"I was a teenage MOOSE freak!"
By Rob Chapman
Mojo, December, 1998
Thirty years ago, Frank Zappa went cruising down memory lane. It was a long, strange trip... Rob Chapman low-rides in his wake.
FREE-FORM RADIO WAS ONE OF the great innovations of the American Underground. From 1966, when the Federal Communications Commission freed up the FM band, to 1970, when the inevitable entrepreneurs moved in and exploited the hippy demographic, free-form was a feast of experimentation, a genre-busting zone where Ravi Shankar, John Coltrane and The Fugs could sit side by side without some niche marketer fretting about his half-yearly profits or midweek chart placing.
Just the kind of place, in other words, where someone like Frank Zappa could get a gig. In November of 1967, a bunch or freaks purchased KPPC in
*No No Cherry
*Guitar Player (Play Those Blues For Me)
Johnny Guitar Watson
Les Carter: The first one we played there by Big Moose is on the Blues label and it's got one of the funniest logos I've ever seen on a record: a hooker underneath a lamplight and some cat in the gutter with his head down singing the blues. The one that we heard by The Turbans – No No Cherry – you were saying that it never played or the air and that it's owned by about 125 Mexicans in
Frank Zappa: Maybe a few more.
LC: So the censorship is finally coming down so that we can play records like this on the air.
FZ: Well, maybe on an FM station underneath a church.
LC: How did you hear about these records if you couldn't hear them on the radio?
FZ: Where I lived in Lancaster, a cruddy little town up in the desert, there's this place called Gilbert's Dime Store, and Mr Gilbert made the awful mistake of having a rack of jukebox records that he'd sell for a dime apiece. He'd have all the latest hits, but we wouldn't buy-those. We'd hit on him to check through the batch of records when they came in. We'd explain to him that no-one would ever buy these and we could help him out by getting rid of them. So we'd go in there and pick out things like I'm A King Bee by Slim Harpo and lots of other stuff on Excello that you couldn't get in record stores. Excello's policy with a record store was that you had to take their gospel line if you wanted to take their R&B line, and although there may be a market among white teenagers for the R&B material, the record store owner figures that he's not going to sell too many gospel items so he won't take the line. So only a few record stores would carry them. We'd get them for a dime apiece and what we couldn't buy we'd steal.
*Tick Tock A Woo
(flip side of No No Cherry)
LC: I wanted to ask you something, Frank. Folk musicians are starting to incorporate Country & Western into their music and there seems to be such a thin line between the two. Do you think the same thing is going to happen in rock music with rock musicians going back to the traditional rock & roll roots?
FZ: It's a common failing of the listening public that they listen to old Rhythm & Blues records and miss the fact that this is folk music. Although these records were produced commercially they are really pieces of folk art.
LC: From the standpoint of radio programming, there's been a bit of a revolution in the last year or so with progressive rock. Part of progressive rock should be the ability to go back into the history and appreciate things that haven't been heard for 10, 15 years.
FZ: I think the listening public should have their ears educated to the extent that they can listen to all kinds of different music all the time instead of waiting for phases and cycles of the music to happen. So right now the progressive rock sound is in and certain other kinds of rock are out, and certain other types of music outside of rock, too. For instance right now nobody would listen to bebop on the radio.
LC: I would!
FZ: I would, too, but the public's tastes should be broadened to all kinds of different music played in strange sequences. It's more fun that way.
*Mama, Talk To Your Daughter
*Mama, Your Daughter Is Going To Miss Me
*I'm In Korea
all by J.B. Lenoir
*Don't Shoot Baby
all by The Medallions
LC: It's amazing how many songs were written in the 1950s about cars.
FZ: Yeah, they had 'em then! They were finer cars.
LC: What could you do to them? I forget all the terms.
FZ: Oh, you could chop them, channel them. reverse spray. And no car was complete without some fuzzy dice or bongos in the back seat. And let's not forget the shrunken head, that was a big item. In San Diego, where I was growing up, there were some very ferocious car clubs with these plaques that would drag on the pavement because the cars were lowered all the way around. The status car then was an Icebox white '39 Chevy with primer spots. But you know the customs and folklore of the American teenager are very curious in that they vary so much from area to area. There are things that teenagers do in various parts of the country that they don't do in any other places. I heard of a scene in Michigan or one of those Northern states where a lot of kids in this one town had bought two-way radios. In the Valley here it's a big thing to go out cruising and sit low in seducer listening to your car tapes that you stole. But they had a whole scene where they'd cruise the streets but they wouldn't go to any place. You'd just talk to each other on these radios and pick up chicks that way. It was all very modern and mechanised. These kids would save up $200 and get a third-class licence as a broadcaster. That was their status thing.
