The Truth Is – They're Not As Ugly As Their Pictures
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention took the aware youth of Britain by storm last week and – perhaps – made them just a bit more aware.
Within a few days of their arrival they upset a dozen preconceived ideas about their views and music.
Zappa took on students at the London School of Economics and found himself being lectured on student unrest.
The Mothers took off on the road and found a great ovation awaited their efforts to play serious music.
I went on the road with them and found my preconceived ideas swept away and replaced by great respect for their dedication and pride in their work.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention image is a perfect example of the results of cross-wired communication and mass misunderstanding.
A shock is needed to shake complacency. The Mothers have been trying to give us a shock for some time, jumping up and down, pulling faces.
The hippies were the first to embrace their funny faces and horrid music, The Mothers were attractively bizarre and HAD to be anti-Establishment.
"Freak Out" their first album thus became an essential part of hip record collections.
From here on issues became confused. One remembers deejay David Jacobs playing one of the Mothers' more obviously amusing singles on Juke Box Jury and explaining to a baffled audience and jury that it was "deadly serious."
The Mothers looked revolting, and seemed to revel in upsetting everybody. Zappa was grudgingly hailed as a clever producer, releasing stranger and yet stranger albums, leaving behind satire and moving into electronic music.
Through stray remarks on TV and in interviews, Zappa appeared as an extremely sardonic anti-hero.
The truth is that Zappa is a composer of serious music who works in a rock And roll framework, and cherishes a sense of humour.
The Mothers are schooled and sensitive musicians who play Zappa's music with devotion, care and enthusiasm. They are not as ugly as their photographs.
The absurdity and humour in the situation of appearing as "freaks" to touch the nerves of the dullards of society has probably worn a little thin for them, especially if it becomes a block to acceptance for their music on a wider scale.
Talking to Frank in hotels, on the coach, and in an MI snack bar, and being in close proximity to the Mothers, convinced me of their total concern for music.
I asked Frank about the LSE lecture, and whether he had gone there with the intention of upsetting them.
"No – not at all. I was asked to talk to the students, so I went along. I don't like to talk, but I will answer questions, even their asshole questions. No, I didn't misjudge them – I had a pretty accurate idea of the mood of the students.
"It's difficult to sit in front of people who don't like a thing you say. It makes you a little hit nervous. It's disturbing to see people in colleges so impressed by such a lot of dogma.
"If you think I was too patronising in my answers to questions I would say the questions were idiotic.
"I think it's horrible that people can talk about a revolution in carnival terms. They want to be heroes and go out and WIN. Infiltration – that sounds like work. That's the hard revolution.
"I told them I thought street violence is now just last year's flower power. They wanted to know about Berkeley so they can imitate it. But the students made me feel as if I was some old creep talking.
"I just think a violent revolution doesn't change a thing. Don't forget the Establishment are extremely well armed."
The coach trip to Birmingham with the Mothers proved a normal, enjoyable outing, with Frank serenading us on acoustic guitar.
The most remarkable events were being confronted in the Blue Boar restaurant with a waitress who wanted to know if the Mothers were "a group or just Americans," and seeing Maynard Ferguson and Julie Felix materialising in our midst.
Birmingham Town Hall is old but strangely intimate in a Victorian way. The audience can sit in galleries at the side and behind the stage. The acoustics aren't bad at all.
Before eager, attentive Midlands youth, washed in soft water, fed on black pudding, and succoured by Mothers Club, the hip lifeline which sponsored the concert, the Mothers of Invention played a programme of chamber music and rock and roll which drew a tumultuous ovation.
Zappa strolled on stage, cigarette in hand to announce a delay while the band tuned up. The delay drew some sporadic handclapping. "Be quiet," said Zappa, rather as a missionary would still some troublesome natives.
Was this delay some further example of flashy Americanism? And how about the false starts to numbers and all that conducting? And did you hear about his lecture at the LSE?
But doubts and myths dispersed like frost under salt as the Mothers grappled with their scores and their instruments locked in sound.
And what a sound! The horn section was amplified, but not enough to beat the volume of the electric instruments and drums, for the Mothers have all the inner balances and awareness of dynamics displayed by the best jazz or symphony orchestra.
The line up of the group includes Ian Underwood, a Berkeley student who plays Mozart piano, as well as sax, clarinet, flute and organ; Bunk Gardner, their grey haired, flute, soprano, alto, tenor, bassoon and piano player; Euclid James "Motorhead" Sherwood plays baritone, tenor, harmonica, and tambourine; Roy Estrada is on bass guitar and "high pitched harmonies"; Don Preston is the electronics expert and organist, and Buzz Gardner is on trumpet.
The percussion department is exceptionally strong. The use of two drummers is no gimmick. Jimmy Carl Black is a superb heavy drummer who provides an unerring pulse in contrast to the more descriptive style of Arthur Tripp, who also plays xylophone, vibraphone, marimba and tympani.
"Igor's Boogie," their complex opener, featured a tenor, trumpet, and two clarinet line-up which Frank later wrote out for me at our hotel.
"Hot Rats" which followed was a fine example of modern American orchestral music, which proved how advanced is Frank's writing and how skilled are the Mothers at interpreting his scores.
On the lengthy "Shortly," Frank played excellent guitar and after this hugely applauded marathon, which made great demands on the concentration powers of both audience and players, the light relief of a straight rock and roll set broke up the audience.
Jimmy Carl Black laid down THE most solid off-beat while the horn players dutifully swung their instruments in a beautiful parody of 1950 style rock. Biggest surprise was the appealing quality of Frank's teenage voice, well up to the standards set by such groups as Ruben & The Jets, on tunes like "Bacon Fat" and "My Guitar Wants To Kill You Mother."
The chamber music was Zappa's writing for unaccompanied trumpet, clarinet and bassoon and this proved as successful with the audience as anything else they cared to play.
The unfortunate image of the Mothers as an all-swearing, hippy freak show had been blasted. The sheer brilliance of their performance convinced that the Mothers must be one of the world's greatest groups.
Shouted one fan at the end of the evening. "F--- the super groups this is it!" Said Zappa: "You wanna hear us on a good night."
- For further reading on this event see articles: