The special episode of “The Late Show” dedicated to Frank Zappa, aired on BBC in 1993
With a lot of important guests!
Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 — December 4, 1993) was an American musician, composer, songwriter, producer, guitarist, actor, and filmmaker whose work was characterized by nonconformity, free-form improvisation, sound experiments, musical virtuosity, and satire of American culture.
In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestral and musique concrète works, and produced almost all of the 60-plus albums that he released with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist.
Zappa also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers. (Wikipedia)
He is considered one of the most innovative and stylistically diverse rock musicians of his generation.
On March 11, 1993 BBC2 broadcasts a special episode of “The Late Show” dedicated to Frank Zappa.
The special is a documentary, featuring archive footage and interviews with Frank Zappa, Matt Groening, Ruth Underwood, Jim Sherwood, Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa and Ahmet Zappa.
The program was repeated on Friday, December 17, after Zappa’s death on December 4, 1993.
Michael Collings (presenter/narrator): Good evening. Earlier this month the musician Frank Zappa died at his Los Angeles home, shortly before his 53rd birthday. Zappa was one of the most exotic, original and complex figures to have emerged from rock culture. Bandleader, guitar hero, composer, satirist, and political commentator, Zappa managed to avoid being easily categorised for over three decades. And uniquely among rock idols, the career of the man who put the sneer into rock evolved outside the mainstream of pop history.
Something of a recluse in his final years, while struggling against cancer, Zappa continued to work right up to the end of his life. In January of this year he agreed to give The Late Show an exclusive glimpse into his world, in what turned out to be his last interview for television.
[Title: Frank Zappa 1940–1993]
[Film: early B/W film of the Mothers playing]
[FZ is seated facing camera in a big purple chair, wearing a black shirt and jacket.]
FZ: Some scientists say that a major building block of the universe is hydrogen, because it’s the most plentiful element. But my theory is that the universe is made out of stupidity, because it is more plentiful than hydrogen. Since it’s more plentiful, why shouldn’t we talk about it?
I was happy to outrage anybody who’d like to be outraged.
Take the Kama Sutra. How many people died from the Kama Sutra as opposed to the Bible? Who wins?
Matt Groening (Cartoonist ‘The Simpsons’): American culture has a lot of great moustaches in its history. Mark Twain had a great moustache, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin … but Zappa, he’s got the best moustache in American history. Got the moustache, right, and he’s got that little thing on his chin, I think it’s called an imperial, that is, like, the coolest thing. That’s like one of the great icons of the twentieth century.
[Film of FZ’s home]
Narrator: Frank Zappa has spent thirty years refining the eclectic style of his music. Since he abandoned live rock in the late 80s, and was diagnosed with cancer in 1991, Zappa has worked almost exclusively from his Hollywood Hills home. A compulsive archivist, Zappa recorded nearly all his live performances of the last fifteen years, and has retrieved from record companies the master tapes of all his studio albums.
[Film of two of FZ’s technical team in hard-hats with lamps on, walking through the vault: “Where did Frank say it was?”]
This is just one of four underground vaults in his house, home to hundreds of hours of Zappa music, waiting to be digitally remastered and re-released on CD. The Old Masters series, with help from his in-house technical assistants.
FZ: Just because you’re not working with musicians doesn’t mean you’re not working. There’s certainly a lot of things that have to be done, in a very methodical way, with devices that I use. It’s not that I don’t interact with people, because I do have a staff here that helps me do all this stuff. I like doing it, and it seems to me that it’s liberating not to have the payroll of a rock ‘n roll band, and to be the person that has to deal with the types of problems that a band leader is confronted with. It’d be a different thing to be an orchestra conductor than to be a rock and roll band leader, it’s two different kinds of roles there. I’m much happier working with my highly skilled technical team here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. I really enjoy working with them. Narrator: Now completely outside the mainstream music scene, with his own state-of-the-art studio, record company, and distribution network, Zappa has achieved a unique degree of control over his work. The struggle to achieve independence as a musician has been marked by extremes of indulgence, but also of inspiration, even genius.
