Stern Words In Knightsbridge
... when cynical ol' Uncle Frank knocks punk, record companies, and U.S. presidents, and reveals the CIA plot to spike San Francisco ...
by Paul Rambali
New Musical Express, January 28th, 1978
There exists a very real possibility that we won't hear any new recordings from Francis Vincent Zappa until at least the turn of this decade.
This has nothing to do with any dearth of inspiration or lack of impetus on Zappa's part, because for an artist of such proven relentless creative imbalance, inertia is almost unthinkable. What it comes down to is politics – internal music business politics.
In March of last year Zappa delivered four albums to Warner Brothers: "Live In New York"; "Studio Tan"; "Hot Rats 3" and "Zappa Orchestral Favourites": His contract stipulated immediate payment of $60,000 per album. He claims he wasn't paid. True to style, he immediately sued.
Since his contract had allegedly been breached, Zappa took his copy tapes of the four albums, added some new material, subtracted some old, and prepared a four-record set called "Läther", but pronounced "Leather".
Recorded over a three-year period with non-static personnel from later Zappa line-ups, "Läther" is nothing so much as a definitive overview of every mode the man ever tampered with, utilising new recordings and with few exceptions – notably a scorching instrumental version of "Duke Of Prunes" – all new material. If your interest in Zappa goes beyond mere frivolous acquaintance, it's essential.
And you nearly had a chance to buy it too, because a deal was set up last autumn with Phonogram records for a new Zappa label, kicking off with Läther.
Here, however, the precise scam becomes lost in a flurry of law suits, threats and machinations. Läther remains unreleased. The fate of "Live In New York" is undecided due to some defamatory material included therein about a certain Punky Meadows.
It seems that Terry Bozzio, Zappa's spirited drummer, harbours a perverse fascination for Punky Meadows, lead guitarist with Angel, who are Casablanca's attempt to reach the kids who find Kiss too gross and any stray Queen fans with more bucks than sense in one fell swoop.
Bozzio, formerly a quiet jazz type, was so struck by a photo of Punky in the adonis pose favoured by groups of that nature that he took to emulating this over-the-shoulder pout position in various awkward circumstances. He has lately been seen on stage sporting S&M gear replete with fido studs and butt strap.
Zappa chronicled his drummer's strange antics in a broad send-up of the manufactured groups syndrome entitled "Punky's Whips". Meadows heard it, felt flattered, and gave Zappa permission to release it – but Warner Brothers wouldn't.
Impasse. Zappa's not about to co-operate with Warners. Any attempt to sign with another company would be blocked by Warners. It could be between three and five years before Zappa's case is dealt with due to the long civil court waiting lists in California.
Also shelved for the time being is a TV special Zappa made. Described as a combination of advanced video editing techniques, animation and live performance, it has been shown in France, Switzerland and Germany, but ongoing litigation between Zappa and his previous manager, Herb Cohen, reduces its present chances of being shown here or in the States, even presuming the TV companies would take it.
All in all, not the best situations for the modern-day composer.
Zappa seems to be taking it very much in his stride though. In the sedate, pastel atmosphere of the Knightsbridge hotel where he is waiting to begin final rehearsals for the Hammersmith Odeon dates, he speaks more with resignation than bitterness as he tells me that his primary goal – no matter how long he takes to achieve it – is to disentangle himself from what he calls "a large, politically-connected, record company".
The prospect of not being able to release any new material doesn't trouble him. "I can still record", he points out – making clear by his tone that he considers this an undeniable imperative – "and I can still tour. So that's what I am going to do".
Describing the scope and portent of Zappa's output microcosm to the unprepared could take weeks. Let's just say he combines the aesthetic considerations of a contemporary composer with occasional acid social commentary and a manifestly bizarre sense of humour.
His favourite modern musicians are Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern. His favourite records are Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Three Hours Past Midnight", Don And Dewey's "Soul Motion", The Orchids' "Newlywed" and The Paragons' "Can I Come Over Tonight?" He says the ethnic strain closest to his own music is Bulgarian folk. He is, amongst other things, a rock musician.
"I was riding in the car and I turned the knob on the radio and heard this song," he reflects, obviously groaning inwardly at having to repeat what by now must be a well-worn story. "It was 'I' by The Velvets" – not Underground – "and it sounded fabulous. My parents insisted it be dismissed from the radio and I knew I was onto something ..."
But finding out what makes this mother tick is no easy task, especially in the half-hour allotted between two other scribes probably out to do the very same thing. I decide, rather unwisely it emerges, to start at the deep end.
Over the years, the amount of pointed social observation on Zappa's records has fluctuated greatly. Recently, however, he has returned to form, "Zoot Allures" containing pound for pound more pertinent points than most of his other 70's albums excepting perhaps "Over-Nite Sensation".
I find it interesting, though, that much of his recent concern has been with problems of, ah, sexual insecurity. Zappa, whether though misunderstanding my question or mistrusting my intentions, evades the issue.
"I disagree with your premise. I've got plenty to say about what's going on, it's just the way I say it might not . be the way you want to hear it and also might not be about the things you want to talk about. Some people think social comment is saying the government sucks – God, that's so obvious why bother?
"Some people get upset when you talk about things of a sexual nature because that's just something you don't talk about, and the people who get most upset about that are journalists-there's probably some deep-seated psychological reason for that – the audience just enjoys it."
I happen to think that what Zappa has to say in his music about sexual matters is fairly important, because few others even say it, and because the way he says it is ultimately more therapeutic than most.
