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Reconsidering Frank Zappa

zappa-film-1In the final moments of Eat That Question, a documentary in which the director Thorsten Schütte creates a chronological collage of interviews and performance clips from throughout Frank Zappa’s career, we see Zappa with a baton in hand, conducting a piece of his orchestral music. We’re in the early ’90s and, after several years of treatment for prostate cancer, he is close to death. As he waves the stick in a staccato 4/4 pattern, several percussionists play a fascinating jigsaw tattoo. Hearing his score come to life, the composer is clearly entranced. It’s a lovely and touching moment.

I interviewed Zappa a couple of times around 1970, and found it an uncomfortable experience. This was, after all, a man who said that rock criticism was people who couldn’t write writing for people who couldn’t read, or something like that. And I was a rock critic (of sorts). It has always seemed to me a stupid remark, a dismissal of a lot of worthwhile work from some talented and enthusiastic people, but it was probably the result of a series of bruising experiences.

He was intensely clever, of course, and he was funny, if not always as funny as his most fervent admirers found him. The Zappa I had liked at the beginning was not the ironist and satirist but the Zappa who wrote “Memories of El Monte” for the Penguins, who created Ruben and the Jets, and who got the Mothers of Invention to juxtapose sleazy East LA doo-wop with homages to free jazz on Uncle Meat. That was a Zappa who clearly loved his sources. I lost interest when Hot Rats came out; it seemed to me that other people were doing that sort of jazz-rock thing a lot better, and I never properly re-engaged.

But I came out of Eat That Question feeling a whole lot more sympathetic to him. I loved the clip from the eye-wateringly funny appearance on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 where the totally unknown Zappa demonstrates the music he’s devised to be played with drumsticks and violin bow on a pair of bicycles (the whole thing is on YouTube). I was interested by his suggestion that all his pieces might in fact together comprise one single composition, and also by his definition of his philosophy of writing music: “Any thing, any time, any place, for no reason at all.” His excoriation of communism is gob-smacking, his exchange with Tipper Gore’s parental-ratings committee hilarious. I was touched by the film of his visit to Prague in 1990, when he is welcomed by Vaclav Havel and a member of a Mothers of Invention-inspired band called Electrobus recounts how, in the Soviet era, he had been told: “We will take your Zappa away — you will not spread his ideology here.”

Throughout the film, Zappa’s sparring sessions with TV interviewers are generally thoughtful and good-natured, sometimes in the face of complete incomprehension (although the interview with NBC’s Today show, taped during his final days, is very sensitive). It made me wish I’d liked him, and his music, more.

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25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Maurizio Comandini #

    Richard, have you already heard Meat Light by Zappa? It’s a sort of Uncle Meat deluxe version. Unbelieveable. I LOVE it.

    December 8, 2016
  2. Phil Long #

    Interviewer: ‘So Frank, you have long hair. Does that make you a woman?’
    Frank Zappa: ‘You have a wooden leg. Does that make you a table?

    December 8, 2016
  3. John Firmin #

    Better go back and listen to “Hot Rats” again Richard. The cover is even classic and the music easily 5 Stars plus. Possible re engagement?

    December 8, 2016
  4. G P #

    Completely agreed, plus he produced beefheart! Reading your blog is a joy. Thank you

    December 8, 2016
  5. Trevor #

    Yet another thoughtful and incisive posting. An education for me, thanks.

    December 8, 2016
  6. Patrick Hinely #

    Hadn’t heard about this film so I don’t know if it includes a snippet of Zappa’s late-60s appearance on Joe Pyne’s television show. Pyne, a reactionary curmudgeon and US Marine Corps veteran war hero with a prosthetic leg, was infamous for taunting his late-night guests, who comprised an interesting cross-section of humanity in LA in those days. He began his exchange with Zappa by asking if having long hair made him a woman. Zappa’s rejoinder was one of the best off-the-cuff rebuffs I’ve ever heard: he asked Pyne if having a wooden leg made him a table.

    December 8, 2016
  7. Richard Butterworth #

    It’s never too late, Richard. For a long time the only Zappa music I cared for was everything between ‘Absolutely Free’ and ‘Weasels’, then most of the pre-Apostrophe stuff as long as it didn’t involve too much Flo and Eddie (and I saw that edition of the band – the Rainbow gig when Frank was assaulted – and was fair blown away). By the by I came to the likes of ‘Zappa in New York’, ‘Make a Jazz Noise Here’ and pretty much all the rest, concluding that Frank was one of the few truly great originals of modern music.

    In 2003 the Beeb did a series of Radio 3 specials marking the tenth anniversary of Frank’s passing. Gerald Kaufman, then chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Commitee, was vocally affronted that a channel devoted to classical music should entertain the thought of allowing a ‘rock’ musician such airplay. It’s nice to think that Frank, even in death, remained a thorn in the establishment’s side.

    December 9, 2016
  8. Chris Michie #

    I agree – it’s not too late. I had listened, sometimes dutifully, to The Mothers since Freak Out, though Uncle Meat was the first album I owned and liked. As a record nerd I tried to stay current, but fell behind when he seemed to be putting out double and triple albums every six months; I also found the dumb teenage stuff unappealing. But around the millennium I started buying and listening to the back catalogue, which was then becoming available on CD.

