Cucamonga Science & Beyond
From Billboard, May 19, 1990.
By Drew Wheeler.
Frank Zappa's entrance into the music business was not accompanied by the same celestial beacon of inspiration as when Salvador Dali melted his first clock or when Victor Frankenstein dug up his first cadaver. Rather, Frank Zappa's introduction to the music biz came first as a drummer and then guitarist in a series of high school, bar- and pickup-bands. (In fact, his dismal tenure with a combo called Joe Perrino & the Mellotones brought his musical career to a disgusted eight-month halt.) One turning point for the temporary college student and greeting card artist named Frank Zappa came when he met Paul Buff, the owner of a small recording studio in Cucamonga, Calif.
"He came in, to the best of my recollection, with some jazz that he had written, and I guess he had a jazz band or two that he wanted to produce or record," recalls Buff, adding, "I can't remember if I ever charged Frank any money or if he even had any, but we kind of worked together and recorded some jazz things. He went up to Hollywood regularly and tried to sell'em. And nobody was interested, basically."
Zappa credits Buff with setting out to "change the direction of American Popular Music." Buff remembers his earliest innovations humbly: "Because of having no money and having bad acoustics in the studio, I think myself and Frank and some other people in the studio did pioneer some of the close-miking techniques – where we didn't dare put a microphone more than a foot away from an instrument or you heard the room too much. Everything was close-miked and we did definitely pioneer some multitrack recording techniques and overdubbing." Now a Nashville-based manufacturer of photo-flash equipment, Buff is the inventor of the first 5- and 1O-track recorders, the first commercial noisegate and other pro audio innovations.
During the JFK years, Zappa and Buff recorded a series of R&B, surf and novelty songs released on such labels as Original Sound, Donna and, as Zappa recalls, "a cheesoid label called Vigah." (One Vigah 45 was "Hey Nelda," a hilarious take on Paul & Paula's hit "Hey Paul.")
An R&B singer with whom Zappa co-wrote The Penguins "Memories Of El Monte", Ray Collins, asked Zappa to join a group called the Soul Giants. Zappa ultimately became leader of the band, which featured bassist Roy Estrada and drummer Jimmy Carl Black. In 1964 they were officially named the Mothers.
Exposure at L.A. hot spots like the Whiskey a Go-Go brought Zappa and the Mothers a recording deal with MGM Records-and the compulsory appendage "Of Invention" to their name. Their producer and A&R man was the late Tom Wilson, the rock visionary who also produced the The Velvet Underground and presided over the electrification of Bob Dylan.
"He was a fabulous guy; it's too bad that he's gone," Zappa remembers. "I think they could use a guy like that in the business now because he was a real risk-taker. And he put his ass on the line in order to sign us, and not just to sign us, but after the first album was a complete flop, he pushed to make sure that we could do album #2 and album #3. I definitely had the feeling that as a producer of those early records he was in our corner."
Unfortunately for Zappa, his label was not in his corner, and frequently gave in to the urge to surgically excise any part of his records it deemed objectionable. Once free of his MGM contract, Zappa formed Bizarre Records, which was a division of Reprise Records, distributed through Warner Bros. Records. The first Bizarre release, "Uncle Meat," marked Zappa's debut as a recording artist whose autonomous label guaranteed his independence. With a new channel for his heavy output of new material, Zappa released a series of compeling, category-defying albums, induding "Burnt Weeny Sandwich," "Hot Rats," "Weasels Ripped My Flesh," "Chunga's Revenge," and later "Waka/Jawaka" and "The Grand Wazoo."
Zappa also formed a second label, Straight Records, on which he released top-notch material from Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, Lord Buckley, Lenny Bruce, Jeff Simmons, and The Persuasions, as well as producing the underground classic "Trout Mask Replica" for his old schoolmate Captain Beefheart. Zappa's labels also welcomed more anthropoiogicaily curious concepts, such as a cappella crooner Wild Man Fischer and groupies' group the GTO's (featuring Pamela Des Barres).
Zappa's wide ranging projects were often tied together by a distinctly Zappa-fied graphic identity-artwork that was as unfettered and unique as the music it accompanied. No one was more responsible for this than Cal Schenkel, a Philadelphian artist who met Zappa In 1967 when, according to Schenkel, "The art department was In Frank's apartment." Schenkel became what was marginally known as the "NT&B-Nifty, Tough & Bitchen-Art Department," designing album sleeves, advertisements or whatever was needed, using collage, assemblage, cartooning, sculpture, photography, and film. He moved in 1967 to Los Angeles and into a vacated dentist's office (which explains the pervasive dental motif of the "Uncle Meat" jacket). Schenkel's art created what he calls a "visual counterpoint to what Frank was doing."
"I think some of the work that I was able to do with Frank was kind of an opening to do Dadaist-is that the right word?-kinds of things," says Schenkel, "There really wasn't anything like that happening until then – to play with real art concepts."
Frank Zappa's first interest in pop music was aroused by the great R&B artists of the '50s-from Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters to the Spaniels and The Paragons. Of Elvis Presley, Zappa told the Los Angeles Times Magazine, "I thought, 'Who is this white guy trying to make all this fake black music here?' I was one of the few people at that time who knew that 'Hound Dog' was originally recorded by Willie Mae Thornton on the Peacock label."