But never mind. Not wishing to put both feet in it right from the start, I switch tracks and ask how he deals with complaints from feminists in this quarter.
"I'm saying simply this: it's as much of a hype as punk rock as far as I'm concerned. Some of the things they wish to achieve are quite noble, but I resent the manner in which they are being advertised.
"It's not the ideals, it's the packaging. I find it repulsive and think it's an insult to men and demeaning to women."
Zappa, you see, used to preach individual liberation. He doesn't do it so much now, probably because so few people ever listened – ain't that right Johnny?
But in tow with this thorough and wise suspicion of anything offered as the one and only way comes an equally thorough suspicion of anything offered as the latest and greatest. Specifically, punk.
He says that there are things from the 60's that equal or surpass what's heard today, citing Sky Saxon And The Seeds and early Kingsmen as examples. Mention the popular youth movement theory though, and what was expressed in euphemisms above, but what I will now call cynicism, begins to show:
"The motivations – to judge from what I've read or heard in conversation with people in the business about the way some of these groups have been put together -have nothing to do with the pseudo-social or pseudo-political ideals expressed by its practitioners.
"The whole thing was a money-making venture right from the start, if not for the group then for the boutique owner who is packaging the thing.
"Punk rock is a phenomenon manufactured by managers.
"Rock has become a fact of life in the States," he continues, lighting another Winston and speaking with the steady authority, often misinterpreted as arrogance, that seems to underline his presence. "It may be a fact of life in England too, but on a completely different level; the meaning of the facts of life here is radically different from those same facts in the States.
"It's almost a matter of survival the way I sense it here – the pressure to be a part of whatever is the going trend. In the States the pressures are different. You still have peer group acceptance pressures, but they're not based on rock as a culture. You can still have friends there if you don't like rock, or don't wear safety pins.
"I get the impression that in order to survive in this country you have to be absolutely dedicated to what has been announced as the trend of the day, otherwise you're a nerd – and nobody wants to be a nerd.
"As an amateur sociologist then, I would say they are in a better mental health condition rock-wise in the States than they are here. But that's based on my aesthetics; my idea of a good time."
The above soliloquy launches us into a broader-based discussion of the American mental health condition in general, a subject obviously dear to Zappa's heart.
My mention of the currently popular notion that the Yanks are turning their brains to marshmallow through the process of conspicuous hedonism – occupying their lives solely with pleasant distraction and endless sugar-coated entertainment, whilst ignoring life's realities – causes a surprisingly animated reaction.
Zappa initially attacks me for making assumptions about a country I have never seen. Though I didn't say that I subscribe to this theory in the first place, and though a similar case could be made against him for his equally under-informed conclusions about punk, I allow him the floor.
"I think the age of rampant hedonism has already passed there," he retorts, his ire now calmed and his speech returning to its usual even tones.
"I think there are many practical matters that the kids are concerned with. There are economic pressures today that didn't exist five years ago and those pressures affect the kids probably harder than they do the parents. In a time of job shortages it's harder for the kid to get a job than an adult, and if an adult can't get a job then what's a kid going to do for money.
"You can't be a hedonist if you're broke.
"I'd say the age of hedonism peaked out about five years ago. Nowadays the kids are more orientated towards job security. There is more of a concern to spend your time in college, say, in order to get yourself in a position in business – some way to get the bucks.
"They're willing to put up a horrible gray facade that you have to put up in business in order to have their fun on the weekend. There's been a definite retreat from the '60s mentality of we're gonna drop out and live on a commune because that's really groovy. People discovered that if you go live on a commune you still have to take out the garbage, and they didn't like that.
"So the LSD gets thrown away and they start drinking more beer, taking other things, and the lifestyle changes and the goals of the kids change, and the way in which they express themselves on the weekend changes too.
"In the audiences I play for I sense a feeling of 'Yeah, we're really gonna boogie and blow it out tonight, but later ... we're gonna have to go and get a goddam job".
So did America learn anything from the cultural upheavals of the '60s?
"They haven't learned some of the most important lessons of the '60s. The single most important one I think is that LSD was a scam promoted by the CIA and that the people in Haight-Ashbury who were idols of people across the world as examples of revolution and outrage and progress were mere dupes of the CIA.
"Millions were being used for a drug experiment that was being conducted without their knowledge by a government agency, with the utmost disregard for human beings."
Suspending credulity for a moment, I ask: if the government is behind the popularity of not just LSD but any drug, as Zappa claims, then why?
"I think it's a process they wanted to go through to find out what the applications are in terms of controlling segments of the population. It's one thing to use these drugs on enemy soldiers, but what happens in situations in cities?"
Even considering the fact that in the early '60s experiments went on California to determine the effects of LSD and any possible military applications thereof, this is all just a little hard to swallow ...
"That's because you're not in America. I think the way you visualise it is one day The Queen gets an idea that she would give LSD to the people here – ah, that could never happen. But the way I see it is that those crooks who wind up being president of the United States and the other smart little persons they have working for them will do anything. They believe that they are the law."
Smothers, Zappa's bald, burly bodyguard, has for the past few minutes been hovering surreptitiously in the background. He catches my eye with a flair for the dramatic and an apologetic smile he draws his finger slowly across his neck. I take it to mean my time is up.
One final question then: does Zappa consider himself to be the arch cynic he is often painted as?
"Absolutely. And not only that, I think being a cynic is the only rational stance to take in a contemporary society. I would call it quite a compliment to be called an arch cynic; that almost sounds important. Definitely I'm cynical. Everybody ought to be cynical. You can't just go around believing everything everybody tells you ...