Frank Zappa and the Mothers Play Ugly
Zappa & the Mothers: Ugly Can Be Beautiful
by Sally Kempton
It is 1 a.m. on a Friday night and the Mothers of Invention are recording part of the soundtrack for their forthcoming movie. Ian is playing the harpsichord and Bunk is playing the flute. They huddle together in a cluster of microphones, Bunk leaning over Ian's shoulder to read the music propped up on the harpsichord stand. Bunk wears a goatee and a matching moustache, and his long thick hair is gray (in the studio light it looks like a powdered wig). Resembling a figure in an old etching, he bends closer to Ian, his flute poised, and Ian straightens his back and places...
...the paradigm California voice, could be heard on the radio doing "greasy teenage commercials" for Hagstrom Guitars. During the Mothers live appearances he sits on a stool, his expression deadpan above his bandillero moustache, and occasionally he will lean over and spit on the floor under the bandstand, saying to the audience: "Pigs!"
"Actually, we don't turn on the audiences," he said the other day. "Not in the sense that other groups do, anyway. I think of that sort of thing as the strobes going and everybody dancing and love-rock-at-the-Fillmore bullshit -- if anybody felt like that about us it'd be for the wrong reasons. Last week we were playing in Philadelphia and we got seven requests, so we played the all at once. It was fantastic. Sherwood was playing the sax part to one song: the whole thing, even the rests. It was really great. But nobody knew what we were playing. They couldn't even tell the songs apart. Half the time, when we're really doing something, the audience doesn't know what it is. Sometimes the guys in the and don't know."
But the Mothers' first album sold a quarter of a million copies and the second has done almost as well. And when they played a long stretch at the Garrick last summer they were beset by loyal groupies. Perhaps the groupies sensed the presence of a governing intelligence, perhaps they simply dug perversity. In any case, the Mothers have an audience.
Frank Zappa is 27 years old. He was born in Baltimore and began playing drums in a rock-and-roll band in Sacramento when he was 15.
"It's almost impossible to convey what the r&b scene was like in Sacramento," he says. "There were gangs there, and every gang was loyal to a particular band. They weren't called groups, they were called bands. They were mostly Negro and Mexican, and they tried to get the baddest sound they could. It was very important not to sound like jazz. And there was a real oral tradition of music. Everybody played in the same songs, with the same arrangements, and they tried to play as close as possible to the original record. But the thing was that half the tie the guys in the band had never heard the record -- somebody's older brother would own the record, and the kid would memorize it and teach it to everybody else. At one point all the bands in Sacramento were playing the same arrangement of 'Okey Dokey Stomp' by Clarence Gatemouth Brown. The amazing thing was that it sounded almost note for note like the record."
Zappa was lying in bed, eating breakfast and playing with his three-month old baby. He lives with his wife Gail and the baby in a long basement apartment in the West Village. The apartment has a garden and its walls are papered with posters and music sheets and clippings from magazines; there is a full length poster of Frank in the hall and a rocking chair in the living room with a crocheted cover that says 'Why, what pigs?"
Frank was in bed because he had been up all night before, recording. "The reason I can stand New York is because I spend all my time here or at the studio," he said.
"Mostly at the studio," said his wife, smiling.
"Let's see, my life," he said. "Well, when I was 16 my father moved us to a little town out in the country. That was terrible. I hated it. I was used to Sacramento, you see. I was the strangest thing that ever hit that high school. They were so anxious to get rid of me they even gave me a couple of awards when I graduated. After that, my father wanted me to go to college. I said no, I was interested in music. I didn't want to go to college. So I hung out at home for a while, but there was nobody to talk to, everybody else was being at college, so I finally decided I should go too. That was very ugly. I stayed for a year. In the meantime I had shacked up with this girl and married her. We stayed married for five years during which time I held a number of jobs" (he listed the jobs). "Then in 1963 we were living in Cucamonga and there was a recording studio there which I bought for $1000, also assuming the former owner's debts. He had hundreds of tapes, among them such big hits as" (he named three or four obscure songs), "and I took the tapes and the equipment and began fooling around. About that time I got divorced and moved into the studio. I spent all my time experimenting; a lot of the stuff the Mothers do was worked out there."
A year later the studio was torn down to make room for a widened road, but by that time he had gotten the Mothers together. "We were playing at local beer joints for like $6 a night. I finally decided this would not do, so I began calling up all the clubs in the area. This was in 1965, and to get work you had to sound like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. You also had to have long hair and due to an unfortunate circumstance all my hair had been cut off. I used to tell club managers that we sounded exactly like the Rolling Stones. Anyway we finally got a booking in a club in Pomona, and were something of a hit. It was more because of our act than because of our music. People used to go away and tell their friends that there was this group that insulted the audience.
"Then MGM sent someone around to sign us to a contract. Their guy came into the club during a set of 'Brain Police' and he said, 'Aha, a protest rhythm and blues group,' so they paid us accordingly. The fee we got for signing was incredibly small, particularly considering the number of guys in the group."
Nowadays, of course, Zappa runs something of an empire. He has an advertising agency ("mostly to push our own products, at least so far"), and a movie coming out which someone else shot but for which they are going to do the soundtrack. The movies is a surrealistic documentary called "Uncle Meat"; it is shot in a style Zappa refers to as "hand-held Pennebaker bullshit," and it will be edited to fit the music.
"Then we're going to do a monster movie in Japan -- Japan is where they do the best monster work. And we're starting our own record company. We'll record our own stuff and also some obscure new groups."
It was time for him to go to the studio. The Mothers have rented Apostolic Studios on 10th Street for the entire month of January -- "One hundred and eighty hours -- not as much time as the Beatles use, of course, we can't afford that" -- andthat is where Zappa spends most of his time. He puts on a brown leather greatcoat, pulls a red knitted cap over his ears, and sets out, talking about his music as he walks.
"Stockhausen isn't really an influence," he says. "That is, I have some of his records but I don't play them much. Cage is a big influence. We've done a thing with voices, with talking, that is very like one of his pieces, except that of course in our piece the guys are talking about working in an airplane factory, or their cars.
"It was very tough getting the group together in the beginning. A lot of the guys didn't want to submit to our packaging. They didn't like making themselves ugly, but they especially didn't like playing ugly. It's hard getting a musician to play ugly, it contradicts all his training. It's hard to make them understand that all that ugliness taken together can come out sounding quite beautiful."
The studio, when he arrived, was nearly deserted, except for Mother Don Preston, who sat at the organ wearing earphones and playing a piece audible only to himself. "Can you run a playback on the violins?" he asked when Frank came in.
"Sure," said Frank. "We recorded this thing last night -- I found some violins in a closet and I gave them to three of the guys,. None of them had ever played a violin before. They were making all these weird sounds on them, and then in the middle I got them to add some farts. It's a concerto for farts and violins."
But instead of playing back the violin thing, Dick put on a tape of "Lumpy Gravy," one of the Mothers' new records, an instrumental piece, framed at the beginning and end with cocktail music, and interspersed with quiet, hollow, surreal voices talking behind a continuous hum of resonating piano strings. The music has overtones of Bartok and Ives, but by some stylistic alchemy it ends by sounding like nothing but Zappa. It is an impressive record. Three or four people had drifted into the control room while it was playing, and after it was over someone said, "I love that piece."
"Yeah, but will the kids go for it," said Frank.
"It's good to have it out," said Don, "so people will know what you can do."
"No, no," Frank said. "It's good to have it out so I can take it home and listen to it."
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]