1971, Part 1
Frank had, at best, mixed feelings about Britain and the British. In The Real Frank Zappa Book he refers to our country as "a miserable little island off the 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 in my heart." [The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.119]
But then he was equally dismissive at various times of the French, the Germans and the Americans, and the following exchange did once occur in a radio interview:
Interviewer: "so . . . the British haven't been too popular with you ever since , as a nation - as an attitude. . ?"
FZ: "Let me just make a distinction now 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, he had good reason to hate the place: two separate incidents at either end of 1971 caused him more pain and anguish - physical, mental and financial - than a working 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, which actually occurred elsewhere in Europe, but set the seal on what must have been the worst time you can have on the road.
It all began when Frank and the Mothers arrived in England in January '71 to make a film, 200 Motels. As well as performances by the Mothers, the film was to feature an orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, who needed to be rehearsed. Rehearsal for a recording session, Frank tells us in The Real Frank Zappa Book (p.119), is either impossible or prohibitively expensive, but rehearsal for a concert is more reasonable. As a result, rehearsals were arranged, culminating in a one-off concert which was to take place at London's prestigious Royal Albert Hall after filming was completed. (This method of ensuring adequate rehearsal without breaking the bank was used again 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 reasons Zappa had chosen to do 200 Motels in Britain:
FZ: "I would like to have more money for the budget, but considering the amount that it is, we'll be able to do it. It's going to be tight."
Interviewer: "Is that why you're shooting in England?"
FZ: "Yes. Well, that's one of the reasons. I figured it would be fun to do it over there. The main enticement was the cost of the orchestra. 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 eagerly anticipated by the public and the music press. It was announced thus in the weekly music paper Melody Maker:
ZAPPA: LONDON CONCERT AS PREVIEW TO HIS FILM
FRANK ZAPPA is to present live excerpts from his film 200 Motels during a concert at London Royal Albert Hall on Monday, February 8. The Mothers of Invention and a 90-piece orchestra join him for the event, which is in the nature of a specially-staged preview of the movie. Revealing plans for the concert, Zappa said: "We shall be performing the soundtrack music and re-enacting parts of the film."
Zappa added that the seats on the ground floor of the Albert Hall will be removed to accommodate the orchestra. The audience will occupy the upper floors, terraces and boxes only.
The movie is already in rehearsal and shooting commences the day after the concert. A soundtrack album of the film will, according to Zappa, be released by United Artists who are financing the movie - and not by his regular label, Reprise.
Although this article states that shooting was to commence the day after the concert (and so does Michael Gray in Mother! is the Story of Frank Zappa, p.104), Ben Watson is adamant that the filming came first (The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, p.188). Tony Palmer, the 'visual director', in a 1971 article in the Observer colour supplement, tells us the following: "As the idea for the film expanded (in Zappa's mind) so, in direct proportion, the time available for shooting diminished (in Jerry Good [the producer] 's mind). Eventually, it was decided that five days' rehearsal and five days' filming would have to suffice"; but he doesn't give the dates. Although he says, "Later, Zappa was to be accused by the Albert Hall of 'hiding his filth behind the facade of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra'," he appears to be talking from the perspective of the preparations, before both filming and concert were due to take place.
However, the Mothers had played at the Royal Albert Hall before - twice, in fact: 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 more modern, but largely classical-oriented and scarcely less prestigious Royal Festival Hall in October '68. The present line-up had, just a couple of months previously, in November '70, been in town at the Coliseum, home of the English National Opera.
Frank gave interviews to the press when he arrived. Press handouts which preceded him evidently prompted reporters to quiz him on the subject of censorship. When asked, he replied:
"At the beginning there were all kinds of potential problems we thought 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 like working under someone else's watchful eye."
[Melody Maker, 16 Jan 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, whose headline that night was:
Eleventh hour shock for 4,400 fans
ALBERT HALL BANS POP GROUP CONCERT
by James Green
In a shock announcement today, Royal Albert Hall officials cancelled tonight's pop concert starring one of the world's top groups, the Mothers of Invention, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Officials have refused to allow the concert to go on:
- Because of the contents of the musical programme, and
- Because assurances were wanted about audience behaviour.
