The Rolling Stone Interview: Frank Zappa

The musical visionary reveals the man behind the image


As little as he may look like the straight world's concept of "musician of the year," and as freaky an image as he and the Mothers of Invention may have, Frank Zappa has done much to influence and guide pop music throughout the world.

Besides introducing a sense of musical anarchy long before it was popular (and now being copied by other bands), Zappa was also among the first to produce a rock album as if it were a single piece of music. ("Freak Out" was no "Sgt. Pepper," but it definitely was an inspiration to the Beatles, among others.) Utilizing what he calls "visual aids" and creating a vast complex of musical style and technique (based on everyone from the Penguins to Edgar Varese), Zappa has a firm idea about where pop music is at — however pretentious that appraisal may sound. He also has notions about where our ailing society is at; his satiric lyrics are unparalleled.

Zappa quickly discounts anyone who calls him genius, but it must go unchallenged that he and his ideas are important not only for pop music but for all music, not only for the rock world but for all the world. It is as Spencer Dryden, drummer for the Jefferson Airplane, says: "If we have to have a spokesman for what is going on today, musically and every other way, Frank Zappa gets my vote."

Shorty after Zappa returned to Los Angeles after 18 months in New York, I talked with him about his ideas and plans, and the history of his group. The interview was conducted in the huge living room of the $700-a-month log cabin (really) he is renting in Laurel Canyon, a home reportedly once inhabited by either silent screen sweetheart Bessie Love, or Tom Mix. Although the interruptions are not indicated, the talk bounced along for the better part of a week, between the group's out-of-town gigs and over the sound of the rehearsing Laurel Canyon Ballet Company, a band of uninhibited dancers Zappa has used in concert recently. The photographs were taken in Zappa's back yard.

—Jerry Hopkins

Whatever it is you do, do you feel you are getting across? Are the people accepting it, understanding it?
We were pretty excited about the reception we got in Salt Lake City last week. For the first time the middle-class audience seemed to have got the idea of what we were doing. They heard it for what it was and they seemed to make a decision of whether or not they liked it–not just "Oh boy, they're freaky!" They seemed to be able to differentiate between the different musical qualities. I think it is a matter of exposure more than anything else. When we started we were the only ones doing it. People could say it was weird. Then gradually some of the other groups started picking up some of the things that we do. The innovations were absorbed by the more popular groups. So when the kids would hear the records on the radio by the good clean wholesome groups, it stretched their ears out a bit.

What were, or are, some of these things?
Some of the electronic effects in combination with musical lines. All the noise elements. Time signature changes. Rhythm changes. You sure can't dance to it, so now they're listening. In the old days it wasn't like that. At that time the audiences were hostile to what we did. They gave us a bad time. Now, historically, musicians have felt real hurt if the audience expressed displeasure with their performance. They apologized and tried to make the people love them. We didn't do that. We told the audience to get fucked.

Without any significant air play, you've sold a surprising number of records.
There is no way of telling how many records we've sold. The accounting we receive from MGM is so bullshit it's not to be believed. Sales are estimated from 300,000 to 800,000. A suit has been filed and we are auditing their books.

Is this to say you are no longer with MGM?
I think I would rather not record than go back with MGM.

What's the story behind "Lumpy Gravy"? It was written and produced for Capitol, but came out on MGM.
It was a really weird deal. At the time they asked me to do it, I had never been asked by MGM or anybody else to do any serious music, any possible variation from the ordinary rock and roll format. Capitol came along and asked me to write something for an orchestra. My contract with MGM was as a producer and not as an artist, so it was cool. But then MGM threatened to sue Capitol and Capitol threatened them. Then they both figured they needed each other; MGM had a record deal with the Capitol Record Club. It all settled down to a regular American business deal: Buy it from Capitol and put it out on MGM. By now I was really pissed with MGM anyway.