Simultaneously with his love of black music, the teenaged Zappa fell in love with the music of Edgar Varèse, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern. His symphonic recordings indude such projects as "Lumpy Gravy," "200 Motels," two albums with the London Symphony Orchestra, and "The Perfect Stranger," with noted conductor Pierre Boulez.
Zappa took his dual grounding in classical R&B and "serious music" and mutated it into a rococo fantasy of jumbled genres, unconventional harmonies, jazzy instrumental accompaniment, unexpected percussion figures and a broad palette of electronic sounds. He assembles these disparate elements, scrambles, re-orders and re-processes them with an anarchic glee that's instantly recognizable as Zappa.
He can also be credited with one of the first, and certainly one of the most stylish confabulations of rock and jazz, brought to full flower on his 1968 instrumental "King Kong." (How hard did Zappa work to perfect this recombinant approach to pop? "First, it wasn't that hard, because if it was really hard I would've quit," he explains.)
His admiration for the skirting-the-fringes solos style of Guitar Slim inclined Zappa toward what he describes as playing guitar "beyond the notes." His improvisational style is ravenous and many-textured, bound to neither bluesbased patterns nor to avant-garde orthodoxy-with florid flashes of non-western tonalities thrown in for fun. His guitarcraft is well documented on his three-album set, "Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar," as well as the double-CD collection "Frank Zappa: Guitar." Zappa says there is enough guitar material in reserve for one more such fret-fête.
Zappa's best-loved lyrics deftly deflate the sodal hypocrisies of the day, while others have been written merely to color in the outlines created by the music, and some merely were road-trip jokes blown into epic proportions. As his fans know well, the Zappa zeitgeist is marked by an idiosyncratic surrealist symbology of poodles, pumpkins, monster movies, gas masks, groupies and occasional snippets of "Louie Louie."
The frequent complexity of his music has rendered some compositions just too hard for a given band to play. "The sad thing about the '88 band was that it could play just about anything," Zappa notes, "That's too bad they didn't stay together longer." He has recently been preparing 1988 tour material for the upcoming album, "The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life."
Over a quarter century, Zappa's backing bands have featured a distinguished array of musicans, including George Duke, Warren Cuccurullo, Lowell George, Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew, and Patrick O'Hearn. Established artists such as Jean-Luc Ponty, Flo & Eddie and Captain Beefheart have also toured with Zappa. His bands have even featured Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Don "Sugarcane" Harris, whose '50s R&B records Zappa loved as a teenager.
Live tour recordings have provided the raw materials for most Zappa albums dating back to the '70s and continue to be released in the "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore" series, but at present, Zappa won't do that on stage anymore.
Regarding future touring, he explains, "It's absolutely over If I'm the guy that's gotta pay for it. Harry Andronis, who was the mixer on the '88 tour, came over to listen to some of the tapes-and I've already stated that I've lost $400,000 on the '88 tour-and I said to Harry, 'Lemme put that in perspective for you. That's approximately the same amount of money as it would cost for me to buy houses for the three children that don't have their own homes yet.' Moon's already got her own house. I could buy literally three homes for the rest of my children with what I lost on that tour. So you say, 'What about touring?' Not on my dime."
After 25 years on the road, no one could begrudge Zappa a respite. Recordings on his Barking Pumpkin label, distributed through CEMA, will continue to publish his distinctive audio creations.
Since the early '80s, all Zappa recordings have been digital, with his compact disks distributed through Rykodisc. Given the greater technical freedom of CDs, Zappa isn't a bit sorry to see LP pass into petro-products oblivion. (By the end of 1990, Zappa promises that his entire back catalog will be in release, induding his landmark Zappa Records title "Sheik Yerbouti" as well as such excellent Barking Pumpkin albums as "Tinseltown Rebellion," "You Are What You Is," "Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch" and the classic "Roxy & Elsewhere" and "Burnt Weeny Sandwich".)
As a label head, Zappa spares no criticism of the industry. "The main thing is that it has gotten so corrupt," he attests, "I believe it's probably more corrupt now that it ever was. It's virtually impossible to get a record played on the radio without paying off; it's virtually impossible to get videos shown without paying off ...
"My theory is, one of the reasons why they haven't fought all this labeling and censorship regulation is, that anytime the record industry stands up on its hind legs, there's gonna be one legislator who's gonna come along and recommend a payola hearing. And then everybody starts quaking in their boots. And this happened in 1985, If you'll remember back, after the Senate hearings on the PMRC. Within a month or two, Albert Gore started his own payola hearings, remember that? They did. They didn't last long but I mean that's like a shot across the bow. There's too many skeletons in the closet of the industry."
What should listeners expect in the future from composer-arranger-guitarist-theorist-social satirist Frank Zappa? His next 25 years will doubtlessly be governed by the same impulses that guided the preceding 25. "I have a strong interest in doing whatever pops into my mind on the day that I sit down and go to work," Zappa explains.
Composing, performing and recording with the Synclavier, Zappa's music could go off in any direction. As such exhilirating and uncompromising releases as "The Perfect Stranger" and the Grammy-winning "Jazz From Hell" suggest, Frank Zappa's music remains in a state of experimental R&D. The only near-certainty of his musical future is that it will probably not feature lyrics.
"Why bother to write words?" Zappa says, "Most of the work I do in the verbal medium I'm doing through interviews – either in print or on television. If I've got something to say, instead of singing it, I just go out there and blab it out. In today's marketplace, if I were to write a bunch of songs about what's on my mind, what record store in America would have the nerve to stock it?"