Nice article. It’s always interesting to get some insight about what Frank was thinking when these vintage recordings were made. So he thought felt forum was a good one and so on.


Jim L

From: [mailto:[EMAIL PROTECTED] On Behalf Of Chris Warner
Sent: Tuesday, September 05, 2006 9:30 AM
To:; Peter Warner
Subject: [Zappa-List] Frank Zappa: Past Flops And Future Shocks


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
"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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