1971, Part 1
Frank had, atbest, mixed feelings about Britain and the British. In The Real FrankZappa Book he refers to our country as "a miserable little island offthe coast of France" (p.201), and to the impression that the Americans might be" . . . subhuman . . . or almost British." (p.160).
The British, he also said, with heavy irony, "have earned a special place inmy heart." [The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.119]
But then he was equally dismissive at various times of the French, theGermans and the Americans, and the following exchange did once occur in a radiointerview:
Interviewer: "so . . . the Britishhaven't been too popular with you ever since , as a nation - as anattitude. . ?"
FZ: "Let me just make a distinctionnow between the Crown and her loyal subjects. . ."
[BBC, Radio 1,Sept 1991. Interviewer: Nicky Campbell]
This seems,under the circumstances, more than fair!
The reasons for his feelings about Britain are many, but, in all honesty, hehad good reason to hate the place: two separate incidents at either end of 1971caused him more pain and anguish - physical, mental and financial - than aworking musician has a right to expect.
This terrible year is the subject of the following article, and includes,sandwiched between the two British disasters, a third horror story, whichactually occurred elsewhere in Europe, but set the seal on what must have beenthe worst time you can have on the road.
It all began when Frank and the Mothers arrived in England in January '71 tomake a film, 200 Motels. As well as performances by the Mothers,the film was to feature an orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, who needed to berehearsed. Rehearsal for a recording session, Frank tells us in TheReal Frank Zappa Book (p.119), is either impossible or prohibitivelyexpensive, but rehearsal for a concert is more reasonable. As a result,rehearsals were arranged, culminating in a one-off concert which was to takeplace at London's prestigious Royal Albert Hall after filming was completed.(This method of ensuring adequate rehearsal without breaking the bank was usedagain when a single concert was given at the Barbican, London, in January '83,before the recording of the London Symphony Orchestra albums).
In fact, the reasonable cost of the orchestra was one of the main reasonsZappa had chosen to do 200 Motels in Britain:
FZ: "I would like to have more money for thebudget, but considering the amount that it is, we'll be able to do it. It'sgoing to be tight."
Interviewer: "Is that why you're shooting in England?"
FZ: "Yes. Well, that's one of the reasons. I figured itwould be fun to do it over there. The main enticement was the cost of theorchestra. We got the Royal Philharmonic for a thousand pounds a session."
Interviewer: "Which is cheap? . . ."
FZ: "For a hundred men! You ain't kidding . . ."
[Frank Zappa - A Visual Documentary, by Miles, p.52.Interviewer: Miles]
So the Albert Hall concert was arranged for February 8th, and was eagerlyanticipated by the public and the music press. It was announced thus in theweekly music paper Melody Maker:
ZAPPA: LONDON CONCERT AS PREVIEW TO HIS FILM
FRANK ZAPPA is to present live excerpts from hisfilm 200 Motels during a concert at London Royal Albert Hall onMonday, February 8. The Mothers of Invention and a 90-piece orchestra join himfor the event, which is in the nature of a specially-staged preview of themovie. Revealing plans for the concert, Zappa said: "We shall be performingthe soundtrack music and re-enacting parts of the film."
Zappa added thatthe seats on the ground floor of the Albert Hall will be removed to accommodatethe orchestra. The audience will occupy the upper floors, terraces and boxesonly.
The movie is already in rehearsal and shooting commences the day afterthe concert. A soundtrack album of the film will, according to Zappa, bereleased by United Artists who are financing the movie - and not by his regularlabel, Reprise.
Although this article states that shooting was to commence the dayafter the concert (and so does Michael Gray in Mother! is theStory of Frank Zappa, p.104), Ben Watson is adamant that the filmingcame first (The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, p.188). TonyPalmer, the 'visual director', in a 1971 article in the Observercolour supplement, tells us the following: "As the idea for the film expanded(in Zappa's mind) so, in direct proportion, the time available for shootingdiminished (in Jerry Good [the producer] 's mind). Eventually, it was decidedthat five days' rehearsal and five days' filming would have to suffice"; but hedoesn't give the dates. Although he says, "Later, Zappa was to be accused bythe Albert Hall of 'hiding his filth behind the facade of the RoyalPhilharmonic Orchestra'," he appears to be talking from the perspective of thepreparations, before both filming and concert were due to take place.
However, the Mothers had played at the Royal Albert Hall before - twice, infact: earlier incarnations of the group had appeared there in September '67,and again in June '69. In between they had been back in London at the moremodern, but largely classical-oriented and scarcely less prestigious RoyalFestival Hall in October '68. The present line-up had, just a couple of monthspreviously, in November '70, been in town at the Coliseum, home of the EnglishNational Opera.
Frank gave interviews to the press when he arrived. Press handouts whichpreceded him evidently prompted reporters to quiz him on the subject ofcensorship. When asked, he replied:
"At the beginning there were all kinds of potential problems wethought we may face, but they haven't turned up yet." After a time he added:"Censorship may be okay for other people, but I don't like it. I don't likeworking under someone else's watchful eye."
[Melody Maker, 16Jan 71]
What happened next was a nasty shock to all; it was an important news event,the lead story in the London daily, the Evening News, whoseheadline that night was:
Eleventh hour shock for 4,400fans
ALBERT HALL BANS POP GROUPCONCERT
by James Green
In a shockannouncement today, Royal Albert Hall officials cancelled tonight's pop concertstarring one of the world's top groups, the Mothers of Invention, and the RoyalPhilharmonic Orchestra.
Officials have refused to allow the concert to goon:
- Because of the contents of the musical programme, and
- Becauseassurances were wanted about audience behaviour.
Today's cancellationis going to stun 4,400 fans some of whom have paid up to £2 2s [£2.10] fortickets.
The Mothers of Invention are a six-strong pop group led byguitarist Frank Zappa.
They have just completed a Pinewood picture called200 Motels, which is about the life of a pop group on tour.
The story contains references to drugs andgroupie girls - the girl fans who follow the musicians from town to town.
The Albert Hall was booked in December and the idea was to play the film'smusical score and some of the numbers.
That would have involved the Mothers,about 110 members of the Royal Philharmonic, and 20 men and women of the King'sSingers Chorus.
Said an Albert Hall spokesman today:
"The concert isdefinitely off. We have cancelled it. We have been demanding certainassurances and copies of the content of the programme.
"We did not receivethe assurances. We heard rumours about the programme content. The programmecontent was not agreeable to us."
What do they mean?
Mr Herb Cohen, manager of the group,could hardly believe the news and said that the group, the orchestra and thesingers had contracts and intended attending at the planned rehearsal time.
"What do they mean 'audience behaviour'?" he asked. "We've played at theAlbert Hall before, we gave two packed concerts at the London Coliseumrecently, and we've performed in over 60 theatres. The audience always behavedwell.
"This must be the first time a classical orchestra has ever beenturned away from a concert they were due to give.
"We all have contracts andsomebody will have to take responsibility. The music ranged from classical topop and jazz. We did something similar when we performed with the Los AngelesSymphony Orchestra.
"This was to have been a musical preview of the film,and I must make it clear we are anti-drugs in the story and groupies areconsidered as a social phenomenon.
'Lyrics too obscene'
"It would have been 75 per cent orchestral, plus six or seven individualsongs with lyrics. I gave the Albert Hall a copy of the lyrics and they saidthey were too obscene.
"I offered to delete anything that they felt gaveoffence. Revised lyrics were written and sent - but it seems they are againstthe whole concert and concept.
"The word 'crap' came out. It doesn't meanthe same in America. There were also a few four-letter words we dropped. Ifeel they weren't against the words so much as anti-groups."
More details of what had been going on appeared in the Timesthe next morning:
Obscenity in banned pop show is denied
by Peter Waymark
The Albert Hall management cancelled a popconcert due to have been held last night, on the ground that some of the songswere 'objectionable.'
