Understanding The Underground
By Frank Zappa
Record Mirror, January 17th, 1970
Does the "underground scene" in pop music really mean anything right now? Was it just a title tag – a hook to apply to one section of the business? One man who does understand the "underground" is Frank Zappa ... and he's been talking. Again.
He addressed the first International Music Industry Conference. And said:
A lot of the underground acts don't care about making a hit record. They're interested in artistic expression. The underground sounds are raw. But the Industry should remember that the music sounds that way because of the environment the kids live in.
They are a different kind of person. Some of their bodies are chemically altered and they have leisure-time activities that would be very foreign to record company executives. They have a concept of music as an art. Most A and R people don't know anything about music, but look for the commercial potential.
You should care about the artistic merit. You call our music noise, but don't bother to look underneath it for the chords or melody lines. You don't understand the underground's music – there is definitely a musical generation gap.
The gap is an expression of fear on the part of older people. There's a feeling that the young kids are out to get you and this colours the way record companies treat underground acts. Companies don't like or understand us. Some companies send out a "company hippie" as a pacifier for groups. He has little or no power, but he will turn on with the group and he might even be their connection.
Then, maybe, he goes to the office and reports on the "creeps". The underground has unflattering names, too. It will take more than a "company hippie" to bridge the generation gap.
There aren't any courses on underground music. In fact, the groups are using techniques that the schools say are forbidden in composition because they don't sound good. Parallel fifths and parallel octaves are a moving sonic experience. In spite of the schools, most pop groups are crawling with them.
The record companies have got to learn to understand the new music. So far, they still don't like or understand the acts. But there's a way out. The executives could go down and sweat with the kids in the psychedelic dungeons.
Now groups have been trying to top each other in hours spent in the studio. But there is a change in attitude. There will be live recordings again, with fewer overdubs and getting away from the track by track concept.
I don't believe in obscenity or pornography as a concept. But dealers should stock records with questionable material on them. Frankly I think it would be a good idea for executives to help explain to people that the word "----" on a record won't kill them.
Footnote: Zappa's speech is in the Complete Report of The First International Music Industry Conference, published by Billboard Publications, edited by Paul Ackerman and Lee Zhito.