LC: (Reads ad for forthcoming Jeff Beck, Moody Blues, and Ten Years After gig at the Shrine Exposition Hall.) Lights and visuals by the Piccadilly Light Show. Advance tickets $3.50 available from the Beauty Bottle.
FZ: There's this guy in
LC: Providing you want an arm and a leg that belonged to Broadway Al.
FZ, Listen, people collect weird things. Get it bronzed! Put it on your car!
*Rock Around The Clock
Bill Haley And His Comets,
LC: Rock Around The Clock was actually out for about three or four months and it was a complete stiff until the movie Blackboard Jungle came out and then it was an immediate hit. There was a sense of pride, sitting there in the dark theatre, watching Glenn Ford trying to get along with those kids. I had a lot of sympathy with Glenn Ford's friend who brings his records to school and these tawdry hoodlums threw the records around.
FZ: They stole the act, those tawdry hoodlums.
LC: They do, with their DAs and everything!
LC: Do you remember the Tune Tote? Those most little boxes you used to carry your 45s around in, and catalogue them and put out numbers on the records?
FZ: And you'd have a card and write the names that go with the numbers and you'd keep that inside the Tune Tote so you could find the records. And you'd have 25 records in the box and think that was a lot.
LC: And pretty soon you'd have to get another Tune Tote for $3.98, otherwise you'd forget what records you had. You usually got them for Christmas. It wasn't the kind of thing you went out to buy for yourself.
FZ: That was definitely a mother purchase.
FZ: It gives me great pleasure to read the tag line to a commercial for Wallach's
LC: Did you work in the downtown store?
LC: So did I.
FZ: I had a little badge with Mr Zappa on it, which I've still got.
LC: I bet they're one of the few places in the
FZ: Wallach's would still have Tune Totes!
Johnny Guitar Watson
Commercial: The Righteous Brothers, The Four King Cousins, Gary Lewis And The Playboys ("Gary's first in-person appearance since his release from the army") and Styles & Henderson of
LC: That's Gary Lewis and Disneyland. Two things we really stand for here at KPPC.
(which Frank dedicates to "Dody, The GTOs, Roy [Estrada] and Jim[my Carl Black] and the two new members of the Mothers: Lowell [George] and Buzz Gardner. ")
LC: I didn't realise that you wrote that song [Memories Of El Monte] but I was over at Original Sound today picking up Oldies But Goodies Volumes 1 to 9 and the guys over there said you wrote it.
FZ: I wrote a couple more that they put out, but all of them bombed except, one called Grunion Run, which was the B-side of a tune called Tijuana Surf, which was written by Paul Buff who is the engineer there now. Tijuana Surf sold somewhere between five and eight thousand copies in
LC: Did you ever get paid?
FZ, Are you kidding? Actually I got a BMI statement on Memories Of El Monte for 27 cents.
LC: There's a kind of new avant-garde attitude in the record business now where they actually feel in some cases that the artists should be paid for what they do.
FZ: Not if they're recording for MGM! From what I've heard there's been all kinds of complaints, like Sam The Sham is having problems. All kinds of people are having problems with MGM's accounting procedure. It's very primitive. Getting a brown paper bag and putting blue Xs on it with a crayon doesn't really make it when you're trying to compute record sales. And they're very slow. The members of the Mothers received their first royalty payment about a month ago. We've recording with them for two, three years.
Commercial: Biff Rose and new group called Poco at the Troubadour, Santa Monica Boulevard, "Forthcoming in December are appearances from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a rare nightclub appearance from Buffy Sainte-Marie."
FZ: Memories Of El Monte was co-written by Ray Collins and myself, and a long time ago he and I worked at the Troubadour on talent night as Loeb & Leopold. We were singing songs about pimples and all kinds of other far-out things, and a lot of that was the basis of the things the Mothers wound up doing. Haven't been back to the Troubadour since.
*Three Hours Past Midnight
Johnny Guitar Watson
*Crashing The Party
Commercial: The Beatles' White Album.
