that our audience was going to be a specialised audience. The whole idea of looking good as an entertainer is something that’s been around since rock’n’roll was invented – it was always important to be cute – but it’s reached a corporate pinnacle this season. There was nobody in our band that was cute, so why try?

The first band of Mothers was knocked on the head because the audiences didn’t know what was going on. You never really had a lot of patience with hippies, did you?

I always thought that the whole hippy concept was naive at best; to me the idea of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out seemed a boring existence. I didn’t use drugs and just about everybody around me, the rest of the world it seemed, was loaded up to their eyeballs – and so, on that level alone, it was hard to communicate. Add to that the fact that we were dealing with musical techniques and ideas that were absolutely unknown. We were doing things with 12-tone music, which had been around for quite some time, but most rock music consumers hadn’t the faintest idea what that was.

Rock’n’roll and avant-garde music seemed strange bedfellows at the time…

Well, I didn’t write a rock’n’roll song until I was in my twenties but I had been writing chamber music since I was 14. I only had a few albums: I had The Complete Works Of Edgard Varèse, Volume 1, and a budget recording of The Rite Of Spring by The Worldwide Symphony Orchestra on Camden, a 99 cent label. Those were the only two albums that I owned but I would spend a lot of time in the school record library, listening to composers like Webern and Schoenberg. They also had an ethnomusicology library, a Folkways collection, so I was also able to hear Tibetan music and Arab music and all other different kinds of music.

So you had some formal musical education which taught you how to write music?

No, I just started doing it. You can’t get a formal musical education in a US high school. If you’re interested in music at high school, the only function you have is to play in the marching band for the football game.

And did you?

Yes. I played drums. I hate football, and I also don’t like being cold, and I didn’t like having to play drums in a marching band. Luckily, I got thrown out. They caught me smoking in uniform.

Which of your albums have been the biggest sellers and why?

The biggest seller was Sheik Yerbouti [1979], which did 1.6 million worldwide and it was successful because, outside the US, the song Bobby Brown was played on the radio. They could never play Bobby Brown on US radio because it has the word “fuck” in it, but I’m not sure it was the lyrics that really made it popular. The place it took off first was Norway, where the people seemed to go for the tune. I remember going to a disco in Norway when the thing was still a hit and seeing people dancing close together like it was a ballad. For some reason, people were fanatical about it.

What are the territories of the world where you go down really well?

I think our best audience in the US would probably be New York City and our best audience in Europe would be all over Germany. Secondary territories would be France, Italy, Scandinavia.

How about the countries where you’re just not accepted at all?

England! I think that of all the places on the Earth, that’s the one where we’re most frequently reviled and least appreciated – except for a few hardcore lunatics. I don’t pay that much attention to the British pop music industry but my suspicion is that it’s probably more corrupt and controlled than the US because of the BBC. I mean, let’s call a spade a spade: whenever there’s state involvement…

Would you like to list some of your complaints about England?

No, I wouldn’t even like to do that. I’ve just had too many bad experiences in that country.

Like the 200 Motels episode? What were the details of that?

Well, what happened was this: we made a film called 200 Motels [written by Zappa with Tony Palmer, co-starring Ringo Starr and released in 1971] at Pinewood Studios, and one of the technicalities of shooting this musical film involved the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Musicians’ Union. In order to have the rehearsals necessary for the orchestra to learn the music for the film, it was required by the Musicians’ Union that an actual concert take place – because under the rules you’re not allowed to rehearse for a movie, and you can’t rehearse for a recording session, but you can rehearse for a concert. So we were obliged to give a live concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and members of my band, which was scheduled for the Royal Albert Hall. Somehow, the people who controlled the Royal Albert Hall decided that what we were going to do at this concert was going to be obscene – and they locked us out. We had a sold-out concert but on the night of the concert, we were locked out – so I sued the Royal Albert Hall for breach of contract. The Crown, in order to defend itself, tried to make an obscenity trial out of it and, in the end, the final verdict from the judge was that the material was not obscene and yes, they had violated the contract but basically it’s the Royal Albert Hall, so go fuck yourself.

At least there were some humorous aspects to the case.

