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FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION: THE EARLY YEARS (PART ONE)

AN OUTSIDER

In an excellent article in ‘Guitar’ magazine defines an outsider:

An outsider “suggests persons who are ‘out there’, whether by choice or because normal society has no place for them. In many cases, the outsiders fight against the stifling sameness of the rest of the world.

Outsiders “always do something that the mainstream doesn’t, can’t or won’t. They take chances, are maybe a little reckless, and aren’t afraid to fly in, or slap the face of comfortable culture.”

“Outsiders in the musical business are especially rare, primarily because record companies don’t like to take chances on inventive or exploratory music. Such inventiveness is allowed in jazz (though not so much anymore) because there is a certain expectation of it in that musical form. But rock and roll?”

Frank Zappa is one of Newquist’s rock outsiders. So how did he come to take the direction of most resistance? Our story starts with Zappa’s not altogether conventional childhood.




LIFE WITH THE NOMADS


At the age of six Frank Zappa would have little idea he would go on to become one of the zaniest, most uncompromising, idiosyncratically creative and virtuosic professional musicians in musical history, revered and imitated by millions, and also misunderstood and the subject of bewilderment by bemused and belligerent detractors some of whom would even argue that, in the pursuance of his art, Zappa crossed the boundaries of taste and decency.


Controversial he certainly became and it may, in retrospect have been no surprise that Zappa went on to become a musical ‘outsider’ when you consider that, he did not have what most people would consider to be a ‘normal’ childhood.


At the age of six, Frank was making gunpowder. His Dad worked as a meteorologist in a facility where the United States military manufactured mustard gas and Frank and his family lived in Edgewood on an army housing complex. In the chapter entitled ‘How Weird Am I Anyway?’ in his self-penned ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’ he describes hair-raising childhood experiences playing with mercury and mustard gas.


“There were tanks of mustard gas within a mile of where we lived, so everybody in the housing project was to have a gas mask in the house, for each member of the family…I used to wear mine out in the backyard all the time. It was my space helmet.” (p. 21)


Concerned at Frank’s health (apparently unrelated to the mercury- he had earaches, asthma and sinus trouble), Frank’s Dad took a job as a military ballistics engineer in the Florida everglades and thus began a nomadic existence that fatally injured Frank’s chances of environmental stability and effectively rendered him ‘root-less’.


Frank’s health did improve, but his Mum got homesick and the family returned to Maryland where his Dad taught metallurgy in Monterey California Navy Postgraduate School. It was now 1951. In 1953 the family moved to Pacific Grove, south of Monterey where a 12-year old Frank attended a summer school and learned to play drums. Late in 1953 the family moved again this time to Pomona, California where his Dad worked as metallurgist for Convair. In 1954 it was the turn of El Cajon near San Diego to play host to the Zappas, his Dad this time getting a job working on the Atlas guided missile system.


THE LURE OF MUSIC


EDGAR VARESE (1883-1965)

“This album is nothing but drums. It’s dissonant and terrible; the worst music in the world.”

“Ahh! Yes!” thought Frank. “That’s for me!”


In 1955 Frank attended Mission Bay High School on the site of the University of San Diego and discovered a record store on the ground floor of the Maryland Hotel in San Diego. He was ‘beating the shit out of’ the writing bureau at home with a pair of drum sticks.’ Understandably his parents soon relented and bought him a snare drum so he could practise in the garage!


Frank had joined a High School rhythm and blues band called The Ramblers at the age of 14 playing Little Richard covers on his first $50 drum set but this didn’t work out and he got fired.

His Dad transferred yet again- to Lancaster in the Antelope Valley north of the San Gabriel Mountains 40 miles from Los Angeles this time, on the edge of the desert.

Frank read an article in a magazine called ‘Look’ about a record store owned by a Sam Goody who claimed he could sell anything even ‘Ionisations’ by Edgar Varèse.


Goody said, “This album is nothing but drums. It’s dissonant and terrible; the worst music in the world.”

“Ahh! Yes!” thought Frank. “That’s for me!”


