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.
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.