Zappa: Speak Out
By Paul Colbert
NO-ONE, BUT NO-ONE fools around with the Big Z. Zappa don't allow no doped out playing in here. Neither does he stand for late arrivals at the studio, chatting or tinkering in between numbers, slackness, idleness, lethargy or boredom. Uncle Frank runs a tight ship. Doodle with your keyboards once too often and you are out, and the chances are there'll be several dozen people queuing to take your place the next day.
Zappa was in town promoting a new film, Baby Snakes, already shown in the States and previewed in Britain. He also addressed himself to the new double album, JOE'S GARAGE, ACTS TWO AND THREE. JOE'S GARAGE, ACT ONE was released last year and all three tell the story of how music is banned by the Government as a dangerous and perverting influence. Most of the narration is handled by Zappa in the costume of 'The Central Scrutinizer' whose plastic megaphoned voice urges us to believe that 'Music Causes BIG TROUBLE'. It's good Zappa, but not great Zappa.
"We went into the studio to do two singles, "Joe's Garage", the song itself, and "Catholic Girls", and when we came out there were 17 songs. I thought there had to be some continuity there so I went home and wrote up the continuity over the weekend." So much for a divine concept inspiration on the bog. Where do the ideas come from?
"The Lyrics? Well things go through a lot of rewrites, I usually change things right up to the time they're recorded and sometimes I change them again before I take them back on the road for tours. I'll change the words right in the middle of a show, maybe use the song as a vehicle to talk about something that happened during the day.
"They can come from snatches of conversation like "Why Does it Hurt When I Pee" on "Joe's Garage". The road manager on that tour went into the toilet on the bus in Germany and I heard this horrifying scream, I didn't know what was going on. And he comes walking out and says "Why does it hurt when I pee?" and the song was written by the end of the trip. "Crew Slut" was another one, that was about a real person.
"There are two ways of dealing with words. One way is you just let the words happen as part of the melody line and the arrangement is kept real simple and the other way is to try and animate all the lyrics. The way JOE'S GARAGE turned out, most of the things that are described are animated with maybe orchestral touches that sound like the go-go bar or all the different things that are being talked about.
"An arrangement like that takes a long time to execute because all those little nuances are done in the studio a track at a time.
"JOE'S GARAGE has a sparser instrumentation. It was done on purpose because it was the first completely studio album I had done in years. Although we had a really huge array of synthesisers and stuff like that I had the keyboard player play all the basic tracks on the Wurlitzer piano. So some of the tracks are just Wurlitzer, bass and rhythm guitar. The first difficulty was trying to get Peter Wolf (keyboards) to play just Wurlitzer, like these keyboard players wanna go apeshit all the time. It's hard to make musicians just play tracks; play a few notes and stay out of the way of the vocals and make a good arrangement of it."
Even when the lyrics are down on paper (Zappa types them out, by the way – indecipherable scrawl on the back of a cigarette packet is not allowed) they can undergo one more radical alteration – to German.
"I like German, it's rock language, it's got that bite to it. It used to be translated by our babysitter at one time. Some languages I can't stand to listen to – French is one of them; it's like people sucking up snot through a straw. We sang in Dutch one time. We didn't have to sing too many words in it, that's a hard one to pronounce. Yugoslavian is a snap."
The album's title comes from the American tradition of garage bands who go on to play in bars, the equivalent of Britain's church hall to pub advance of the average semipro.
"You learn to play in a garage and in a bar. You can go to a conservatory but they don't really teach you how to play, they teach you academic craftsmanship. Most of them do not prepare musicians for life in the real world. I started playing professionally – that is for MONEY – when I was 15. The Mothers were formed in '64 so I spent a lot of time in garages and bars.
"In the studio you don't have to worry about doing things in real time, you can overdub. On stage you get one shot at it and also you have the audience and their desires; their craving and need to be entertained at all costs."
Stories abound around Zappa, such as the tale by Eddie Jobson that his audition was to be pushed out behind an arsenal of unfamiliar keyboards in front of an audience of several thousand and told to sight read the set.
"Sure, I do that. I mean, look, to play in the sort of bands I put together requires a certain amount of audacity, it's like commando warfare. If you can't go out there and assert yourself you're not ready for whatever may happen – you don't belong there so that's a good way to try somebody out.