Eventually Frank tracked the album down in a hi-fi store in La Mesa. He paid $3.75 for it despite the price tag of $5.95 (apparently it had been used as a demonstrator record and Frank only had $3.75 in his pocket).

From the moment Frank first put ‘The Complete Works of Edgar Varèse Volume 1’ (for that was its true title) on his Decca record player with a quarter (25 cent coin) on the tone arm to weigh it down he was hooked!

So infatuated was he that he somehow guessed Varèse must live in New York, found his Greenwich Village number in a phone book and actually phoned and spoke to his wife who told him that Edgar was in Brussels working on a composition for the World’s Fair (‘poème électronique’).

When he called him back, Edgar told Frank he was working on a new composition called ‘Déserts’. Frank was 15 and living in the Mojavé Desert so instantly a connection was made. (Unfortunately, Frank never did get a chance to meet his hero in person).


Next Frank (still a drummer) got together an R & B band called The Blackouts and got a job as a buyer for a local record store buying in titles like ‘Oh What A Night’ by The Dells. He was also assembling an impressive collection of ex-jukebox records on frequent trips to San Diego. It was now 1956 and he and Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), a high school pal from Antelope Valley, would listen to records together and cruise around Lancaster looking for ‘chicks’ in Don’s powder blue Oldsmobile with the eccentric addition of a terracotta werewolf’s head on the steering wheel.


Zappa and Van Vliet would listen to doo-wop and blues records by The Velvets, The Orchids, The Nutmegs, The Gladiators, The Spaniels, The Chanels, The Paragons, Don and Dewey, Guitar Slim, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown.


Frank’s ‘first love’ favourite record was reputed to be ‘Angel in my Life’ by The Jewels, a 1955 ‘45’.rpm.


“It didn’t make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin’ Slim or a vocal group called The Jewels or Webern or Varese or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music.”


At an early stage this statement goes some way to explaining the eclectic expressionism evident in Frank Zappa’s subsequent musical explorations.


Despite his poor disciplinary record (“I was a jerk”), Frank did get some encouragement at school from the music teacher ‘Mr Ballard’ and the Vice-Principal Ernie Tossi. Indeed, both gentlemen were name checked on the first Mothers of Invention album FREAK OUT! So Frank began studying music (disregarding some of the advice on theory!) and began to practise seriously using his brother Carl’s cheap guitar with the help of a chord book.


In spring, 1959 in a serious of seemingly interminable decants, Frank’s peripatetic family moved to Claremont but Frank decided to go to Hollywood (He was now 18 years old) and lived in Echo Park (north of Hollywood Freeway) near Elysian Park, home of Dodgers baseball team.


He met Kay Sherman at Chaffee Junior College, Ontario. They got married and lived in Ontario. Kay was a Secretary, Frank had ‘various jobs’. (He worked in the silk screen department of a greetings card company designing and copying advertisements and as an encyclopedia salesman (‘truly wretched’) playing electric guitar in formal dress at the weekends in a four-piece lounge band called Joe Perrino and The Mellotones.


In 1960 he attempted once again to start his own music group and formed The Boogie Men. He hired a Telecaster then a Jazzmaster and his fledgling compositions were beginning to get some exposure.


Frank’s first commissioned piece of music was the soundtrack for a low budget western movie called ‘Run Home Slow’. In 1961 he wrote the film score for ‘World’s Greatest Sinner’! The ‘theme tune’ appeared as the b-side of Baby Ray and the Ferns single in 1963 and, later, as ‘Holiday in Berlin’ on The Mothers of Invention 1970 LP BURNT WEENY SANDWICH. Ray Collins who would later join The Mothers sang, and Frank played guitar on the single. The week before Christmas a 55-piece Pomona Valley Symphony Orchestra recorded a score written by Frank (“Rancid!” was Frank’s honest if lurid comment).


Frank made his own first record at Studio PAL owned by Paul Buff. This was located at 8040 North Avenue, Cucamonga, a few miles from Ontario and was the same studio that had cut the hit record ‘Wipe Out’ by The Safaris.


