Zappa Busy As Ever While Coming Out of Joe's Garage

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By Michael Davis
Record Review, February 1980


Although 1979 didn't see Frank Zappa set foot on an American stage, it was mother busy year for him. He toured Europe with his band, then brought them into the studio to record a single. When he came out again, he had a 3-record set under his belt, the by-now-infamous Joe's Garage.

Joe's predecessor, Sheik Yerbouti, was not only Frank's biggest success in some time – it's real close to going gold – but was also one of his most controversial albums ever. Songs some people found humorous or risqué others found scandalous and racist. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith were particularly incensed by the song "Jewish Princess" and hounded it off the air in several locations. Frank responded that the song was primarily descriptive and defied the ADL to prove its inaccuracy, something they declined to do.

Other activities he was involved in during 1979 included producing violinist L. Shankar's label debut and continuing his various court battles. If things go as planned, he'll be premiering his Baby Snakes film in New York, hoping to find a national distributor for it, about the time you read this. Also, the recording studio he's having added on to his home should be completed around the first of the year. And he's still got a hot live album in the can that includes such tunes as "Bamboozled By Love" and "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing"; it may or may not be released this spring, depending on a variety of factors.

These are the kinds of things we discussed when I talked to him this past fall. But I'll never forgive myself for forgetting to ask him if he had anything to do with getting the Pope to tour America around the release date of "Catholic Girls."


When we talked last, I had more concern than you did about the language on some of Sheik Yerbouti.
Why would a person such as yourself be concerned with the language?

In terms of getting radio airplay. I mentioned it to Marv (Griefinger, Frank's publicist) and he said something about a special radio thing being prepared.
They call it "clean cuts."

Were you involved with it?
Naturally, I had nothing to do with it. I think that a lot of people do that in the industry. If they have an album that has controversial wording in it, they'll put together a special Lp for radio.

Were they just specific cuts or did they change any of the language on it?
It wasn't censored; they only put on the cuts that didn't have those words in them. I find that whole concept so stupid.

One thing I liked about the way Sheik was presented was the way you spelled out in the liner notes more or less how much of each track was live and how much was overdubbed. Now you record almost every concert, right?
Right. The only time we don't record is if there is some technical problem during the set-up in the afternoon that makes such a delay that the crew can't set up the tape recorder.

Does each instrument go through the board so that you can be sure that you get enough separation?
Well, on the last tour, we were doing it a different way. We had a special board and a little monitor system and a four-track set up in the dressing room and one of the guys in the crew had a split off the p.a. and he would do a special mix just for the recording. So in effect, we had three mixers working, one for the house, one for the monitor system onstage and one backstage for the recording. And the guy in the back also had an ambient microphone that he could mix into the tape. The way we used to do it was just take a feed delay off the p.a. mixing console.

What happens between the time you get the tape back and the time you release a record? Do you just listen to all the tapes, take the best takes, and then figure out if something needs to be overdubbed?
Yeah, basically.

Do you try to have the original musician do the overdub if he is available?
Well, ordinarily, what is overdubbed is something that was not part of the original arrangement. Like on "Yo' Mama," we were adding synthesized brass orchestrations and there was no way to do them onstage. We had three or four keyboard parts all piled up together.

So there is very little replacement, it's mainly embellishment?
Yeah, it's not like the guitar player blows his part. We just add things to it.

How long have you been recording that way?
You mean adding to live tapes? I think the Sheik Yerbouti album has the most examples of that technique. There are some examples on the Roxy & Elsewhere album and some on Live In New York.

Do you generally prefer to record that way as opposed to getting a band together, rehearsing and going into a studio?
I've done it both ways. The Joe's Garage album was done in the studio and it sounds completely different.

In one recent interview, you described yourself as a rather boring gentleman who gets up in the morning, goes to the piano, puts dots on paper all day, winds up and goes to bed at night. Is that really what you do when you're at home?
I divide my time between writing and working in the studio. When I'm working in the studio, I wake up, go to the studio, work until I'm tired, go home, go to sleep, wake up and do it again. It's kind of compartmentalized.

