The Beefheart Zappa Talk-in
By Richard Williams Melody Maker, November 8, 1969
Frank Zappa breezed into London last week in an orange tee-shirt. His aim was to launch the British end of his record label, Straight, who are to be distributed in this country by CBS. With him was the wondrous Captain Beefheart, star of one of Straight's first releases: the double-album "Trout Mask Replica." Braving Zappa's sharp and accurate wit, the amiable enigma that is Beefheart, and the full might of CBS's top brass, Melody Maker's Richard Williams spoke to both gentlemen.
April 25, 1970 ... is the date when Frank Zappa, the Incredible All-American Composer, takes over the Albert Hall.
Judging by Frank's achievements with the late Mothers of invention over the past four years, and by the three concerts and six albums they have bestowed on a grateful if slightly bemused British public, it will be a date worth remembering by all music fans, as well as Mothers freaks.
For Frank has plans which, if they materialise, will set London back on its ears.
"I'm trying to get Pierre Boulez over to conduct the concert," Frank told me in London this week.
"The largest composition, which is a ballet, needs a one hundred-piece orchestra, and I want to get dancers to leap about all over the audience.
"Also, if it's possible, I want to get the musicians so well rehearsed that they can memorise the parts and go out into the audience while playing them. But that will need a lot of time and it may not happen.
Has he completed all the music for the concert?
"Sure – it's all in my briefcase upstairs. We'll do some of the things from the 'Lumpy Gravy' album. You know – the stuff that people say sounds like Henry Mancini? It might be expanded for the concert.
"There seems to be a certain amount of pressure on me to get myself or some of the Mothers to play in the concert. They're concerned about selling tickets and paying the orchestra."
Why did he choose to stage this concert, the first at which his music has been performed by an orchestra, in Britain?
"Because it would be impossible in America. Hiring the orchestra would cost a fortune."
Mothers fans will be glad to hear that Frank has, at last, found a backer who will give him a budget to finish the Uncle Meat movie, the soundtrack from which was issued in this country a few months ago.
The film is about the Mothers, and among many interesting episodes is footage of a couple of their British concerts, plus a sequence which shows them trying on the dresses they wore for the "We're Only In It For The Money" album.
Frank's latest record, which should appear in this country shortly is "Hot Rats," about which he says: "It's surprisingly easy to listen to. Some people have even been known to tap their feet to it.
"The emphasis is split between the composing, arranging, and playing. I play guitar, and Ian Underwood plays all the reeds and all the keyboards on it – including a real pipe organ, with a lot of special effects like percussion sounds and tin whistles, which was in the studio.
Frank has just finished an album with French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty on World Pacific, for which he did the arrangements.
"They just hired me as an arranger. People used to do that, you know, when the Mothers were young. They hired me instead of one of the usual Hollywood hacks – I did a couple of songs for the Animals, and I played on them, too."
I asked Frank about the Actuel Pop and Jazz Festival in Belgium, from which he had just returned.
"I guess it was more of a political than a musical success. The festival was moved around so much that it was a triumph to get it on at all.
"It was so disorganised that when all the lights and amplifications worked on the first night, the organisers looked at each other in amazement. They couldn't believe that it was really going to happen.
"But I was there. Six to 12 hours a night, I was there.
" It was very difficult because it was so cold, and in that temperature several things happen to musical instruments: guitar-players' fingers get cold, which makes it hard to play, and the strings go out of tune at different levels."
Did any of the groups or musicians impress him?
" Yeah, I really like the Nice. They were good musically, and they've got a very exciting stage act, too. And I dug Colosseum – particularly Dick, the guy who plays tenor and soprano. Does he do sessions in London? He ought to – he's really a bitch.
The legendary Captain Beefheart is a large, comfortable man of deceptive simplicity. He also has a grey top hat and a warm smile.
It was Beefheart's "Safe As Milk" album, of course, which led the Rock Revolution in the balmy days of 1967, shortly after which he made a visit to Britain, received with mingled horror and adulation.
Since then he's been fairly quiet, and there has been only one record, which he considers a failure, to remind us of his presence.
Last week, however, he visited London again – on his way home from the Actuel Festival, in the company of Frank Zappa, on whose Straight label his amazing new double-LP set "Trout Mask Replica," is shortly to appear.
Beefheart is friendly and approachable, but occasionally obscure. This is, I'm sure, unintentional, but it does tend to make communication difficult.
When I asked him if, as rumoured, he intended to make his home in Britain, he replied: "I already have one person in Britain and one in the States. Astral bodies – you understand?"
Errr well, maybe, but did this intention arise from a disenchantment with American life?
"Over here you don't have guns – there isn't that kind of sexual hang-up.
"At home I live in a house where raccoons come up to the door to listen to the music – I really do, raccoons and coyotes.
I told him I'd heard that, while making "Trout Mask Replica," the group were shut away in his house for weeks on end.
"I didn't shut them away. There's no leader in the band; everybody's not responsible for themselves."
The entire double-album, which has to be heard to be believed, was conceived, written, and recorded in just eight and a half hours, according to Beefheart.
The Captain doesn't seem to have given many live performances in the recent past. Would he like to go on the road and play more?
"I'm sorry that they put these obstructions up ... or down ... or whatever, so that people can't hear me giving.
"It costs a lot of money to go on the road. It really does. I can't afford it. You don't make any money for playing."
Surely, I replied, there are plenty of people who are making a lot of money from going out and working.
"Yes, but they're WORKING. Can you name me anybody who's making money from PLAYING?" Therein lies, apparently, the basis of the Captain's beliefs.
"Hank Secola did a beautiful mix on the first album, but they wouldn't let it out because it was too real. Then the tapes for the second album were taken away and really ruined.
"I really wonder about mixing. I don't like the idea of it. 'Trout Mask Replica' has a natural sound – as natural as you can get from amplifiers."
He's known Zappa for a long time – in fact at one time they contemplated forming a group together – and I asked him, naively, if he trusted Frank more than any other producer.
"I don't trust anyone – it puts too much of a burden on them. But you might say I'm happiest with this arrangement."
Did he have plans for a new album?
"I haven't started anything yet. But it's there ... it's almost there. There'll be more playing on the next LP. The group had only been together six months when we made this one."