Mothers In Lore

By Steve Sutherland

Melody Maker, January 10, 1981

"The Grandmothers (A Collection Of Ex-Mothers Of Invention Vol 1)"
(Rhino RNSP 302, U.S. Import)

One good psychiatrist and this need never have happened. Inside the twisted mind of one Francis Vincent Zappa, a Greek-Sicilian with a funny moustache and a mugshot that wouldn't have disgraced the files of the San Francisco Vice Squad, a nauseous vision of malicious revenge was slowly but surely fermenting.

His monstrous master-plan: to form the filthiest, ugliest band in the world and become the self-professed conscience of modern day America, spare absolutely no-one. He outweirded the weirdos, outraged the straights, exposed their hypocrisy, deflated their pomposity, protested at their violence and taunted every trend. He hated cops and kids alike and even made a little money in the process!

Three years, countless line-up changes and four brilliant albums later the Mothers Of Invention were as good as dead. They'd achieved their every goal, antagonised everyone there was to antagonise, stretched the boundaries of modern music and made a living on the side. But by '69 they'd become rather chi-chi, a bit self-indulgent and a little expensive to run, so Zappa called it a day, went solo and left his lads in the lurch.

"Grandmothers" is an anthology of previously unreleased recordings from various ex-Mothers' post-Zappa projects. It doesn't cast any light on the many comings and goings of past group members (did they jump or were they pushed?), but it perfectly illustrates, through his absence, Zappa's unique organisational talents.

The man may have been a megalomaniac workaholic and an impossibly hard taskmaster, but his genius is recognising and disciplining others' raw potential and exploring it to his own creative credit certainly brought out the best in most musicians.

His strong sense of purpose, coupled with his ruthless efficiency, may occasionally have put the odd note out of joint but it more often chiselled his musicians' inspired but erratic efforts into some sort of clearly-defined and presentable sound.

What "Grandmothers" proves is, that left to their own devices, the Mothers blender around like a clueless bunch of magician's apprentices, clearly possessing the know-how but hopelessly lost as to how to apply it.

Jimmy Carl Black – drummer, trumpeter and infamous "Indian of the group" – formed Geronimo Black, an unspectacular R&B band that split in '73 due to largely understandable public apathy. His two featured tracks here, "Trail Of Tears" – a grit-throated protest song trapped inside a rough sad tumble boogie beat, and "59 Chevy" – a shambling honky-tonk reminiscent of Zappa's early obsession with Fifties doo-wop, are similarly sloppy and silly where they should sound solid and sharp.

Don Preston proves himself the most musically accomplished ex-Mother on show with the slack "Sweet Fifteen" and "Eye Of Agamoto". Both excellent exercises in jazz-rock fusion, they boost his showy keyboard work and some innovative up-frost drumming but bear over-obvious inspirational debts to Zappa's contemporaneous "Waka Jawaka".

Twin pioneers of rock reed and woodwind, Buzz and Bunk Gardner, weigh in with "Qualude To Chaos And Fine" and "One For The Girls", a couple of second-rate "Uncle Meat" out-takes that once passed for avant-garde but now sounds futile and flatulent.

That leaves James Sherwood's mercifully short and abysmally drunken [?] "Motorhead's Bumble Bee", a best forgotten Freak Out exercise called "The Fight Out" and "We Don't Feed No Livestock Here", plus "A Bit Blue", two boring blast-razor blues courtesy of demented [?] axe-alien Elliot Ingber.

Better known to the world as the magic band's Winged Eel Fingerling, it's sad but true that neither of these tracks belong in the same universe as the crowd momentum he once bestowed as the "Spotlight Kid's" "Alice In Blunderland".

So "Grandmothers", with no sign nor sound from Ray Collins, Ray Estrada and Ian Underwood (arguably the most eccentrically gifted of the first decade Mothers), puts paid to the lie that mother knows best.

It's pretty obvious Zappa knew best and would-be initials are better advised to invest in his own impeccable compilations, "Mothermania", than shell out on these stale crumbs of the real Mother's Pride.