How to sub and lay out a Frank Zappa Lookin' Back (II)

Which is pretty difficult when CHARLES SHAAR MURRAY has written approximately 2,000 words too many. Remember, we need a picture. And a headline. And don't forget those 'breakers.' Hmmm ... we'll have to think up a way outa this problem. Meanwhile, let's GET INTO IT.

New Musical Express, 23 November 1974

Notice, first of all, that the BORING QUOTES have been panelled off. This allows the reader to ignore them if he so chooses.

"PERHAPS THE most unique aspect of the Mother's work is the conceptual continuity of the group's output macrostructure. There is and always has been a conscious control of the structural and thematic elements flowing through each album, live performance and interview. The basic blueprints were executed in 1962-3. Preliminary experimentation in early and mid-1964. Construction of the project/object began in late 1964. Work is still in progress. The project/object contains plans and non-plans, also precisely calculated event-structures designed to accommodate the mechanics of fate and all bonus statistical improbabilities attendant thereto. We are part of the project/object. The project/object (maybe you like event/organism better) incorporates any available visual medium, consciousness of all participants (including audiences), all perceptual deficiencies, God (as energy), the Big Note (as universal building material) and other things. We make a special art in an environment hostile to dreamers" – Frank Zappa, "200 Motels" press kit, 1971.


"I HAVE taken my time. I have sung you my song / ain't no great revelation / but it wasn't too long / an' that's awright people. I'm just crazy enough to sing to you any old way / I figure the odds might be fifty-fifty. I just might have something to say" – Frank Zappa "50-50" (from "Over-Nite Sensation". 1973).

FRANK ZAPPA kicked it in the head and disbanded the Mothers in late 1969. "I like to play," he told Jerry Hopkins in Rolling Stone, "but I just got tired of beating my head against the wall. I got tired of playing for people who clap for the wrong reasons. I thought it time to give the people a chance to figure out what we've done already before we do any more."

To assist the public in this venture, he rushed out a couple of albums, "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" (discussed last week) and "Hot Rats" (see Fred Firth's learned discourse, also in last week's issue). An abortive small group working under the name of "Hot Rats" gigged around the L.A. area, while F.Z. busied himself with extra mural projects for the Straight and Bizarre labels. Though his production of Captain Beefheart's momentous "Trout Mask Replica" album should not go unmentioned, the two projects were most indicative of Zappa's own peculiar sensibility – and of the role he intended to play as record executive – were the GTO's "Permanent Damage" (Straight) and "An Evening With Wild Man Fischer" (Bizarre), both of which were documentary albums.

"We make records that are a little different. We present musical and sociological material which the important record companies would probably not allow you to hear. Just what the world needs ... another record company", ran the blurb on the Bizarre inner sleeves, and it could be admitted that there was much sense in that. What other record company would record a bunch of demented groupies delivering monologues and songs, complete with Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Lowell George buried in the grooves? "Sociologically they're really heavy," deadpanned Zappa in Rolling Stone's special groupie issue. But Wild Man Fischer outweirded GTO's by several hundred dark light years.

Larry Fischer was a harmless goon who liked writing and singing his simplistic little ditties and bellowing them on the Sunset Strip to any passer-by who'd lay a dime per song on him. His mother had him committed to a mental institution on two separate occasions for nothing more sinister than singing in his room. Zappa recorded him live on the Strip and in the studio, mostly unaccompanied, but occasionally with percussion by Art Tripp or backed by a full band consisting of Zappa on multiple overdub. The closing dialogue of the double album is uniquely moving in its impotent desperation. Being committed and endlessly told he was crazy was what destroyed Larry Fischer and, faced with that realisation, all Zappa can say, despite his manifest compassion and sympathy, is "Start by smiling" and "Ya wanna take a break now?" It represents the only occasion on which Zappa has presented to the public a situation which was not only uncontrolled by him, but where he was completely stuck for an adequate response.