[Film of the Mothers playing King Kong, BBC TV studio 1967]
[Film of Lancaster scenery]
Now resident in his Laurel Canyon retreat, the young Zappa spent his high school years in a very different California. Here, in the remote town of Lancaster, near Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. Zappa’s father was a research chemist for the military. The family moved from the East to the West Coast when Frank was ten.
FZ: I know I was weird. You know the standard uniform that the rap musicians wear — the hooded parka with the hood up and sunglasses on — that’s what I used to wear to school every day. I had a little goatee and a little moustache, and I used to take my guitar with me to school — it was not electric — and spent my time between classes plunking around on that.
Motorhead Sherwood (Saxophonist, Mothers of Invention 1964–69): When I knew Frank in school, he was two years ahead of me in high school. Lancaster was just a barren town, it seems like all the misfits from Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties were sent up there to get out of everybody else’s face. There wasn’t really anything to do there. You spent most of your time just wandering around through the desert, trying to occupy yourself with anything. That’s probably why most people got into music or drinking all the time. On weekends that’s about all there was to do. One boring town, believe me.
FZ: I hadn’t been raised in an environment where there was a lot of music in the house. This couple that owned the chili place, Opal and Chester, agreed to ask the man who serviced the jukebox to put in some of the song titles that I liked, because I promised that I would dutifully keep pumping quarters into this thing so I could listen to them. So I had the ability to eat good chili and listen to “Three Hours Past Midnight” by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, for most of my junior and senior years.
[Film of records owned by FZ. Three Hours Past Midnight by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Motor Head Baby by Young John Watson, Rat Now by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Woman Trouble by Guitar Slim & his Band, What Have I Done Wrong [by ?], Walking With Frankie by Frankie Lee Simms. Soundtrack: Three Hours Past Midnight]
[In this shot, FZ is shown in a medium shot, and we can see that he is seated in a room at home, with table lamp, house plant, cup and saucer, hi-fi equipment, gold disks, and mementoes such as licence plates on the walls, and a large free-standing ashtray. The chair has a dark wooden frame and arms, and is upholstered in purple.]
I’d come into contact with Charlie Parker records and things like that, but they didn’t hold my interest. I couldn’t follow it. Same kind of argument that you’d get from people today, just “Huh, what are they doing? They just noodling around”, you know. I mean, now I understand why they’re noodling and where they’re noodling, and I can tell the difference between good noodling and bad noodling, but without certain musical clues it just all sounded like noodles to me.
Narrator: As well as black R&B, young Zappa liked Stravinsky, and the dissonant sound experiments of the 1920s French composer, Edgard Varèse.
FZ: I don’t know how I finally got introduced to it, I guess it was because of a Varèse album that I read about in a magazine. Went out and bought it. Imagine what a shock that was, after listening to rhythm ‘n blues records, and then coming home with that album and hearing Ionisation and Octandre and things like that. I liked it a lot. Nobody had to explain it to me, it wasn’t like jazz. They were doing some noodling in there but it sounded like they knew what they were doing.
It just sounded good to me. The way I perceived the dissonance was: These chords are really mean. I like these chords. And the drums are playing loud in this music, and you can hear the drums often in this music, which was something that you could not experience with other types of classical music.
Narrator: For all his fascination with wildly opposed musical styles, Zappa’s rite of passage as a musician took a conventional course, playing in local bands and suffering the indignities of the cocktail lounge combo. In 1964 Zappa went to Los Angeles and met a group of musicians who were willing to try something new. This was the band who were later to become, under Zappa’s tight control, the Mothers Of Invention.
FZ: When we finally got a record contract with MGM, some pinhead there had decided that The Mothers was a bad name for a group and that radio stations would never play our record because the name was too risque. At the time, if you were a good musician, you were a motherfucker, and Mothers was short for a collection of motherfuckers. Actually, it was kind of presumptuous to name the band that, because we weren’t that good musicians. By bar-band standards in the area, we were light-years ahead of our competition, but in terms of real musicianship, I suppose we were right down there in the swamp.
So, out of necessity we became the Mothers Of Invention. Just by adding those other two words to it, we were able to keep the record company happy. But naturally, the radio stations didn’t play the music anyway, because it wasn’t about the name of the band, it was what we were singing about, and the way the music sounded.
