A Real Mother

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A Real Mother
Francis Vincent Zappa II, 1940-1993
Q Obituary, April 1994


He gave avant-garde a good name, turned dabbling into an art form and herded cattle for The Monkees. Andy Gill celebrates an extraordinary life.

FRANK ZAPPA'S music was first heard on British television on Juke Box Jury. Some time in 1966, the dulcet tones of David Jacobs announced that the next record, It Can't Happen Here – presumably culled from the first album's Help, I'm A Rock by a desperate record executive – was by The Mothers Of Invention. As the panel of minor celebrities and DJs attempted, with no luck at all, to tap their pencils along to the ensuing weirdness, young alien types all over the country underwent an instant conversion. The panel, of course, made great play of the title, claiming it certainly couldn't happen here, ho ho - which showed what they knew. Within a few years, it had happened here, it had happened in America, it had happened all over the place – even behind the Iron Curtain, which few other forms of Western pop music proved fit enough to scale. It was, inevitably, voted a Miss. Zappa himself would have been delighted to find himself the recipient of that show's famous bronchial klaxon; he would probably have written a symphony, or at least a march, based on its tubercular timbre. After all, it had been an affinity for such supposedly unpleasant sounds which had first drawn the teenage Frank to the work of avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse when, in a magazine article he was reading about record store entrepreneur Sam Goody (the Branson of his day), the writer attempted to suggest how much of a sales genius Sam must be because he could even sell something as grotesque as this record by Varese, which had obviously offended the hack. "He described it as having all this nasty stuff like sirens and drums," Frank recalled when I interviewed him a few years ago. "It sounded like a good time to me, so I started looking in record stores for Varese albums." Not only that: when, in 1955, Frank's mother gave him a whole five bucks for his 15th birthday, he blew the lot on a long-distance call to the composer, just to tell him how much he enjoyed his music. Clearly, this was no temporary infatuation. Nor was Frank's love affair with R&B music, which would find intermittent outlet throughout his recording career in songs like Sharleena and WPLJ, and in the entire album full of greasy doo-wop styling, Cruising With Ruben & The Jets. Zappa's genius, however, lay in the equal weight he gave to the two types of music. This was the assumption upon which he based his entire career - that there just might be enough people out there who also saw no need for barriers between such disparate styles to enable him to make a living without unduly compromising his musical vision.

He was right, too. They were all over the Czechoslovakia, the seeds of the Revolution were sown years before it occurred, when the young Václav Havel's head was turned around by Zappa's music and attitude. Later he would attempt to enlist the composer as the country's Cultural Liaison Officer. Up in Portland Oregon, meanwhile, a 12-year-old high school outcast stumbled across the Mothers' debut album Freak Out! in a grocery store, and had his life changed. In gym class, he would subsequently sing the lyrics to Mothers' songs as he ran punishment laps. Later on, he would move to Los Angeles, get work as a cartoonist, and ultimately invent that greatest of TV families, The Simpsons. "Frank was my my Elvis," Matt Groening would later claim. "His example encouraged me, made me feel it OK to go my own way, to not do things the way the authorities told me to. One of the things that impressed me was that he didn't allow anything to be beyond him, high culture or low culture. As soon as Bart Simpson is able to shave, he'll have a moustache and goatee just like Frank Zappa." The first time Frank Zappa himself appeared on British TV was, if anything, an even bigger shock than hearing It Can't Happen Here on Juke Box Jury. Smack in the middle of The Monkees, without warning, Frank suddenly strolled through, leading a cow across the set. It happened a week after Tim Buckley, client of the same management company, had sung on the same show, so clued-in freaks were alerted to the strange new possibilities programme, but even so it was like a hand-grenade being lobbed into middle America's (and middle Britain's) front room. It also cemented a notion which Zappa used to hilarious effect throughout his career – that if the world found the chipper exploits of this fictional "band" The Monkees so enjoyable, imagine how much more interesting they might find the bizarre lifestyles and preoccupations of his own real-life band?