More than 4,000 tickets had been sold for the event,which was to have featured the Mothers of Invention rock group, The RoyalPhilharmonic Orchestra, and a chorus of 20.
The seven-man group, led by theguitarist Frank Zappa, have just finished making a film, 200Motels, with the RPO and the chorus at Pinewood. The concert wasarranged to preview the music and some of the songs from the film. It is aboutthe life of a pop group on tour.
Miss Marion Herrod, secretary and lettingsmanager of the Albert Hall, said that after the concert was booked it wassuggested to them that some of the material might be offensive.
They decidedon January 18 to ask for a copy of the libretto, but despite further requestsit did not arrive until last Friday afternoon.
"We read it, decided thatmany people would be offended, and because time was so short asked for arevised version by the next morning." Miss Herrod said. "This was notforthcoming, so we had no alternative but to cancel the concert."
MissHerrod declined to specify what they had found objectionable, but said, "Therewere words I did not want to be spoken in the Albert Hall," and referred to the'general trend' of some songs.
The hall management had also asked forassurances about audience behaviour, although that was a secondary issue. MissHerrod could not recall a concert being cancelled before in such circumstances.
Mr Zappa, who wrote the music and songs for 200 Motels, deniedyesterday that any of it was obscene. He said the Albert Hall had refused toput forward any specific objections.
He thought they had been upset by anumber called Penis Dimension and a line in a song which ran:'What kind of girl wears a brassiere to a pop festival?'
Mr Zappa's manager,Mr Herb Cohen, said that most of the songs had been performed in public before.They had always been prepared to delete any number objected to, but heunderstood that the Albert Hall was against the concept of the concert as awhole.
The event had cost about £5,000 to put on and he intended to takelegal action to recover the money.
The Royal Philharmonic said they hadaccepted the contract for the film and the concert, which was worth £20,000,purely to play music. "If we had been required to do anything we consideredobscene we would not have taken part," they added.
Two of the orchestra'strumpet players, however, decided not to continue with the project after thefirst rehearsal three weeks ago. Mr John Wilbraham said: "The whole thingrevolted me. I am a person pretty much in the public eye and I did not think Icould play a trumpet concerto one night and do this the next." He said hiscolleague, Mr Ray Allen, was a practising Salvationist and "it was all too muchfor him."
Mr Zappa and his group, with the RPO and members of the chorusarrived at the Albert Hall at lunchtime yesterday for rehearsals as planned. MrZappa said no one had told them officially that the concert was off.
Anotice on the door of the artists' entrance stated: 'Rehearsal and concerttonight cancelled.' Albert Hall staff were instructed to admit no one to thebuilding.
People who had booked for the concert were able to obtain refunds.
Michael Wale writes: - Excerpts from Mr Zappa's score tohis film 200 Motels were performed at the London Coliseum onNovember 29, when the group gave two performances to full houses.
It was atypical Zappa evening, with jugglers, acrobats, performing dogs and conjurorspreceeding his appearance on stage, and included the number PenisDimensions.
This is the latest example of the edgy relationshipbetween the world of pop and the Albert Hall. Three weeks ago the Americangroup Grand Funk Railroad were banned from playing there again.
Chuck Berryand other rock and roll acts have suffered a similar fate; the Albert Hall hasnot been able to come to terms with the boisterousness of a young rockaudience.
So, there it was: a newsworthy event, dramatically - but not unfairly -reported, a disgruntled Frank and 4,000 disappointed fans. It was hard toimagine any of the 4,000 as at risk of being offended by what they would haveheard!
Of course, as the Times article suggests, Frank had lost money,having already set up and advertised the show; but potentially it could be muchworse - the Royal Philharmonic had been paid to rehearse for a concert: if theconcert never took place Frank might be liable to pay substantially higher feesto them for rehearsing for the film recording only. On the face of it, Frankand Herb had a strong case for loss of earnings, and would shortly begin legalaction against the Albert Hall through the British courts.