Today's cancellation is going to stun 4,400 fans some of whom have paid up to £2 2s [£2.10] for tickets.
The Mothers of Invention are a six-strong pop group led by guitarist Frank Zappa.
They have just completed a Pinewood picture called 200 Motels, which is about the life of a pop group on tour.
The story contains references to drugs and groupie 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's musical 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's Singers Chorus.
Said an Albert Hall spokesman today:
"The concert is definitely off. We have cancelled it. We have been demanding certain assurances and copies of the content of the programme.
"We did not receive the assurances. We heard rumours about the programme content. The programme content 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 the singers had contracts and intended attending at the planned rehearsal time.
"What do they mean 'audience behaviour'?" he asked. "We've played at the Albert Hall before, we gave two packed concerts at the London Coliseum recently, and we've performed in over 60 theatres. The audience always behaved well.
"This must be the first time a classical orchestra has ever been turned away from a concert they were due to give.
"We all have contracts and somebody will have to take responsibility. The music ranged from classical to pop and jazz. We did something similar when we performed with the Los Angeles Symphony 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 are considered as a social phenomenon.
'Lyrics too obscene'
"It would have been 75 per cent orchestral, plus six or seven individual songs with lyrics. I gave the Albert Hall a copy of the lyrics and they said they were too obscene.
"I offered to delete anything that they felt gave offence. Revised lyrics were written and sent - but it seems they are against the whole concert and concept.
"The word 'crap' came out. It doesn't mean the same in America. There were also a few four-letter words we dropped. I feel they weren't against the words so much as anti-groups."
More details of what had been going on appeared in the Times the next morning:
Obscenity in banned pop show is denied
by Peter Waymark
The Albert Hall management cancelled a pop concert due to have been held last night, on the ground that some of the songs were 'objectionable.'
More than 4,000 tickets had been sold for the event, which was to have featured the Mothers of Invention rock group, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and a chorus of 20.
The seven-man group, led by the guitarist Frank Zappa, have just finished making a film, 200 Motels, with the RPO and the chorus at Pinewood. The concert was arranged to preview the music and some of the songs from the film. It is about the life of a pop group on tour.
Miss Marion Herrod, secretary and lettings manager of the Albert Hall, said that after the concert was booked it was suggested to them that some of the material might be offensive.
They decided on January 18 to ask for a copy of the libretto, but despite further requests it did not arrive until last Friday afternoon.
"We read it, decided that many people would be offended, and because time was so short asked for a revised version by the next morning." Miss Herrod said. "This was not forthcoming, so we had no alternative but to cancel the concert."
Miss Herrod declined to specify what they had found objectionable, but said, "There were 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 for assurances about audience behaviour, although that was a secondary issue. Miss Herrod could not recall a concert being cancelled before in such circumstances.
Mr Zappa, who wrote the music and songs for 200 Motels, denied yesterday that any of it was obscene. He said the Albert Hall had refused to put forward any specific objections.
He thought they had been upset by a number 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 he understood that the Albert Hall was against the concept of the concert as a whole.
The event had cost about £5,000 to put on and he intended to take legal action to recover the money.
The Royal Philharmonic said they had accepted 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 considered obscene we would not have taken part," they added.
Two of the orchestra's trumpet players, however, decided not to continue with the project after the first rehearsal three weeks ago. Mr John Wilbraham said: "The whole thing revolted me. I am a person pretty much in the public eye and I did not think I could play a trumpet concerto one night and do this the next." He said his colleague, Mr Ray Allen, was a practising Salvationist and "it was all too much for him."
Mr Zappa and his group, with the RPO and members of the chorus arrived at the Albert Hall at lunchtime yesterday for rehearsals as planned. Mr Zappa said no one had told them officially that the concert was off.
A notice on the door of the artists' entrance stated: 'Rehearsal and concert tonight cancelled.' Albert Hall staff were instructed to admit no one to the building.
People who had booked for the concert were able to obtain refunds.
Michael Wale writes: - Excerpts from Mr Zappa's score to his film 200 Motels were performed at the London Coliseum on November 29, when the group gave two performances to full houses.
