Those Mothers Can Really Play

By Ralph J. Gleason

San Francisco Chronicle, December 2 , 1968


It is not enough to say that The Mothers Of Invention, who appeared in concert Saturday night at the Berkeley Community Theater are funny. They are brilliant satirists and absolutely unique and first rate musically as well.

I went through several transformations of opinion at their concert. I had never liked that at the Fillmore and their impact is considerably less on records than in person (especially with such a successful show as Saturday's). At the Fillmore you could never really hear them and good sound is essential to what they are up to.

Then I thought they were the Spike Jones of rock but, while there are elements of Spike Jones madness in their performance, the Mothers are total where Jones was selective in his satire. They are closely akin to Lenny Bruce, not as flexible because of the nature of the material they work with, but just as ruthless in their attack on the hypocrisy of this world.

The next thing that hit me, during a long tenor saxophone solo, was these Mothers can really play!

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And they really can play. There are two good saxophone players in the band and the rhythm section swings and Zappa is a fine guitarist. (He is also an exceptional composer in a special kind of electronic music.) Truly the Mothers are the first electronic jazz band I have ever heard. They utilize piano and bass and they produce an incredible variety of sounds. Underneath Zappa's theatrical, deliberately non-stage presence and determined cynicism, a great deal of first-rate music is played.

They are a kind of total theater. They assault you with references to an assumed body of knowledge that details the 1950s with a documentary maker's touch. Their bit about "Louie Louie," for instance, is absolutely perfect. They set the entire thing up, discuss the kind of person who would ask for it, and what that implies with deadly accuracy.

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At one point, responding to a call for the audience, Zappa brought the audience into the show in a kind of put-on of audience participation, the Living Theater and the rest. He explained his hand signals for the orchestra's vocal effects and then directed the audience to stand and make the indicated vocal sounds while the two side sections waved their arms and the center section grabbed their crotch. And they did!

"Don't we look foolish with the lights on?" he remarked and then told the people they were an audience again and would respond en masse to "hootenannies, politicians' promises and Madison Avenue, as well as instructions like this." A more devastating demonstration of his point could not have been made.

If the greater Los Angeles area plastic uptight America and the synthesis of what this country's ills consist of then the Mothers of Invention have correctly applied the non-sterilized needle of satire to the right place.

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They assume the common Los Angeles and Orange County experience of the '50s, attack it with an almost demoniac gift for satirical lyrics, an hysterically funny talent for musical satire, and use it all, including the bizarre costumes, to cover up the fact that the music is first class.

The combination of instruments, electronics and voices is very well handled and Zappa's own conducting style is worth a column all by itself. One of his more frequently employed gestures is flipping the bird. It sums up his attitude, I suspect, to make this derogatory gesture so musically useful.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Mothers in every way. I hope they return soon. They came close to selling out the Berkeley Community Theater. Their audience can only increase on the basis of this performance.