What You Can Do Onstage With New Records, CDs, Videos
By William Ruhlmann
Relix, April 1989, Vol. 16 No. 2
Even in the unprecedentedly prolific career of Frank Zappa, the last 12 months have seen more activity than usual. First, of course, there was the 1988 international tour, Zappa's first in three and a half years, during which he played familiar tunes with an 11-piece band and introduced a new set of material under the banner, "Broadway The Hard Way." An LP from the tour appeared in October.
Around the same time as the tour, Zappa released two double-album/double-CD sets of previously unreleased music: Guitar, which is a follow-up to the instrumental Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar albums; and You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, the first of six volumes of live material spanning 20 years of touring. By the end of the year, Zappa had released the second volume of the series, a complete concert from 1974.
Just since the start of 1989, he has continued the ongoing CD rereleases of classic Zappa and Mothers of Invention albums, with new editions of Absolutely Free, Waka/Jawaka, and One Size Fits All. And Honker, Zappa's video company, released The True Story Of 200 Motels and Uncle Meat.
Much of this newly released material dates far back in his career, so when Relix induced Zappa to sit down in the den of his home/studio in Los Angeles to discuss new developments, we began by talking about who it's all intended for – the fans who have followed him throughout his career, or a new audience that has discovered him in recent years? "It's for a new audience," he said quickly.
"There's a lot of people who write about me that have this image that if I do a concert that the people who are coming there are dressed up like Grateful Dead followers and there's just old hippies and stuff," he went on. "First of all, we never had a hippie audience. The hippies went directly for the Dead. They didn't stop anywhere, they went straight for the Dead. And they've stayed there and God bless them. Our audience has always been really mixed, in terms of age, in terms of geographical backgrounds, whatever. We have strange appeal, it's really hard to describe. For example, the age range at our concerts could be anywhere from 14 to 60, with a preponderance of the individuals in the concert right around 18 to 25. I don't think very many other groups have that kind of range. Most of the ones who come are new customers. Get it out of your mind once and for all that what we do is to be consumed by people who were going to concerts in 1967. That's not true.
"Very few of those people have an interest in what we're doing now or have an inclination to leave their homes to go to a concert 'cause usually the older you get, the lower your tolerance for having people vomit on your shoe. And if you leave your home to go to a concert, a rock 'n' roll concert, and that concert usually has a lot of young people who are chemically altered in some way, there is always the chance that you're going to come up with something on your clothes that wasn't there when you went in the door. So a lot of the older people stay home. So, in a way, it's a tribute to us that anybody in that older age bracket would leave their house and come to the show. They're doing it at some peril, I would imagine. And the younger ones that come to the audience are not just there out of curiosity. They come there and they know the words to the songs. So, somehow or another, they got ahold of the material, and if we're playing something that is repertoire, something that is from the older albums, I'll look out there and there's kids who know the words."
The enthusiasm with which the tour was received might lead to an expectation that Zappa would play concerts more often in the future. But he said the tour, which played in theaters rather than the arenas he might have filled, was a money loser. "We rehearsed for four months, we toured for four months, I lost $400,000," he said. "It was five trucks, two buses, 43 guys. And we weren't doing fireworks or anything spectacular out there, it was a basic touring package: enough lights to see the show, enough PA to hear the music, and enough crew to set up the gear. Just was not a money-making proposition. I'm glad I did it, though, just because of some of the musical things that did get recorded. The tapes are unbelievable! And the audiences that saw the show really got a big thrill out of it. They liked the band. There's no way I could keep it going."
In addition to the already released LP, Zappa said the new concert tapes will turn up on future releases as well. "Part of this stuff, because it is repertoire material, is ideal for You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, so it'll be incorporated in there," he said. "One of the reasons why I did You Can't Do That Onstage is for the people who have seen the band grow over the years. It gives them a chance to compare different versions of the same song played by different bands year after year. And some of the versions that were played by this band really are the accumulation of all of the skill of musicians through the ages totaling on the repertory pieces. This band basically did a good job playing those songs. It will be nice to put those versions into the albums."
