'The biggest talent I have ever come across' says ex Dylan producer Tom Wilson of Frank Zappa

By Frank Smythe

Record Mirror, November 11, 1967

Over the past few years the record producer – formerly background boy of the pop world – has come into his own. George Martin gathered almost as much publicity as the Beatles when the Liverpool foursome first made the charts. Andrew Oldham followed the pattern with the Stones, and, more recently, Denny Cordell – A and R man for the Procol Harum and Georgie Fame, among others – has had his share of the limelight.

Tom Wilson, head of MGM's pop team, is a different kettle of fish entirely. He almost shuns publicity – almost, because it's hard for a six-foot-six bearded New Yorker to pass unnoticed anywhere. This week, however, during a two-day stay in London he broke his anti-publicity rule and talked. I first met Tom two years ago, when, as a New York based CBS producer, he was responsible for the recording careers of such artists as Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan. A brilliant recording engineer and musician in his own right, Tom served Dylan from his beginnings as a talented but obscure folk singer to his present position as head of rock.

Currently, Tom is involved in the creation of another cult – revolving around the controversial "Mother of Invention" Frank Zappa.

Slow Start In Britain

"Zappa, without exception, is the biggest talent I have ever come across," said Tom. "Despite his slow start in Britain, he is going to be enormously big – mark my words. I've just flown back from Copenhagen, where the Mothers have been appearing – and already they are raising a sensation over there.

So far Zappa and his colleagues have met with only limited success in Britain. By many people they are regarded as a colossal joke. Are they in fact a joke?

"They are a joke to this extent" said Tom carefully, "in that they – and Frank in particular – regard the pop music of the 50's on which the current Anglo-American pop scene is largely based, as a joke. What Frank is doing is guying the rock and roll scene, pointing out to people with his satirical takeoffs of the music of the 1950 to 1960 period, that there was no substance in it. That it was hollow, cheap, and generally a sham. Now despite the fact that Frank also, to a limited extent, takes the mickey out of his audiences through the music, he himself is not a sham. He's a talented musician who has borrowed ideas from such classical masters as Bartok and Stravinsky, and he takes as much time and trouble with his LP's as the Beatles do with theirs."

Free Run Of Studio

Certainly, Zappa is taken very seriously indeed by the powerful M.G.M. corporation. In fact, he is almost a company within the company. He is granted a five-figure allowance by M.G.M. to create on their behalf. He is allowed a free run of M.G.M.'s New York studios, and he understands precisely how they work – as if he built himself a five-track recording unit. And he uses his knowledge of electronics to cut down on studio musicians. On one recent American record by the 'Mothers' a sound like a 50-piece choir was achieved. In fact the 50-piece choir was Frank Zappa, singing and supervising the recording at the same time.

"Both Frank and I were extremely impressed by the recording techniques in Copenhagen," said Tom, "and it's in the cards that we may record over there ourselves in the near future. In the 50s jazz and blues musicians – Big Bill Broonzy to name one – recorded very successfully in Scandinavia. Since then the Scandinavians have been second best to the Swinging British. But the situation may well change."

Besides Zappa, Tom Wilson is at the moment tied up very closely with another considerable talent that of Eric Burdon. He believes that Eric – a big draw on the American University campus scene – may become one of pop's most important artists. "He has great sensitivity," says Wilson, " and during the past year he's really come into his own."

But despite Tom's concern with Eric, I come away with the impression that his chief concern at the moment is with Zappa, and with what he may or may not achieve in Britain. Knowing Wilson, I would say that Zappa will achieve much in the coming months.

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