Mike Barnes in his book on CAPTAIN BEEFHEART wrote:


“Zappa’s next step was particularly significant. In 1961 he moved to Ontario on the outskirts of LA. After hiring a session at PAL studio in nearby Cucamonga for one of his own projects, he ended up spending more and more time there. PAL was owned by Paul Buff, an electronics expert, and the two of them collaborated in an attempt to make the studio into a hit factory. They wrote, produced and played on a number of recordings under different ‘group’ names and would then go up to Hollywood with acetates to try and hustle a record deal. ‘Tijuana Surf’ by The Hollywood Persuaders became a hit in Mexico, although it was actually Buff playing all the instruments. Other concoctions were ‘Hey, Nelda’ by Ned and Nelda, a parody of a Paul and Paula hit ‘Hey, Paula’ and ‘How’s Your Bird?’ by Baby Ray and The Ferns, which featured singer Ray Collins.”


Frank in fact played guitar on the instrumental b-side of ‘Tijuana Surf’, ‘Grunion Man’. He had received $2,000 payment for his score for ‘Run Home Slow’ (which incidentally starred the exotically named Mercedes McCambridge who played alongside James Dean in the film ‘Giant’) and used this money to buy PAL Records from Paul Buff. The sale price included a couple of notable ‘extras’: a baby grand piano and a Steinway ‘upright’. One other important purchase Zappa made around this time was a Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster electric guitar.


During his time at PAL studios, Frank released his first record as The Masters (‘Break Time/ 16 Tons’ in 1962). He also wrote songs for other artists: ‘Gotta Find My Roogalator’ for Bobby Jameson, ‘Love of My Life’ for Ron Roman, ‘Dear Jeepers/ Letters from Jeepers’ for Bob Guy, a local TV compere for a monster movie released in 1963 and ‘The Big Surfer’ for Brian Lord and The Midnighters also in 1963.


Zappa also wrote some songs with Ray Collins: for the aforementioned Ned and Nelda, for doo-wop group The Penguins (who had topped the R & B charts with ‘Earth Angel’ in 1954) (‘Memories of El Monte’), ‘Every Time I See You’, the b-side of The Heartbreakers ‘Cradle Rock’ and the doo-wop parody Fountain of Love’ written in 1963 but not covered.


Eager to carve out his own direction in music Zappa joined forces with drummer Vic Mortensen, ‘Janschi’ on bass and Don Van Vliet in The Soots. Studio PAL was re-named Studio Z, Zappa’s marriage to Kay Sherman ‘fell apart’ and he moved into Studio Z with Jim ‘Motorhead’ Sherman, a saxophonist who would later become a ‘Mother’.


In Studio Z, Zappa constructed a ‘totally implausible 2-D rocket ship’ for use in a movie to be entitled ‘Captain Beefheart versus The Grunt People’


Flash Gordon and sci-fi b-movies were an obvious inspiration and the lyrics for early songs by The Soots were cobbled together from phrases gleaned from X-Men comic books pinned to the wall.


The most famous (or should I say infamous?) story emanating from Studio Z ended with Zappa spending ten days at San Bernardino County Jail for ‘conspiring to commit pornography’ in what nowadays would doubtless be considered a case of ‘entrapment’. The story goes that a vice squad detective posing as a used car salesman (with a hidden wrist watch transmitter!) paid $100 for an audio tape with a ‘bogus grunts and squeaky bedsprings’ performance by Zappa and girlfriend Lorraine Belcher set to background music. Apparently, the judge burst out laughing when he heard the tape but this did not prevent the Californian justice system swinging into action. Stoically, Zappas’ reaction was ‘At least I avoided the draft’.


With Studio Z scheduled for demolition as part of a road widening programme, it was time for Frank Zappa to move on. Frank filled in as part of The Soul Giants whose membership comprised Jimmy Carl Black, Ray Estrada, Ray Collins and bass player/ saxophonist Davy Coronado. Apparently, Coronado did not like the idea of developing original material which is presumably why he didn’t become a Mother of Invention.


(To be continued)

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