Accordingly, Frank never went anywhere without his trusty tape-recorder, preserving for posterity the jokes, fantasies, whinges and perversions of the band, The Mothers serving as some kind of antimatter equivalent of The Monkees. The tapes would then be sorted and dissected, appearing snippets of conversation on albums like Uncle Meat and last year's excellent Playground Psychotics, or used as inspiration for some of Zappa's sleazier lyrical outpourings, wherein the sexual escapades of a band on the road would be detailed with great relish and often dubious humour. He didn't just re anthropological investigations to his band either; through his Bizarre and Straight record labels, he set about documenting the deranged activities of a wide spectrum of Los Angeles' freak scene culture, most notably the groupie collective The GTOs and the mentally-challenged street-busker Wild Man Fischer, and also used the opportunity to preserve works by the social commentators/comedians Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce, both of whom he regarded as fellow spirits of freakish dissent.

That the young Frank Zappa was indeed a freak was apparent to all who crossed his path in the California desert town of Lancaster, whence his family had moved from his birthplace, Baltimore. Loathed by the jock-and-cheerleader types who still dominate school social life in America, he found solace in the company of fellow outsider Don Van Vliet (later, of course, the great Captain Beefheart, one of many Zappa proteges), with whom he would cruise around in an Oldsmobile listening to R&B radio stations. When Frank bought himself a guitar, it was these R&B artists who most influenced his playing, the likes of Guitar Slim, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and Howling Wolf's guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Before picking up a guitar, though, he had played drums in the Antelope Valley High School band - from which he was expelled for smoking - and its orchestra. In later years, Zappa would credit his music teacher, Mr. Ballard, for first allowing him to conduct the orchestra in his own experimental fashion, having different sections of the orchestra play in different keys, and performing his first bits of weird music. "He would let me write out these completely dense chords on the blackboard and tell all the musicians which note of the chord was theirs just conduct a downbeat to hear those chords", Frank recalled. "Some of them were so dense it just sounded like wind - there wasn't even any harmony coming out. But how are you going to find out what these things would sound like if you don’t get a chance to hear them played by instrument? Of course, the other people in the orchestra thought I was out of my fucking mind." They weren't the only ones. Most of the citizens of the Antelope Valley diaspora thought the racial line-up of one of Frank's early R&B bands, The Black-Outs – three blacks, two Mexicans and two or three whites – was, if you'll pardon the pun, beyond the pale; and when, a few years later, he joined a group called The Soul Giants and summarily ousted the saxophone player as leader, it was the musicians themselves who reacted against the weird new ideas he brought in, such as performing original material instead of Top 40 covers. "There’s always that factor: let's work, let's eat, what do you want to do weird stuff for, because if we'd just kept playing Louie Louie we'd be working right now" is how Frank would later summarise their attitude. "Any time there was a difficulty, the band would immediately revert to that Louie Louie mentality." But the band, despite their misgivings, stayed with Frank and changed their name to The Mothers - short for motherfuckers, an indication of their supposed musical excellence - and even got to play Louie Louie, albeit on the huge pipe organ at London's Royal Albert Hall (a marvellously unholy row captured for posterity on the Uncle Meat album). Despite building up a considerable reputation around Los Angeles, partly for their outlandish performances and partly for their extreme physical ugliness - a satiric riposte to the hippy cull "beautiful people" – The Mothers failed to attract record deals from A&R men searching LA for the next Byrds, until the producer/A&R man Tom Wilson, a prescient '60s zeitgeist-surfer who had masterminded Dylan's transition from folk to rock and would also produce The Velvet Underground’s second album, heard them one night and signed them to MGM/Verve. As Zappa tells it, Wilson in initially only heard playing a blues number, and was, to put it mildly, shocked when the group began playing song Who Are The Brain Police? in the studio. Still, he must have known he was on to something special, since he allowed Frank to rent $500's worth of session equipment and invite all his crazy friends up from the Sunset Strip for a free-form freak-out which eventually constituted the fourth side of the Freak Out! album. One of the most idiosyncratic careers in rock music was up and running, and from the start, Zappa thought big and he thought fast: no sooner had one album been released than another tumbled after it, with little or no attempt made to nurture the kind of careful career-development profile has since become de rigueur for musicians f every stripe. So, you liked that acid-rock music?, well here's a symphony. Enjoy it? Well, try this doo-wop album. Dig that? OK, how about this chamber-jazz satire on musicians' sexual peccadilloes? Or this song about growing dental floss in Montana maybe this movie about life on the road with a rock band? Soon, it became obvious that the only constant thing about Zappa's musical style was Zappa himself, and he appeared to have a limitless appetite, and an equivalent limitless capability, for the most arcane of sounds.