[Home movie style film of the Mothers playing and clowning. Soundtrack: Hungry Freaks, Daddy]
Narrator: The Mothers’ debut album, Freak Out!, was a new kind of collage of pop, blues and psychedelia, with intelligent lyrics. Music that used parody and black humour to engage in sharp social satire. The Mothers seemed to be at home with a commercial pop sound, and at the same time utterly contemptuous of pop.
The album’s acerbic style took even the Mothers’ record company by surprise.
FZ: They didn’t find out until the day we went in to start recording, in fact they didn’t find out until the second song. I think the first track we laid down was Anyway The Wind Blows, and the second track was Who Are The Brain Police?, and I could see Wilson on the phone through the control room window, calling the head office in New York saying ‘Well, er you’re not going to believe this …’
Matt Groening: The amazing thing about Freak Out! was that there was nothing quite like it in rock ‘n roll at the time. It was really simultaneously crude and ugly, and incredibly sophisticated. The Beatles were funny, but there was nothing with the kind of sneer that you could feel in the music of Frank Zappa.
Narrator: Although the Mothers’ sound could only have come from LA, it wasn’t until they left there in 1967 to take up a six-month residency at the Garrick Theatre in New York, that they began to find their audience.
FZ: We were never that popular in Los Angeles, because even compared to New York, Los Angeles was a very conforming community. It just seemed to me that at that time San Francisco was more conformist, Los Angeles a little bit less, when we moved to New York there was virtually no scene at all, there was no long-haired anything there. People looked at us like we were from Venus. By the time a scene did finally erupt in New York City it was much more interesting because it had ethnic diversity, it had cultural diversity because of all the different parts of the city where there concrete artistic things going on. There were things happening that were experimental, not necessarily wonderful, but at least experimental, people trying to do something that was different.
[Film: Garrick Theatre. Soundtrack: Call Any Vegetable]
We could do anything we wanted out there. It didn’t make any difference. That’s what the audience was buying a ticket to experience. Two main demands of the audience: they wanted to hear some material that they could recognise, and they wanted to have some sort of live performance experience that nobody else would give them. A surprise, in other words, whether it was going to be musical, or theatrical, or something, they would like to have a surprise, and I would like to give them a surprise.
It’s not like you’d go on stage and there would be a sea of people with long hair all decked out in 60s fashion, like the special Time-Warner version of the 60s, they weren’t like that. They were people who were from the suburbs, who were coming to this concert out of curiosity, weren’t really part of any kind of a scene, except their local community, and basically stood there with their mouths open just going ‘Duh!’.
Ruth Underwood (Percussionist, Zappa Band 1972–76): Oh, I was probably one of those rather stiff people from the suburbs — I think some of us did understand, and we kept coming back for more, and more, and more. I remember being very upset when they finally finished their stint at the Garrick Theatre and went back to LA. I felt as if the real heart had gone out of New York City, and I had to get back on with my Conservatory music training life, which seemed very dull after this.
One never knew what to expect, there were some nights that you just heard pure music, and other nights, Motorhead’d be talking about fixing his car, with Jim Black’s drum beat in the background. Sometimes Frank would just sit in a chair and glower at the audience. Sometimes there were more people on stage than there were in the audience, and because of that, Frank even got to know some of us by name! There were so few hard-core Mothers freaks then, that we were all very noticeable to him. I remember Stravinsky being played, I remember droning music going on for ages, and then in the middle of all of that, the song that then became ‘Oh No, I Don’t Believe It’, sort of breaking through the clouds, and I mean it just shocked me, how anything could be so beautiful, and how such beautiful music could come out of such bizarre looking people.
[Film: photo session for We’re Only In It For The Money album cover. Soundtrack: Oh No]
Narrator: But having established the Mothers as one of the most formidable and original bands of the 60s, now with a huge following in Europe as well as the United States, Zappa played a characteristic hand. After five years and seven albums, he suddenly disbanded the group.
Motorhead Sherwood: It was getting to the point that I think Frank wasn’t going in the direction he wanted to, wasn’t being as creative as he wanted to. So that’s basically how we disbanded. He just got tired and said ‘Hey guys, let’s go out into other groups, let’s infiltrate other bands, and let’s get some fresh ideas. You guys come back, and maybe we’ll get together three or four years down the line, bring in your ideas from the groups you have, and let’s get back together and do something. But it just never happened.