Sure. The Albert Hall maintained that my use of the word “brassiere” was obscene. One of the pieces that was going to be performed at the concert had the line in it, “What sort of girl wears a brassiere to a pop festival?”, and they complained about this, thought it was obscene. I told the court that if they were going to be that squeamish about what I was going to do, I could change the words to all my songs right there on the spot – and they said, “Oh really? Prove it!” whereupon they handed me some of my lyrics and had me adjust them. I thought I did a pretty good job right there on the stand. I can’t remember the complete context, but one of the rhyming words that I’d used in something was the name of the town Pudsey – and this created a big question mark over the entire court. They acted like they had never heard of Pudsey before and I had to explain that it was something I had seen on the front of a bus.

Why do so few of your songs seem to be autobiographical?

I don’t think it’s necessary.

No love songs or romantic ones…

There are a few on the Freak Out! album. I mean, I can do it, but why bother when everybody else does it?

Throughout your music, you have digs at other bands, like Toto and Steely Dan, for instance. Were there any that you actually respected?

Other people’s bands? Sure. I liked Captain Beefheart and there was a group called Chrysalis which was good. Every once in a while I hear a record, even today, where I say that’s a good group or that’s a good song. But usually not.

Talking of Beefheart, can we go back to when you were curator of the LA Museum Of Weirdos?

You mean when I launched the Bizarre label? Well, let’s just say that’s a period of musical history that I hope I never have to live through again – you know, recording Wild Man Fischer and the GTOs and going through all the hassle of doing Trout Mask Replica with Beefheart. The pleasure was certainly not worth the pain, especially in the case of Wild Man Fischer, who really was a dangerous, mentally disturbed individual. While I was on tour, he came to the house and threatened my family, made a pretty good ass out of himself. So, yeah, I’m glad I did it but I hope I never have to do it again.

What about Beefheart?

I still talk to him on the phone every once in a while. We went to high school together. His father drove a bread truck for Helms Bakery but had a heart attack, so Don [Van Vliet, AKA Captain Beefheart] dropped out of school and took over his father’s bread truck route. I used to go over to his house all the time, hang out, listen to rhythm’n’blues records and eat whatever was left over in the bread truck when he came back from Mojave.

Why was Trout Mask Replica such a trial?

It was just very difficult because Don is not really comfortable with studio technique. For example, Don did not like earphones. So, when it came to add his vocals, what he wanted to do was stand in the studio and kind of hear the track leaking in through the window – then just sing as loud as he could over the top of it. Well, that’s nice except that his vocals wouldn’t always be in sync with the track that he could barely hear leaking through the window. But that’s the way he wanted to do it. Not an easy way to put an album together.

Didn’t Simon And Garfunkel once join you on stage?

Yes, that was odd. It was 1968 and I was shopping at Manny’s Music Store in New York City and Paul Simon, who I didn’t know – I didn’t even know what he looked like – came in out of the rain, got talking and invited me out to his house for dinner. I said OK, went along, was introduced to Garfunkel, and they started pulling out their photo album of when they were Tom & Jerry in the late ’50s. They made some comment about how they missed being on the road, so I invited them to come on the road with The Mothers Of Invention and open for us in Buffalo the next night – as Tom & Jerry. They went out on stage and sang this earlier repertoire and the audience had no idea who it was. After we played our show, I brought them back out on stage to do some of their contemporary hits – at which point the audience realised that they’d been had.

Can we talk a little about the Washington Wives’ campaign against rock?

In May 1985, a group of women signed a letter to the Record Industry Association of America demanding that something be done about the lyrics on rock records, that warning labels be placed on albums because they could be harmful to people’s mental health. They had a whole list of different types of warnings that they wanted to attach: special warnings for occult material, for drugs, for sex, for whatever, they had this whole elaborate scheme. The letter was signed by a number of wives of prominent Washington individuals, including the wife of James Baker III, and the wife of Senator Strom Thurmond, and Tipper Gore, who was the wife of the Senator from Tennessee, plus about 10 others.

This prompted five or six years of arguing over rock music lyrics at the federal, state and local level, and it became a big media issue. I got involved in it because I was invited to debate one of these women on a CBS television show. When I heard a rumour that there was going to be an actual Senate Sub-Committee hearing on the matter, I told my lawyer that if they do that, I want to make sure that I go along and testify.

