Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, AKA Flo & Eddie, are two of the most unlikely pop stars on the planet. Neither one was ever what you’d call a “dreamboat” and Volman was unashamedly fat and took great pains to point out that fact. They were also funny at a time when rock musicians took themselves way too seriously.
That could never be said of Flo & Eddie.
They started, of course, as the magic voices of The Turtles, to my mind one of the greatest 60s groups, even if they don’t really get their due today. “Happy Together,” “Elenore”, “Lady-O”—The Turtles were simply an amazing band.
Check out this clip of their hit, “She’d Rather Be With Me”—pure pop perfection. The harmonies, the melody, these guys were tight.
Frank Zappa fans have clamored for the release of Roxy: The Movie for about 40 years now. I’m one of the lucky ducks who saw its world premiere at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre on Wednesday, and I am here to tell you that it is good.
About halfway through the screening, I noticed that my face hurt because my mouth had twisted up and frozen in the stupidest grin of which it is capable—the kind of grin that could destroy a family, or end a career. As I type this, some twenty-four hours later, my face is still ruined. The Roxy shows, represented on disc by 1974’s Roxy & Elsewhere and last year’s Roxy by Proxy, are among the most joyful presentations of Zappa’s music. The songs are celebratory, the performances are exuberant, the musicianship is virtuosic but not stiff or fussy, the sound is totally bitchen, and Zappa himself seems more relaxed and cheerful than (or at least not as sour as) he appeared at other points in his career. Biographer Neil Slaven attributes the light mood and spirit of camaraderie prevailing at the Roxy shows to the recent addition of Napoleon Murphy Brock, the outstanding tenor saxophonist and singer who belts “Cheepnis”:
Brock’s arrival brought important changes to the context of the group. He had a distinctive and flexible voice and struck up an immediate and overtly warm rapport with George Duke, sharing the broad and quick sense of humour that Frank had drawn out of the keyboard player. Their on-stage badinage, which both celebrated and satirised black consciousness, contrasted with Frank’s own studied bizarre humour and there were moments when one sensed that he was happy and relieved to become a sideman in his own group.
The woman with her hand down Zappa’s pants is named Joan, we learn
Before I saw Roxy, my favorite Zappa concert video was A Token of His Extreme, the 1974 special taped for public TV that features many of the same personnel: keyboardist and singer George Duke (a great artist in his own right), percussionist Ruth Underwood, bassist Tom Fowler, drummer Chester Thompson, and Brock—the One Size Fits All band, whose praises I sing. But Roxy trashes it. I just drove by the Goodwill and threw my Extreme DVD out the window. Roxy gives you one more drummer in addition to Thompson (Ralph Humphrey), trombonist Bruce Fowler playing impossible parts, and one of Zappa’s best-ever bands playing in a hot club rather than a cold TV studio. And there is so much to see at a Zappa show, and so much of the visual information is funny. Hearing Napoleon Murphy Brock and Bruce Fowler argue with their horns is bracing; watching it is hilarious.
I’m just old enough to remember when going to the Roxy was like this. People sat comfortably at tables, smoking, while waiters circulated with their backs to the stage, taking drink orders. (This is one of those rare cases where the past was actually better than the present.) However, I am nowhere near old enough to remember the denim-clad innocents and aging weirdos who apparently peopled the Sunset Strip during the early 70s. The audience participation, one of Roxy’s big treats, builds to an orgiastic climax on “Be-Bop Tango,” during which a “professional harlot” who has just entertained some of our boys at Edwards Air Force Base and original Hollywood freak Carl “Captain Fuck” Franzoni shake what the good Lord gave them (though He probably had other uses in mind).
Alex Winter, who is working on an authorized Zappa documentary, moderated the post-screening Q&A. Ralph Humphrey and Bruce Fowler came down from their seats to join the panel. Editor John Albarian, archivist (or “Vaultmeister”) Joe Travers and producer Jeff Stein explained that the over 40-year delay in the movie’s release was due to technical problems. A malfunction that took place four minutes into the first of the filmed concerts meant that the footage and sound could not be synced until the advent of digital technology; another glitch took out the crew’s intercom, with the result that much of what they shot bore no relationship to what was happening onstage (e.g., the camera is on Zappa’s foot while George Duke takes a solo). Albarian consequently had to do a lot of “cheating” in the editing room, which he said was made easier by the band’s wardrobe (black T-shirts and blue jeans every night). I couldn’t tell; more importantly, Humphrey, who like actually played these shows, told us he couldn’t tell either.
