How to write, sub, and lay out a Frank Zappa Lookin' Back (I)


New Musical Express, 16 November 1974

First: get a couple of photos, a silly headline, and some chucklesome captions. Second: toss'em all up in the air and see what happens ...

"LEMME TELL YOU SOMETHING. You've got our recordings, you've seen us work a few times, you interviewed me three or four times, you've read a lot about us – but you don't know nothing. To know what it's about, you'd've had to be around for the whole thing."
"But Frank – no-one's been around for the whole thing except you."

(Conversation between Frank Zappa and the author.)

"I don't know when you're telling the truth."
"I'm not."
"But how can I – ?"
"You can't."

(Fragment of dialogue from the Mothers Of Invention's "Uncle Meat").

ONCE UPON A TIME, Verve was a jazz label, specialising in issuing the work of folks like Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans et al.

As it happened, Verve was a subsidiary of MGM Records, who decided in early 1966 that it was time that the label acquired some of them there white blues acts. They ended up with such fine performers as Every Mothers' Son and Ultimate Spinach ... not to mention The Velvet Underground and The Mothers Of Invention.

Both of these acts were under the supervision of a bright young black guy named Tom Wilson, who at the time was also producing Bob Dylan for CBS. The first time he took the Mothers into the studio, he was forced to report to his bosses that he wasn't quite sure just what he'd got.

As well he might. Even eight years on people are still saying the same thing.

The Mothers Of Invention were the result of a collision between a California bar band called The Soul Giants, and a total weirdo named Francis Vincent Zappa.

The Soul Giants were all R 'n' B musicians who'd been working low budget gigs for around ten years in various places and combinations, and they'd just had a row with their guitarist. The remaining members were Jimmy Carl Black (drums), Ray Collins (vocals and harmonica) and Roy Estrada (bass).

Zappa, on the other hand, was a self-taught guitarist whose main musical areas were doo-wop and modern classical music. He'd written movie scores and radio commercials, appeared on the Steve Allen Show playing a concerto for bicycle, and had recently been busted for making obscene movies and tapes.

The group called itself Captain Glasspack and The Magic Mufflers and started playing bars for seven dollars per night per man.

Various people like Henry Vestine, Jim Guercio and Alice Stuart passed through the band before, as the Mothers, they got a management deal with a guy called Herb Cohen and ended up being "discovered" at the Whisky-A-Go-Go and signed to Verve.

At this stage in the group's career they included a fresh-faced young man named Elliott Ingber (later to resurface under the name Winged Eel Fingerling with Captain Beefheart). They were also so poor that they were selling empty Coke bottles to make food money, and on the first day of recording the record company had to give them burger money to keep them from passing out. Once revived, they recorded six tracks on the first day.


VIEWED WITH hindsight, it's amusing to consider the effect that their first album, "Freak Out," had on unwary listeners. For a start, it was the first rock double-album, pre-dating "Blonde On Blonde" by several months. Secondly, it looked and sounded like nothing on earth.

For all Zappa knew, it was the only album he'd ever get to make, with the result that he crammed everything into it that he could.

The sleeve's fold-out is packed with jokes, propaganda ("Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system ... go to the library and educate yourself if you've got any guts"), paranoia ("Who would guess that it would inspire a song? None of you would guess. None of you are perceptive enough. Why are you reading this?"), and snide little remarks about the set's dearth of commercial potential.

The first of the two albums consisted of songs ranging from the doo-wop parody of "Go Cry On Someone Else's Shoulder" (You should not listen to it. You should wear it on your hair") to almost straight pop songs like "Any Way The Wind Blows" (which would've been great for Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders).

"Wowie Zowie" was purest bubblegum, except that Ray Collins' vocal was completely deranged and the song included lines like "I don't care if you shave your legs."

