Frank Zappa vs the World! - Part Onefrom BAM Magazine, October 5, 1979
"If you thought 'Jewish Princess' was offensive, wait 'til you hear 'Catholic Girls'" Los AngelesFrank Zappa sits leaning over the mixing board, yellow pencil in hand, studying a typed lyric sheet. Wearing a grey, shapeless shirt, grey pants, purple socks and brown loafers, he looks like a pleasantly absorbed research scientist in the midst of a fascinating experiment. It's approaching midnight, but in the shadowy confines of Village Recording Studios, that means very little to the group of musicians at work.
"Let me hear that bridge again," he says to the engineer Joe Chiccarelli, who responds by flicking a dozen switches in a matter of seconds. Zappa takes a slow drag from his cigarette. "I'm trying to decide whether we keep the singing or add talking here."
He looks up suddenly, acknowledging the guests who have sidled into the tiny control booth. They're putting the final touches on a concept piece, he explains, entitled Joe's Garage. It's about an upstanding young man whose life turns topsy-turvy when he puts together a rock and roll band that starts jamming in his parents' garage. "After this girl, Lucille, messes Joe's mind up, he goes to the First Church of Appliantology for help," Zappa says. "L. Ron Hoover, the leader of this church, tells him that he has to go into this club, called the Closet, dressed up like a housewife, and speak German. Then he's got to pick up one of the groovy appliances that spend their time dancing around in this club. He meets this computer and goes home with it."
"And gets a blowjob?" somebody asks.
"Oh it's worse than a blowjob!" he leers. "This is really sick!"
Giggles erupt from the half-dozen people crammed into this smokey, cluttered room, as Zappa turns his attention back to the problem at hand. For the next few hours he keeps vocalist Ike Willis busy laying down double-track harmonies for an ethereal ballad called "I Can't Wait To See What It's Like On The Outside Now." When his visitors finally drag themselves out into the West Los Angeles morning, Zappa is reaching for another cup of coffe from the thermos at his feet, and eyeing another typed lyric sheet. That, in a nutshell, is the Frank Zappa the public never sees. Never mind the lurid stories about the "gross-out" contest allegedly held between himself and the Fugswhich Zappa supposedly won after eating his own feces onstageor the wild rumor that has him stomping baby chicks to death during one especially rocking encore. Zappa doesn't have time for such non-musical antics and he never has. The 38-year-old musician has released 28 albums since the Mothers of Invention zapped the world with the conceptual double LP, Freak Out, in 1965. since then, Zappa projects have ranged from the 1968 Beatles parody, We're Only In It For The Money; to the orchestrated granddaddy of the jazz-fusion genre, Lumpy Gravy; to this year's Sheik Yerbouti, a double-disc helping of breezey sleaze that had people praising and damning the no-holds-barred contents.
Sheik Yerbouti was hardly on the market before the Anti-Defamation Leage of B'nai B'rith filed a formal protest with the FCC. The League claimed that the lyrics to a kazoo-propelled ditty called "Jewish Princess" were "vulgar, sexual and anti-Semitic references which leave very little to the imagination."
Despite, or perhaps because of the furor, Sheik Yerbouti was an unqualified commercial success. "Dancin' Fool", the disco send-up that was inoffensive enough to become the album's single, peaked Billboard magazine's sales charts at Number 23. This from an artist who was dismissed by at least one music critic in 1965: "With voices that should put an alley cat on a fence at midnight to shame," wrote the disgruntled reviewer about Freak Out!, "these 'mothers' have wasted two records and an album cover of indescribably poor taste recording 80 minutes of pure trash."
But criticism has always rolled off Zappa's back like water off a duck. While the League was harping, he was readying other projects: Warts And All, a double live album, was culled from performances at the 1978 Halloween show in New York and a January engagement at the Hammersmith Odeon in England; Shut Up And Play Your Guitar is an album of blistering Zappa guitar work, sans vocals, which he plans to sell through mail-order. "It's just for fetishists," he says, laughing. "For those who want to hear my guitar work, that's the album for them." With these works completed (but as yet unreleased), Zappa moved into Village Recorders on April 11, planning to record a couple of songs and then split. By the first of June, he and his entourage had completed a dozen tunes. According to one studio staffer, Zappa claimed to have exhausted his supply of written material, but asked to extend his stay nonetheless.
"I'm going home and writing an opera this weekend," he told the skeptical staff. The following Monday, was back in the studio with Joe's Garage.
This concept piece wove the material Zappa had already recorded with other songs he'd written over the weekend. The final product was a three-record rock opus detailing the adventures of Joe, a struggling electric guitarist, and his erstwhile girlfriend, Mary. Narrated by the Central Scrutinizer, a spy for the music-hating Future Police, Joe's Garage takes on promiscuous Catholic schoolgirls, wet T-shirt contests, venereal disease, weirdo cults, horny appliances, kinky groupies, and perverted record company executives.
Joe's Garage, Act One was released in early September as the first installment of the trilogy. This disc traces the story up until Joe's involvement with the Church of Appliantology. The two remaining acts are slated for release as a double-record set in mid-November. Zappa insists that the whole project was an outgrowth of a very simple recording project.
It just kind of snowballed," he says, shrugging.
Marv Griefinger, Zappa's longtime publicist, puts it another way. "Frank needs a vacation, but he doesn't know how to go about it like normal people," he says. "He just doesn't know how to go somewhere and relax." One week after the all-night recording session, Zappa and Chiccarelli sit listening to their final mixes of the new material in the basement of Frank's Laurel Canyon home. A huge, state-of-the-art mixing board dominates the low-slung, wood-paneled room. More recording equipment, gleaming machinery and boxes of recording tape are piled up in the cramped work space. All of this will eventually be moved into the recording studio Zappa is building alongside his house.
Joe's Garage, Act One is blasting through overhead speakers. The title track, a '50s-style rocker, with doo-wop male backup chorus and bleeping saxophones, leads into "Catholic Girls," the lewd follow-up to "Jewish Princess." A lighthearted number with a bouncy beat, "Catholic Girls" celebrates fellatio parties in a rectory basement: "Father Riley's a fairy/But it don't bother Mary... With a tongue like a cow/She could make you go wow!"
Zappa sits at the board, smiling slightly, as other snappy tunes rattle by. "Crew Slut" is what they call Mary when she runs off with some roadies from a rock band. In "Wet T-Shirt Nite," Zappa is the voice of an emcee working over a contestant (Mary) in a cheesy flesh show. Ike Willis sings his socks off in "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?", an essay on the painful physical effects of VD.
When the tape winds to an end, Zappa flops onto an old-fashioned, burgundy-colored couch to talk about his current projects. Continue reading »