If you spend most of your time on the road, writing at the piano or working in the studio, how do you maintain the same sort of contact with the outside world that you had when you were younger and scuffling a bit?
Well, my relationship to the outside world is totally different than it was then; I don't look at it the same way at all. But some things never change and they never will. The American way of life seems to be immutable. Once you take that as a fact of your life, you know it's got to be. Besides, we usually travel around for six months out of the year and you can absorb quite a bit from that.

When you are travelling, are you able to check out the different places you go? A lot of people say they just check into a Holiday Inn here and a Holiday Inn there.
Well, you do but it all depends on how alert you are. You can check into a Holiday Inn and do nothing but sleep; I go there and make use of it. I've noticed that Holiday Inns have physically deteriorated over the last 15 years. We don't stay in 'em anymore; we try to avoid 'em as much as possible. The history of rock 'n' roll is almost like the history of the deterioration of the cheap workmanship in the original construction of the Holiday Inns. Every year, you can go back to the same hotel and watch things fall apart. It's like being a part of history till it gets to the point it's so disgusting that you don't wanna stay there anymore. We switched over to Howard Johnson's in some places.

You could almost put out your own travel brochure.
Yeah, and include where to eat, too.

When you are composing now, are you consciously trying to move into new areas? Some critics have said that you're just doing the same old stuff with your new material.
I just do whatever amuses me at the time. And I generally find critics uninformed musically and generally. I don't think there are too many people that I've talked to who are critics who have heard all the records that I've made. I don't think there are too many people anywhere who've heard all the records that I've made. So how can they say that I'm doing the same old stuff if they don't know what I've done. But it looks good in print. It gives the reader who reads that statement the impression that the person who made that statement is very wise.

Speaking of all your records, the stuff you did for Verve with the early Mothers is currently out of print, right?
Yes.

Is one of the lawsuits that you have against your old manager involved with that?
Yeah.

Have they given you a date when all that will be decided?
They don't seem to be in a hurry to get it into court. It'll probably be a couple of years.

If you win the rights to them back and they're re-released, will the music be changed at all?
Chances are, I'll remix it since a lot of those early records were done on prehistoric equipment. I think the sound quality on all those records will improve.

Was there any censorship that you experienced then that you would change?
There were only two instances of censorship on those early Mothers albums. The first was on the Freak Out! album where they cut a line out. If the piece of tape that they cut out of the original is still around, I'll stick it back in. And there was one other instance but the rest of it was untouched.

From what I've heard about Joe's Garage, you had some tracks down, then decided to make it a more conceptual work. Is that true?
Yeah. We went into the studio to cut a single, "Joe's Garage" on one side and "Catholic Girls" on the B-side. Then we started messing around while we were in there; next thing we knew, we had 17 tracks. I noticed a continuity in the text of the lyrics so I figured I'd add a few more things to give more continuity to it and make it into a story. So that's what we did.

Then it turned out to be a 3-record set. And with the recession taking its effect on the economy, it looked like nobody would have the money to buy a 3-record set when they're scrambling to buy gas and hamburgers, the important things in life. So I decided to split it up, putting out one record in August and the other two in November.

Could you give me a quick run-down of the story?
I could give you a run-down; I don't know how quick it'll be. It's based on the theme that the government likes to have things running smoothly. The more people are the same, the easier it is for governments, businesses, and so on, to control them. Down through history people have grappled with the problem.

In the future, where our story takes place, they've come up with this idea of total criminalization. They figure that when everybody is a crook, well all be the same. The minute you commit a crime, you become the same as the President, the same as the heads of all the major corporations, the same as all the religious people. Well all be the same when we are all criminals.