Ahmet Zappa introduced the film and joined the panel afterwards, and when he wasn’t fantasizing about sodomizing the Vaultmeister, he was sharing valuable information. He told us about a tape he’d recently heard of his father jamming with Eric Clapton in 1967 (“bonkers”); that his uncle says his late mother, Gail, saved America in her capacity as a CIA agent; and that Captain Beefheart once ended an argument with Frank by plunging his hands into an ice chest, letting the cubes slip between his fingers, and declaring “Diamonds!”
The conceptual continuity continues after the jump…
Before Ali G, Borat and Keith Lemon, “Norman Gunston” was trolling celebrities with his bogus interviews for Australian television. Gunston was the madcap creation of actor-comedian Garry McDonald, who ambushed celebrities and probed them with his microphone and excruciatingly dumb questions.
Gunston made his first (brief) appearances on the Pythonesque Aunty Jack Show in 1972, before becoming the “legendary un-personality” on spin-off series Wollongong the Brave in 1974. With his shiny blue suit and his face covered with blood-spotted pieces of tissue paper, the beautifully observed Gunston was an instant hit.
Gunston excited to be probing a Beatle.
Over the years, Norman Gunston interviewed Paul and Linda McCartney, Cheech and Chong (who he mistakes as comedy duo Morecambe and Wise), and Lee Marvin (caught in a airport terminal). Sometimes the stars played along—like a flirtatious Karen Black or Frank Zappa, who happily jammed with the harmonica-playing Gunston, or Muhammed Ali who said to Gunston “I’m punchy, what’s your excuse?”
Occasionally, the celebs didn’t know how to handle Gunston—like an eyeballing Elliott Gould, or a confused Warren Beatty, but their desperate responses only add to the comedy.
One of the nice things about editing this blog is when fun—and unexpected—things arrive in your inbox, like this delightful tale from grand guitarist Gary Lucas, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the live Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart album, Bongo Fury, which was released on October 2, 1975:
I’d originally met Don Van Vliet at Yale when I was an undergraduate there in the early 70’s. I was music director of their radio station WYBC in the fall of 1971, when he and his band came up to play a show at Yale around the release of The Spotlight Kid album, and I got the task to interview him and then do a hospitality meet-n-greet when the band arrived to play at Woolsey Hall (with performing monkeys as the opening act, I kid you not).
I had previously seen his NYC debut the previous year at a little club on the Upper West Side called Ungano’s in January 1971, and it changed my life. I vowed to myself that night: “If I ever do anything in music, I want to play with this guy”—it was that life-affirming and radical of a show/presentation.
I always made a point after that to hang out with him backstage when he came around the NYC area to tour—I saw him at Town Hall several times with Bob Seger and Larry Coryell opening, also at the Academy of Music on 14th sandwiched between a then-fledgling Billy Joel and The J. Geils Band.
Don eventually gave me his phone number and we drew closer, with marathon phone conversations that would last an hour. We lost touch when he did his “Tragic Band” thing on Mercury. I didn’t have the heart to go see it live, having loved the old band and songs but in 1975 I was home in Syracuse NY when I saw in the newspaper that Don would be the special guest of Frank Zappa at the Syracuse War Memorial.
I had to see that—especially as his last words to me about Frank hadn’t been too favorable. He came out in the show and did the great cameos which are featured on Bongo Fury which came out later that year. He was still great!
When the show was over and they were packing up, I approached the stage and there he was, looking lost amidst the chaos, clutching a paper grocery bag filled with sketch books, harmonicas, cigarettes. I called his name and he yelled my name: “Gary!”—and came over and hugged me.
He was hungry and wanted to eat barbecue, so me and a pal drove him to a midnight barbecue pit known as “Tobe’s” that this old black guy Tobe Erwing ran after hours in his backyard in the ghetto of Syracuse,
you had to drive up a gravel road to get there. Amidst the midnight ribs chowdown, after Don, delighted by this scene, sang some a cappella blues while Tobe sat around looking bemused packing heat in his apron,
I revealed to Don that if he ever wanted to put his band back together I’d love to audition for it.
“You play the guitar?!?” he asked incredulously.
I’d never revealed this to him before as I was a) shy and b) didn’t want to offer my services until I was convinced I could handle his music, which I’d been secretly wood-shedding on.