However, the songs that represent the opening salvoes in Zappa's major campaigns against the world are, curiously enough, the most powerful on the record. "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here" and "You Didn't Try To Call Me" rip the lungs out of straight teenage America – soda pop, bobby sox, all the geewhizzing high school cliches. Zappa must really have loathed The Beach Boys and all that they stood for.

"Who Are The Brain Police" is aimed at their parents, at the Government, at Big Brother and all his slaves. Zappa raged against the slave-masters, but he had little sympathy for the slaves.

His protest was in a completely different universe to the cleancut "Brother can't you see" Village folkniks – he wasn't sweet and persuasive, and he didn't even deal in polemics and dialectic. His protest was bad breath and vicious noises.

He didn't deliver protest – he and his group and their appearance and music were the protest.

His demands were non-negotiable because he was the demands, as he explains right up front on the first track "Hungry Freaks, Daddy." His and Ray Collins' voices were intentionally ugly and tuneless, matching the ugliness that they saw around them in straight society with a liberating ugliness of their own.

"Music is always a commentary on society, and the atrocities are quite mild compared to what is conducted on our behalf by the government. You can't write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say.

Zappa spoke for the outcasts, but when the outcasts crept back in through the back door, they found Zappa waiting for them with a fiery sword. However, that comes later.


THE OTHER HALF of "Freak Out" began with a "straight" protest song called "Trouble Every Day." It includes the line "Hey people ... I'm not black but sometimes I wish I could say I wasn't white," so maybe it's a parody of "Eve Of Destruction."

The second piece on the third side, "Help I'm A Rock" introduces certain motifs to crop up on side 4, and includes "It Can't Happen Here." It was "Help I'm A Rock" and "The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet" which proved the most baffling, being collages of dialogue, free-form playing, speeded up voices and piano. One particularly idiosyncratic sequence (chipmunk voices singing the word "Cream-cheese" to a singularly intricate melody) is followed by Zappa inquiring "Did you pick up on that?"

Very few people did, but it sold just the same.

Zappa then resurfaced with a bigger band (minus Ingber, plus hornman Bunk Gardner, second drummer Billy Mundi and keyboard player Don Preston) performed a season at New York's Garrick Theatre under the alternate titles of "Absolutely Free" and "Pigs And Repugnancy", and released in 1967, a new album entitled "Absolutely Free."

It opened with the President of the United States being sick, and then went on to state: "Take the day and walk around / watch the Nazis run your town / then go home and check yourself / you think we're talking about someone else". Zappa let the hippies in his audience laugh at the straights, but he always tried to prevent them from having any illusions about the validity of their own life-style. What was that Bobby Dylan said about "Don't follow leaders?"

Musically the progress between albums has been nothing short of incredible. Zappa introduced himself as a shit-hot guitar player on "Ritual Dance And Invocation Of The Young Pumpkin", where he played a seven-minute dambuster of a solo against an extended saxophone workout by Gardner.

In the meantime, he still continued to fail against drunken hypocritical elders in "Brown Shoes Don't Make It", "America Drinks" and "America Drinks And Goes Home", and against their kids in "Son Of Suzy Creamcheese" and "Status Back Baby." (Suzy, incidentally, was the archetype dumb high-school kid introduced on the sleeve of "Freak Out" and featured on "Help I'm A Rock' and "Monster Magnet".)

During the Garrick Theatre season, Zappa had accepted a commission from Capitol to write some orchestral music. As his deal with MGM/Verve was simply as a member of the Mothers and not as a solo artist or a producer, he accepted and got to work on what was eventually to become "Lumpy Gravy."

MGM then threatened to sue, and bought it from Capitol. They then sat on it for more than a year.


IN THE MEANTIME, Zappa had worked on the third Mothers album "We're Only In It For The Money", far and away his most dazzling, moving and effective album.