    It took me about a year to assimilate and wasn’t easy listening by any yardstick. But I found some truly fabulous stuff, sometimes whole albums of it, and developed an unparalleled respect for Zappa’s skills and work rate. Not since Ellington has any bandleader designed, maintained and operated an orchestra with such originality; very few contemporaries can rival Zappa’s achievements as a pioneer and innovator in the recording studio.

    It’s worth remembering that his range was extraordinary and there really is something for everyone. I love the guitar albums, the orchestral music, and the Synclavier works, but I also think that some of the rock bands, especially the Roxy band and the last one, were among the best ever recorded. Sadly, I only saw him once or twice at festivals – the two shows I’d bought tickets for, the Albert Hall and Rainbow gigs, were cancelled.

    And the man had good drummers! Check out Aynsley Dunbar on The Grand Wazoo, and Vinnie Coliuta and Chad Wackerman on the YCDTOSA live series.

    Happy listening! There’s a treasure trove to explore if you have the time.

    December 9, 2016
  9. in 1968 i was playing bass in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and received a call from a guy
    i had known at Yale in 1954, Ian Underwood (heir to the typewriter fortune). he was playing a
    show that night in Boston with the Mothers of Invention and comped me. i loved the music
    and met the leader, Frank Zappa, who asked me for my phone number. ian had told him that i
    knew Edgard Varese because my grandparents lived in the same apartment house as the Vareses on Washington Square. Zappa started calling me almost every night to talk about Varese and music in general; he wanted me to try to arrange a performance of a big Zappa piece with the BSO, and sent me a score of “Herb and Moe’s” Vacation” to show to Leinsdorf, which i did; Erich looked through the 138 pages for at least a minute, then threw it on the floor, saying “unplayable !”, a message i never passed on to Frank. On October 19, 1969, i called in
    sick to the Orchestra and Frank flew me to Los Angeles to record “Concerto for Violin and Low-
    Budget Orchestra” with Jean Luc Ponty, George Duke, a bunch of Mothers, and some top-
    of- the- A- team LA freelancers. (We also recorded a version of “King Kong”; a few days before his passing Frank told Don Preston it was the best “King Kong” he (Frank) had ever heard.)
    On a break out in the parfking lot, two of the A team freelancers recommended that i move to LA immediately, because they heard me reading very difficult music on electric bass, and “Carol
    Kaye can’t read music.” i left the Aristocrat of Orchestras and moved to Los Angeles the next year, and the rest is history (www.k2b2.com).
    Thank you, Frank !

    December 9, 2016
  10. Geoff Packe #

    Richard,

    Thanks. I remember you interviewing Zappa on an early edition of the OGWT. At the time, his hostility to your questions seemed staged and unfair. But, if I am correct, what then followed was a wonderful performance of King Kong – one of the best live performances by the original Mothers still in existence.

    December 9, 2016
  11. Zappa’s first eight or nine albums up to and including Hot Rats/Weasels Ripped My Flesh/Burnt Weeny Sandwich are essential. Benchmarks for everything that was good and modernist (and progressive) about the rock project. Like other here I’m bemused by your relegation of Hot Rats to a jazz-rock thing. There’s far more going on than that. But he did like to play the big fish in a little pool didn’t he? Something that Brian Eno is also often guilty of. With the bar being set so low for rock intellectuals his every statement was greeted as gravitas. “I quote from Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring” in my music. Big deal! So does Laurie Johnson incidental music for The Avengers. Always keen to blame others when his own under rehearsed under formulated projects failed to blossom (200 Motels etc) he was prone to stating that classically trained musicians couldn’t play his music (they seemed to manage Xenakis Boulez and Varese ok.) He never really kicked on after the early 70s and his decline was as great as Bob Marley’s. As a satirist he grew turgid, as a spokesman though he was intelligent and spot on and for all the reasons you mention. He would have made a great cultural ambassador and I still miss his curmudgeonly presence.

    December 9, 2016
  12. David Reynolds #

    Thanks Richard. Zappa and the bicycles on the Steve Allen show is the funniest thing I’ve seen this year.

    December 9, 2016
  13. Very interesting post, Richard. I totally agree about the early Zappa albums, from 1966 to 1969 (but not with your summation of Hot Rats, I’m afraid).

    I suspect that many fans agree with your valuation of the first Mothers of Invention, which, apparently, annoyed Zappa no end (he apparently didn’t think much of their musicianship, which is strange, to say thge least).. Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich have always remained my personal favourites.

    The sequence following Hot Rats.i.e. Chunga’s Revenge, 200 Motels, Live at the Fillmore and Just Another Band from LA, was a terrible drop in standards, compared to what went before,and indicates how frustrating being a fan could be.