“Come on up to Boston where I’m playing with Frank on Friday night, and bring your guitar” he instructed.
We caroused around some more in downtown Syracuse, eventually Don and myself bringing Frank back a bag of Tobe’s ribs (we found him in his bathrobe watching some cheesy Skiles and Henderson-like comedy duo in the top floor revolving restaurant of the Holiday Inn where they were staying).
I went home to crash about 6am, and got up around 10am to race back downtown to Syracuse University’s Crouse College Auditorium for the press conference of Frank and Don for invited students—the Soundcloud clip is just one excerpt from a fairly hilarious hour.
Later that week I duly took the Greyhound bus up to Boston with my ‘64 Stratocaster in tow… crashed with my Yale pal Bill Moseley (whom I ran a successful midnight horror film society with—Things That Go Bump in the Night—at Yale; Bill is now worldwide horror icon as Texas Chainsaw Massacre II‘s “Choptop” character, and has starred in a couple of Rob Zombie’s films). We went to see Frank’s Boston show with Don and then I went back to Don’s hotel room, where I proceeded to play for him.
“Great!! We’ll do it!”
But when? He was vague… and I had a ticket to go to Taiwan in a few weeks to start work for my uncle (my parents attempt at shipping me off overseas to free me from the clutches of a 56-year-old Italian-American shaman-ess whom I’d been living with…)
We parted as friends—and I knew I was destined to play with him.
It did take a few years, but in 1980 things fell into place with Doc at the Radar Station …but that’s another story.
Below, a brief excerpt from a Bongo Fury-related press conference at Crouse College of Music auditorium, Syracuse University, 4/23/75. My late friend Jamie Cohen (A&R maven for EMI, Columbia Records, and Private Music) was a student at Syracuse University back in 1975 when he asked Don Van Vliet this question at a press conference I also attended the morning after Frank Zappa and the Mothers—with special guest Captain Beefheart—performed at the Syracuse War Memorial:
Ozzy Osbourne backstage at the 1974 California Jam
Frank Zappa gave “Supernaut,” the ur-metal monster that ends the first side of Black Sabbath Vol. 4, the number one spot in his list of “faves, raves, and composers in their graves,” published in the June 1975 issue of Let It Rock:
‘Supernaut’: Black Sabbath. I think it’s from Paranoid. I like it because I think it’s prototypical of a certain musical style, and I think it’s well done. Also, I happen to like the guitar lick that’s being played in the background.
Eventually, Neil Slaven’s Zappa biography Electric Don Quixote reports, “Iron Man”—the Sabbath song Zappa chose to play in his DJ set on BBC Radio One in 1980—replaced “Supernaut” in the maestro’s affections:
A couple of years later, he’d changed his mind. He told Hugh Fielder, “‘Iron Man’. Are you kidding me? ‘Iron Man’! That’s a work of art. I used to like ‘Supernaut’ but I think ‘Iron Man’ is the one now.”
But in the mid-70s, it was strictly “Supernaut,” and the Sabs benefited from Zappa’s enthusiasm. Sabbath bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler, a Zappa fanatic who says his “musical life completely changed” when he first heard the Mothers of Invention at the age of fifteen, credits Zappa’s endorsement of “Supernaut” with changing critics’ attitudes toward the band:
I think some of them got an inkling when Frank Zappa did this interview in one of the big English music papers. They were asking him what music he was listening to at the time, and he said, “Black Sabbath.” And at the time, Frank Zappa was really well thought of critically. And I thought he was joking! (Laughs.) But he thought “Supernaut” [from 1972’s Black Sabbath, Vol. 4] was the best riff he’d ever heard. And a lot of critics went, “Well, if Zappa likes Black Sabbath, maybe we should give them another listen.”
Frank Zappa talking to Let It Rock magazine, 1975
On the strength of “Supernaut,” Zappa invited Black Sabbath to dinner, a Rashomon-like encounter that Ozzy and Tony Iommi recall differently in their memoirs. Everyone seems to agree that there was a party in an American city around 1974. Ozzy gives the short version of the story in Barney Hoskyns’ Into the Void:
Frank Zappa – who was a very techno guy – invited us to a restaurant once where he was having a party. He said, ‘The song “Supernaut” is my favourite track of all time.’ I couldn’t believe it – I thought, ‘This guy’s taking the piss: there’s got to be a camera here somewhere…’
The singer expanded on these remarks in I Am Ozzy, adding a lot of colorful detail:
Another crazy thing that happened around that time  was getting to know Frank Zappa in Chicago. We were doing a gig there, and it turned out that he was staying at our hotel. All of us looked up to Zappa – especially Geezer – because he seemed like he was from another planet. At the time he’d just released this quadraphonic album called Apostrophe (’), which had a track on it called ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.’ Fucking classic.