"That's the way Warren (Cuccurullo) got on to JOE'S GARAGE. There's a big backlog of people who want to be in the band and want to try out, and it's great that the spirit is there and they want to take up that kind of challenge."
IT WOULD seem that working for Zappa involves being an ace score reader. Not the case.
"It doesn't make much difference to me in the studio, I could put a piece of music down in front of someone or just tell them how to play it. I have had bands where everyone has been a reader. The most boring band I had was like that and ultimately led to the song "[Po-Jama] People" which is written about that particular band which had people like Ruth (Underwood), George (Duke) and Ponty. You go on the road and you have these people living their life to play [Yahtzee] on the bus, and chess and engaging in intellectual juiceless pursuits. I like to have guys in the band who want to go out there and want to get laid. Without that attitude the performance of the music doesn't really work. They've got to have something that sets them apart from other people who are just as competent or technical.
"It's hard to find people who can play with real precision but also know how to put the fun into it, because there's a strong desire on the part of the audiences who come to our sort of shows to have a few laughs."
Especially dicey are those people who audition and perform well but overreact when they hit the road for the first time.
"The lights go on, 10,000 people are out there in front and all screaming and suddenly you're a star. They don't get scared – they just start getting these attitudes about themselves and their relationships with the universe at large.
"Similarly someone who'll be knockout live won't be able to cut it in the studio. One drummer was a hit on stage, leaping around in mid-solo but once behind the recording glass he didn't know how to tune his kit."
Zappa's view of his own technique is that it's weird, but adequate to execute the strange ideas he comes up with. He never practices, in fact he rarely has a chance to play unless he's in the studio. He can't cope with lightning scales, but then a thousand-and-one other guitarists are doing that so what's the point?
He's part way through having a studio built alongside his home in Los Angeles. Home life, by the way, is quiet. A few friends come around, mostly to talk about gear, an overwhelming passion of the Big Z's testified by the gleam in his eyes as he launched into a breakdown of the studio equipment.
"It should be finished by March or April. At the moment the gear is in my basement. I've got a Harrison 48-out computerised board, an Ampex 1200 24-track, I've got it slaved together with an Eko syncroniser, four ATRs and one of them has the new half-inch two-track heads and they're almost as clear as digital recording. With that kind of signal-to-noise ratio they're just incredible. When the price of digital recording comes down and the efficiency goes up, then I might get into it, but not now.
"The problem for my ear is the bandwidth; it's only 16K on one system and there are problems in editing it – you can't cut the tape and I LOVE chopping up tape. You have to have two machines playing into a third, but I'm sure they'll get it together."
He also has a Pet computer at home and says, tellingly, "I think I could relate to computers."
Right now he is relating to a Les Paul after years of strapping on an SG. The famous wah-wah pedal has also made a comeback, fighting off a rack of sophisticated flangers, phasers, echos and the like.
"It's been hotted up, it's got DiMarzio pickups on it, a pre-amp and special frets and all the rest of that custom stuff. Once I switched over I hardly ever touched my SG anymore. The only drawback is, it doesn't have the same fret scale, it's harder to get to the upper notes, and the SG I have is specially made and has a 23-fret neck so I can go all the way up to an E flat on it, which you can't do with the Les Paul. The thing that's great about that Les Paul is that can bend notes a fourth on it."
John Carruthers has been working on Zappa's instruments for the last few years, and one of the better known Zappa eccentricities is the transducer bug that he fits to the necks of electrics.
"You can do it on semi-acoustics as well. At either extreme of the guitar you have an accumulation of those kinds of vibrations that reflect everything the guitar is doing.
"The first guitar I owned was an ES5 Switchmaster which is a big fat jazz guitar and I had that spiffed up. It's got a Barcus Berry on the bridge and one of those Seismic Sensors on the pole-piece and three pickups in it and a quad output. It's got its own power supply to run everything – it's better than changing batteries."
Some of the JOE'S GARAGE solos have a great flanging sound where the depth has been wound up to dip the pitch.
"That's the cheaper model Ibanez flanger. I think it sounds better than their more expensive one. It's fairly quiet and it's got a good edge to it. We have a few, and various members of the band use them. They sound fabulous on bass solos."