Example. They sent me a test pressing of "We're Only In It for the Money" that had a whole bunch of stuff censored out of it. This is one line they cut: "And I still remember mama with her apron and her pad, feeding all the boys at Ed's cafe." Now, this not only didn't make any sense to cut, it fucked up the piece of music by removing four bars before the bridge. And they changed the equalization. They removed the highs, boosted the bottom and the middle to obscure the words. So they sent me this test pressing and I'm supposed to sign a paper saying they can release it. I called them up and said, "You can't put this record out!" And they've already pressed 40,000 of them. Then, six or eight weeks later, I got a call about "Lumpy Gravy." They had just pressed 12,000 of them and they had already been shipped, and I hadn't hadn't even been sent a release to sign.

How do you look back on the albums you've made?
It's all one album.

All the material in the albums is organically related and if I had all the master tapes and I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order it still would make one piece of music you can listen to. Then I could take that razor blade and cut it apart and reassemble it a different way, and it still would make sense. I could do this twenty ways. The material is definitely related.

Any parts of this large album you like particularly?
"Pig and Ponies" on Lumpy Gravy, "Idiot Bastard Son" on Money. "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" on Absolutely Free. "Brain Police" and "It Can't Happen Here" on Freak Out.

Why those particular songs?
"Pigs and Ponies" really says what I wanted it to say and the performance is as good as I could have hoped for. It is 100% of what I'd intended. I tend to judge our songs on a percentage basis. "Idiot Bastard Son"...I like what it says. I'm not too thrilled by the performance, but I like the structure, especially the talking part in the middle and the way that relates to the chord changes. "Brown Shoes" is about the same: I like what it says, but I'm not too pleased with the performance. "Brain Police" is probably the most poorly performed in this list, but at the same time it is one of the most important songs. "It Can't Happen Here" rates 80% and is to my knowledge unique in structure in rock and roll.

You've taken over the merchandising of your albums. Isn't this rather unique?
I think it is self defense rather than unique. We wouldn't have sold any records if we had left it up to the company. They figured we were odd-ball. One shot novelty a-go-go. But we weren't. We had to show them ways that they could make money on the product. From the beginning it was hard to convince them of what we were talking about. We had to make them understand. First of all, I wanted to take the advertising account. Later they gave me most of it to do.

Another thing...the interior of the Freak Out album made me vomit. The exterior packaging was pretty much under our control. That was all very carefully planned merchandising there. At the time the packaging was being completed on that record I was in Hawaii. I didn't give it to an expert. The result was a really ugly piece of graphic art. Some of the worst reproduction work I have ever seen. Some of the pictures that were produced — the picture in the lower right hand corner? — it is a great panorama of all those people. They shrank it down and stuck it in the corner. I screamed all over the place.

When you took over the advertising, what did you do?
MGM had no idea of merchandising in the underground press, and in certain periodicals that might tend to be left-wing, hippie oriented, anything that didn't look like establishment media. We went after a peculiar audience -- appealing to the curiosity of people who had some curiosity about things. It helped to do the job and helped reach just those people in the community that would get the product, hear it, and perhaps understand it more than if it had been merchandised to an audience that would have rejected it. Word of mouth is what sold the product. We didn't go after the teenybopper audience. We wanted those who would dig it and turn other people on to it.

Are you recording at all now?
We have two albums in the can. We've been working on this for the past five months. We bought a huge block of time in a studio in New York with our own teenage money, secretly knowing all along MGM would bite the dust...because good guys always win. Two albums. One is "Whatever Happened to Ruben and the Jets?" — a secret project. The other is "No Commercial Potential," a three-record set. Six sides. It has such eight-minute tidbits as police busting our recording session. New York cops! Live! In person! You can't dance to it. It also has a piece where Jimmy Carl Black, the Indian in the group, is bitching because we are not making any money and it's taking too long for the band to make it. Two songs about El Monte Legion Stadium. A song about fake IDs. Another song about teats. A surrealistic R&B song called "The Air Escaping from Your Mouth." Two other surrealistic things: "Mr. Green Genes" and "Electric Aunt Jemima." Lots of instrumentals. On one song we used 40 tracks and the tune lasts 90 seconds. That one took us four days to put together. It'll probably be released in the fall.