Anyway, so there we were at this hotel, and we ended up hanging out with his band in the bar. Then the next day we got word that Frank wanted us to come to his Independence Day party, which was going to be held that night at a restaurant around the corner.
We could hardly wait.
So come eight o’clock, off we went to meet Frank. When we arrived at the restaurant, there he was, sitting at this massive table, surrounded by his band. We introduced ourselves, then we all started to get pissed. But it was really weird, because the guys in his band kept coming up to me and saying, ‘You got any blow? Don’t tell Frank I asked you. He’s straight. Hates that stuff. But have you got any? Just a toot, to keep me going.’
I didn’t want to get involved, so I just went, ‘Nah,’ even though I had a big bag of the stuff in my pocket.
Later, after we’d finished eating, I was sitting next to Frank when two waiters burst out of the kitchen, wheeling a massive cake in front of them. The whole restaurant went quiet. You should have seen that cake, man. It was made into the shape of a naked chick with two big, icing-covered tits – and her legs were spread wide apart. But the craziest thing about it was that they’d rigged up a little pump, so champagne was squirting out of her vagina. You could have heard a pin drop in that place until the band finally started to sing ‘America the Beautiful’. Then everyone had to have a ceremonial drink of the champagne, starting with Frank.
When it was my turn, I took a long gulp, screwed up my face, and said, ‘Ugh, tastes like piss.’
Everyone thought that was hilarious.
Then Frank leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘Got any blow? It’s not for me – it’s for my bodyguard.’
‘Are you serious?’ I asked him.
‘Sure. But don’t tell the band. They’re straight.’
In Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath, Iommi records different memories of the first meeting with Zappa, including which song he singled out for praise. In his account, Iommi rushes through the dinner to get to the 1976 Madison Square Garden show where Zappa had planned to play with Sabbath:
We had met Frank Zappa at a party in New York a couple of years before. He took us all out to a restaurant, telling us how much he liked ‘Snowblind’. It was very kind of him and we became friends. On 6 December  we played Madison Square Garden, with Frank introducing the band. He wanted to play as well. We’d put his stuff on stage but we had a really bad night. Frank was waiting to walk on and I thought, he can’t, it’s disastrous, everything is going wrong, my guitar is going out of tune, there’s noise and crackles and God knows what. So I said to him: ‘It would be best if you don’t play, really.’
Zappa, for his part, said that he had been prepared to play with Sabbath but declined because he didn’t get a soundcheck. Instead, he “introduced them and then sat by the side of the stage over by Ozzy’s orange juice.” (You can hear almost unintelligible audio of Zappa introducing “the rocking teenage combo known to the universe as Black Sabbath” on YouTube.) But this missed opportunity was not the final musical meeting between FZ and the Sabs. Iommi:
When I went to see [Zappa] once in Birmingham, he said: ‘I’ve got a surprise for you tonight.’
They played ‘Iron Man’. I was in the bar and I heard them play it and I thought, bloody hell! I went back out and I thought, I’ll thank him after the show. But he had such a bad night that he stormed off stage, really pissed off. So I thought, hmm, I don’t think I’m going to go back. Even so, it was a nice surprise.
It was announced this very morning that Frank Zappa’s Roxy: The Movie, which fans have waited patiently to see for decades, is finally getting released on DVD & Blu-Ray on October 30th by Eagle Rock Entertainment and the Zappa Family Trust.
Below, hear Sabbath’s outstanding 1975 set from Asbury Park, NJ. “Supernaut” begins at the 1:00:30 mark, followed immediately by “Iron Man.”
Alex Winter, best known for his roles in The Lost Boys and the two “Bill & Ted” movies with Keanu Reeves (and this infamous Butthole Surfers “home movie”), is developing a documentary on Frank Zappa, which he will direct from his own script and produce with Glen Zipper. The Zappa Family Trust has given its blessing to the untitled project.
