Grand Wazoo Refuses to Kazoo

By Tom Moon

Musician, March 1985

Here we are in Frank Zappas "funless 80s" and where, oh where, has our Grand Wazoo gone? Off attempting to sustain a career as a serious composer, he says with chagrin.

Zappa apparently wanted to experiment with the textural challenges of larger ensembles, and to expand his audience beyond a devoted rock following. After a turbulent European tour in 1981 he worked with the London Symphony Orchestra on a record of his ballet music. Then he wrote "The Perfect Stranger" for Pierre Boulez' acclaimed chamber group, the Ensemble InterContemporain. Next came a commission from the Aspen Winds. " I would prefer to work in that medium rather than rock 'n' roll," Zappa says, " but you can't earn a living doing that."

Consequently he has a rock album out (Them Or Us) and is on the road for a "Twentieth Anniversary World Tour." There's also a seven-record boxed set (sold by mail only) of early Mothers Of Invention recordings with fresh drum tracks, general re-mixing, and a healthy dose of studio magic.

"How can I reach these people outside the sphere of records?" Zappa asks rhetorically. Two recent attempts were a proposed musical Thingfish (already recorded) and self-published book Them Or Us. "I have been repeatedly denied access," Zappa says. "At least I tried."

Not that he's giving up on serious composition. Zappa plans to realize future work on a Synclavier computer, where he can get perfect execution of the interconnecting lines and abrupt polyrhythms that characterize his writing: "I find it hard to write with pencil and paper anymore." He used the Synclavier on a recording of works by little-known eighteenth century composer Francesco Zappa.

While his new LP features two 50s-style raveups, Zappa is still disenchanted with the pop music industry. "Sameness rules. Everybody plays it close to the vest. A hit record today costs a quarter of a million dollars. Hits are based on bribes, period. You can take a kazoo into your bathroom and play 'Oh Susanna' into a tape recorder, package it right, and have yourself a hit."