Narrator: Zappa surprised his large following with the relatively smooth style of Hot Rats, the first album released under his own name. It was mostly instrumental, featuring extended sax, violin and guitar solos, which were melodically accessible as well as musically sophisticated.
FZ: It was a major flop in the United States, but for some reason became a Top Ten record in England and Holland, and is regarded nostalgically in those places. But the revolutionary thing about that album was the quantity and texture of the overdubbing that was being done on it. Sixteen-track recording was a brand new medium. The 16-track machine that we recorded that album on was practically a prototype. It was as large as that fireplace, this monstro machine.
Narrator: Hot Rats was completely free of the dada disruptiveness that had characterised the Mothers’ albums. The one vocal track, Willie The Pimp, was sung by an old high school chum, Captain Beefheart. Then, just when a solo career looked likely, Zappa re-formed the Mothers, but with a different line-up, including two singers brought in from the Sixties teen group, The Turtles. For the new group he invented a new theatrical style. The old surrealism was played down in favour of increasingly bawdy slapstick humour.
[Film: Penis Dimension performance]
200 Motels — the scatological on-the-road documentary film and record — was Zappa’s “Heaven’s Gate”. It cost a lot of money, and it met with a mixed critical reception. But the film was important because it showed Zappa’s first collaboration with a classical orchestra.
[Movie excerpt, 200 Motels]
Through the 70s, Zappa the composer and Zappa the rock performer developed an easy co-existence. When he played live it was with a band who could perform both complicated instrumentals, and salacious songs with driving rhythms.
[Film: Montana, TV concert, 1974]
Ruth Underwood: Let me tell you, Frank was leading the band from every possible aspect and angle and vantage point. He had a series of hand signals and the body language was very important too. We all had our eyes on Frank all the time. You had to, because you never knew what was going to happen. In the middle of doing something that was very much expected and rehearsed, he could just turn around and do something, he could gesture a certain way, or make a face, or interject something to the microphone, just say something or start some banter with whichever lead singer happened to be there, and the whole concert would take a completely different turn.
It was free in that way. It was incredibly tight, but it was free as well. It’s an interesting balance. The bottom line with Frank was that he wanted to, and needed to, get the best that he could from everyone. That was of paramount importance to him, and I think that’s why he got such really extraordinary results. He saw what each of us could do, and he wouldn’t settle for anything less than that.
FZ: For me it was always more interesting to encounter a musician who had a unique ability, find a way to showcase that, and build that unusual skill into the composition. So that for ever and ever afterward, that composition would be stamped with the personality of the person who was there when the composition was created.
[Film: City Of Tiny Lites, Stevie’s Spanking performances]
Steve Vai (Guitarist, Zappa Band 1980–82): He has a really incredible insight, sort of an intuition about musicians. I mean, I sat in a room and watched him go through hordes of musicians, bass players, when we were doing auditions. And he just seems to know, he seems to be able to get what you’re about musically, and take that to the top of your ability.
Like I say, Frank was the bandleader, and I was a musician. I was very fortunate because I loved his music. I remember he said on the phone to me, after he first heard me play, he goes: ‘I think you’re great, and I’d like to try you out for the band. But how do I know you won’t be a miserable son of a bitch, having to play my music?’ You know, I was the tool of the composer.
Narrator: Although it couldn’t strictly be called commercialism, Zappa knew his audience. And he deliberately stoked up the sexual satire, and the mythologising of low-life rock tour culture, with seemingly endless songs about groupies, motels and tour buses, and impossibly perverted musicians. Zappa on sex is what usually draws the critics’ fire.
FZ: Well, let’s look at the statistics. I think that the last time anybody checked, my catalogue is about 1200 titles. And I would be amazed if more than 100 of them were on sexual topics.
[Film: Titties ‘n Beer performance]
I’m making comments about society, and the society that I was commenting on was engaged in what they love to describe as the sexual revolution — a world of sexual incompetents encountering each other under disco circumstances. Now can’t you do songs about that?