Its sleeve was a remarkably dense and razor-edged parody of "Sergeant Pepper", pointed down to the last detail. Where the Beatles appeared smiling sweetly in satin, the Mothers were shown grimacing in drag. The Beatles' name was spelt out in flowers, the Mothers' in vegetables. The background on "Sgt. Pepper" was a sunny sky, on "Money" a thunderstorm at night. The Beatles had Tussaud models, the Mothers mutilated waxwork dummies. The Beatles had a grieving Buddha, the Mothers a bust of Beethoven with the eyes blacked out. Get the picture?

One other thing. Where the Beatles promised that "splendid time is guaranteed for all," appeared a little note reading "This whole monstrosity was conceived and executed by Frank Zappa as a result of some unpleasant premonitions August to October 1967."
The unpleasant premonitions centered around the concentration camps set up during World War II to house potentially rebellious citizens of German, Italian and Japanese extraction, and which were theoretically available for use in the case of potential prisoners and hippies.

The album was the most extraordinary rock record that anyone ever heard. It was a non-stop barrage of songs, sounds and dialogues, complete with reprises of key lines, recurrent motifs and concentrated attacks on everything that was lazy, plastic or hypocritical.

"We're Only In It For The Money" is a forty-minute cry of pain. The satire is funny if only because of its accuracy, but the smile is a grim rictus of horror and agony and sometimes the tears of laughter and the tears of rage become indistinguishable. Those who wonder why Zappa never made another record like it simply haven't listened closely to it. How could he make another record like it?

On "Brown Shoes Don't Make It", Zappa had attacked straight America through its sexual or social mores – in the same way he was to attack hippies and the rock and roll business through theirs on the "Fillmore East" album. He carries that through to its logical conclusion on "Harry You're A Beast": "Madge, I want your body / Harry, get back / Madge, it's not purely physical / Harry, you're a beast!"

He lambastes parents for not caring about their kids in the unutterably scarifying "Mom And Dad": "Ever take a minute just to show a real emotion / In between the moisture cream & velvet facial lotion? / Ever tell your kids you're glad that they can think? / Ever say you loved 'em? Ever let 'em watch you drink? / Ever wonder why your daughter looked so sad? / It's such a drag to have to love a plastic Mom & Dad" and in "What's The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?": "All your children are poor unfortunate victims of systems beyond their control / A plague upon your ignorance and the gray despair of your ugly life" ... "All your children are poor unfortunate victims of lies you believe / A plague upon your ignorance that keeps the young from the truth they deserve."


However, putting down lifestyle A doesn't necessarily imply a tacit endorsement of lifestyle B. The hail of verbal blows that Zappa rains on the shoulders of straight America is only equaled by the derision and anger with which he regards the hippies.

Hippies, just like anybody else, just love to be told they're wonderful by the likes of John Sebastian and David Crosby, and no-one wanted to hear Zappa's speeded-up voice cheeringly informing them that "Flower power sucks!" or that there was more to being liberated than "dreaming on cushions of velvet and satin to music by magic by people that happen / to enter the world of a strange purple jello / the dreams as they live them are all mellow yellow ... freedom! freedom! kindly loving / we'll be absolutely free ..."


Hint 3: here we have a large area of blank, empty space. So fill it up with another headline!

Hallo, good evening, and welcome to this page

(S'easy, innit?)

What Zappa is calling for here is a return to individual responsibility.

Being a hippy is as much of a bullshit number as being a straight. Aligning yourself with anything or anybody who requires you to be passive and obedient is useless. Zappa himself refuses to be a leader and propound any philosophy beyond "Think For Yourself." No wonder he was hated.

He was proclaiming the only real revolutionary ideology and all the revolutionaries hated him for it, because if they acted on his message, they'd really be free, and real freedom is even harder to handle than it is to achieve.

Zappa avoided the trap that he was warning others against, and never made another album like "We're Only In It For The Money." He'd stated his case, and it remained available for anyone who had the ears and the balls to handle it. Why say it again? In those words of Voltaire which Norman Mailer used to be so fond of quoting: "Once a philosopher, twice a pervert."

