Frank Zappa: Past Flops And Future Shocks
Richard Williams, Melody Maker, 25 August 1973

HIS ARMS AROUND a red-haired girl whose ample 
chest was covered with a Mighty
Thor t-shirt, debonair Frank Zappa (32) sank 
deeper into the couch, flexed his
bare bronzed torso, refused a Gitane ? "Too 
strong for me" ? and concentrated
his mind on the latest edition of the Mothers of 

"This is the first of my bands," he said, "which 
possesses the technical
facility to play the harder stuff from memory."

The band, an octet, is currently on tour in 
Europe, and makes its only British
concert appearance at the Empire Pool, Wembley, 
on September 14. The new lineup,
which has already completed two tours of America 
and one in Australia, comprises
Zappa on guitar and vocals, Jean-Luc Ponty 
(violin), Ian Underwood (clarinet,
bass-clarinet, flute, synthesiser), Bruce Fowler 
(trombone), George Duke
(keyboards), Tom Fowler (bass-guitar), Ralph 
Humphrey (drums), and Ruth
Underwood ? Ian's wife ? on marimba, vibes, 
typani, and assorted "small

It is not, said Frank, in any way a successor to 
or continuation from the
20-piece Grand Wazoo/Hot Rats orchestra which 
appeared at the Oval cricket
ground last year.

"It doesn't sound like any band of any sort that 
you've heard any place ? the
instrumentation alone gives it a completely 
different tone quality. As a result
of the widely differing timbres of the 
instruments, you get a lot of contrast."

Much of their material, too, is unfamiliar. 'St 
Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast',
'Don't Eat The Yellow Snow', two blues called 
'Penguin In Bondage' and 'Slough
My Throng', and lastly something called, 'Don't 
You Ever Wash That Thing?' which
Frank describes as "an instrumental with 

They'll also be playing some old favourites, 
specifically 'The Eric Dolphy
Memorial Barbecue', 'Green Genes', 'King Kong', 
'Chunga's Revenge', and ? for
the first time in five years and by popular 
demand ? 'Brown Shoes Don't Make

To coincide with the tour, there is (inevitably) 
A New Album ? by the same
personnel plus trumpeter Sal Marquez. It's called 
Over-Nite Sensation, and
contains none of the compositions mentioned 
above. Instead, it sounds like
another sneaky attempt by the Mothers of 
Invention to get their cruddy music on
the radio.

There didn't seem much more to say about this new 
band until we'd all got a
chance to hear it, so Frank discussed the Grand 
Wazoo tour: "All the concerts
were great ? except the one in London.

"It's tough to take a 20-piece electric band to a 
frozen cricket ground where
the audience is trying to tear down the 
goal-posts (?) and burn them to keep
themselves warm. But we broke all records at the 
Felt Forum in New York."

The Grand Wazoo seemed, I suggested, like a 
pinnacle of his career, the object
he's always been aiming at right from the days of 
Freak Out.

"It would have been that kind of a climax, if the 
band had been able to memorise
the arrangements, and if the technical equipment 
had been of the right quality.
The only thing that's important is whether you 
have the opportunity and the
money to present your crazed ideas properly.

"200 Motels wasn't done properly because there 
wasn't enough time or money. The
Wazoo tour, for instance, did five concerts and 
grossed 90,000 dollars ? and I
lost 2,000 dollars of my money on it. There was 
no way that I was going to make

"I gauge the success of something by whether I 
can appreciate the outcome on a
personal spectator level. If all the parts aren't 
audible, it isn't right ? and
that goes back to the technology and the money to 
provide it.

"On 200 Motels, the orchestra beat the shit out 
of the music ? they just didn't
play it properly. I couldn't even recognise it 
when they'd finished. Most of the
actors were non-professionals, and the whole 
thing was shot in 56 hours. We all
needed more time, and if I'd had it, I've have 
gotten better performances out of
everybody, because they were the right people for 
those roles.

"In spite of that, I think it was a good film, 
and I believe that over a period
of years you're going to find out how many 
strange predictions in the script
actually come true."

Such as what?

"Well, pay particular attention to the dialogue 
between Mark, Howard, and
Aynsley. No matter how twisted you think that 
plot is, it's based on things that
had happened, or on things that were based on 
suppositions extrapolated from
mathematical predictions of people's 

Returning to technology, Zappa explained that 
they've brought the PA system
which used to belong to Chicago. It's a 52-input 
stereo system, with all kinds
of "studio-type facilities" like limiters, 
compressors, tape-delay,
phase-shifters, and variable equalisers.

"The guy who's mixing it all for us is Gary 
McNab, who engineered our last six
albums. We finally got him out on the road. He's 
the third mixer this band has
had ? the first one was Stephen Desper, who's 
worked with the Beach Boys. I
bought half their PA, and he came along to mix it 
? but he resigned because it
was against his religious principles to be on 
stage with a band that sang our
kind of lyrics. He eventually decided to quit 
showbiz, and went into a Christian
Science college, in Boston, Massachusetts."

Frank also divulged that he's working on another 
movie ? "but it's too far in
the future for me to start promoting it now."