You Can't Do That Onstage represents the fulfillment of a plan Zappa had as long ago as the early 1970s to document his music with a massive record release. One abortive project was a ten-record set, No Commercial Potential. that Zappa said got as far as test pressings before being scuttled by Warner Bros. Records in a dispute over song publishing. But Zappa isn't interested in recreating that set today, and while the Onstage series will feature a few recordings from as early as 1968, a part of its intention, as Zappa writes in his notes to the first volume, is to dispel "that peculiar misconception" that "the only 'good' material" was performed by the original Mothers of Invention.
As the long-term plan for the series indicates. Zappa seems to have had a sense about his career and his music virtually from the start. The consistency of vision that suggests is apparent in listening to the Onstage recordings.
"There's certain things I am interested in musically," he acknowledged, "and certain things I am limited to musically, simply because I have to hire human beings to do it. That's one of the reasons why I'm enthusiastic about the Synclavier, because you can bypass all the human limitations. I already know how to run a band. I know how to do live music. Okay? I've done it. Now there are other things that are more interesting to me. By the time the complete You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore collection comes out, and anybody who wants to take a scholarly approach to it and follow the stuff through and look at the continuity that you're talking about, the way in which things were done, I think that anything that has been written about me in a negative way in the past will certainly be put to rest by what the actual taped evidence is of what lives on the record.
"People who said there was nothing happening musically during the 70s certainly didn't listen to any of our stuff. There has been, consistently, from the minute that the band was formed, creative, exploratory, investigative, humorous, multidimensional stuff going on with this band. It has been like a little research laboratory going on in one way or another, to try things, where other people wouldn't dare try it, because they would be afraid of what it might do to their career. We would try it, because they've already said every bad thing in the world about us. What can they say? We're immune. We're totally Teflon to that stuff. They can say whatever they want. It turns out to be untrue. They can't do anything about it.
"And so, with that virtual license to explore, I've been happy to take advantage of that and to all kinds of stuff that other people wouldn't try, for one reason or another. I want to try it, I want to find out what happens if you do this. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but at least, if you want to find out what happens if you put this kind of chord with that kind of note or this kind of a rhythm with that kind of a rhythm, or these kinds of words in a certain kind of setting, the evidence is there. If you have a certain basic musical knowledge and want to find out what might happen on the fringes of musical experience, it's in there.
"There are some very strange things lurking in that album, and also some basic good musical performances. You have to consider what the average level of musical skill was during each of the years when those tapes were made, and if you have some knowledge of that, which unfortunately most people don't, then the level of expertise that is exhibited by these bands is amazing. People just didn't do stuff like that back then."
Zappa was unsure when we spoke what he would be including on subsequent volumes of the series, though he noted that, as with the second volume, taken from a concert in Helsinki in 1974, one of them might be a single show. "That would be something from the '88 band, but everything else is all mix and match and some of the edits are, as edits, they're works of art, I must say."
Putting this material together is what's consuming most of his time, Zappa said, when we asked about his current plans. He's also composing, albeit without a band in mind. "Everything that I'm writing now, with the exception of the tunes that I wrote while I was on this tour, is all stuff that is on the Synclavier and that can be any kind of a texture, symphonic, chamber music, whatever," he said. "Even though I've got a busy schedule editing albums and doing all the mechanical stuff to stay in that part of the record business, I still manage 30 hours a week on the Synclavier."
The first result of that composition will be Phase Three, which will integrate new music with unused dialogue parts from Lumpy Gravy. Also coming in the near future: the CD version of Broadway The Hard Way; the next four volumes of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore; a video of You Can't Do That Onstage; a video of Zappa's 1985 Congressional testimony, called An American Dissident; and an autobiography to be published by Simon & Schuster. Clearly the most prolific man in rock music over the last 20 years intends to remain just as productive as ever.