Frank Talk

By Alan Clayson

Record Collector, May, 2009


This spring, the Zappa Family Trust will release Lumpy Money, a 3-CD retrospective containing stereo and mono versions plus extras of We’re Only In It For The Money and Lumpy Gravy.

First issued on vinyl in 1968, these interrelated albums – respectively, The Mothers Of Invention’s third and a solo Frank Zappa’s first – are pivotal both as catalysts in the breaching of the abyss between pop and modern classical, and to any constructive study of the most remarkable North American composer of the twentieth century – and, perhaps, any other time.

As well as an intangible something else, they were drawn from seemingly disparate influences that range from black vocal groups of the 1950s to the pioneering tonalities of Stravinsky, Webern and, most exalted of all, Edgard Varèse. Indeed, Frank’s admiration extended to his recording of the hitherto un-issued The Rage And The Fury: The Music Of Edgard Varèse with Germany’s Ensemble Modern.

The late Zappa’s hard-won recognition as a cultural titan on a par with the likes of Varèse and Stravinsky is evidenced by the inclusion of his works in London’s Promenade Concert seasons and in the repertoires of not only the expected rock tribute hands but also those of; say, the Britten Sinfonia chamber orchestra and Ensemble Ambrosius, a Scandinavian septet, who presented him in baroque fashion on 2000’s The Zappa Album (BIS-NL-CD-5013).

This met with the approval of Gail Zappa, Frank’s widow, who, while bringing up tour talented children, has been clasping the reins of her workaholic spouse’s business affairs for decades. As the Trust’s guardian angel, her commitment to keeping Frank’s prolific output before the public goes beyond merely authorising a release schedule and attending to mail-orders. It spread to the foundation of the Vaulternative record company, and a hands-on interest in every link of the chain from studio to pressing plant to marketplace.

With co-producer and archivist Joe ‘Vaultmeister’ Travers, also drummer in Z – the outfit fronted by Dweezil and Ahmet, Frank and Gail’s sons – at the console, this involves poring over thousands of taped hours, dating hack up to half a century, of out-takes, demos, alternative versions, in-concert performances et al in order to cater for a vast international fan base for whom no item connected with Frank Zappa is too insignificant to be less than totally fascinating.

The ultima thule for such a collector might he America’s Sweethearts, a 1966 single on California’s Living Legend label by Bunny and Bear, namely Hollywood jack-of-all-trades Kim Fowley – and the future Mrs Zappa. After her father’s job as a US naval physicist had brought her to England in her mid-teens, Gail had left school to be fleetingly at the very storm-centre of Swinging London. On returning to the USA in 1965, all signposts pointed to Los Angeles where, with deceptive casualness, she became part of a songwriting ‘factory’ when partnered with Chester Pipkin, once mainstay of The Chavelles, The Gents, The Valiants and then The Untouchables, some of whose discs were to find their way onto Wigan’s Casino turntables when Northern Soul was at its 1970s prime.

Then Fowley saw pop star potential in twenty-one-year-old Gail’s wasp-waisted profile and timorous pretty but commanding face – and the rest might have been history had not Bunny and Bear’s consequent pot-shot at the Hot 100 misfired.

Gail’s amused recollections of this episode were among topics that surfaced during a discussion focused ostensibly on the archives of that mystery-surrounding-a-puzzle-within-an-enigma that, for many, Frank Zappa will always remain.

What motivates decisions for particular releases? For example, why Lumpy Money and why now?

Partly, it was because we were trying to get as close as we could to the actual fortieth anniversary. Lumpy Gravy is my favourite record by Frank. It represented the tip of the iceberg of what Frank was capable of doing as a composer. It was both a culmination of all sorts of music connected to him, and music that stepped through another door. Imagine saying a word – any word – over and over again until it has no meaning – or acquires another kind of meaning.

Are there any plans to release The Rage And The Fury?

That’s a very personal – and brilliant – album. He wasn’t bothered if it was released or not. It was a project done when Frank’s life lasted longer than anyone could have anticipated. He didn’t care if anyone heard it or not – and I feel the same. It was enough that Frank heard it. No amount of money could equal that.

He was also reviving a lot of the black vocal group items that inspired him too – as instanced by The Closer You Are on Them Or Us. Indeed, he uses the same arrangement as The Channels’ 1956 original.

That’s what makes it so captivating - those lyrics with that feeling attached to them and the purity of his purpose.

I understood that Vaulternative was an outlet simply for Frank’s many in-concert recordings.

It’s more than that. It extends to things Frank put together that left us with little idea about what he wanted to be done with them. My first obligation is to preserve Frank’s original work as we find it, even though I know he’d have probably have taken it apart and done something completely different with it. Joe Travers and I are not trying to make Frank Zappa records, but we are trying to make records that reveal Frank Zappa.

Frank himself made adjustments to previous recordings – such as adding new bass and drum parts for the CD release of We’re Only In It For The Money in 1984.