And so, yes they did have a hearing, yes I did testify, and I spent the last five or six years talking about the same issue every time somebody calls me up and asks me for an interview.

Did the Wives achieve their goal?

Oh yes, there are warning stickers on everything now. They won.

But you don’t have stickers on your albums.

That’s because I own my record company.

Did they criticise your own lyrics?

Never. In all the lists that the PMRC put out, I was never on any of them.

Didn’t that strike you as strange?

I don’t think that they wanted to have me argue with them! Look at some of the people who were on the list: Bruce Springsteen was on their list for singing a song called I’m On Fire, Captain & Tennille for Do It To Me One More Time, the list was absurd. If you consider the lyrics in my catalogue – I could have fulfilled any one of their categories for them a hundred times over! Yet they didn’t mention one of my songs.

This idea that you write smutty and controversial lyrics – if you’d eradicated that from your work, do you think you would have been more likely to have been accepted as a genius of your age?

No. The reason that US media doesn’t like to admit that I exist is because there’s always a chance that I’ll open my mouth and say something that is factual and obvious. If you listen to American radio and watch American television, the one thing that shines through all of this is that it’s all fantasy. There’s not an ounce of reality connected to it and they don’t want to have anybody on there who will just say it. It scares the fuck out of them.

Your lyrics are peppered with words like “fuck”, “shit”, “cocksuckers”, “motherfuckers”, “poop-chutes” and God knows what, but you draw the line at “cunt”.

Well, “cunt” is a word that is used frequently in conversation in England and so I wouldn’t want to do that.

But you use the term “wank”, and that’s an English word.

We don’t use it very much.

You also discuss every kind of sexual practice from rubber dolls to gang rape, buggery, maple syrup activities – are there any lines you draw in pornographic terms?

I don’t think of those things as pornographic. Look at it this way: if I had a degree from a university and I was going into the jungle to study the behaviour of some unusual tribe, no matter what they did, pornographic or otherwise, it would be regarded as serious research. But I don’t have a degree. However, I am writing songs about various tribes that exist in my country – their behaviour and their folklore. This is what they do and how they are. It’s anthropology, pure and simple.

In 200 years, all your work will be explored by scholars, looking for clues as to how popular culture developed.

Well, first of all, I don’t think we are going to be around in a couple of hundred years and certainly there won’t be any scholars – they’ll be phased out. And curiosity? That’ll be forbidden. So the usefulness of this research? For entertainment purposes only.

So we're going towards Orwell’s 1984?


Do you think the American people will put up with that?

Of course. They’ll love it! In fact, they’ll ask for it.

You’ve seen all these different Presidents come and go during your career and sung about some of them. Were there any that you liked?

I still have a warm spot in my heart for Harry Truman – he had something special – and I liked Kennedy, but all the rest of them were a disaster.

Jimmy Carter?

Loser. Nixon – yes, he was a crook. Reagan – a nitwit. Bush – a menace.

You have often revived Brown Shoes Don’t Make It [from Absolutely Free]. Does this mean that your cynical view of politicians has only been reinforced over the years?

That’s for sure. Most of them never think about the people they’re supposed to represent. Every country has smart people in it; the trouble is that none of these smart people ever go into politics. Which is probably how you can tell that they’re smart. Consequently, the people who wind up in the gene pool for the world’s elected officials are a truly frightening batch of specimens. Especially this season, and especially the US politicians. An incredibly ignorant bunch of people.

Hence your long-held maxim that stupidity is the norm.

It’s the building block of the universe; it’s more plentiful than hydrogen. The problem here is a very bad educational system which unleashes people on society with very little useful data in their brains, compounded by a certain type of mental illness that pervades everything in American life. It hasn’t got any better since the days of side one, cut one of the Freak Out! album, Hungry Freaks, Daddy, a song about the US school system.

What are you working on now?

A number of compositions on the Synclavier. Over the last four or five days, my assistant has put together a list of all of the compositions that are in various stages of completion and there are about a thousand of them.

You’ve always been a compulsive worker.

I like what I do and I’ve always kept doing it until I fall asleep.

Note. Pete Frame about this interview: Remembering Zappa.