“There has yet to be a definitive, authorized documentary on the extraordinary life and work of Frank Zappa,” Winter said. “I am beyond thrilled to be embarking on this journey. Our tale will be told primarily in Frank’s own words; he will be our guide through this journey.”
Winter expects the doc to be finished in time for release in 2017.
“This is not an easy story to tell and we trust that Alex truly understands the complex and multi-faceted man that my father was,” Zappa’s son Ahmet Zappa said.
This is excellent news indeed and it’s been a long time coming.
Below, Frank Zappa and the original Mothers of Invention performing “King Kong” in Essen, Germany, 1968:
“Cheepnis,” from Roxy & Elsewhere, is probably the most upful rock number in Frank Zappa’s catalog, celebrating two of the maestro’s favorite pleasures: eating hot dogs and watching monster movies. The song begins with a short monologue about Roger Corman’s 1956 no-budget classic, It Conquered the World:
Let me tell you something, do you like monster movies? Anybody? I love monster movies. I simply adore monster movies, and the cheaper they are, the better they are. And cheapness, in the case of a monster movie, hsa nothing to do with the budget of the film—although it helps—but true cheapness is exemplified by visible nylon strings attached to the jaw of a giant spider. I’ll tell you a good one that I saw one time, I think the name of the film was IT CONQUERED THE WORLD. Did you ever see that one? The monster looks sort of like an inverted ice cream cone with teeth around the bottom. It looks like a teepee or sort of a rounded-off pup-tent affair, and it’s got fangs on the base of it, I don’t know why, but it’s a very threatening sight. And he’s got a frown, and, y’know, ugly mouth and everything, and there’s this one scene where the monster is coming out of a cave, see? There’s always a scene where they come out of the cave, at least once. And the rest of the cast—it must have been made around the 1950s—the lapels are about like that wide, the ties are about that wide, and they’re about this short, and they always have a little revolver that they’re gonna shoot the monster with, and there’s always a girl who falls down and twists her ankle. [Laughs] Of course there is! You know how they are. The weaker sex and everything, twisting their ankle on behalf of the little ice-cream cone. Well, in this particular scene—in this scene, folks, they didn’t want to retake it because it must have been so good, they wanted to keep it—but when the monster came out of the cave, just over on the left-hand side of the screen, you can see about this much two-by-four attached to the bottom of the thing as the guy is pushing it out. And then, obviously, off-camera somebody’s going “No, get it back!” and they drag it back just a little bit as the guy’s going [gunshots]. Now that’s cheapness. And this is “Cheepnis” here.
It’s hard to believe Peter Graves was ever this young. He plays the wholesome scientist Dr. Paul Nelson, who plays by the rules and approves of the status quo, as against his best friend Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef), the movie’s Promethean/Satanic figure, who wants to improve humanity by subjecting it to the rule of a superintelligent Venusian he talks to on his ham radio. To that end, he helps the space creature land in a cave in the West Valley, which it prefers to the doctors’ neighborhood, Beachwood Canyon (superintelligent, huh?). From its subterranean lair in Agoura Hills, the monster gives birth to space bats that enslave the powerful by biting their necks, and suddenly everyone’s a pod person. See what happens when you try to improve humanity? When will we ever learn to accept things exactly as they are?
Incidentally, Beverly Garland’s character, who Zappa remembers as “the girl who falls down and twists her ankle,” is the only badass in the movie; she tells the space creature “I hate your living guts!” and “I’ll see you in hell!” before she makes it eat lead. Also featured: the most clueless impersonation of a Mexican person in the history of celluloid.
These Mothers is crazy. You can tell by their clothes. One guy wears beads and they all smell bad. We were gonna get them for a dance after the basketball game but my best pal warned me you can never tell how many will show up…sometimes the guy in the fur coat doesn’t show up and sometimes he does show up only he brings a big bunch of crazy people with him and they dance all over the place. None of the kids at my school like these Mothers…specially since my teacher told us what the words to their songs meant.
Freak Out!, the 1966 debut album by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention was one of the first two-record sets of the rock era (Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde beat it by a week) and it was definitely the first two-record debut by any group. Although the album wasn’t a commercial success, making it only to #130 on the Billboard charts, it immediately established the archly intellectual Frank Zappa in the very first rank of rock musicians. In fact, Paul McCartney was said to be so impressed with Freak Out! that the album apparently provided the initial inspiration for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album. At first there may not have been a lot of listeners, but most certainly the right people were tuning into Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s freaky vibe from the start.
