Frank Zappa, 83/1
By Frances Lynn
Ritz, 1983 January, No.74
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I'm doing the job I love – I've got machinery to do my work – and I like to spend a lot of hours doing it. And a lot of people wish they were in my position."
Frank Zappa is now, generously, recognised by the female teenage population of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, as 'not just an airhead but a totally awesome, happening, bitchen dude, blessed with tubular talent of gnarly proportions,' because he and his daughter Moon Unit recently recorded a satirical single which sold 250,000 copies and became the 'Val' anthem.
'Val', according to Bored Grossmann of Harpers and Queen fame, is an abbreviation for the 'Valley Girl' social classification label applied to the afforementioned teenage girls of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, who are, basicly, a Vokswagen Golf transported, shopping 'maw!' frequenting, product of a utopian, sun-kissed life-style. A sort of colonial equivalent of the Milton Keynes, suburban teen queen! (Ed).
Over the years, rock star Frank Zappa (42) has composed over 200 songs with lyrics, over 90 instrumental compositions for amplified instruments, 24 pieces for orchestra, 8 pieces for orchestra and chorus, as well as pieces for chamber ensembles of various sizes.
He began playing drums at 12, writing music at 14, playing guitar at 18, became a recording engineer at 20, and since that time has been involved in the development of a wide range of techniques and devices used in the fields of record production and recording.
Zappa was in London recently to supervise rehearsals and produce the recordings of several works for large orchestra to be performed by The London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican.
Reluctantly deciding not to dwell on his satyrical vulgarity during the '60s (we did not have all day), nor to discuss the famous photograph of him sitting on the toilet, or to re-hash his notorious 'mishaps' on British soil, I went along to the Hyde Park Hotel where The Great Man was staying.
Zappa's bodyguard, Paddy grudgingly let me into the suite after I'd muttered the password 'press'. (A vast improvement on those '60's rock and roll days! Zappa's London publicist Jenny Halsall has a lot to answer for!)
While waiting to see Zappa, Paddy and I put money on the horse-racing on the box. Just when my horse was winning, Frank was ready! Looking just the same as always – Tall, dark and lean! (Not only does he NOT have a platinum nose, he does NOT touch cocaine. Those days are over – folks!).
Why was your concert a one off?
Well, the cost of doing that kind of event is so exhorbitant that I don't think there is another orchestra in the world that is prepared to go through the expense of mounting a concert like that. The rehearsal time required to play that music is so much more than an orchestra would ordinarily spend on a concert.
The way orchestras work is like this: Orchestras like to play stuff that is easy for them. They play standard repertoire not because the audience really craves for it but because it's the easiest way for them to look good when they're on the stage. If you studied the violin for a number of years, you're going to learn all that eighteenth, nineteenth century literature and you already know the parts by the time you get into the orchestra, so it's very easy for the orchestra to sound like they know what they re doing if they're always playing the same Mahler, the same Beethoven, the same Mozart, and on and on. And when you have guest conductors coming in how long do you think they rehearse the orchestra?
Usually they get one rehearsal in the afternoon before the orchestra plays for a whole evenings worth of music.
Is that what your conductor got?
Oh no! He had studied the scores two months before he came over here and then we rehearsed with the LSO for 30 hours before the concert.
This concert cost you $ 500,000 didn't it?
That was to prepare the music – it took roughly five years to prepare all the manuscript – it's all done by hand!
How did you get the idea?
I've been doing it for years – I started off writing this music BEFORE I wrote a rock and roll song.
Why did you get into rock and roll?
Because I was writing orchestra from the time I was fourteen and by the time I was twenty, I hadn't heard any of it. I'd send it to orchestras and they wouldn't play it. And so if I was goons write music, I wanted some of it played by somebody! So I put a band together.
So you weren't making a living out of it before the Mothers Of Invention?
I wasn't making anything out of it – I don't even make a living out of it now! You can't make a living out of that kind of music.
Do you think there is a possibility that a ballet will be performed now the concert has been staged?
I know that it will be done – because I'll see that it will be done. I'm not waiting for someone to call me up and say 'I'm dying to dance this music'. What I'm going to do is prepare a tape and make an arrangement with a ballet company.
No – no – you mean people standing on their toes and twirling around?
I didn't mean that – look I've got a confession – I wasn't at the concert – my excuse was – I was out of the country. I admit it. I haven't got a clue.
Well, that's typical.
I'll have to wait for the albums to come out, won't I?
Do you think you are jinxed when you come to Britain?
It's not a publicity gimmick that everything goes wrong when you step on British soil?
(Shouting) NO. That's RIDICULOUS.
What about the fire that broke out in this hotel – the day you arrived?
I'm not to be held accountable for the actions of an arsonist. (Laughing).
Do you come here – just for work?
That's the only reason I leave my home. I'm not a tourist. I don't travel for pleasure. I don't take vacations. I only leave the house when l have something to do.
So you don't go out at all?
Not even to walk around the block? The dry cleaners?
Is that an exaggeration?
What have you got in your house that keeps you from going outside your front door?
One of the best recording studios in Los Angeles.