The album was cut at half speed, a lengthier process, obviously, but resulting in far better definition and dynamics. At normal speed, deep flanging like that used on JOE'S GARAGE can play havoc with the record cutting head. When the two sides of the stereo are out of phase, the groove almost vanishes and your stylus will leap clear and scythe a path across the rest of the vinyl. One of the advances he's looking forward to is the improvement in cutting techniques so the head's relationship to the disc can be updated many more times during a cut, boosting the fidelity.
But what about the vast array of equipment the lowly guitar signal wanders through before reaching the tape?
"Well, when I changed over to the Les Paul I had so much to worry about adjusting my playing position and so on that I didn't have time to worry about combining effects and stuff like that. On the last day we played at the Hammersmith Odeon, I got my wah-wah pedal out of mothballs and I had such a good time I just went crazy over it, I thought, great. Give me a Boogie amplifier, my wah-wah pedal and a guitar, that's it."
The pedal is a modified Boomerang with a variable selector for bandwidth and midrange so it's less prone to feedback, and the 'dirty' pre-amp inside can be bypassed when the effect is switched out.
For the totally dedicated Zappa followers, the strings are Maximas in 42, 32, 24 15, 11 and 8. Apparently the top three are gold-plated to prevent corrosion and they are all very springy. "Take them off the guitar after you've played them for a while and they coil back up".
Even when pushed up a fourth in pitch they jump back into place. So when is this gold-wired, hyper-tensioned axe put into use?
"On JOE'S GARAGE I just did the solos and maybe followed the melody. I write real fast. I write a lot faster than I read. I won't hear it again until someone plays it to me. Then I can hardly remember feeling any of the processes that took place when I was writing it. Why dwell on it? I mean, get the fucker written down and go on to something else.
"I like arrangements where everything is specified. I do plan bass lines and the type of figures that are going to be played."
Now here is an example of being different. The solos in JOE'S GARAGE had very little to do with the backing tracks. They were all recorded on the road TO OTHER SONGS.
"I came back with a stereo Nagra tape of just guitar solos and thought of songs where they could go. You try to find something that's in the same key but the time signature could be different. In "Packard Goose", the backing is in 4/4 and the solo was played in 15/16 in a totally different tempo. It was from the last show in Zurich during a song called "Easy Meat". The solo in "Keep It Greasy" – the rhythm background I think is in 21/16 and the guitar is in 11/4. The beats come together about once a month ..?
SOME observers say the secret to Zappa's success is that he surrounds himself with excellent musicians so that even the weakest of scores will sound stunning. Others argue that without Uncle Frank's guidance they'd be an ordinary bunch of session men with nowhere great to go. Certainly many players have found it useful to have a Zappa session in their qualifications and it's generally accepted that you've arrived when the Big Z welcomes you aboard. So how does he treat his employees?
"When I'm rehearsing I try to have as few as possible of the band in at once. The deal I've always had with the guys is that they are on a yearly guarantee whether they work or not and if they're recording they get paid session scale on top of their salary so they are getting a lot of money for what they are doing. So I sometimes adopt this gentleman farmer type attitude to wasting time in the studio. Before I own my own premises I have to get studio time at anything from 150 to 200 dollars an hour and these guys want to sit around and HEY play a little groove and have a chit-chat and stuff and the more of them you get together, the more time you'll waste.
"I am always adamant about delivering as many notes as possible per hour out of the people that are in there.
"They don't give me millions of dollars to make records. It's not like Fleetwood Mac where you go in and spend a million and half and 13 months to make an album. I don't work that way."
Is it easy to get musicians to work that way? "No, they all hate doing it. They always hate to play arrangements because they'd rather jam and be 'groovy'. When they leave the group I'd say 70 per cent of them ask for their jobs back. Sometimes I take them back. Ray Collins has been in the band five times, Ruth Underwood has been in a couple of times. It just depends on what sort of stuff they're playing and whether or not they'll fit in with the new crop of players and what their current attitude is because they leave the bands for a lot of different reasons. I don't have any bad feelings about hiring them back as long as they fit.
"I have to do a lot of hard work in order to earn the money that I turn over to them. And I think it's reasonable to expect that if I'm paying people good money to do a job they have to perform that job to the best of their ability. It's only fair. It's not too much to ask.