Freak Out! was produced by legendary African-American record producer Tom Wilson, who also worked with Simon and Garfunkel, Sun Ra, The Velvet Underground, Eric Burdon and The Animals and Bob Dylan (Wilson produced three Dylan albums and the “Like a Rolling Stone” single). The story goes that Wilson signed The Mothers to MGM thinking that they were a white blues band. He had heard just one song. “Trouble Every Day,” when he saw them at a club on the Sunset Strip and incorrectly assumed the group was something like Al Kooper’s group, The Blues Project!
They were anything but. The Mother’s uncompromising sound was an unheard of combination of corny doo-wop (which Zappa both loved and parodied mercilessly), R&B, tape manipulations, musique concrète ala Zappa’s idol Edgard Varese, free jazz, shifting time signatures, classical music touches and trenchant satirical social observations (Zappa was nasty to both “straights” and hippies in equal measure, even his own audience had their noses tweaked by Frank Zappa, one of history’s ultimate non-conformists).
The story of the early days of the Mothers of Invention is a fascinating one, but basically, the Cliff Notes version is this: In 1965, Frank Zappa, a would-be film soundtrack composer, recording studio owner and rock guitarist living in the incredibly boring San Bernadino country city of Rancho Cucamonga, CA was invited to join a local rhythm and blues band called the Soul Giants. The band was renamed “The Mothers” (as in “motherfuckers,” indicating how good of musicians they were). The Mothers started gigging in Los Angeles and soon Frank Zappa was the “Freak king” of Hollywood. (Historical note here: LA’s “Freaks” were basically weirder hippies and they dressed differently from the way San Francisco hippies tended to dress, which in 1965-66 was far more “Edwardian” than it was tie-died. The LA vs SF, freaks vs hippies issue was a short-lived one, but a distinction that is important to note. The “Freaks” were the people (mostly Valley girls) who congregated around Carl Franzoni (“Captain Fuck”), teenage Szou and her “aging Beatnik” boyfriend (later husband) Vito Paulekas. “Vito and his Freakers” participated in sex orgies and went out to art openings and the clubs on the Sunset Strip enlivening every event they attended with their distinctive dancing. This clip, from the “mondo” film You Are What You Eat was actually shot at a Mother’s performance, but the filmmakers couldn’t get the music rights and used a song by the Electric Flag instead. It’s probably as good of a representation of Vito and his Freakers as exists).
In other words, there was a “built in” scene for Frank Zappa to take advantage of when the Mothers moved to Los Angeles. He came to town, looked around and he took it over. Quickly. By 1966, Zappa was a figure who loomed large over the Sunset Strip.
The first songs the Mothers (rechristened “The Mothers of Invention” at the insistence of MGM) recorded with Wilson were “Any Way the Wind Blows” and “Who Are the Brain Police?” In The Real Frank Zappa Book, FZ described the scene in the studio:
“I could see through the window that he was scrambling toward the phone to call his boss—probably saying: ‘Well, uh, not exactly a “white blues band,” but…sort of.’”
Wilson would champion Zappa’s creative vision to the label, securing him an unheard of recording budget for Freak Out! and putting his own career on the line for the ambitious young composer/bandleader. The album’s psychedelic cover art direction was a bit misleading, perhaps, but due to the freak “hot spots” map of Hollywood, the liner notes indicating all of Zappa’s “friends and family” and inspirations (David Crosby, Tiny Tim, Charles Mingus, Guitar Slim, Eric Dolphy, Igor Stravinsky and others are all there, now the subject of a documentary called The Freak Out List) and the fact that it was a two-record set gave his new fans something to immerse themselves in and obsess over (Zappa fans are an obsessive lot, trust me on that one). Zappa understood his audience well: Freak Out! was the rock music equivalent of getting into Marvel Comics and discovering that there was an entire Marvel “universe” to pour over. It was if Zappa and his freaky scene landed like Martians during the middle of the Lyndon Johnson administration. It was fortuitous timing, right as the world was about to go from B&W to vivid color.