    December 9, 2016
  14. Guitarslinger #

    I worked for Frank … and yeah … he was a handful to deal with . But oh what a sublime handful he was . Not to mention his all but saving me from the R&R LA life of drugs as well as bestowing upon me a serious education into the realities of the music business that I for one never forgot . Suffice it to say anyone that took their time seriously as a Zappa alum came away a better musician , a better person and a whole lot more cynical and aware business man/woman .

    As for the film ? Brother did watching it ever bring on a flood of memories . Not to mention a hell of a a lot of anger and animosity towards the Zappa Trust due to their unrelenting bs treatment of Dweezil . The only member of the family dedicated to preserving Frank’s legacy and music .. instead of their own back pockets .

    Phi Beta Zappa ( freak yer Greek baby )

    December 9, 2016
  15. Jeffery Gifford #

    I wanna see the film. Thanks for the reminder Richard. Thanks Chris Michie and Buell Neidlinger you confirm what I’ve felt for some time, that is, there is a lot of integrity in Frank Zappa’s music. It’s fun to listen to to boot, and I’m not just talking about the off color stuff, it’s his music without lyrics that really moves me, beginning with HOT RATS (Beefheart after all is more a phantom voice texture in that brew than a singer singing lyrics). My 30yo son keeps me sharp on Zappa which gives me yet another reason to stay closer in touch with his stuff. Thanks for your forum Richard, I keep a backlog of your articles in my mailbox when I don’t have time to read each one. Then play catch up when a little time comes around and I can read them and not be in a rush.

    December 10, 2016
  16. Cemil Gandur #

    “I lost interest when Hot Rats came out; it seemed to me that other people were doing that sort of jazz-rock thing a lot better, and I never properly re-engaged.”

    I’m surprised at both the casual dismissal and the logic behind this – untypical of your usually excellent and thoughtful writing.

    Should we stop listening to pop because the Beatles wrote the book on that one? Or forget all tenor saxophone players after Coltrane? All the wannabe alto saxists after Charlie Parker? and so on … To state the obvious, music is not a competition.

    Zappa’s music, including after Hot Rats, said enough things in a different language (his own) that were markedly different from everyone else’s language. He remained a true original until the end; his unique voice makes him always interesting, even if sometimes hard to enjoy/like.

    Perhaps it is time to reassess his legacy and approach it with a fresh set of ears. Some of it will no doubt sound dated and very sloppy (comments have already mentioned the Flo & Eddie period, 200 Motels and so on), but some of it, including Hot Rats, is quite timeless.

    December 12, 2016
    • OK, everybody. I concede. I’ll go and buy a copy a copy of ‘Hot Rats’ today…

      December 12, 2016
      • Good man. Make sure you get the remastered CD. Its a different record to the vinyl.

        Having listened to the album again, I think the first side is far, far stronger. The Gumbo Variations is the only track that had me looking at my watch.

        December 12, 2016
      • Chris Michie #

        Excellent choice, Richard. And not a climb down at all. Please also consider One Size Fits All, possibly the most consistent (and best recorded) Roxy group album. Strictly Genteel, the “classical” best-of is pretty interesting, and Does Humor Belong In Music is very listenable. The King Kong Album with JLP is also a real treat.

        December 15, 2016
  17. I don’t know of any blogs quite like the Blue Moment and just about the only blog I subscribe to. I think it’s for people like me who used to avidly read The Melody Maker and Downbeat in the late 1960s. The public media is so narrow now and dominated by shallow journalists who I cannot relate to. Keep it going Richard. And by the way Zappa’s ‘I’m going to Montana’ is the essential Zappa, witty, funky, seditious, very musical. I can’t take too much of Zappa and his extended guitar solos but he’s a kind of dose of salts to all the very unoriginal artists who inhabit this world now.

    December 12, 2016
  18. It Must Be A Camel once turned up as the background music for the painting gallery section on Tony Hart’s Vision On. On Children’s TV! In 1970! Fact.

    December 12, 2016
  19. Tim Adkin #

    Well guitar iconoclast Ray Russell led the house band on “Play School” didn’t he? This was around the time he was making extraordinary albums like that ICA live disc….and before he played on the “Bergerac” soundtrack (presumably to pay the rent and fund his more experimental ventures).

    December 13, 2016
  20. Yeah there’s an entire theme in this one isn’t there? The life of a jobbing freeformer. Rollo ads and ‘splotation albums by day. Spontaneity by night. My favourite is probably John McLaughlin going from Big Jim’s Sitar A Go Go to Bitches Brew within 18 months

    December 13, 2016
    • Richard Butterworth #

      There’s better still. How about Chris Spedding in the Wombles? One of the perks of the job was apparently being able to clock the audiences on Top of the Pops incognito.

      December 13, 2016
  21. Tim Adkin #

    These “perks” sound a bit too DLT like for comfort particularly when read in conjunction with some of Pete Brown’s comments on the Battered Ornaments reissue a few years back of why they were chased out of (I think) Redruth…..

    Spedding still guitarist of choice for Mike Batt I believe. Whilst Spedding was great with, say, John Cale and Roy Harper it was a sad day when he turned his back on more jazz oriented stuff as evidenced by that extended solo he played on Mike Gibbs’ “Tanglewood 63 ” album

    December 16, 2016

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