Articles & Interviews

 

The Incredible History Of The Mothers
By Frank Zappa
from Hit Parader, No. 48 — June 1968

Although the Mothers have been in existence for about three years, the project was carefully planned about four and a half years ago. I had been looking for the right people for a long time. I was in advertising before I got into...ha... show business. I'd done a little motivational research. One of the laws of economics is that if there is a demand, somebody ought to supply that demand and they'll get rich. I composed a composite, gap-filling product that fills most of the gaps between so called serious music and the so-called popular music. Next, I needed my own group to present this music to the public. The group that was to become the Mothers was working in the Broadside, a little bar in Pomona, California.

Jim Black, the drummer, had just come to California from Kansas. He got together with Roy Estrada, the bass player. They'de been working terrible jobs in Orange County, which is a bad place to live unless you belong to the John Birch Society. They got a band together with Ray Hunt on guitar, Dave Coronado on sax and Ray Collins as lead vocalist. They called themselves the Soul Giants and they were doing straight commercial rhythm and blues "Gloria," "Louie, Louie," you got it. Then Ray Hunt decided he didn't like Ray Collins and started playing the wrong changes behind him when he was singing. A fight ensued, Ray Hunt decided to quit, the band needed a guitar player, so they called me up. I started working with them at the Broadside, I thought they sounded pretty good. I said, "Okay, you guys, I've got this plan. We're going to get rich. You probably won't beleive this now, but if you just bear with me we'll go out and do it." Davie Coronado said, "No. I don't want to do it. We'd never be able to get any work if we played that kind of music. I've got a job in a bowling alley in La Puene, and I think I'm gonna split." So he did. I think he's got a band now called Davie Coronado and his Sagebrush Ramblers or something like that.

There were four original Mothers - Ray Collins, Jim Black, Roy Estrada and myself. We starved for about ten months because we were playing a type of music that was grossly unpopular in that area. They couldn't identify with it. So we got into the habit of insulting the audience. We made a big reputation that way. Nobody came to hear us play, they came in to see how much abuse they could take. They were very masochistic. They loved it. We managed to get jobs on that basis but it didn't last very long because we'd eventually wind up abusing the owner of the club. Then we decided we were going to the big city - Los Angeles - which was about thirty miles away. We had added a girl to the group, Alice Stuart. She played guitar very well and sang well. 1 had an idea for combining certain modal influences into our basically country blues sound. We were playing a lot of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf-type stuff. Alice played good finger-style guitar, but she-couldn't play "Louie, Louie," so I fired her. Then we got Henry Vestine who is one of the most outstanding blues guitarists on any coast. He's really a monster. He was part of the group for quite some time. But our music kept getting progressively stranger and he couldn't identify with what we were doing and he wanted his freedom, so we said, 'Goodbye, Henry' and he split. He's in Canned Heat now.

Then Ray, the lead vocalist, quit and there were three Mothers. We hired Jim Guercio, who now manages Chad & Jeremy and produces records for the Buckinghams. He was part of our group for a while. Also, somewhere along the line, we had hired Steve Mann, who is also one of the top blues guitarists on the West Coast. He wanted to play in the group but he couldn't make the changes and we got rid of him. Then we hired Elliot Ingber and Ray came back in the band and there were five Mothers. We cut our first album with those five- Rag, Roy, Jim, Elliot and myself. Tom Wilson, who was producing records for MGM at the time, came to the Whiskey A-Go-Go while we were a five-piece group, while Henry Vestine was still with us. He heard us sing "The Watts Riot Song (Trouble Every Day)." He stayed for five minutes, said "Yeah, yeah, yeah," slapped me on the back, shook my hand and said, "Wonderful. We're gonna make a record of you. Goodbye." I didn't see him again for four months. He thought we were a rhythm and blues band. He probably went back to New York and said, "I signed me another rhythm and blues band from the Coast. They got this song about the riot. It's a protest song. They'll do a couple of singles and maybe they'll die out".