Because Freak Out! was deleted from the MGM catalog in the early 1970s and was not in print again in the USA until Rykodisc released the Zappa catalog on CD in the late 1980s, it’s not really an album that tons of people have heard. It’s an album that should rightfully be held in the same high regard as the debut albums by the Velvets, Jefferson Airplane, Love or the Doors and is tragically less well-known than it should be (no, I’m not saying that Freak Out! is an obscure album, because it’s not, but how many people who are hip to something like, say, Forever Changes, have never heard even a single song from it?)
Although it can safely be assumed that the music on Freak Out! is indeed pretty freaky, it’s not at all inaccessible. The very first song I’d play for someone to introduce them to the album would be “Trouble Every Day,” the same song that intrigued Tom Wilson enough to sign the band on the spot. In it Zappa describes watching the Watts Riots on TV:
As RuPaul once said, “You’re born naked and the rest is contour and shading.” And Italian portrait painter and artist Lucia Pittalis proves that point with these insane makeup transformations. Lucia uses her own face as a canvas and turns herself into these iconic characters that are simply fan-fucking-tastic. She nailed Keith Richards, IMO.
Frank Zappa makes a 1979 appearance on Make Me Laugh, an awful looking game show hosted by Bobby Van. Zappa nearly wordlessly promotes his then new Sheik Yerbouti album and wins a member of the studio audience a lot of consumer items (a garish bed spread, Samsonite luggage, a washer/dryer combo, plush recliner, etc) by not laughing at the idiotic Gallagher and another completely unfunny comic.
A typical celebrity guest on Make Me Laugh would be someone like Dr. Joyce Brothers or Charles Nelson Reilly. You can clearly tell that Frank hated every second of this.
In this brief clip from Andy Warhol’s public access TV show from the early 1980s, Andy Warhol’s TV, Warhol sits silently by while Richard Berlin assumes the duties of interviewing Frank Zappa. Zappa discusses the ins and outs of being a public gadfly; for a few moments we glimpse a few seconds of the video for “You Are What You Is,” which had been banned from MTV for its use of a racial slur but also, just as plausibly, because of the way it poked fun at Ronald Reagan.
The interview made a significant impression on Warhol. Here’s the entry from The Andy Warhol Diaries for June 26, 1983:
Frank Zappa came to be interviewed for our TV show and I think that after the interview I hated Zappa even more than when it started. I remember when he was so mean to us when the Mothers of Invention played with the Velvet Underground— I think both at the Trip, in L.A., and at the Fillmore in San Francisco. I hated him then and I still don’t like him. And he was awfully strange about Moon. I said how great she was, and he said, “Listen, I created her. I invented her.” Like, “She’s nothing, it’s all me.” And I mean, if it were my daughter I would be saying, “Gee, she’s so smart,” but he’s taking all the credit. It was peculiar.
Warhol’s memory was rather good—the Mothers did indeed open for the Velvets at the Trip on May 3, 1966. In late May 1966, both bands played the Fillmore in S.F. for a three-day stint.
Many Frank Zappa fans will be familiar with the strange and delightful work of animator Bruce Bickford—his are the claymation sequences in Baby Snakes that you fast-forward through the concert footage to see. Zappa was Bickford’s best-known patron for most of the ‘70s, and his work is featured in the “City of Tiny Lights” and The Dub Room Special videos, but the motherlode of Bickford/Zappa work came in the form of a one-hour VHS compilation released in 1987 called The Amazing Mr. Bickford, which bafflingly has never been released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Bickford’s dizzying stream-of-dementia, anything-can-happen-next, constantly mutating stop-motion animations are scored by Zappa’s orchestral work, culled mostly from Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, though “Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation” from London Symphony Orchestra is present, as well.
Here’s a bit of background from a wonderful piece on Bickford that ran in The Quietus:
Bickford was a Vietnam veteran whose love for animation sprung out his crude home movies. His earliest experiments involved toy cars, but a need to populate these rough little films led to the creation of tiny clay figures. Soon enough he was letting his imagination spill out with strange, ever-morphing stream of consciousness tales that seemed to revolve around demons and animal heads, hamburgers and pizzas, treacherous landscapes and excessive violence – “danger and weirdness”, in Bickford’s own words. Audiences were given an early taste when The Old Grey Whistle Test aired a portion of ‘City Of Tiny Lights’ with animated accompaniment in 1979. Baby Snakes made its debut during the Christmas of that year, containing more examples and a peak of behind-the-scenes amidst the concert footage.