Formally disbanded though the Mothers were, they were magically reincarnated on "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" an album of outtakes from 1967-9, ranging from the straight blues of "Directly From My Heart To You", featuring Sugar Cane Harris on violin and vocal and the parody punk-rock of "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama" to some rivetting experimental playing and absurdist humour. The title track was simply two minutes of sreeching feedback climaxed by a torrent of applause and Zappa's patented "Good night, boys and girls." It was a fine cross-section of "different aspects of our work" and a fine farewell to Phase I Mothers.

However, Zappa had been up to more in the studio than rehashing and editing his home tapes. Hot on "Weasels" heels came a third solo album "Chunga's Revenge", which represented the first stirrings of his next monstroso project: something enigmatically entitled "200 Motels". Described by Zappa himself as "a ponderous orchestral absurdity", it involved the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a pick-up band of temporary Mothers (Billy Mundi, Aynsley Dunbar, Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons, Don Preston, Motorhead Sherwood and Ray Collins). The L.A. Philharmonic, it seems, had sensed that a concert of Zappa's orchestral music would have "no commercial potential" without something calling itself the Mothers.

Now it just happened that "in the audience on acid and looking for work" were Mark Volman and Howar Kaylan, former lead singers of the Turtles. (Actually, considering that the sleeve of "Freak Out", nearly five years earlier, had quoted "a noted L.A. Disc-jockey" as telling Zappa, "I'd like to take you boys and mould you ... I believe I could make you as big as the Turtles," maybe there's something to all this output macrostructure and conceptual continuity after all).

Volman and Kaylan expressed interest in the project, and a Phase II Mothers was built around them. Since there were still a few contractual problems, their first recorded appearance with Zappa had them cloaked under the pseudonym of "The Phlorescend Leech And Eddie". "The vocals on this album are a preview of the story of 200 Motels! Coming soon," announced Zappa on the sleeve of "Chunga's Revenge." The album was divided up into small-group instrumental music in the "Hot Rats" vein and songs about groupies and the life of the touring musicians. Don't it make you feel lonesome when you go out on the road," sang Zappa in "Road Ladies"; "you got no-one but promoters and groupies to love you, and a pile of dirty laundry by the hotel door."

And a little later in the same song: "when the P.A. system eats it, and the band plays the most terrible shit you've ever heard." The band for the record included jazz pianist George Duke (who's been involved in just about everything that Zappa's done in the last five years), bassist Jeff Simmons (a frizzy-haired kid who'd had his own album "Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up" on Straight the previous year), old faithful Ian Underwood and British drummer Aynsley Dunbar (formerly with his own bands Blue Whale and Retaliation, plus John Mayall and Jeff Beck).

None of the songs from "Chunga's Revenge" actually appeared in the finished movie/album versions of "200 Motels", though the guitar lick later to crop up in "Bwana Dik" from the "Fillmore" album and "Daddy Daddy Daddy" from "200 Motels" is an integral motif in "Tell Me You Love Me". Presumably that's an example of "conceptual continuity", though it would be simpler to state that Zappa has a habit of incorporating into his work licks and phrases fom either pieces under construction to be unveiled at a later date, of stuff from previous recordings.

Undoubtedly the most famous / notorious/ commercially successful piece of work that the Phase II / Flo and Eddie Mothers produced was the "June 1971 / Fillmore East" album. Apart from "Willie The Pimp" and "Peaches En Regalia" from "Hot Rats", "Little House I Used To Live In" from "Burnt Weeny Sandwich", the old Turtles classic "Happy Together" and a new neo-'50s Zappa special entitled "Tears Begin To Fall", the album consisted entirely of scurrilously hilarious gross-out songs and dialogues about a rock musician (Kaylan) attempting to pull a groupie (Volman). And the humour was mainly based around the absurd rituals that they had to go through to achieve an end that both of them knew was inevitable anyway.

Apart from that, it was awful dirty. Considerable amounts of the lyrics, riffs and dialogue were based on the material from "200 Motels", the line "We want a guy from a guy from a group who's got a thing in the charts and if his dick is a monster we'll give him our hearts", being particularly crucial.

Solved it! We'll have a PART THREE next week. This is a useful tactic and anyway, a lot can happen in six days.