Unfortunately, there are some people who don't want to be crooks so the government has to make it possible for anyone unwittingly to commit a crime. So a smart person somewhere figures out that since a lot of people already like music, if you make music illegal, bingo! You've created a whole new criminal element in society and created more sameness. But you can't just make it illegal because the people that don't want to be crooks will find some way to avoid it. So they have to be tricked into it.

So our story is being told by a character called the Central Scrutinizer. Remember back in high school when they used to send the narks over with this little, "If you take these pills, it leads to the weed which leads to the needle..."? The Scrutinizer is sent around in the same way to talk to young people about music. Music will lead you on this terrible downward path. It's kind of like reverse psychology if you just tell them that it's bad so the Scrutinizer has this demonstration, the tragic tale of Joe and Joe's Garage.

It starts out with this guy in a garage who just wants to play the guitar. He gets a band together, learns a couple of chords and the next thing you know, the nextdoor neighbor calls up because it's too loud. So automatically, Joe's in trouble. He's already violated some Environmental Protection Act. They take him away down to the police station and one of the government's friendly counselors gives him a doughnut and tells him to stick close to church-oriented social activities.

So he goes up to the CYO and meets Mary and fills in love. They keep going back to the social club, holding hands and thinking pure thoughts and one night, Mary doesn't show up. She's backstage at the Armory, getting a pass to see some big rock group. Joe doesn't know this. The crew convince her to get on the bus with them and join up as the crew slut. Finally, they use her up and dump her in Miami.

Meanwhile, Father Riley has been defrocked for not meeting his quota and he decides to go into private industry, buys a sport coat and moves to Miami. He MC's a wet T-shirt contest. Strangely enough, Mary shows up because she needs the $50.00 to go back home. He recognizes her but she doesn't recognize him. But also at the wet T-shirt contest is one of the guys who used to be in Joe's garage band and who is now one of the top disco-fusion rhythm guitar strummers working the wet T-shirt circuit and he strikes up a conversation with her. She tells him what she's been up to and he writes a letter back to Joe.

When he finds out about her lewd exploits, it drives him wild. He falls in with a fast crowd and gets seduced by a girl who works at a Jack-In-The-Box. She gives him an unpronounceable disease. Then Joe is in a terrible quandry; he doesn't know what to do. He flashes back to the counselor who told him to stick closer to church-oriented activities and he decides he's going to try it again but with a different church this time.

So he goes to see L. Ron Hoover of the First Church of Appliantology. He gives L. Ron $50.00 and L. Ron tells him that his problem is that he's a latent appliance fetishist and he'll be okay if he just goes and gets himself a good machine to love. He tells him about this club on the other side of town called The Closet where all these kitchen machineries dance around with each other. What you have to do if you're a guy is dress up like a housewife and the machines will check out your apron and if they like you, they'll go home with you. He also tells him that all the real good appliances come from Germany so it helps to learn German.

Joe learns German, goes to this club and picks up this machine that looks like an industrial vacuum cleaner. The machine's name is Sy Borg and he turns out to be the son of the lady who called the police in the first place. She kept her son in the closet with the vacuum cleaner until he turned out to be one. So Joe takes the vacuum cleaner back to its apartment and plooks it to death. And the Scrutinizer comes in and says, "You've just destroyed one model XQJ 37 nuclear-powered pansexual rolo Hoover and you'll have to pay for it". And Joe says, "I can't pay; I gave all my money to some religious guy two songs ago." And the Scrutinizer says, "Okay, give yourself up and well talk about it."

So as soon as he comes out, they grab him and throw him into a special prison which is designed for musicians and record company executives. The musicians and executives snort detergent and take turns plooking each other.

That takes up side 4, Joe in jail. While he's in jail, he starts having these fantasies. He's been plooked so much by the executives that he decides he's just going to withdraw into his own thoughts. He wants to play the guitar but he can't really play so he's just going to dream imaginary guitar notes to irritate the executives.