One of the Baby Snakes snippets involves a castle that “would make a great disco” but leads to the creation of monsters. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, though maybe that’s missing the point. The immediacy is what matters, and the fact that these films have the potential to go absolutely anywhere from one moment to the next. They are also clearly the product of a single mind (and single-mindedness), despite Zappa nabbing director credits on The Amazing Mr. Bickford compilation and the ‘City of Tiny Lights’ promo. In a way, Bickford is an outsider artist doing his own thing at his own pace, and was simply fortunate enough to have Zappa serve as a momentary sugar daddy.
Such are the working methods and approach to narrative that very little final product has actually been released. The Amazing Mr. Bickford and Baby Snakes made use of snippets with little or no attempt to explain or understand; they unfold beneath Zappa instrumentals and just exist, nothing more. Bickford returned to his Seattle basement in 1980 and has carried on obsessing ever since. MTV commissioned some idents and a half-hour film, Prometheus’ Garden, was completed in 1987, but otherwise he toils away with seemingly little end in sight.
‘The Amazing Mr. Bickford’ and more, after the jump…
Frank Zappa appeared on What’s My Line? on September 23rd, 1971. This is truly weird: June Lockhart, Soupy Sales, Gene Rayburn and Arlene Francis ask the questions. Soupy Sales—who was known for being a super hip guy, of course—had a friend in common with Zappa and correctly guesses his identity with ease.
Zappa was on the popular game-show promoting his 200 Motels movie. The LIFE magazine photo that June Lockhart refers to in the clip is the one above, where the composer/rock star was seen posing with his parents in their own home. Interestingly, the Edward Beardsley painting in the family portrait is the same one used for the first Alice Cooper album, Pretties for You, which came out on Zappa’s Straight record label.
Did Frank think “I’ve got the perfect album cover for you guys, an oddball painting my parents own!” or was it a gift to his parents after the album came out?
The Monkees are often referred to as the “Pre-Fab Four” in reference to the fact that they were a TV knock-off of the Beatles, recruited from a help wanted ad in Variety. Still, no matter how “uncool” they were supposed to be, the Monkees casting was a rare example of stroke of genius by committee. It’s difficult to imagine anyone but the four of them having the same chemistry, both comedically and (eventually) musically. And to further refute their “uncool” rep, John Lennon called them “the Marx Brothers of Rock” (he was right about that) and the Beatles even hosted a party for the Monkees in London when they toured England. (Furthermore, Mike Nesmith was present at the Abbey Road recording sessions for “A Day in the Life” and Peter Tork played banjo on George Harrison’s eclectic Wonderwall soundtrack).
Even that most far-out of the really far-out musicians of the day, Frank Zappa himself, made not just one, but two onscreen appearances with the Monkees: First in a TV segment where Mike pretended to be Frank and vice versa (which certainly foreshadowed Ringo Starr’s portrayal of Zappa in 200 Motels) before they destroyed a car with a sledgehammer to the tune of “Mother People,” and again in a brief cameo in Head.
Frank Zappa put together a formidable band in 1988, for what became his last tour; he later called it the best band he’d ever taken on the road. Zappa told an interviewer from Guitarist Magazine:
[The band] was unique because it combined a very strong five-piece horn section with all kinds of electronic stuff, with effects on the percussion section, on the drums, multiple keyboards—a very interesting blend of this horn harmony and very strange sound effects. [...] All those little effects and things coming in, that’s just the way it was on the live show. We had three stations generating samples; there was Ed Mann, who had this whole vocabulary of dog barks and bubbles and weird shit, then there was Chad Wackerman who had all these strange percussion things hooked up to a big rig, and then there was the synclavier, which I could play when I wasn’t playing the guitar.
The sets included, in Zappa’s words, “deranged versions of cover tunes”: the band played “I Am The Walrus,” the theme from The Godfather Part II, “Purple Haze,” Boléro, “Sunshine of Your Love,” and “Ring of Fire.” My favorite of these is Zappa’s take on “Stairway to Heaven,” sung by the peerless Ike Willis. It’s like listening to Spike Jones—the band performs a meticulous arrangement of the song, down to the horn section reproducing Jimmy Page’s solo at the end, but comments on the lyrics at the end of every line with a gag sample. If you share my appetite for this flavor of broad shtick, listen for the “songbird who sings” and the forests echoing with laughter. You’ll never hear the original the same way again.
Zappa: “Yes, once upon a time, live musicians actually sang and played this.”