[Film: Keep It Greasey performance]
Matt Groening: One of the great things about Frank’s satire is that he picks targets that can’t stand to be laughed at, and that’s a real great secret of humour. You gotta pick the people who get the most upset and crazed when you make fun of ’em, and Zappa did it time and time again. He picks targets I would never pick, but he does some good ones, and that’s definitely been an inspiration to me.
[Film: Bobby Brown performance]
FZ: Well, have you ever looked at people fucking? Ouch! I mean that’s a silly looking thing to begin with, it’s silly looking, let’s face it, it looks silly. Why not say so? And from that you can develop a number of theories about whether or not it should be celebrated. I mean, so what if it feels good? It’s still silly.
Now’s the time to whip out this magazine. Please — look.
[FZ holds up to camera a copy of ‘Future Sex’ magazine. The front cover shows a couple wearing virtual reality goggles and some kind of teledildonic attachments — the headline is ‘Cybersex’.]
Here it is, the 90s. Here’s where we are. We’re to this, now. Shouldn’t we say something about people who will buy thousand-dollar dildo-things that they plug into their computer, to do stuff to them, with 3D goggles attached to it? There’s gotta be an album in there someplace!
[Film: Broken Hearts Are For Assholes performance]
It’s pretty easy to hate me for whatever you choose to hate me for, because I’m virtually unrepentant, and I just don’t care. My insensitivity is pretty evenly spread around.
[Film: You Are What You Is video]
Narrator: In 1978, after winning a lawsuit against Warner Brothers, Zappa was free to put out records on his own label. He then went into overdrive. In the 80s he was releasing albums every few months, including one of live guitar solos — 80 minutes’ worth. Zappa now entered rock’s pantheon of guitar heroes.
[Film: Zoot Allures — New York concert 1984]
Steve Vai: Frank had great feedback control when he played. And it was great to sit and just watch him play. Sometimes I didn’t have anything to play, and I just stood and watched him. When he’s playing his guitar, when I was on stage watching him, he always seemed like he had a concentration that was … ‘cos the solos would go on for nine minutes, ten minutes sometimes, even longer, but there was a continuity to it, that I think a lot of people, after a point, it just becomes like flailing. But he definitely held a continuity, and that’s a great strength of concentration.
[Film: Black Napkins — Concert 1979]
In my opinion, in a sense it’s old-school in the way that it’s bluesy. I mean, he has very many different sides, he can just play over a real heavy rock vamp, really heavy, and he’s got these blues runs and stuff that are very, in a way old style but they have a lot of balls or grip to them, like, they have a lot of cayenne pepper or something.
[[[Dweezil Zappa|Dweezil]] and Ahmet are filmed in a room in front of a line of guitars. Dweezil is holding a burned Stratocaster with left-handed machine heads and a standard fingerboard. Ahmet is holding a paper cup containing a tea-bag]
Dweezil Zappa (Son): He doesn’t look at the instrument in terms of the standard ways, like for example you pick up the guitar and there’s little boxes that your fingers can go in, that you could conceivably play in. Frank doesn’t think of those sort of technical things at all, he’s all over the place, playing notes that he wants to play, because he hears everything that’s going on in the music around him, and he creates this ‘air sculpture’ as he calls it, when he plays. It should be illegal.
Ahmet Zappa (Son): It’s so cool, at rehearsals or something, he’ll be playing and all of a sudden you’ll see his face go … you know, and he’s like: ‘God’, like someone, like, made a mistake, and he’s like … it hits him, like the wrong note hits him, and it’s ‘Aah — do it again, do it again’, you know. And like he’s playing, and it’s so loud you’re going ‘How the hell can he hear anything?’, you know, and the monitors can be really bad …
Dweezil Zappa: Most of the time, the music that the band is trying to play is so complicated, and to hear one wrong note, out of everything that’s going on stage and not, you know, I mean sometimes you don’t have certain instruments up as loud as others, but he always catches that stuff …
Ahmet Zappa: He’s insane.
Dweezil Zappa: … it’s frightening, he’s got the magic ears.
Narrator: Zappa finally stopped playing live in 1988. Tiring of life on the road and his bands’ squabbling, he turned to business and politics. He set up his own company to trade with Eastern Europe, and a visit to post-revolutionary Prague in 1991 led to an unexpected alliance with the Czech government.