So Zappa dived back into his music.

MGM finally released "Lumpy Gravy," "a curiously inconsistent piece that started out as a ballet but didn't really make it," which consisted of a few good moments and a lot of experiments that didn't really work. It included Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries" (hello there, Eddie Riff) and his own "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" (which had been making enemies and winning rejection slips 1964), as Ventures-style instrumentals.

His next album project "Cruisin' With Ruben and the Jets" ("Is this the Mothers Of Invention recording under another name in a last-ditch attempt to get their cruddy music on the radio?") was an affectionate parody of the doo-wop Pachuco rock that had first [...] him into music in the '50s.

It's probably the nearest to an actual "It's only rock and roll but I like it" stance that Zappa ever get. You could tell that he thought that the sort of music that the album contained was dead lame, but you could also tell that he genuinely loved it.

Coming as it did after the blast-furnace intensity and commitment of "We're Only In It For The Money" and the inscrutable experimentation of "Lumpy Gravy", "Cruisin' With Ruben And The Jets" is far and away the most downright charming record that Zappa has ever made.


IT WAS FOLLOWED by another double-album, "Uncle Meat."

Frustrated and angered by MGM's censorship of his work (sections of "We're Only In It For The Money" had had to be removed and spliced in backwards) and their alleged refusal to provide him with a precise accounting of his sales figures, Zappa had left the label and signed with Warner/Reprise, who'd set him and Herb Cohen up with no less than two labels, Straight and Bizarre.

The Mothers, naturally enough, were on Bizarre. For some reason which I've never been able to work out, "Uncle Meat" appeared in this country on Transatlantic.

As ever, Zappa provided a brief but helpful annotation: "The words to the songs on this album were scientifically prepared from a random series of syllables, dreams, neuroses and private jokes that nobody except members of the band ever laugh at, and other irrelevant material. They are all very serious & loaded with secret underground candy-rock psychedelic profundities.

"Basically, this is an instrumental album."

Indeed it was. The songs were all Pachuco jokes set to some of Zappa's more intricate melodies – and very heavy on the vibes and marimba they were too.

There were heavy doses of live material (including the amazing "Ian Underwood Whips It Out" in which a saxophone fights for his life, and a full side of "King Kong"), a few jokes such as "Louie, Louie" live at the Albert Hall and featuring Don Preston on "the mighty and majestic Albert Hall organ," and "God Bless America" live at the Whisky-A-Go-Go.

The dialogues are immensely interesting, perhaps more so than Zappa intended them to be.

There's "If We'd All Been Living In California," where Jimmy Carl Black is bitching to a singularly unsympathetic Zappa about the lack of bread that the band is making. Poor Jimmy, he didn't have production and composing royalties to live off while waiting for gigs.

On "Our Bizarre Relationship," Zappa's housekeeper is talking to him about how much groupie status he has and she can't keep up with all the girls he screws. It's hard to tell why Zappa included that sequence unless it was to let the world know what a hot rod he had.

The next album, "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" is again principally instrumental, with the exception of The Four Deuces' "WPLJ" which is right at the beginning, and The Starlites "Valerie," which is right at the end.

In between is more instrumental music, including "Igor's Boogie" (presumably Stravinsky, though it could be Baron Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant as immortalized by Bela Lugosi in "Son Of Frankenstein"), "Little House We Used To Live In" (later revamped for the Fillmore album), "A Holiday In Berlin Full Blown" (a vocal version of which cropped up in "200 Motels") and the theme from "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" itself.

At the very end of album, as audience is heard barracking ushers who are trying to get them back to their seats.

"Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform," snaps back Zappa. "And don't you forget it."

All lyrics quoted in the above are copyright CARLIN MUSIC CORPS, 17 Savile Row, W.I.

And there'll be more about lay-out and subbing next week – when we present the F.V.Z. L.B. PT. II!