1971, Part 2

Fire and Chains


1971 wasa busy year, and once Frank was home there was no time to dwell on the eventsback in London. 200 Motels had to be dealt with - the filmitself, and a soundtrack album - and a new tour, taking in North America in thesummer and Europe at the end of the year.

200 Motels was finished and ready for release in the autumn,although, on a slightly downbeat note, according to Dominique Chevalier inViva! Zappa (p.18) 'United Artists were suspicious of the film'scontents and at first it was only shown in four cities, Los Angeles, Boston,Ann Arbor and Atlanta, before general release in January 1972'; and the NorthAmerican tour proceeded satisfactorily. Recordings from concerts at theFillmore East, New York, in June and the Pauley Pavilion at UCLA in Augustfeatured on a pair of live albums, Live at the Fillmore East andJust Another Band from L.A. Extracts from one of the Fillmoreshows which featured guests John Lennon and Yoko Ono were also released onLennon's album Sometime in New York City, which came out early thefollowing year.. (Zappa's own version of this collaboration did not surfaceuntil the release of the CD Playground Psychotics precisely 20years later).

The Fillmore album, incidentally - which was quite a popular one - producedmy favourite album review of all time, in the weekly pop paper Disc andMusic Echo. The opening paragraph, you must agree, is hard to beat:

"Masochism is not one of my favourite indulgences, and when Isaid last week that I'd not heard the Mothers since their very first trendy LPthe last thing I expected was to be landed with this, undoubtedly the biggestwaste of time, money, wax, instruments and hall hire in the history of modernmusic!"
[David Hughes, 21 Aug 1971]

Good, eh? My second favourite part is this one:

"I listen to, and write about music because I enjoy it, and Ipride myself in being able to derive enjoyment from every type of music. Butthis is just not music. It is simply (with two exceptions I will mentionlater) nearly 45 minutes of aimless jibberish, linked by occasionalinstrumental bursts from Zappa's guitar or the keyboards of Ian Underwood andBob Harris.

The tracks are named individually but all roll into one long noise, much ofit vulgar, most of it spoken or screamed by grown men! It has no musical meritand no artistic merit."
[ibid.]

(The two exceptions, of course, were Happy Together andTears Began to Fall). I don't know if Frank ever saw thisparticular review. If so, he may not have laughed as much as I did, but it mayhave contributed in some small way to his view of this country and our critics.

But I digress. The tour moved on to Europe, the plan being to start inScandinavia, move on to Germany, Holland and Austria, returning westwardsthrough Switzerland, France and Belgium to Britain, where four shows werearranged on two nights at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London,followed by further British gigs in Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow,Manchester and Sheffield. Quite a substantial British tour, in fact.

The outward leg of the tour was fine, and it was not until heading backtowards Britain that disaster struck. It was Saturday, December 4th, atMontreux, Switzerland, where the Mothers were playing the lakeside Casino, whenit happened. Right in the middle of Don Preston's synth solo in KingKong. This is how many of us read about it in the weeklySounds:

Zappa flees fire on stage

- BUT BRITISH DATES GO ON

FRANK ZAPPA'S concerts in Britain will go ahead despite the band losing alltheir equipment, worth 25,000, in a massive fire which swept through thefamous Casino in Montreux in Switzerland where they were appearing at theweekend.

Zappa and the group flew into Britain this week, and with the assistance oftour promoters Fred Bannister promotions, are engaged in a desperate search tofind suitable replacements for the burned out equipment. Fortunately much ofit was British made. [?]

After Saturday's disastrous fire, Zappa's gigs in Lyons, Paris and Brusselswere cancelled in a bid to salvage other dates on the European tour.

Zappa was more than mid-way through the concert and about to begin aninstrumental called King Kong when the fire struck. It began onlyas a small blaze but as it quickly spread after part of the ceiling collapsed,the band and audience had to flee the hall.

Dick Barber, American management representative for the band, who was at theCasino, told Sounds that Zappa stayed very cool and told theaudience of over 2,000 that they must leave the hall.

In the fire the group lost passports and other personal possessions as wellas their equipment which included amplification, instruments and lighting.

They will be rehearsing with new equipment in this country later on in theweek before appearing at the Rainbow Theatre on Friday and Saturday.
[11Dec 1971]

It was a front-page story in the Melody Maker, under theheadline "Frank's hot gig" and a big - almost full-page - picture of Frank onstage.

Frank's own version of the story in The Real Frank Zappa Book(pp.112-113) is a little more detailed.

As to how the fire started, he says: "Somebody in the audience had a bottlerocket or a Roman candle and fired it into the ceiling, at which point therattan covering started to burn (other versions of the story claim the blazewas the result of faulty wiring)."

If the rocket theory is correct, this was quite ironic:

"As a young boy I was fascinated by the aesthetics offireworks."
[Air Sculpture, BBC Radio 1, 20 Nov 94. Interviewdate unknown]

"I spent my recreational hours . . . making homemade explosives fromwhatever ingredients I could find."
[The Real Frank ZappaBook, p.25]

I don't know how much of their equipment was 'British made', but Frankexplains that amongst the instruments lost were a 'customized Fender Rhodespiano, and other specialized synthesizer gear we couldn't buy off a shelf inSwitzerland.' His guitar, too, was gone. According to Ben Watson in TheNegative Dialectics of Poodle Play (p.192) 'a solitary cowbell wasrescued from the cinders.'

By all accounts, there was a lot of confusion as the fire took hold:

"The owners had chained shut the exit doors because there werepeople still trying to get in, so one of the roadies smashed a large plateglass window to enable the audience to escape. The auditorium filled withsmoke and shortly after the band had to escape through the backstage tunnel,the heating system exploded, blowing several people through the window. No onewas killed."
[Frank Zappa - A Visual Documentary by Miles,p.55]

Also there that night, doing some recording, the group Deep Purple were soimpressed by the sight that they penned the song Smoke on theWater to commemorate the event. The song's riff is so much morewell-known than the lyrics, it is often forgotten that it is one of the fewrock numbers to mention Frank by name:

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile,
We didn't have much time.

Frank Zappaand the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with aflare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the Water,
A firein the sky,
Smoke on the Water

[Smoke on the Water by DeepPurple (Paice/Glover/Gillan/Lord/Blackmore)]

So the Mothers arrived, shocked and equipment-less in London. Theyobtained replacement instruments and amplifiers, and prepared for the importantshows at the Rainbow. Their appearances were, as usual, keenly anticipated -the BBC's rock programme The Old Grey Whistle Test broadcast a'Zappa Special' on November 16th, in preparation; the four shows were sold out. I personally was disappointed, as I couldn't get a ticket. In the event I wasnot so upset; Frank must have wished he'd never made the effort to get here.

Surely, things couldn't get any worse? They could, and - as at thebeginning of the year - it happened in London.

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