I've read you're a self-taught musician. How did you get started?
I wanted to play drums, so I got some sticks and started beating the shit out of the furniture to the extent that my parents gave up and got me a snare drum. I hadn't heard any R&B then and was basically interested in orchestra music. Then I heard some R&B and wanted to be in a R&B band. I tried to get some money to get a band together. At that time the guitar wasn't the solo instrument; it was the saxophone. Then I started hearing a few guitars. I wanted them to do it this way and to play it that way, but they didn't do it. I stopped playing the drums and I got a guitar when I was 18. It cost $1.50 at an auction. It was one of those old arch top F-hole jobs. The strings were so high I couldn't play chords on it, so I started playing lines right away. I didn't learn to play chords until after about a year. In four weeks I was playing shitty teenage leads. When I was 21 or 22 I got an electric guitar, but I found I couldn't play it and I had to start all over again.

When did you get your first band together?
When I was in high school before starting on the guitar. It was a group called the Antelope Valley High School. It was a funny small town — Lancaster. They had had a bad experience about 1954, prior to the time I moved into the valley. Joe Houston and Marvin & Johnny and some others came in and did a R&B show. This was the first time any people in that part of the world had ever seen R&B. And of course with the groups came the dope peddlers and the town was really scared.

In those days the police were afraid of teenagers. It was a bad scene. Gang fights and all that. Then I came to town. I had been working with an R&B group in San Diego. I got a band together and we stayed together long enough to learn ten songs. There was a Negro settlement outside of town called Sun Village and it was those people who supported the group. We had these huge Negro dances and this upset the people in the town. The police arrested me for vagrancy the night before one show and I was in jail overnight.

My parents bailed me out. The band stayed together until everybody got to hate each other's guts. After that I left the group and it turned into the Omens, some of whom are now in the Mothers and some are with Captain Beefheart. Don Vliet (Captain Beefheart) was in the band. Don and I used to get together after school and would listen to records for three or four hours. We'd start off at my house, and then we'd get something to eat and ride around in his old Oldsmobile looking for pussy — in Lancaster! Then we'd go to his house and raid his old man's bread truck and we would sit and eat pineapple buns and listen to these records until five in the morning and maybe not go to school the next day. It was the only thing that seemed to matter at the time. We listened to those records so often we could sing the guitar leads. We'd quiz each other about how many records does this guy have out, what was his last record, who wrote it, what is the record number.

You're reported to have one of the best R&B record collections in the world, True?
It's sizeable. It's all over there in the closet. Wanna see it? Some of the earlier stuff goes back to the late '40s. There are a lot of collections that are larger. My collection is all the records that I liked. My collection is songs that make me feel nostalgic about high school.

As a theme, high school seems important to you...
I feel a lot of people don't know what high school is--including those who are in it. My material is provided to give them some perspective. People are stupid. They never stop to question things. They just accept. Can you imagine a nation who never questions the validity of cheerleaders and pom-poms? At Lancaster, the cheerleaders had such an importance, boola boola wasn't enough for them; they were running what you call the student government, too. They were just pigs. It was too American for me.

How do you think young people today differ from young people, say, ten years ago?
They certainly do have it easy, don't they? In those days you had to punch it out with your father for the car. Today, you ask your father for the car and he says, which one? In the old days you'd drag your old man out on the lawn and kick the shit out of each other and he'd say be home by midnight — and you'd be home by midnight. Today, parents don't dare tell you what time to get in. They're frightened you won't come back. You'll take acid, you'll join a rock and roll group. It's not like running away from home used to be in the old days. You know today there are going to be some people a little older than you who will take care of you.

In those days, it was dangerous to leave home. There was no underground scene. There were just bunches of older people, who were maybe nastier than your folks.

At what point were the Mothers formed?
Jimmy Carl Black was hocking some cymbals so he could eat, and he ran into Roy (Estrada) at the same hock shop. They started talking and formed a group called the Soul Giants. Ray (Collins) joined them and they were appearing at a club called the Broadside in Pomona. Ray had a disagreement with the guitar player with the group and when they soon found themselves without a guitar player, they called me, asked me to substitute. I thought it was a spiffy little group and I proposed a business deal whereby we'd form a group and make some money, maybe even a little music...but initially it was a financial arrangement.

