Frank Zappa. Reviled, Revered Mother Superior
By Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 5 October 1968
Fear of the abnormal isn't a trait confined to Americans, but they do seem to express their fears more vociferously than most.
But a shrewd man can capitalise on most situations, and Frank Zappa, leader of the Mothers of Invention, has made a successful career out of exposing bare nerves of the American body public and playing upon them with a series of audio and visual shocks.
Zappa is a combination of cynicism born of sensitivity, and enthusiasm which begets hard work. His cynicism, or despair, of certain aspects of the American way of life, a phrase which has turned sour in recent years, is expressed through his work with the Mothers, one of the most reviled, misunderstood, and at the same time revered, musical organisations.
The Mothers' albums are banned from American radio stations, yet they sell in vast quantities. In Britain they were at first thought by many people to represent all that was really ugly and decadent – associated with drugs, sex, obscenity, anarchy, bad taste, ignorance, sloth and stupidity.
And the point of the Mothers' existence, is they are SUPPOSED to represent all these things, and maybe make people squirm a little and think about themselves. Because Zappa hates beatniks, to revive an old term, he dislikes lazy, useless drop-outs, ignorance, bad taste and stupidity.
The tall, thin, S-shaped figure, with a bearded angular face was in London last week to arrange promotion for the Mothers concert at the Royal Festival Hall on October 25. Far From being a savage satirist, sending up everybody from room service to the elevator attendant, Mr Zappa proved merely to be intelligent, coherent, amusing, sincere, and capable of providing a verbal spectacular of anecdotes.
He told how the Mothers' future productions would be released on his own Bizarre label and of the many artists he is recording, including a man who will become an earthwide sensation – Wild Man Fischer.
"The next album we are releasing will be Cruising With Reuben And The Jets which will be all 1950s rock and roll numbers." And Zappa seriously digs older forms of pop. "I think pop music is the new politics, and the only valid politics." And in using pop as a medium of communicating his ideas, he says: "We are disturbing rather than offensive."
Asked if he is upset by the American scene, he responds with "Pretty upset," and a penetrating stare.
Other statements: "I never identified with flower power, I never believed in it in the first place. I couldn't buy that."
"A lot of the things wrong with the world today could be put right by musicians quicker than they could by politicians."
But he admits people probably buy his records – frightening mixtures of pop avant garde and caustic comment – for the wrong reasons. "People always do buy records for the wrong reasons."
An evening spent playing records and chatting to Zappa proved an entertaining experience. Ensconced in a Mayfair hotel suite, he placed his feet gently upon a table, sunk into a settee and surveyed the stream of visitors.
Promoter Joe Lustig was on the telephone relaying Frank's instructions for the concert. "Yes, Frank wants four tympani, a xylophone, large bass drum, ten temple blocks, orchestra bells and a J. Arthur Rank gong."
Frank interrupted: "Yeah, and get me a bald guy, fat and covered in oil to play the gong. I know, get Ahmet Ertegun and pump him up. We're going to have a percussion extravaganza."
Frank actually called up Ertegun, President of Atlantic Records, but he gratefully declined the offer to appear half naked in the role of a gong beater with the Mothers.
Not to be deterred, Frank then inquired if Lustig could get him the foetus used in the final scenes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. "I want to put it on a string and swing it across the stage." But the idea had to be regretfully shelved as the foetus was apparently in America and safely out of the reach of the Mothers.
One of their less bizarre ideas was the parody of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album sleeve design used on the Mothers' We're Only In It For The Money LP.
"I liked Sgt Pepper, but I just didn't like the cover. It represented the Beatles in a state of flux between their mop top image and their flower power phase, and whatever they are into now. Our sleeve was an exact negative of theirs. Like they had blue skies, and we had a thunderstorm, and the positions of the people was different. All the group faces backwards, and only the road manager faces the front.
"I think our cover is a work of art. The guy who did is a fantastic draughtsman, as evidenced by the forgery of the dollar bill on the inner sleeve. But it was an element of satire that was not appreciated.
"The cover cost four thousand dollars before printing and people said: 'Ah, it's just a copy of the Sgt. Pepper cover.' I was really proud of that cover. I don't give a – if people don't like it. That was really a work of pop art, down to the insincere smiles on our faces."
Zappa, the hard worker, is busy discovering an array of startling talent, for his label, including a beautiful soul singer Sandy Hurvitz, who could be a successor to Barbra Streisand.
Wild Man Fischer is a name that must be remembered. His voice, his screaming, his torment will soon be assaulting the world. "His scene is that he hates his mother – because she had him committed to an asylum. But he wasn't, and isn't insane." Zappa played me his first album which includes Fisher begging "live" on Sunset Boulevard, singing and screaming and being abused.
"I don't know if people will enjoy him, but for the first time in recording history you will have a chance to hear a man's thoughts as they happen. You'll be laughing at home, and saying: 'He's out of his mind,' but he's not out of his mind. You will be hearing a person who has been stuck in an institution and told he is insane.
"Hey, try this on your imagination. A 34 year-old speed freak with no teeth, and his hair, because he burns it off. He's also trying to change his body into a perfect shape with straps and chains. He plays saxophone, organ and piano and when the speed gets him high, he goes onto electricity.
"He has been arrested in California several times for standing near transformers, and reaching out so that sparks jump onto his hands.
"He's also hung up on mirrors and plays piano looking into a mirror reflecting the keyboard. When he explains his actions, you've got to say: 'Yeah, you've got something there Jerry.' But Jerry's got some friends that are really weird."
Pause for laughter.
"He explains how he got hooked on electricity. He went to some guy's house, a guy who likes manniquins. He was shown into a room where there was an electrode on the wall, and told: 'Don't touch the electrode, Jerry, whatever you do, DON'T TOUCH THE ELECTRODE JERRY.'
"Then the guy went out of the room, and Jerry didn't touch the electrode, but a lighting bolt suddenly came out and hit him on the forehead. The next thing he knows, he's craving electricity.
"I want to make an album of Jerry telling HIS life story. Jerry makes Fisher look like a mere buffoon. But Fisher is very professional about his performances. He says he's a white blues singer. I don't know why it is but a lot of young Jewish boys think they are white blues singers. It's a phase they go through."
In about eight months there will be another Mothers' album called Uncle Meat which Zappa played with the observation: "You're scooping the world."
And one of the most satisfying tracks, apart from the 40-piece orchestras and intricate arrangements, is a brief extract of the Mothers playing 'Louie Louie' on the Royal Albert Hall organ, recorded on Zappa's cassette machine.
The buffoonery and freakery tend to obscure the Mothers' musical ability and Zappa's value as a composer and commentator.
But for the discerning ear and open minded student, whole new levels of understanding and awareness can be opened up by exposure to their frighteningly logical statements.
© Chris Welch, 1968