On side five, he gets out of jail and there are no musicians in the world and the only thing he hears as he walks out into the world is the loading zone announcement. But Joe still wants to play the guitar. There are no musicians to play with so he has this imaginary guitar solo playing in his mind as he's walking along. He's so flipped out that he not only dreams up imaginary guitar notes but imaginary vocals to a song about imaginary journalists doing reviews of his imaginary guitar licks. So you can see that the guy is just degenerating and the Scrutinizer shows up.

At the beginning of the last side of the album, Joe finally realizes that imaginary guitar licks and imaginary vocals exist only in the mind of the imaginator and ultimately, who cares? So he dreams his last imaginary guitar solo, then goes out and gets a day job. The Central Scrutinizer comes back in and says, "See..."

Whew. So that's five discs out in one year, not counting the Warners stuff.
I'm already working on another one.

Are any of the live things you played me last time gonna show up on a future album?
I'm thinking of releasing a totally live album with no overdubs, something that nobody does.

Do you have a lot of material that you play live but never gets released on an album?
I would say that a certain percentage never gets released.

What's the current situation with Zappa Records? How many acts have you signed?
Just one, the violinist L. Shankar.

I heard something about a vocal having to be redone on his album.
Oh yes, a classic tale of showbiz stupidity. I was recording Shankar's album and he had written this tune and wanted some words to it. I was sitting in the studio, scribbling some words down when I got this phone call out of nowhere. It was Van Morrison who was shopping for a new label in Europe. I don't know Van very well but I asked him to stop by the studio and see if he'd sing this song. He walked in and took one take: fifteen minutes was all it took. He came in, sang the song and left. We paid him: he accepted the check. The check is cashed, cancelled and so forth.

So we go through all the trouble of mixing the record, getting it ready to go and we start hearing from Warner Bros. that they have Van Morrison under contract and there's no way that they'll let his voice appear on a record coming out on Zappa records. There's no way they're going to help me. Well, they're not helping me: the guy's singing on Shankar's album. Warner Bros. was so desperate to harass me that they were injuring third parties, namely Shankar.

Also, it's standard in the industry that if a person wants to play on somebody else's record, they do it and there's a little blurb that says so-and-so appears through the courtesy of ... But Warners has no courtesy.

So negotiations went on and on; for two months I tried to reason with these people. The last straw was when Van Morrison's manager called me up and said he wanted half of the publishing for the song. Do you understand what this means? He doesn't publish it but he wanted half of the publishing on it. Van's manager had the nerve to call up and demand the publishing. I thought about it for a few days, then I called up the president of the company and said, "I'll give him the 50% if he can arrange for Warner Bros. to let it be released." And that didn't work. So we went back into the studio and I sang it.

So Van is still under contract to Warners?
He records inside the US for Warners and outside the US for Phonogram.

And it was recorded outside the US but for it to be released inside the US ...
Yeah, isn't it sickening? The thing that's really bad about it is that you think of major corporations as being large impartial organizations. They're only interested in moving product. This thing with Warner' Bros. and myself is being conducted on a vindictive, small, personal kind of a level, specifically singling me out and coming right from Mo Ostin, right from the top. It's not an impartial thing; it's pure industrial hatred.

I guess the people on top don't like to be challenged.
Well, too bad! But wouldn't you think they'd have better things to do than make Shankar's life miserable. They don't even know him. They wouldn't even agree to having the vocal on there without Van's name on it. It wasn't that me putting Van's vocal on this song would injure his career. He was happy to have it out; it was a good performance. I don't see how it's infringing on their economic well-being.

What is the rest of the album like?
It's got a variety of things on it. It's got one disco, two or three middle-of-the-road type numbers, one rock 'n' roll number, one that's kind of complicated.

I read somewhere that he would start out doing pop things but at one point, would make some Indian classical albums.
I've made suggestions as to what I would like him to do. It's obvious that he is at his best doing Indian classical music. He is the finest at that but Indian classical music means nothing to the American record-buying public. What I would like him to do is have one cut on his next album that is classically oriented so people can get a taste of it. It's in his contract to release one or two totally classical albums. You can't tell about his classical style from this first album. There are embellishments, glisses and things, but the material is all Western pop. There won't be anything like Shakti.