That was for specific reasons. We didn’t have a usable master tape. You could literally hold it up to the light and see what was missing from it. I thought the new parts enhanced it. The quote from the bass line of My Sharona on Flower Punk was particularly funny.

Are CD releases of the likes of Permanent Damage by The GTOS or An Evening With Wild Man Fischer on the cards?

There’s a whole un-issued second album that Frank did with Wild Man Fischer, but I have to say that at the time I was about to sell the masters to Rykodisc – following Frank’s orders - I had no idea what was in the vault, apart from his two posthumous albums. No-one did. So far, Joe has figured out about forty per cent of what’s there.

Do you feel that you’re losing control of what happens to Frank’s music?

Yes and no. What’s most regrettable is people – especially those who used to work with Frank – using his name, image and music to further their own agenda. What makes them think they can do this without getting a license? All sorts of so-called tribute albums come out of Frank’s compositions for which the Estate receives nothing. I have no problem with people playing Frank’s music – no matter how badly they do it. That’s a reflection of the band, not the intrinsic content of the music. What bothers me are those who advertise themselves erroneously as containing former Mothers or members of one of Frank’s later touring bands.

Did Frank prefer to record his orchestral works on a Synclavier?

That’s a bit of a myth. It wasn’t his preference. When the Synclavier first came out, it was a convenient means of hearing what he had in mind, the ultimate tool for the composer before handing it on to an orchestra. He didn’t have to listen to the musicians bitching and moaning, but only the original idea for a given piece - but the Synclavier ended up being something you’d programme to play live behind somebody like Michael Jackson.

We used to save up money to hire orchestras. They didn’t come knocking at the door for Frank’s work. There’s plenty of evidence in his interviews that he was spending all this money simply because as a composer, he wanted to hear what it sounded like.

Frank didn’t actually come from a rock ’n’ roll background. That was just the sort of music that was most readily available to him when he started. Frank had a very clear idea what he wanted to do, and it happened to be categorised as rock ’n’ roll. In the 1960s, there were so many outsiders reinventing what was possible in the sense of being a contributing member of society.

Frank spoke often of running for President. Would he have done so?

Definitely. That was his intention from the day that I met him.

Are there specific types of consumers of Frank’s music?

Some are a special breed unto themselves. The completists’ gene code is such that his music is so much part of their lives that they have to have everything. Others are interested in just the Mothers or another period of his work. Conversely, there are also people who contribute their own versions of pieces by Frank. Recently, we received a phenomenal arrangement of Son Of Mr Green Genes for solo tuba.

Perhaps some sort of Holy Grail for collectors is the 45 you and Kim Fowley recorded in 1966...

My recording career! (laughs) My father played blues harmonica, and taught himself guitar, banjo and piano. Yet I didn’t play anything – although I’m wondering now about taking guitar lessons. However, when I left school – in Surrey – in 1962, 1 became caught up in what I can only describe as an evolutionary experience – that shift in consciousness in the early to mid-1960s.

As an example of the type of things what were happening around me, I remember being struck by a photograph of Lenny Bruce above a little newspaper article about how, after his appearance at the Establishment Club in London, he’d been refused re-entry into the country for obscenity – which was ironic given the freedom of speech you theoretically enjoy in Britain that we did not have in the United States.

I didn’t grasp it at the time, but this proved to be a clue, almost, to my immediate future. By the time my family moved to New York in 1965, I’d been on the periphery of the British music industry. In fact, I went to a party thrown for The Rolling Stones when they came back from their first US tour and I briefly dated Chris Stamp, the co-founder of Track Records.

After a friend of mine, who’d worked for Track, and I hitch-hiked to Los Angeles, I was pretty much ready for anything. Somebody told me that A&M wanted to start an R&B subsidiary, and were looking for songwriters. So, though I wasn’t actively seeking such a career, I went to their offices, and brandished a sheaf of paper containing some of the lyrics and poetry that I’d always written. Then I was installed in a room with an upright piano and a guy called Chester Pipkin, who’d been in various groups of that kind in the 1950s. Frank was familiar with his output.

Chester and I would grind out supposed R&B songs in this tiny room. We finished several, and maybe four got recorded, but I don’t have copies. I was actually present in some shack of a studio in the Valley when an outfit called Wooden Nickel did one of our compositions. I even worked at the Brill Building in New York for a while, but I was so naive then. I had no idea about the business side at all, and didn’t give much thought about making serious money as a songwriter. I was busier getting jobs as a secretary, stuff like that, to pay the rent.

Then I was walking along Sunset Boulevard one day when Kim Fowley approached me and asked if I wanted to make a record ... He was always wanting to be the power behind an all-girl rock group – which he was much later on with The Runaways.

You’ve led an interesting life. Have you considered an autobiography?

Yes. That’s why I’d like a copy of this tape – because you’ve got me dredging up memories that I’ve rarely been asked to talk about.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net