When you're scuffling in bars for zero to seven dollars per night per man, you think about money first. There's always the hope held out that if you stick together long enough you'll make money and you'll get a record contract. It all sounded like science fiction then, because this was during the so-called British invasion and if you didn't sound like the Beatles or the Stones, you didn't get hired. We weren't going about it that way. We'd play something weird and we'd get fired. I'd say hang on and we'd move to another go-go bar — the Red Flame in Pomona, the Shack in Fontana, the Tom Cat in Torrance.
Sometime before this I'd had a group called the Mothers, but while all this was going on we were called Captain Glasspack and His Magic Mufflers. It was a strange time. We even got thrown out of after-hours jam sessions. Eventually we went back to the Broadside in Pomona and we called ourselves the Mothers. It just happened, by sheer accident, to be Mother's Day, although we weren't aware of it at the time. When you are nearly starving to death, you don't keep track of holidays.

How long did you play the go-go bars?
Too long. It was apparent we weren't moving very fast toward fame and fortune. We decided to get a manager, and what do you do when you decide that? You get a person who is a friend and who is older. We got Mark Cheka, who found out after a while he needed help and he had a friend named Herb Cohen. Mark got us a gig playing a party for the guy who shot "Mondo Hollywood" and Herb was there. Herb didn't know what we were doing especially, but he thought we had...commercial potential. 

Herb got us an audition at the Action in Hollywood, where six or seven months earlier they'd turned us away because our hair wasn't long enough. It still wasn't very long, so we went in wearing purple shirts and black hats. We looked like Mafia undertakers. The management of this establishment responded on a visceral level to this packaging and hired us for a four-week tour of duty. That was the start of the Big Time. Next up the ladder was the Whisky, and then the Trip, which was just nirvana. We were booked into the Whisky after the Action because Johnny Rivers, who was always there, was on tour and they needed someone to fill in — cheap.

Our situation was so shaky there they didn't even put a sign out saying we were playing inside until our last three days, and we had to pay for the sign then. Then we went into the Trip, where we got lots of requests for "Help, I'm a Rock" and "Memories of El Monte." The trouble was, no one danced during these songs because there's talking in the middle and the audience wanted to listen. Elmer (Valentine) wanted people to dance in his club because if someone looked in the door and saw an empty dance floor, they wouldn't come in. At least this is what he said. So one night we played both those tunes together for an hour! For a solid hour nobody danced. Immediately after that we were selling pop bottles to get money for cigarets and bologna.

When did you sign with MGM?
They saw us at the Whisky and we started recording during the pop bottle days. The first day of recording we didn't even have money to eat. If Jesse Kay hadn't given us ten dollars, we'd have passed out. But he did and we didn't, and we laid down six tracks that first day. After that it was upward and onward to teenage stardom.

Was the group's image carefully planned? The freak image?
There's a difference between freaks and hippies. Hippies don't really care what they look like and the freaks care an awful lot. Their packaging and image construction is a very important part of their life style. Now I didn't tell the guys what to wear; I merely suggested their mode of dress conform to what we were doing. I felt you couldn't play the sort of music we were playing and look the way some of the guys did — with processed pompadours. It took a year for some of the guys to change. You have to understand some of the guys lived in Orange County and they were afraid to go home if they looked too weird. After a while they gave in. I haven't talked to them about this in two years.

The image was related to the music?
Sure, and of course it still is. The appearance of a group is linked to the music the same way an album cover is linked to the record. It gives a clue to what's inside. And the better the packaging the more the person who picked up that package will enjoy it.

You once told Davy Jones of The Monkees you liked Monkees music better than anything you'd heard from San Francisco. Were you serious?
I said most of what they recorded sounded better. People think San Francisco rock is supposed to be cosmic value and all that, but it is manufactured music and manufactured music is worthless. Monkees music is manufactured, too, of course, and I'd like to say at this point: they're worth about the same, except the Monkees records sound better produced. The problem with San Francisco groups is, I was expecting wonders and miracles and what I heard was a bunch of white blues bands that didn't sound as funky as my little band in high school.

Are there any groups in the business you feel have any legitimacy?
Yes. I like the Chrysalis. Jimi Hendrix. The Cream. Captain Beef-heart. Traffic. And not necessarily in that order.