Have you been pretty happy with Mercury so far?
So far. I try to cooperate with them; I think they try to be fair and they've been enthusiastic about promoting my stuff. But I'm not the kind of guy that just praises a record company; I don't even know everybody that works here. I'm sure some of 'em are real stinkers but I don't have any complaints. Actually, I'm getting the same kind of assistance from CBS in Europe.

Does your popularity vary between Europe and the US?
Well, we sell about the same amount of records here as we do there but statistically, that's a smaller market so I guess we're a little more popular there.

Any other projects that you are currently working on?
I'm still trying to get the orchestra music done.

Would that come out on your label if it gets to that stage?
I have an exclusion in my contract when it comes to orchestra music. It's optional; they have the right to refuse it.

What about the Broadway thing?
There's only nibbles on that, nothing to make me stop what I'm doing to work on it. When somebody in the record business tries to venture into any other area of show business, it's not always easy.

Is your studio just about done?
Just about.

24-track?
48. What it is is two 24-track machines.

Whew! Do you have specific compositions in mind that would fill up that many tracks?
Of course. You can use up 48 tracks really easily when you start getting into vocal overdubs and synthesized parts. When you do vocal choruses, what you usually do is record all the voices, then mix 'em down to one track. You lose quality in the step-down.

Since you've included "Catholic Girls" on Joe's Garage, are there any other religious group's females that you plan to attack in the future?
I don't think it's fair to characterize them as attacks.

Okay. Were you surprised at the amount of response you got from "Jewish Princess?"
It's stupid though I can conceive that there may be an organization stupid enough to attack the lyrics in a song.

I wonder if the combination of the sheik on the cover and the fact that the Jewish tune was on that particular album affected the reaction.
That would be a pretty flimsy excuse, wouldn't it? What it comes down to is that you have people in an organization and the organization is supported by donations or whatever. The idea of the organization is to manufacture a homogenized image of Jewry, a plastic, non-existent image of the ideal Jew which must be shown to all people who are not Jews. And this image of the Jew is that they are very religious and very devout and very kind and very this and very that and they're all perfect. And they have this organization that goes around spreading propaganda to the effect that all Jews are like this. Any deviation from this manufactured image of Jewishness has got to be wrong. And there is no way that any ethnic group or part of society is totally perfect, no matter how much money they spend on P.R.

You hear, "Black is beautiful." Well, maybe it is sometimes but sometimes it's not. And "Italian power"--sometimes they are, sometimes they're not. Same thing with Jews, same thing with English people, same thing with any group. Nobody's perfect and just because you have an organization that has a letterhead and newsletters and lawyers and money to spend and people to go around spreading the word about how wonderful this ethnic group is, this does not mean that the ethnic group represented by this organization will ever equal the P.R. that's spread about them.

Another thing is, they have to manufacture work for themselves. I think that it is a waste of time and money to attack me for that song when they should have been doing work in some other area.

Now I got a few letters after this happened. One guy sent me a clipping from a magazine that said that one time, the ADL was demanding the publisher of The Arabian Nights modify the text of the book to change the image of a Jewish character. Can you imagine demanding that the wording of a classic be modified in order to suit the desires of this organization?

And there have been a number of Jewish princesses who have stepped forth and said that the song itself is not only accurate but amusing. One of them was Larraine Newman who called me and said that she'd heard the song and liked it. She said, "I'm a Jewish princess and I think it's great."

But when an organization with a lot of money and manpower trains all that on one guy, it's easy to make it seem that I did something wrong. I did 'em a favor because I'm not anti-semitic. If it had been written by somebody else, then they might have had something to complain about.

Kind of like what came down with Randy Newman's "Short People."
Yeah, but in his song, he says he hates short people. I don't say I hate Jewish princesses; I say I want one.