1970 Frank Zappa, part 1

At the beginning of 1970 Frank Zappa was without a band. After performing in Ottawa, Canada on August 19, 1969, Zappa broke up the band, and the late 1960s era of The Mothers of Invention came to an end. In interviews for Rolling Stone and Disc and Music Echo later that year he said: “I like to play, but I just got tired of beating my head against the wall. I got tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons. For about five years we were engaged in an experiment to enlarge the audience conception of music, to show that there was more beyond three-chord blues songs with boy-girl situation lyrics. I like those sort of songs too, but there are other things.” Zappa also cited the financial burden of paying a large band weekly salaries regardless of whether the venture is earning money or not.

With the band dissolved, Zappa got busy editing pieces of music that The Mothers recorded at various studios and live performances between 1967 and 1969. Two albums were released in 1970 with that material. The first was the curiously named (what else?) Burnt Weeny Sandwich. In The Real Frank Zappa Book he wrote this about his culinary preferences which gave birth to the album name: “I like fried spaghetti. I like fried anything. Whatever it is, FRY IT – unless it is a hot dog. Then you stick a fork in it and burn it in the fire on top of the stove (yes, folks, the legendary Super-Delicious Burnt Weeny Sandwich). By the way, the best time to eat fried spaghetti is for breakfast.”

Like the music, the cover art was also a collage, created a couple of years earlier when Zappa collaborated with producer Alan Douglas to develop ads and album covers for a number of records. Douglas had the rights for recordings by Muddy Waters, Richie Havens and others. One of them was Eric Dolphy, for which artist Cal Schenkel assembled a mixed media collage: “It took about a day. I found all these interesting things and it just went together very quickly. But then the project was cancelled and the piece of art just sat there. Then Frank used it for Burnt Weenie.”

The name of the album was first used as the title of an 18-minute film Zappa screened in 1969 featuring music from his album Uncle Meat. It was aired in April of that year on KQED TV as part of their Dilexi Series.

The album’s centerpiece ‘The Little House I Used to Live In’ was a musical collage painstakingly edited from various studio recordings and a live performance at Royal Albert Hall in London in June 1969. At the time it was recorded the intended name for this piece of music was ‘Return of The Hunch-Back Duke’. When Zappa was asked in July 1969 what type of music is he into, he said, ‘Electric chamber music.’

The Mothers of Invention at Royal Albert Hall 1969: Bunk Gardner, Art Tripp, Don Preston, Motorhead, Roy Estrada, Frank Zappa, Jimmy Carl Black, Ian Underwood, Buzz Gardner

The track includes an excellent and extended violin solo by Don “Sugarcane” Harris, a pioneer of amplified violin in music. He first performed with Frank Zappa on the album Hot Rats, playing on two tunes including the classic ‘Willie the Pimp’. Zappa said about the gifted violin player: “To me, he was a legend. I had records he made in high school. Soul Motion, a favorite of mine, had a mean-ass blues violin solo. While making the Hot Rats LP, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could find that guy and put him on the album?’ Since Johnny Otis was a DJ from that period in music, I called him. He found Harris in jail—he was in on a drug bust—and we bailed him out.”

DownBeat magazine, in its review of the album in June 1970, raved about the musical accomplishment of the album and made this note: “It may well be that in the year 2000 (we should live so long), the Mothers’ music will be considered the highest level of music attained during the present period.” Pretty good prediction.

On May 15, 1970 Frank Zappa was able to realize one of his musical dreams –his music being performed by a respectable classical orchestra and conductor. In 1969 Zappa participated in a KPFK radio panel discussion that also included L.A. Philharmonic music director and conductor Zubin Mehta, Philharmonic manager Ernest Fleischmann and film composer David Raksin, after which Mehta commissioned Zappa to write a piece of music for the Philharmonic’s 1971 season. Zappa had something else in mind: “I’ve been writing for three years sketches and material that were actually completed on the road or in motels, for one reason or another, and then the final orchestration was done in my house over about three months.” Zappa found a suitable name for this composition: “It’s called 200 Motels because all the sketches were done either in airports, or in the hotel room, or on the planes, or just traveling around. So it’s like a musical diary.” Why 200? “Based on an estimate of the number of gigs we played in the first five years—forty jobs per year?”