"I work them hard. I fuckin' yell at 'em. I yell and scream at them. When we started the JOE'S GARAGE album I had this trouble with the first keyboard player, he was just noodling around too much and was dragging everybody down. The next day when Peter Wolf came in, we got three or four tracks down in one day – we didn't have to spend all day on one track."
And how much freedom do they have for their own solos?
"I think Peter did his keyboard solo on "Sy Borg" three or four times. He has to be satisfied with it, it's his solo. I did specify some of the notes he had to play to cadence it off at the end so it would adhere a little bit better to what was coming up. And usually if there is a solo required in a given spot, I'll tell them what kind of feeling I want for it because it's senseless to take the attitude that we are now making a record and I am going to play the solo of my life."
At this point in the interview the phone rings. It's a radio station wanting to know if Frank has compiled his list of favourites that he wants played that night. His first instructions were to pick out the best of his own work, then they changed their minds and decided that a few other people's discs would have to be included and now it was down to one Zappa track in a collection of other material, which brought us round to the man's own likes and dislikes and early musical influences.
"My record collection isn't massive but I would say it was rather unique. A lot of people who collect rhythm-and-blues records like me go out and buy everything by an artist so they can have a B B King section and so on. But let's face it, not all the songs were that good.
"I've got a pretty decent collection of songs from that period that I really enjoy – in fact they're all worn out. It's not complete by anybody else's standard, but I got all the good ones and I got a few that nobody else has got. I've been collecting for 25 years.
"I think the very first record I got was a 78 of "Riot in Cell Block Number Nine."
"When I was a kid there was hardly any music around in the house. Nothing. The earliest music that I remember hearing was some Arab music that I heard someplace, I don't know how or where or where it was, and I really liked it. I must have been very young. After that the next thing I went crazy over was rhythm-and-blues and at the same time I started collecting rhythm-and-blues I started listening to contemporary orchestra music. The first album I bought was the complete works of Edgar Varèse, still my favourite composer. He had balls. He had the audacity to do what he was doing against difficult odds."
Is that how Zappa sees himself today? "Yeah, in certain ways, but I wouldn't compare myself to Varèse in other ways. One thing he did which I hope I never have to do is quit composing for 25 years because he just got fed up with everything. He couldn't get any performances so he just stopped writing, which I think was a big mistake. I've come close to that a few times but I realise how much I like his music and I realise how little of it there is and I realise that the reason there isn't very much of it is because he said 'fuck it' and stopped writing."
In fact Varèse went on to write only a few pieces after his 25-year lapse, the last of which had to be completed following his death. The earlier material didn't have any electronics, but when he picked up again, he incorporated tape, experiments also loved by Zappa.
Zappa has rather a large number of his own LPs to look back on, and on this particular day, was inclined to split his work into five eras, classified by the personnel of the groups.
"The earliest five albums definitely owed their sound and their attitude to the personalities of the people who played on them. Not only their physical performances but their aura.
Included on those sessions were the likes of Ray Collins and Roy Estrada. The next incarnation was with Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, then George Duke and Ruth Underwood, a series of bands featuring Terry Bozzio on drums and the latest line up is with Vinnie Colaiuta in the seat and Warren Cuccurullo on rhythm guitar.
But behind that has been another pet project stretching back two or three years – an extravagant orchestral score running to two weighty manuscript tomes titled "Mo 'n' Herb's Vacation", and "Wøööøl", "Bob in Dacron and Sad Jane". It would need, Zappa estimates, about 110 musicians, vast sums of money and a month of rehearsals, six hours a day, five days a week. Zappa has never heard it. It is one of the pieces that sprang from the brain and appeared on paper. Short sections of the percussion track have been played, but he admits one of the main reasons he would like to get it on-stage is purely to hear what it sounds like.
The score is immensely complex. Flipping through the pages, he plucked out one drum line which required the gyro brained skin-basher to play 13 notes in the time of two. The rest of the time signatures are equally as haywire.
"In order for it to happen money has to be invested by me to have the stuff printed up, buy ad space you've really got to run a mail-order business in order to sell this stuff. Those books represent a few years worth of work and the copying bills for the people who drew up these things to make it look neat like that was astronomical."
ZAPPA says his own writing is neat enough, but he doesn't have the patience to use templates and fine detail like the copyists. His skills were learnt from studying at home, something he really wanted to do.