He would say, however, that it was a "monster 
movie" ? including perversion,
hamburgers, a children's belt with little yellow 
holes, and dry ice ? "any movie
that's any good has dry ice in it. I'm cutting it 
now ? most of it was actually
shot in 1970, before 200 Motels."

Finally, while talking about the present, how 
long will this group last? Does it
have a definite expiry date like the Wazoo mob? 
Frank was playing it close to
his lithely muscled chest.

"I know what the lifespan of this band is," he 
murmured, "but it's not for

WHEN THE formal part of the interview, dealing 
with the present and the recent
past, was over, I started talking to Frank about 
his early days in the music
biz, around 1963, when the Mothers were a distant 
future projection. He came up
with a lot of memories which I haven't seen 
published anywhere before, and I
thought you might be interested to know about 
what he was doing in the
pre-psychedlia days.

It all began when he started collaborating with 
an electronics wizard called
Paul Buff, in the very early Sixties. Buff had 
been working for a missile
company, and when he left he decided to build a 
recording studio ? in Cucamonga,
California, which Zappa says is the world's 
unlikeliest place for such an

Being an ingenious guy, Buff built himself a 
five-track recorder ? the only one
in the world ? at a time when most of the 
professional Hollywood studios were
using only two- or three-track machines.

"He's a real unsung hero," said Frank. "He taught 
himself saxophone, piano, bass
and drums ? and learned just the basic rock 'n' 
roll licks, so that he could
make all the records by overdubbing himself. He 
wrote songs, too ? and they
sounded like every other song you ever heard, 
because he wrote them to a

Frank worked with him, and eventually bought the 
little studio, while Buff went
to invent several important items of recording 
equipment, like the Kepex
noise-reduction unit, and he now heads his own 
important company.

In those early days though, Frank continued, Los 
Angeles "was a lot of fun. We
made records that we knew we couldn't sell to 
anybody, but we'd spend days on
them. Things were so absurd."

Frank's first record was 'Break Time' by the 
Masters ? who were Frank, Buff, and
a guy called Ronnie Williams ? on Buff's 
independent Emmy label.

Then there was 'Every Time I See You' by the 
Heartbreakers and 'How's Your
Bird?' by Baby Ray and the Ferns ? both for Bob 
Keene's Del-Fi/Donna company.

"Baby Ray was Ray Collins ? that was the first 
record to feature a snork, which
we have since featured more strongly. The B-side 
was 'The World's Greatest
Sinner'. We also did one called 'Hey Nelda', by 
Ned and Nelda ?
guess which hit inspired that one."

Around the same time, roughly 1963, Frank worked 
with "a label that's so obscure
that if you found any of their records, they 
probably wouldn't be worth

It was called Vigah Records, and among the 
product was 'The Big Surfer', on
which they used a San Bernadino disc-jockey who 
did a good imitation of
President Kennedy. The DJ impersonated Kennedy 
judging a teenage surf dance
contest, and the last line was that the winner's 
prize was to be the first
member of the Peace Corps to be sent to Alabama 
(social commentary!).

Capitol Records bought the master for the 
unheard-of 700 dollars, but
unfortunately Medgar Evers was killed in Alabama 
just as it was released, thus
knocking the record on the head. The DJ played it 
on his show, though, so it was
a hit in San Bernadino.

Hanging around Capitol Records, Frank remembers 
being in the studio while
producer Jim Economides was mixing a couple of 
early Beach Boys tracks ? 'Surfer
Girl' and 'Little Deuce Coupe' ? as well as Dick 
Dale's 'Secret Surfer Spot',
all in the same session. Interestingly enough, 
Zappa is positive that Brian
Wilson wasn't present ? and Economides spent most 
of his time trying on new
Italian sports coats, sent up from a nearby men's 

Frank also got involved with DJ Art Laboe's 
Original Sound label, and with Ray
Collins he wrote and produced the beautiful and 
now-classic 'Memories Of El
Monte' by the Penguins, which was cut in mono at 
Laboe's studio.

For those who don't know it, the record 
celebrates and quotes from some of the
hits of the golden era of vocal groups ? the 
Flamingos, the Heartbeats, and so
on. Lead singer Cleve Duncan of the original 
'Earth Angel' Penguins is featured,
but the rest of the singers were "a bunch of guys 
from the car-wash."

Zappa loved that kind of music ? it inspired, of 
course, the Ruben & The Jets
album ? and he draws a sharp distinction between 
black group music on the East
and West Coasts.

"The West Coast music had a sense of humour, but 
the stuff from the East was
kinda desperate. Group music was brought to 
California by black people from
Texas, and the ghetto situation in LA wasn't as 
nasty as it was in Harlem, so it
developed a different aura ? do you know the 
Coasters' 'Shoppin' For Clothes'?
That's the sort of thing I mean."

He wrote and made almost a dozen flops for 
Original Sound ? including something
called 'Mr Clean' by Mr Clean ? and the Penguins' 
record didn't sell at all,
although it's now quite a rare oldie.

But he did write the B-side of 'Tijuana Surf' by 
the Hollywood Persuaders, which
was "number one in Mexico for 17 straight weeks!" 
The group, needless to say,
was Paul Buff again, overdubbing every single 

"The scene isn't the same now," Frank concluded. 
"People are taking it

© Richard Williams, 1973

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