Frank Zappa, Zubin Mehta and Ernest Fleischmann

The performance was staged at Pauley Pavilion in UCLA, a basketball dome with a capacity of seating 11,000 people. The full L.A. Philharmonic orchestra, with additional players needed to perform the score, plus a newly organized Mothers of Invention participated in the concert. Zappa was quite pleased with the musicians on stage, saying in an interview a week ahead of the show: “Emil Richards is joining the percussion section. I’ve got to go over to his house because he’s got that exotic collection of gongs and weirdness. John Rotella is going to be playing the baritone and bass sax parts, and Ernie Watts is playing the alto and tenor part of the orchestra.” And last but not least, a famed future member of Zappa’s band: “I’ve got one more extra added attraction—do you know George Duke? He’s going to be playing the celeste and electric piano part with the orchestra. I like his playing very much.”

The program also included the work Intégrales by one of Zappa’s musical heroes, composer Edgard Varèse. In his book ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, he tells the story of spending his 15th birthday allowance on a long distance call to talk to the composer.

Just before the concert started, Zubin Mehta, realizing that the overwhelming majority of the audience are long haired youth coming to see Frank Zappa, grabbed the microphone: “I want to correct one misconception. Anyone who thinks he’s come to hear a rock concert is mistaken. You are all trapped here under the pretext of hearing rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t want any misconceptions—especially with our older patrons. 200 Motels will be a little rock ‘n’ roll but it’s absolutely contemporary music.”

Mehta was all respect when it came to Zappa. On June 1st, two weeks after the performance, he told Time magazine: “Most rock groups could not do this sort of thing because they cannot read music. Frank Zappa, on the other hand, is one of the few rock musicians who knows my language.”

The same opinion was not shared between most of the classical and rock musicians on stage. Mothers’ bassist Jeff Simmons said of the orchestra: “Those dudes are really out of it, man. It’s like working with people from another planet.”

To close the performance Zappa and the Mothers played the piece King Kong as an encore. He invited any members of the orchestra who were willing, to come up on stage. Some of the younger members of the Philharmonic complied. Zappa proceeded: “When I go like this, horn players pick any note at random, attack it and swell it up. It’s a very simple melody. Key of E-flat minor for as long as you can take it.”

Zappa wanted to record the performance, but the cost was prohibitive. The only surviving tape was taken from the audience and circled around as a bootleg.

The Mothers of Invention:

Frank Zappa—guitar, vocals

Ray Collins—vocals

Don Preston—keyboards

Ian Underwood—alto sax

Motorhead—baritone sax

Jeff Simmons—bass, vocals

Billy Mundi—drums

Aynsley Dunbar—drums

L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta, including:

Kurt Reher—cello

Roger Bobo—tuba

Mario Guarneri—trumpet

Michele Zukovsky—clarinet

William Kraft—percussion

Mickey Nadel—bass


George Duke—piano and celeste

Ernie Watts—alto and tenor sax

Johnny Rotella—baritone and bass sax

Emil Richards—percussion

Rolling Stone magazine, severely critical of other attempts to integrate rock acts with classical orchestras, including performances by The Nice and Deep Purple, complimented Frank Zappa for his ability to command the ‘suffocating old toads’: “Mehta and the Philharmonic were simply new lab toys for his mad genius and they became better people for it.”

George Duke and King Kong are our connection to the next musical project. Back in 1969, around the time Frank Zappa recorded his classic album Hot Rats, he made an important musical connection with a French violin player. Legendary Pacific Jazz label founder and producer Richard Bock: “I’d heard more and more about Frank Zappa in jazz circles. Then Frank played me some of the Hot Rats album, which he was still working on. It was hard to pigeonhole; just fascinating instrumental music.” Bock saw the potential of this music to fit the talents of his recent addition to the Pacific Jazz roster, Jean-Luc Ponty. Long story short, Ponty joined the recording session of Hot Rats and played violin on one track, ‘It Must Be a Camel’.