He came back to town just before we were going to do our first recording session. We had a little chat in his room and that was when he first discovered that that wasn't all that we played. Things started changing. We decided not to make a single, we'd make an album instead. He wouldn't give me an idea of what the budget would be for the album, but the average rock and roll album costs about $5,000. The start-to-finish cost of FREAK OUT was somewhere around $21,000. The first tune we cut was "Any Way The Wind Blows." Unfortunately, it's a bad mix, but the track is really good. Then we did "Who Are The Brain Police?" When Wilson heard those he was so impressed he got on the phone and called New York, and as a result I got a more or less unlimited budget to do this monstrosity. The next day I had whipped up the arrangements for a twenty-two piece orchestra. It wasn't just a straight orchestra accompanying the singers. It was the Mothers five-piece band plus seventeen pieces. We all worked together. The editing took a long time, which ran the cost up.

Meanwhile, Wilson was sticking his neck out. He laid his job on the line by producing the album. MGM felt that they had spent too much money on the album and they were about to let it die, but it started selling all over the place. Like, they'd sell forty copies in some little town the size of a pumpkin in Wyoming. We sold five thousand albums all over the country with no extra-hype or anything. Finally the company started pushing the album and sales went even higher. We went to Hawaii right after the album was completed and we worked over there. Then we came back and worked with Andy Warhol at the Trip. It was the show that closed the Trip, as they say. Then we went to San Francisco and played around there and finally...uh...Elliot had to be fired and there were five. Just before we fired Elliot we had a six-piece band because we had hired Billy Mundi and we had two drummers. Then we hired Don Preston, who plays keyboard instruments - electric piano, electric clavichord, etc. We also hired Bunk Gardner who plays several various horns, and Jim Fielder on bass. I had known Don Preston and Bunk Gardner several years before I met the other guys. We used to play experimental music a long time ago. We got together in garages and went through some very abstract charts and just entertained ourselves. Anyway, we finally had a very workable ensemble. The second album was recorded with those eight guys. We just added a trumpet, string quartet and contrabass clarinet on one song.

The instrumentation of the ideal Mothers rock and roll band is two piccolos, two flutes, two bass flutes, two oboes, English horn, three bassoons, a contrabassoon, four clarinets (with the fourth player doubling on alto clarinet), bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones, four trumpets, four French horns, three trombones, one bass trombone, one tuba, one contrabass tuba, two harps, two keyboard men playing piano, electric piano, electric harpsichord, electric clavichord, Hammond organ, celeste, and piano bass, ten first violins, ten second violins, eight violas, six cellos, four string bass, four percussionists playing twelve timpani, chimes, gongs, field drums, bass drums, snare drums, woodblocks lion's roar, vibes, xylophone and marimba three electric guitars, one electric 12-string guitar, electric bass and electric bass guitar and two drummers at sets, plus vocalists who play tambourines. And I won't be happy until I have it. I think people are entitled to hear that kind of music live. Kids would go to concerts if they could hear music that knocked them out. If the concert halls would change to a more modern programming, they would find the place crawling with kids. Something like this won't happen overnight and I know it. But I've studied my audiences carefully enough to see that we're making some headway in that direction. Many people sit and listen to us because they pretend they can't dance to our music. That's total bull. I'm nearly an epileptic and I can make it. Those people don't sit because they enjoy the music. They're just waiting to find out if they like the music. It doesn't sound like what they've been used to hearing. They want to get their ears accustomed to it. It's not "psychedelic." I asked a nightclub owner what psychedelic music was. "It's loud out-of-tune crazy music," he told me, "You can't understand it." Our music is fairly logical.

Our spontaneous outbursts are planned. They have to be. If you take an 8-piece band and not direct them, you'll have "psychedelic" music. We rehearse an average of twelve hours on each song. We learn them in sections. There's the front part, then interlude A, interlude B, and so forth, and the band has to remember certain cues for each section. Each set that we do is conceived of as one continuous piece of music, like an opera. Even the dialogue between numbers is part of it. Some of our sets run an hour and a half, when we get carried away. That's about opera length. A better description of what we're doing might be a theatrical presentation with music. This summer I'd like to present a show on Broadway. It's a musical, science fiction horror story based on the Lenny Bruce trials. He was a friend of mine, and of our manager. Lenny was a saint. What the Big Machine of America did to Lenny Bruce was pretty disgusting. It ranks with civil rights as one of the big pimples on the face of American culture. But nobody will ever really find out about it, I guess.

 

 
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