No solo artists?
What solo artists are there to choose from? I feel most of the creative work has been done by groups and not by solo artists. There are several competent solo artists lurking about, but they're not exactly pushing back any frontiers.

Did you come back to Los Angeles because you feel more comfortable here?
That's one of the reasons. I really like Laurel Canyon. It is the first place I have lived that I feel homey.

Did you intend to stay in New York as long as you did—18 months?
No. The first time we went there was Thanksgiving, for a week, and we got held over until New Year's. We finally left and went to Montreal for two weeks, then back to L.A., but ran into the problem of not enough work. The cops had shut everything up. Some of the boys in the band have five kids to feed. So we had an offer to go back and play this (Garrick) theatre Easter week. We had a few jobs in between, but we were just ekeing by. That's when I wrote "Lumpy Gravy," in eleven days. Anyway, New York looked good. Easter week was so successful the theatre management erroneously assumed we should be held over through the summer. The gross for the five months was $103,000 and that sounds terrific, but overhead was high. Rent for the building was $1,000 a month. Electricity was another $500, so when it came to the final count, we got maybe two bills a week apiece.

Was it there you started performing your "atrocities"?
Yes. We did everything. We performed a couple of marriages on stage. We pulled people out of the audience and made them make speeches. One time we brought 30 people up on stage and some of them took our instruments and the rest of them sang "Louie, Louie," as we left. We had a system rigged with a wire running from the light booth at the back of the theatre to the stage and the lighting guy would send stuff down the wire. First, maybe, a spread-eagled baby doll...followed by a salami, that would ram the baby doll in the ass.

It was all carefully planned, and we played the right music for this sort of thing. Sometimes the lighting guy would surprise us, and send eggs or something really messy down the wire. Our big attraction was the soft giraffe. We had this big stuffed giraffe on stage, with a hose running up to a spot between the rear legs. Ray Collins would go up to the giraffe and massage it with a frog hand puppet...and then the giraffe's tail would stiffen and the first three rows of the audience would get sprayed with whipped cream shooting out of the hose. All with musical accompaniment, of course. It was the most popular feature of our show. People would request it all the time. We had a hawker standing outside of the theatre pulling people in from the street into that stinky room for a thrill and we gave them a thrill.

Was that the only reason you did this, or did it relate to the music somehow?
Music always is a commentary on society, and certainly the atrocities on stage are quite mild compared to those conducted in our behalf by our government. You can't write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say sometimes, so you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream. Also, they didn't know how to listen. Interest spans wane and they need something to help them re-focus.
Actually, the way the atrocities started was accidental. Somebody had given one of the guys a big doll and one night we pulled some Marines out of the audience. Just to break the monotony. We hadn't started the atrocities yet. So we had this idea we could show the audience what Marines were really like. I threw the doll to the Marines and said, "This is a gook us how we treat gooks in Vietnam." And they tore that baby apart. After that we included props in all our shows. I call them visual aids.

How much of what you actually do in a live show is planned?
The only part of the show that's planned is the building blocks--certain items, the noises, the songs, the cues for the songs and noises. The elements are assembled in different ways. The sequence is the most important part of the show and it will tell you how to listen to the music. It's all controlled by signals. When I jump up and hit the ground, for instance, the first two notes I play on the guitar tell the guys what song is next. Sometimes I use hand signals to cue a vomiting sound, or snorking. That sort of thing.

 The personnel on the group has changed over the years. Who's in the group now?
Ray Collins, the lead vocalist. I've known him maybe 10 years and he's been singing R&B for 15 or 16 years, which makes him about 30 now. He has a very bizarre sense of humor, as shown when he performs his magic tricks, which don't work. Prior to joining the Mothers he was a part-time bartender and carpenter.

Roy Estrada is the bass player, 26. He's been playing R&B since he was 16, lived in Orange County most of his life, and was driving a lumber truck before joining the group. Jimmy Carl Black is the drummer, is around 30, and up until recently was an extremely ambitious beer drinker--10 quarts a day. He's about 90 per cent Cherokee (his Indian name is James Inkinish) and he was working in a gas station in Kansas.

Ian Underwood is 29, has a masters in music from Yale and Berkeley and is an accomplished woodwind player and concert pianist, specializing in Mozart. I met him in the studio one day and he wanted to join the group. I said, "What do you do that's fantastic?" He played the piano and alto sax and I hired him.