The magazine Time Out criticized the apathy of the audiencecollecting their refunds and printed a 'Penis Dimension' badge to wear at thenext Albert Hall concert. [21 Feb 71, quoted in The Negative Dialecticsof Poodle Play, Ben Watson, p.188]
However, that wasn't the end of the matter. Elsewhere in the press thepurely contractual aspects of events took second place to the allegations ofobscenity. On that same morning, the day after the cancelled concert, theDaily Telegraph leader [the column which represents the views ofthe newspaper itself] contained the following, under the astonishingheadline
NO MUCK AT THE ALBERT HALL
NOBODY WILL MUCH REGRET the cancellation last night of a "concert"in the Albert Hall by the hall's authorities. Two trumpeters of the RoyalPhilharmonic Orchestra let it be known that, in the vernacular, they didn'twant to know; the authorities of the hall thought that the concert was going tobe obscene. Mr ZAPPA and his group the "Mothers of Invention" have acquired areputation in the United States for temporarily popular statements of theobvious, which makes them neither better nor worse than the medievaljongleurs.
On a commercial level, much of the soi-disantart of the stage, the screen (particularly the screen), and to a lesser extentpopular music, seems almost wholly preoccupied with the visceral, anal andgenital functions of the human being. Such "art" finds its audiences skilfullycultivated by Wardour Street: there is money in muck. There always has been,and there have always been people who are willing to supply this kind ofstimulation at a price. All that has happened in the United States and Europein the past few years is that relaxed censorship has made the demand, and theease of supply, overt rather than covert. It has happened in London before,notable in the reign of Charles II [17th Century], and also in the Berlin ofthe Weimar republic [1930's]. Some art was produced in these societies, thoughnot much. The urge to shock and to scandalise is never far below the surfaceof some aspiring artists. But the law of diminishing returns applies here,too, and with special force to those who cannot recognise that art demands ofits disciples a stern discipline.
Phew! Strong stuff! The Daily Telegraph has always had areputation for being rather 'stuffy', but this extraordinary and unexpectedoutburst added a new dimension to the cancellation of the show. (Note thecondescension of the inverted commas round the word concert!).
As an aside, I might say that this article betrayed a more or less totalignorance of Frank, his work and his working methods. Discipline! Don't talkto ex-Mothers about Zappa and discipline! Jeff Simmons, in fact, had left thegroup at precisely this time - just before the filming of 200Motels began - for at least partly this reason, and was mocked for it inthe animated section of the film called Dental Hygiene Dilemma.When I read the article's concluding remarks I was struck by the similarity ofthe wording to the scene where Jeff is seduced into leaving the group by hisBad Conscience:
Jeff: In this group all I get to do is playZappa's comedy music . . . The stuff he makes me do is always off the wall.
Bad Conscience: That's why it would be best to quit hisstern employ.
Jeff: And quit the group!
Bad Conscience: You'll make it big
Jeff: That's right.
Bad Conscience: Of course!
Jeff: And then I won't be small!
[Dental HygieneDilemma by Frank Zappa]
And then again in succeeding years, when the subject of 'Discipline' croppedup regularly in interviews:
"Nothing can take the place of DISCIPLINE, and that's the firstthing that any musician must learn when they come into the group: discipline.I'm not talking about punishment, just respect for working together.
. . .Because if you're going to make a record or go on tour you've got to begin byworking hard, rehearsing, pushing back your limits. If you can't do that onyour own, someone's got to make you. That's all I do. I ask musicians to dostuff they've never had occasion to do before; and if they want to stay in thegroup they've got to succeed at it. That's how I work.
After that, whenthey leave, they say to themselves 'Free at last, no discipline, at last I'mgoing to be wonderful again!' And what happens? They're wonderful and they donothing. Because they haven't got anyone to urge them on and bring them outany more. Most of them stop developing when they leave the group."
[Rock et Folk, June 1980, translated by the author]
"A guy who leaves the band and then complains about the discipline . . .he's maybe regretting the fact that he's not in the band any more and so howelse is he gonna get his name in the paper than to say I'm a dictator? Well,fact of the matter is, I am the dictator - I'm the guy whosigns the checks. I'm also the guy who has to take responsibility foreverything that goes wrong and along with that I have the responsibility formaking sure the band delivers a good performance to the audience that's boughta ticket."