FZ: It was during my Prague visit that I was introduced to various people in the government, including Havel and various finance ministers. As a result of these meetings I proposed to them that if they needed some sort of representation in the West, to help them get investment or whatever they needed to do, that I would be interested in doing that.
[Rostrum camera shows letter on official paper addressed to Mr Frank Zappa at the Hotel Intercontinental, Praha. The letter reads: Dear Sir, May I enturst [?] you by loading negotiations with foreign partners for preparation of preliminary projects, possibly drafts of trade agreements directed to participation of foreign firms. It concerns turist, cultural and other enterprice in Czechoslovakia. I am very obliged to you for the help offered in this respect and am looking forward to further co-operation. Very truly, [unreadable].’]
The minister gave me a letter saying that I represented the government for ‘trade, tourism, and culture’. Just a single, simple little letter. And so I started making phone calls to try and organise things for them. But there was a lot of behind-the-scenes back-stabbing and weird stuff going on that I wasn’t aware of.
[Film shows FZ in suit and tie, apparently at a large official meeting in Czechoslovakia. He speaks to camera: “We came here today to watch Communism die.”]
I’ve never been shy about saying what’s on my mind. At this luncheon engagement with Havel, he was talking about how Dan Quayle was coming to visit them, and I expressed the opinion that I thought that it was unfortunate that a person such as President Havel should have to bear the company of somebody as stupid as Dan Quayle for even a few moments of his life. And the next thing I know, Quayle doesn’t come. Instead, what’s his name, James Baker III re-routes his trip to Moscow, so that he can come blasting into Prague, and literally lays down the law to the Czech government. He says you can either do business with the United States or you can do business with Zappa, what’ll it be? And that was my brief but unhappy relationship with the Czech government.
Narrator: Since the announcement of his illness in 1991, Zappa has concentrated on re-mastering music from his archive, but also writing new compositions outside the rock tradition. His most recent project has been to adapt some of his computer compositions for Germany’s Ensemble Modern. These were performed in Frankfurt and Vienna last September.
FZ: Well, you’ve gotta understand that The Yellow Shark isn’t really a piece, it was just the name of the evening, it was the name of the event.
[Film of FZ supervising Ensemble Modern rehearsal. He speaks to three musicians playing a vibes or marimba: “OK, so try and keep the clusters very dense.”]
It was the kind of music that the machine couldn’t do. It’s also the kind of music that, I would imagine, other groups couldn’t play. It was pretty much designed for them.
[Film of FZ conducting Ensemble Modern rehearsal. At the hand-drop, the orchestra shouts in unison: “Aie!”. FZ nods, gratified smile. “Now, you have to remember these things because they can happen any time.”]
It was only interesting because the musicians themselves were interesting and their approach to music was interesting. It was something that I always hoped to encounter with some group of musicians, somewhere, sometime.
Narrator: Despite his illness, despite no longer performing live, Zappa has lost none of his relish for experimentation. He recently held what he called a Salon at his house, where he recorded the combined sound made by The Chieftains from Ireland, a Tuvan throat singing group from Mongolia, and his old friend Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
[Film of the Salon. Dweezil helps FZ, seated, with his honey Strat guitar. One of the Chieftains gets up holding his bagpipes and speaks to ‘FZ: “I tell you what would be very nice, Frank, if the boron started, and they were to start a drone, and Matt came in on the flute. How about that?” Film of the ensemble playing and everybody obviously having a good time.]
FZ: So far, let’s see, in the last couple of months I’ve finished off three albums, so there’s plenty of stuff coming out this year. The thing that we’re dumping to tape right now from the hard disk is a project called Civilization Phaze III, and I’m expecting to have a meeting with some people from the Vienna Opera later this month when I’m going to talk to them about mounting it as a live production. And if they decide to do it, then that will be the next major thing to occupy my time, and if not, I’ll find something else.
[Film of FZ standing as he closes the Salon. Tired looking and rather slurred: “Thank you everyone, for coming to our soiree tonight, and hope to have another one, one of these days. Goodnight.” Applause. FZ says individual goodbyes, hugs Johnny “Guitar” Watson, credits roll over Watermelon In Easter Hay.]