"You go to music school and what do they do, a guy gives you a book and says 'go read this'. Meanwhile you got to pay him two thousand dollars. So what do you do? You go to a public library, pick up a book, it doesn't cost you anything, and if you want to learn you'll teach yourself.
"I started composing when I was 14 and I've just turned 39. The first thing I wrote was, I believe, a solo for snare drum called "Mice" because I used to play snare drum in a school orchestra and we had year-end competitions where you go play your little solo."
He's particularly fond of percussion. "I started off with the top of a dresser." And his first job in a band was going to drum with a rhythm-and-blues set up in San Diego but he didn't have a kit.
"We used to go over to this Minister's house because his son was a piano player and I would sit in the living room with a pair of pots and a pair of sticks trying to get a shuffle going while Stewart Congden, which was his name, was plonking away on the piano."
Now he's considering hiring over 100 top musicians – they'll have to be first rate to cope with the ultra-complex score – plus a conductor. Zappa has someone in mind, Friedrich Cerha of Vienna, but isn't sure if he's free.
"He has the scores now and he's interested in doing it. We almost got a performance of this stuff together last year. Austrian Television was contributing one of the largest parts of the budget and at the last minute they dropped out. That left me holding the bag. I'd already advertised that it was coming up, the hall was booked, the orchestra was being provided by the City of Vienna, the conductor had the score – the works, and at the last minute we had to cancel it.
"Since then they've called me back three or four times and asked if I was still interested in it and I told them "I can't do business with you because you've cost me so much money already". There was 50,000 dollars in score-copying bills and approximately 50,000 dollars in telephone calls and transporting my manager all over Europe trying to raise the money for finishing the thing off, and that's a total loss."
Now he has been offered a contract with a guarantee that it will happen in the Summer of 1981, but he still wants it firmed up well beforehand.
The orchestration includes a drum kit, electric keyboard, and electric bass, but the rest is an orchestral monstrosity.
"I know a lot of people already who can play it without too much trouble, but the trick is getting them there all at once. Who pays? Who flies them from LA or New York to Vienna and pays for their food, hotel and salary for the duration of the rehearsals? I'm sure they have some good musicians in Vienna, but no-one is going to sight-read that, I can guarantee it. To get it together, some of that stuff in there requires some specialists playing. Because of the rhythmic writing, unless you have people who can play those funny kinds of rhythms and play them with conviction, the performance wouldn't sound right."
1981 is too far away, and he hopes to get some sort of a performance before then. "I want to hear what it sounds like. You can't hold all of that in your mind. Some of those pages where everybody is playing something different can only be judged in the form of texture."
That's an important word in the Zappa vocabulary. "In rock and roll, timbre and tone colour is everything. The perfect example is "Purple Haze" played by Jimi Hendrix on a Stratocaster versus "Purple Haze" played on an accordion. You could play exactly the same notes in exactly the same time, but unless it has that texture which says 'rock and roll' it's hopeless."
It's the pursuit of ever-varied rock and roll textures that leads Zappa to his views on live performances. Live records are invariably previously unreleased material and shows often feature completely new arrangements of older songs, sometimes presented to the bands a matter of hours before the set begins.
"Last year at the Hammersmith Odeon, we had another arrangement of "Peaches En Regalia" that was quite different from the other two versions that are already out.
"We rehearse for two months before a tour but I have done songs with just a couple of hours rehearsal in the afternoon before the gig."
One unrehearsed incident seven years ago has left Zappa with a constant reminder of the dangers of standing on a stage. A member of the audience leapt onto the boards at the Rainbow and sent the guitarist flying into the photographers' pit 15 feet below. He was seriously hurt, suffering a broken leg and some damage to his arms and neck, but he remembers little about it.
"I recall lying there with my head at a funny angle thinking I was dead."
Since then he has employed a personal bodyguard, Bald Headed John, who features on JOE'S GARAGE – or at least his name does. Ironically, it was the bodyguard who was in hospital when the album came to be recorded and Terry Bozzio, who had worked out a fair imitation of his voice, was called in to complete the session.
The fall left Zappa in a wheelchair for several months, made London his far-from-favourite town and still keeps him in pain today.
"Some days I wake up, get out of bed and can't stand up straight. Onstage I sit down while the rest of the band is playing and I'm not needed."
So maybe some people do fool around with the Big Z after all. But I can't recommend it.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net