The trouble was, limitless music demanded limitless players to perform it, and as The Mothers grew, so the financial problems of keeping together a band of up to a dozen musicians, all on steady wages, unlike their employer – grew insurmountable. Whilst sharing a bill with the legendary Duke Ellington, Zappa saw the bandleader having to beg a 10-dollar advance off the show's promoter, and immediately disbanded his own group: if that was going to be the reward for decades of genius, why bother?

"At the end of an average tour, like the 1969 tour, I would be something like $10,000 in debt," he explained later. "Everybody else had been paid – they had their food paid, their hotels paid, and their salary paid, and I was taking my record and publishing royalties and reinvesting them into keeping a live band going. When I said, OK, this is it, I'm not keeping the band any more, they were mad at me because it was like having their welfare cheque cut off. " Instead, he took to touring and recording with temporary line-ups of musicians, which eased the financial situation but also drained some of the life from subsequent performances, which would become virtuoso renditions of favourites old and new, note-perfect but often sterile by comparison with the rough edges and spontaneity of the earlier Mothers line-ups. Even so, touring continued to be prohibitively expensive: the 1988 tour (the last time he played Britain) involved a 43-person entourage, and wound up with Zappa $400,000 in the red. Eventually, disgruntled by his experiences with classical players, whom he habitually called "mechanics", he would eschew using musicians altogether, preferring to build up his complex compositions on the Synclavier sampling keyboard. When absolutely necessary, a top-notch outfit such as the Ensemble Modern would be called in to transpose the compositions to "real" instruments, as with the last album released in Zappa's lifetime, The Yellow Shark, and the forthcoming Civilization Phaze III project. Always a committed libertarian in both economic and artistic matters, throughout his later years Zappa became more politically engaged than ever, though the piecemeal battles he had fought as a matter of course throughout his career – most notably with the Royal Albert Hall in the early '70s, or cancelling a concert on the grounds of obscenity – became more tightly focused on the issues of voter registration and free speech. In the '80s he became the most articulate opponent of the parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC), the Washington Senators’ wives committee which effectively blackmailed the American record industry into accepting the principle of stickering albums with questionable lyrical content, in return for their husbands' support for a blank tape levy then in the process of being considered by Congress. His side, which also included John Denver and Twisted Sister's Dee Snider – strange bedfellows indeed – ultimately lost, but being a businessman as well as a musician, Zappa got another album out of the affair (Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention) and, fired up by the experience, went on to produce his most political material in decades, taking on televangelist CIA duplicity and what seemed like the entire Reagan/Bush right-wing caucus on his 1988 Broadway The Hard Way album. Subsequently, only his worsening illness prevented him from running in last year's presidential elections, which would have given him the kind of platform he deserved rather more than the flow-chart-toting Ross Perot did. In recent years, Zappa's reaction to his illness has been an instructive example: with time running out fast, he threw himself all the more vigorously into his work, putting in long days with his staff at his studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, on material both old and new. The results will doubtless furnish a posthumous release schedule to dwarf even the likes of Elvis, Hendrix and Jim Reeves. As Frank Zappa was fond of quoting his mentor Edgar Varese, "the present-day composer refuses to die".