Impressed by equipment, huh?
(Thinks: I was never a Plaster Caster freak). About Valley Girls – tell me about the merchandise?
What's available? In February there's going to be a Valley Girl talking doll.
I don't know, I haven't seen it. We'll have Valley Girl lunch boxes. Probably Valley Girl shoe laces.
No, I'm not. A lot of people call up and ask for licences. They have ET shoe laces, why shouldn't Valley Girls have some? We made a deal with a company called Filmation – they're going to do an animated Valley Girl TV show – that's it, so far for Valley Girl merchandising. I'm sure there will be other people who'll want to do Valley Girl stuff.
Your daughter (Moon Unit) – what does she do? Just sing on the record then?
No; she talks – you haven't even heard the record, have you?
You're really shootin' in the dark, ain't you Frances? It's OK. I'll help you.
I might have heard it on the radio?
But then, you might not have heard it on the radio.
Is Valley Girl a hit here?
I don't think it was a hit here, but it's been a MONSTROUS hit in the UnitValleyed States.
But they're different over there.
Because they have more TV than you do. They're TV saturated. It kinda makes a big difference. The thing TV does – in one second you can see a person being blown up in a 'plane crash – the next second, you can see an advertisment for a detergent – and they're of equal value on the screen, so how do you distinguish? Reality gets a little bit blurred when you're TV saturated. In Los Angeles if you've got a cable hooked up to your set, you can receive 35 channels. If you've got a satellite dish, you can see about 60.
Yeah – you're more sophisticated than over here. But back to Valley Girl – you made those girls into a cult...
No, I didn't do anything. Al1 did was release the record, and everyone went crazy over it. For some perverse reason. I'm not to be held accountable for taste, either.
Do you produce other artists?
I have in the past. I don't enjoy doing it, but I have.
Is it really true Bob Dylan turned up at your gate?
Who do you see in Los Angeles?
But don't people come to your house?
I don't have any guests coming to my house unless they're working for me. I'm really not interested in the world of Los Angeles. I hate the place.
Why do you work there? Because of your studio?
I've lived there for years. All the facilities I need for my work are there.
What about New York?
I like it. It's great. New York is the best place in the world – as far as I'm concerned.
Couldn't you live there – build a recording studio in your home?
You couldn't because the real estate is too expensive. To have the same square footage and the facilities l have in Los Angeles would cost a billion dollars.
And you're not touring Europe any more?
When was the last time you toured?
July. We played fifty dates all over Europe.
You didn't play in England, did you?
Oh yes. We played three dates at the Odeon Hammersmith. You were probably doing something sophisticated at the time and weren't aware.
(changing the subject) Do you compose every day?
No. If I wrote every day it would be ridiculous. I've got so much stuff now that hasn't been released that I could stop writing for ten years and I'd be OK.
But you'd go mad, wouldn't you? Not working.
Tell me about your film treatments?
You wanna read them? You read fast?
Yes! Yes! Yes! Can I read them while I interview you?
You wanna read them?
Okay. Drink your tea (room service) read them and talk to me.
Oh God. I'm not expected to laugh am I?
Read the story. Don't ask questions.
(reading) Are these film treatments a conscious effort to break away from music?
No. I do music all the time. I like films. During the holidays it's hard to get people to work – I mean people who are employed by me in the studio an engineer and two maintenance guys. While they're off on vacation, I think 'what am I going to do?' So I put the typewriter in my bedroom and spent a few days doing these things.
You're a workaholic then?
No – everybody uses that word on me – It's not true. A workaholic is a guy who works in an insurance agency, a bank, or a brokerage – brings his fucking briefcase home so he can climb up the ladder of success – I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I'm doing the job I love – I've got machinery to do my work – and I like to spend a lot of hours doing it. And a lot of people wish they were in my position.
Do people look upon you now as they did twenty years ago?
Well, I don't know how anyone looks upon me because all they know about me is what people write – the kind of people who write about me are people like you who don't know anything about me.
Well, it is 1983 now, and the '60's were a long time ago. It seems to me that the success of Valley Girl brought you into the public eye again.
What do you think I've been doing – sleeping for twenty years? I do something new every month – the amount of work I do is quite unbelievable and people can't believe that it's there – for most people it's just too much stuff to even think about. For sophisticated people like yourself. (Laughing).
I apologise for not having heard Valley Girl.
People just don't know. In England people come up tome and say (imitating a hoorah accent) 'Hot Rats – great album.' That's 1969. What about all the shit inbetween? They don't even know about it. I mean, there's about 20-22 albums since Hot Rats (from Weasels Ripped My Flesh to Orchestral Favorites). I've got a new rock and roll album which comes out in a couple of weeks.
I'll get that one shall I? I'll get the needle on my record player fixed.
That's a good idea!
P.S. Zappa's film treatments – DWELL, LARRY'S PONY and VALLEY GIRL BEACH PARTY plus a treatment for a Broadway show called Zappa were EXTRAORDINARY. And out of respect for Frank, I'm unable to divulge the SENSATIONAL plots – in case he gets ripped off!