Frank Goes Straight

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Zappa: Orch Man's oeuvre for the Barbican.
Pic: Tom Sheehan

Frank Goes Straight
New Musical Express, 15th january, 1983, page 6
By Gavin Martin

"Oh gawd! Can anyone tell me the way to London Wall?"

The fat flustered city gent looks like he's been stuck in the middle of the multi-levelled maze of the Barbican Centre forever and a bit longer.

Frank Zappa, wearing a moth-eaten bathrug for a coat, has a certain timeless quality about him as well. He looks the same as ever – mid-length shaggy hair, drooping moustache and a little sliver of hair running down the middle of his chin. He strolls into his little afternoon soiree with the press, his black-ringed hollow eyes barely concealing contempt for the whole affair. It's a mite different from the post-flower power outrages of The Mothers Of Invention: this is a polite, respectable gathering up in the 'garden' room – another day, another press conference.

Zappa's recent work has sounded like the outpourings of a subcultural crackpot – a vision of America entrenched in Californian myopia and coloured with bad acid nightmares. From the dire cool-your-brains humour of Joe's Garage (Parts 1-3) to the clever, clever stuff – yawning opuses like Orchestral Favorites and Studio Tan — everything has been coated in a slimy, cynical veneer.

This time round however Frank is playing it for 'real'. He's in London to supervise rehearsals and produce recordings of his compositions by the London Symphony Orchestra, an engagement that also includes a concert in the Barbican.

He's financed the whole thing himself without the aid of a record company and the lady from the LSO publicity department says everyone is "absolutely thrilled" about the venture. Frank however has his doubts; he's not sure whether all 100 musicians will be able to fit onto the small Barbican stage. The gentlemen of the press lob a few desultory queries in his direction.

So was it hard to write for an orchestra after years working with rock formats?

"Not at all, because I wrote music for orchestras long before I ever wrote for rock groups. I wrote my first orchestral piece when I was 14 or 15 and didn't start writing for rock 'n' roll bands until a few years later," he says testily.

And what sort of audience is he aiming for with his latest project?

"Oh, the sort of people that like that sort of thing."

Zappa's not giving anything away. The whole process of the press conference – him sitting at the front of the room giving smartass questions to dumbass questions – puts him in an aloof, unthreatened position. He's asked about past controversies in Britain and spends most of the time unravelling the legal rigmarole that lead to him being barred from the Albert Hall for obscenity in 1971. Has he changed his ways this time round?

"Fuck, no."

And the concert, is he looking forward to it?

"Well, having seen the stage I'd rather get it over with as quickly as possible and do the recording. The sort of audience that will go to see classical music concerts and even rock groups in England are just trying to be cool anyway."

As if to prove the point, Zappa and conductor Kent Nagano reel off a list of obscure modern composers that they see as being prime influences in their work. Names that no one save pupils at some musical academy in the backwoods of Bavaria could possibly have heard of, but the assembled Fleet Street hacks nod appreciatively all the same.

Oh gawd, can anyone tell me the way to the tube station?

See Also