Bunk Gardner I don't know much about. He's obviously conservatory trained, manicures his beard, combs his hair, and likes to take his clothes off when he's counting money.

Euclid James "Motorhead" Sherwood I've known 12 years. We were in high school in Lancaster together. He used to play baritone sax in the Omens. He has the ability to perform a dance known as the bug, which resembles an epileptic fit. He's one of those guys you say, "I know this guy who's really weird and I want to show him to you." He was our equipment handler for a while and when we started the atrocities we started handing him our instruments to see what would happen. He played things more imaginative than the proficient musicians could lay down. It was just him against the machine in his mouth, a saxophone. He is also very proficient at dolls and visual aids.

Don Preson plays electric piano, electric organ and electronic music effects. His main claim to fame is he loses money--hundreds of dollars a month. Art Tripp played for two years with the Cincinnati Symphony as a percussionist. He toured the world for the State Department. He has performed solo concerts of stuff by Stockhausen and John Cage. In spite of all that, he's just as creepy as the rest of the people in the band. I think that's it. Eight? Eight.

What people do you credit with influencing your work?
It'd just sound like a dumb list. It won't mean anything to most people. In another year maybe they'll be ready for these people. Now it'd just be a list of names they can't pronounce.

Where do you think music is going now?
The easiest trend to predict is the trend toward eclectism.

Isn't that what we have now?
Yes, but the bands are just getting into this now. There are two different directions, besides eclectism, music might take. One is what you could call neo-classicism. Groups that have done a certain amount of experimenting with the limited technical expertise that they possess might have found out all that they expect to find out. Eventually some of these people are going to listen to R&B with an ear for structure...listen to it rather than try to sing it like Negroes. They might use some of the basic techniques of the '50's to form new sounds. In other words, things might get simpler. It might be a rebirth of songs about boyfriends and girlfriends that are sincere. There is also a possibility that people will start dancing close together again.

The other way is the motor pool idea. The market for groups is waning, groups are dissolving. It is possible that some of the people in these groups have reached the musical stature they want and are not too concerned about the bullshit of the business, and they might drop out of the groups and join a motor pool, where their services would become available to a system that would accept bookings from a promoter. All he could do is say how many pieces he needs for a particular occasion and he would get these players from the motor pool. The players would be given one week's notice and one week to put together one hour's material. They would then play a show and would never play together again just that way. So you get unique entertainment each time. You get the chance to hear something spontaneous, something that would be good for everyone. Musicians would be challenged. They wouldn't have to play the same repertoire all the time. I think neo-classicism is more likely, though.

Is there any area we didn't get into you'd like...
Yeah. I think there's some law that says if you go to trial for something you have to be tried by a jury made up from your peer group, right? Well, I think a bare minimum requirement for this peer group is that it has to be people from your own politico-socio-economic group, at least your own age group. In other words, young people with long hair cannot be fairly tried by old people with no hair; that isn't a peer group. If you have long hair, the jury should have long hair. If you take drugs, the jury should have taken drugs. If you are a Bircher, the jury should be Birchers...

Wait a minute. Are you serious? Where do you draw the line? At blue eyes?
I don't say they have to be your biological duplicate. But there should be some sociological definition of peer group. You should be tried by people who see things the same way you do. Until that happens I'll laugh every time I hear the word "justice."

It's just that...well, do you know there is a law in this town about disturbing the peace of a police officer? There is! If an officer is sitting in his squad car drinking coffee and you beep your horn you may be arrested for disturbing that officer's peace. And if you turn to the person sitting in your car next to you and discuss beeping your horn, that's conspiracy to disturb an officer's peace, which is a felony. The establishment could put all the creeps and long hairs in ovens, you know, but that's kind of messy, so they just make things difficult. They say "keep those fuckers in line," That's how far things have gone in this country. I mention this because public bitches and gripes are like the Top 40. A while ago it was napalm a-go-go and the Dow Chemical Company. Now it's something else. Tell the people the peer group and justice. Tell them to chew on this for a while.

From The Archives Issue 14: July 20, 1968