FZ: It's amazing that The Beatles have to do a commercial. That's ferocious. Come on you guys, help The Beatles. Buy their record.
all by Don & Dewey
FZ, Miss Sue is very early Don & Dewey, before they graduated from the Shade label to Specialty – the label that's white, yellow and black and looks like a scrambled egg with writing on it.
LC: They're going to reactivate that label, by the way.
FZ: They are? That's great. Well, I hope they re-release Cherokee Dance by Willie Joe And His Unitar. You ever heard that?
LC: No, the people I remember on Specialty are Larry Williams, Sam Cooke, and Little Richard.
FZ: Well, they also had some heavy, people like Percy Mayfield … and Cool Caravan by The Rhythm Cats. Dig that one out, it's one of those tawdry old instrumentals. Anyway, Don & Dewey really worked hard to put their act together. They played a lot at El Monte Legion stadium, thrilling the audience with their zany antics. One of them would play an electric violin and double on guitar and the other one would play organ and sometimes bass, and they had this special type of vocal harmony which was very individualistic. They had these gala costumes which were sort of day-glo rayon with bolero balls hanging all over their chest, and phenomenally huge processed pompadours going up about two-and-a-half feet from the top of their heads, and they really had it together. Then The Righteous Brothers came along and borrowed their whole number and, because they were white, become very rich. Meanwhile, Don & Dewey don't function anymore.
LC: It's time now for a unofficial commercial for an album called Ruben & The Jets, This commercial has not been paid for – which, I might add, violates all of the rules of the Federal Communications Commission.
FZ: That's it, stick it to them! Show them how avant-garde you are.
(Zappa reads "the Ruben story" from the sleeve notes of Ruben & The Jets over a great sleazy sax backing )
*Pledging My Love
FZ: A blast from the past. How many of you chicks got to pregnant this one? This is a KPPC stink-finger special.
LC: Johnny Ace had a strange career. This record was a million seller, in fact I think it as the first R&B million seller. And on Christmas Eve 1954, while playing a gig in
*P.B. Baby (with its immortal refrain ”piddly piddly all the time")
FZ: When I was going to school in
LC: Now there's one of the only Negro singers that's been influenced by Bobby Rydell!
FZ: I saw a picture of Bobby Rydell one time and his hairdo looked like it wasn't made out of hair but from a big piece of chewing gum, all smoothed over and sticking out at motor the front.
LC: I have to read a commercial for another one of the dancehalls that are springing up in the City of the Angels.
FZ: Until the police shut them down.
Commercial: Spirit, Harvey Mandel and Blues Image at The Bank in
*Work With Me Annie
*Annie Had A Baby
*Annie's Aunt Fanny
*Stingy Little Thing
all by Hank Ballard And The Midnighters
FZ: We used to work in
LC: Underground radio back in 1953 or 1954 was Rhythm & Blues radio and there was a whole series of records which managed to sell very well without having the benefit of being played on mainstream radio. I don't think there was one white radio station in the
FZ, You got a lot of nerve playing them here in
LC: I know, especially under a church...
All that stuff was on the King and Federal labels. I can remember a time when about 50 per cent of my records were on King or Federal. There was a big controversy ranging around 1953, '54, when Hank Ballard had this whole string of dirty records. Finally, he came up with
FZ: My, how they've changed.
LC: Well Frank, they did start their Rhythm & Blues survey about two years ago.
FZ: So they finally admitted that Rhythm & Blues exists.
artist unidentified; probably The Cellos
*I Put A Spell On You
Screamin' Jay Hawkins
Jackie And The Starlighters
From this point in the proceedings, things start to get as anarchic as a typical Mothers concert. After Home In Alcatraz they let the needle lock into the run-out groove and the last 45 minutes of the programme are largely taken up with Zappa reading out requests over the strangely hypnotic sound of a stylus grinding up against the centre of a record ("C'mon kids, let's have a little dry humping to the record scratchers. Get into the spirit of the thing") interspersed with the '50s gems listed above, and an increasingly agitated Les Carter, who up until this point had been hanging in there just fine but now starts to sound like a man worrying about his station's franchise. Zappa, of course, appears totally unconcerned, endorsing the new Rolling Stones LP as Buggers Banquet and encouraging a caller who wants the scratches dedicated to "Richard Nixon, who is going scratch off some of the problems in this country".
With thanks to Miles for corrections and obscure record identification.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net