[The Frank Zappa Interview Picture Disk #1, 1984,interviewer unknown; transcribed by Robert Moore]
But, back to the story: Frank had unwittingly unleashed against himself thereactionary forces of what in those days we called the 'Establishment': theEstablishment which had, a few years before in the mid-60s, delighted in acampaign of drug-busts against high-profile pop stars such as Mick Jagger,Keith Richard, George Harrison and John Lennon.
A lively correspondence in the press ensued. The chairman of the RoyalPhilharmonic wrote to the Telegraph, saying:
". . .During the past eighteen months the RPO has given over 200 concerts of whichonly two have been with a pop group. The reason why we did so was because wefelt the need to 'build a bridge' between those young people who may never haveseen a full-scale symphony orchestra at work and the more 'conventional'concert audience.
The two groups with whom we have appeared were led byskilled and talented musicians with a good musical training behind them, andthe works performed have been a serious attempt to link the two media. Theaudience were on both occasions extremely well-behaved and attentivethroughout, and we hope that some of them have since attended our regularseries of concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, Fairfield Hall and elsewhere . .."
[Quoted in Mother! is the Story of Frank Zappa by MichaelGray, p.104]
(The other group with whom the RPO had worked was Deep Purple, when theyperformed and recorded organist Jon Lord's Concerto for Group andOrchestra - also, as it happens, at the Albert Hall. Deep Purple willenter the story again.)
On the other hand, Sir Louis Gluckstein, President of the Royal Albert Hall,wrote to say:
"It is time that a stand was taken against theproduction of what many regard as dreary and inartistic filth for money."
The case against the Albert Hall took four years to come to court. Thestory of what occurred then must be saved for another day, but suffice it tosay that what should have been a straightforward breach of contract case - acivil matter - turned into what Frank himself accurately described as a 'bogusobscenity case' [The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.119]. The judgmentis pithily summed up (by Frank) as follows:
 The material wasnot obscene.
 The Albert Hall had, in fact, breached itscontract. But
 As the Albert Hall is a Royalinstitution, it would be improper for an American musician to prevail in a caselike this, so - Yankee, Go Home.
We had moved on from the 60s by now, but old attitudes still remained, itseemed. Michael Gray concludes his chapter on the case in Mother! is theStory of Frank Zappa thus:
"Zappa lost the case. Anyonewho attended it during the time he was in the witness box would find itpossible only to conclude that what had been on trial was not a matter ofcontracts but of the sub-culture of dissent of the 1960s generation. In otherwords, it was a quiet but clear example of a British political trial."
Indeed, anyone reading the transcripts of the proceedings in the music pressor The Real Frank Zappa Book (in the chapter entitled Drool,Britannia!) is inescapably reminded of the black comedy of the so-called'Oz Trial' a few years before, when the underground paper Oz wasprosecuted for obscenity. Contemporary reports describe the scene exactly asFrank portrays the interior of Court No 7 in the Law Courts in the Strand (". .. dark wood paneling; musty smell; robes; wigs . . . pompous assholes scorningeach other - you get the picture." The Real Frank Zappa Book,p.120). Exactly the same effect was produced by the solemn, frequentlyuncomprehending, recitation in open court of the 'obscene' passages; exactlythe same impression was received of the unbridgable chasm between the be-wiggedjudge and barristers and the 'long-hairs' on the witness stand. But that wasthe decade before, and things were supposed to have changed. Not so.
And so it was that, the filming of 200 Motels duly completed,Frank left these shores and returned to the States, seriously out of pocket andwith his reputation well and truly blackened. And it was still only February.
Go to [Part Two | Go to the [Zappa & Other MusicPage | The MusicPage | andymurkin dotcom Home Page]
Go to the [Zappa & Other MusicPage | The MusicPage | andymurkin dotcom Home Page]