Jean-Luc Ponty with Frank Zappa

At that time Ponty was playing clubs around Los Angeles with George Duke, who picks up the story: “I was working with my trio with Jean-Luc Ponty in a small rock club in Los Angeles called Thee Experience on Sunset Boulevard, and Frank Zappa came in. I was steeped in jazz so I didn’t know who Frank was, but I knew this could be a turning point in my life so I played a Fender Rhodes piano with my feet, my head, anything I could come up with. And Frank kind of liked it. He wanted to do an album with Jean-Luc, who said, ‘I’ll do it if I can bring my piano player,’ ‘cos Jean-Luc wanted somebody from the jazz world with him.” The resulting album was ‘King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa’, recorded in October 1969 and released in May 1970 on Richard Bock’s label World Pacific.

Jean-Luc Ponty recalls meeting Zappa to discuss the album: “We went to Zappa’s house and I remember very well the cultural shock: at that time, in Europe, even the Beatles had trimmed half long hair. Here everybody sported ponytails and kids were running around the house at 1 AM. When we played him the live recording George Duke and I had recently done for him, his reaction was: ‘Whoa! I can’t play with those guys. They are too great for me!’ But when he understood he would write music and produce the session, he agreed.”

Zappa did not take long and after two weeks had completed the scores for the album. He invited some of LA’s finest studio musicians, including Ernie Watts, Wilton Felder and John Guerin. Ponty remembers the challenging recording sessions: “I must admit that at the time I didn’t really understand what was happening musically during this recording, but it opened my ears to a type of music that I wasn’t listening to at the time.”

Ponty, who would join Zappa’s band a few years later, said of Frank Zappa in a 1977 interview: “I knew Zappa wasn’t into easy music, that he did serious work. He was interested in jazz and above all in contemporary classical music. He was very interested by my mix of a classical background and the ability to improvise.”

King Kong back cover photographs

The album includes a long and complex composition called ‘Music for Electric Violin and Low-Budget Orchestra’. Leonard Feather described it in the original sleeve notes: “Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra (possibly Zappa decided on this title after asking for 97 musicians and winding up with eleven men and a conductor) illustrates not only his mastery of composition and orchestration, but also of transition. It moves with almost subliminal subtlety through various tempos, meters, moods and idioms. Throughout its multi-textured duration, from the opening bassoon figure to the demonic 7/8 violin passages at the end, this validity is retained and sustained.”

Excellent bass player Buell Neidlinger, who played with Cecil Taylor and Gil Evans in the 1950s, joined the recording of this track. He was playing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the time of the recording, but Zappa observed, “I had to fly him out here—he’s the only man I can think of who can play the bass part on the long piece.”

Jean-Luc Ponty – electric violin, baritone violectra

Ernie Watts – alto saxophone, tenor saxophone

Ian Underwood – tenor saxophone, orchestra conductor

Frank Zappa – electric guitar

George Duke – electric piano, acoustic piano

Gene Estes – vibraphone, percussion

Buell Neidlinger – double bass

Wilton Felder – Fender Precision electric bass

John Guerin – drums

Arthur Dyer Tripp III – drums

Gene Cipriano – oboe, English horn

Donald Christlieb – bassoon

Vincent DeRosa – descant recorder, French horn, descant

Arthur Maebe – French horn, tuba

Jonathan Meyer – flute

Milton Thomas – viola

Harold Bemko – cello

Rolling Stone magazine raved about the album in its August 1970 review, comparing Zappa’s re-examination of his earlier pieces to that of Charles Mingus’. It concludes with this paragraph: “The material, and in particular the arrangements, are as forward-looking and perfectly-realized as all but the very best of current jazz recordings, and Ponty’s solos are brilliant in their definition, structure and swing.”

In part 2 of this article we will review the albums Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Chunga’s Revenge and the 1970 incarnation of The Mothers of Invention.

Categories: A Year in Music

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