It was a typical Zappa evening, with jugglers, acrobats, performing dogs and conjurors preceeding his appearance on stage, and included the number Penis Dimensions.
This is the latest example of the edgy relationship between the world of pop and the Albert Hall. Three weeks ago the American group Grand Funk Railroad were banned from playing there again.
Chuck Berry and other rock and roll acts have suffered a similar fate; the Albert Hall has not been able to come to terms with the boisterousness of a young rock audience.
So, there it was: a newsworthy event, dramatically - but not unfairly - reported, a disgruntled Frank and 4,000 disappointed fans. It was hard to imagine any of the 4,000 as at risk of being offended by what they would have heard!
Of course, as the Times article suggests, Frank had lost money, having already set up and advertised the show; but potentially it could be much worse - the Royal Philharmonic had been paid to rehearse for a concert: if the concert never took place Frank might be liable to pay substantially higher fees to them for rehearsing for the film recording only. On the face of it, Frank and Herb had a strong case for loss of earnings, and would shortly begin legal action against the Albert Hall through the British courts.
The magazine Time Out criticized the apathy of the audience collecting their refunds and printed a 'Penis Dimension' badge to wear at the next Albert Hall concert. [21 Feb 71, quoted in The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, Ben Watson, p.188]
However, that wasn't the end of the matter. Elsewhere in the press the purely contractual aspects of events took second place to the allegations of obscenity. On that same morning, the day after the cancelled concert, the Daily Telegraph leader [the column which represents the views of the newspaper itself] contained the following, under the astonishing headline
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 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra let it be known that, in the vernacular, they didn't want to know; the authorities of the hall thought that the concert was going to be obscene. Mr ZAPPA and his group the "Mothers of Invention" have acquired a reputation in the United States for temporarily popular statements of the obvious, which makes them neither better nor worse than the medieval jongleurs.
On a commercial level, much of the soi-disant art of the stage, the screen (particularly the screen), and to a lesser extent popular music, seems almost wholly preoccupied with the visceral, anal and genital functions of the human being. Such "art" finds its audiences skilfully cultivated 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 of stimulation at a price. All that has happened in the United States and Europe in the past few years is that relaxed censorship has made the demand, and the ease 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 of the Weimar republic [1930's]. Some art was produced in these societies, though not much. The urge to shock and to scandalise is never far below the surface of some aspiring artists. But the law of diminishing returns applies here, too, and with special force to those who cannot recognise that art demands of its disciples a stern discipline.
Phew! Strong stuff! The Daily Telegraph has always had a reputation for being rather 'stuffy', but this extraordinary and unexpected outburst added a new dimension to the cancellation of the show. (Note the condescension of the inverted commas round the word concert!).
As an aside, I might say that this article betrayed a more or less total ignorance of Frank, his work and his working methods. Discipline! Don't talk to ex-Mothers about Zappa and discipline! Jeff Simmons, in fact, had left the group at precisely this time - just before the filming of 200 Motels began - for at least partly this reason, and was mocked for it in the animated section of the film called Dental Hygiene Dilemma. When I read the article's concluding remarks I was struck by the similarity of the wording to the scene where Jeff is seduced into leaving the group by his Bad Conscience:
Jeff: In this group all I get to do is play Zappa'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 his stern 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 Hygiene Dilemma by Frank Zappa]
And then again in succeeding years, when the subject of 'Discipline' cropped up regularly in interviews:
"Nothing can take the place of DISCIPLINE, and that's the first thing 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 by working hard, rehearsing, pushing back your limits. If you can't do that on your own, someone's got to make you. That's all I do. I ask musicians to do stuff they've never had occasion to do before; and if they want to stay in the group they've got to succeed at it. That's how I work.
After that, when they leave, they say to themselves 'Free at last, no discipline, at last I'm going to be wonderful again!' And what happens? They're wonderful and they do nothing. Because they haven't got anyone to urge them on and bring them out any 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 how else 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 who signs the checks. I'm also the guy who has to take responsibility for everything that goes wrong and along with that I have the responsibility for making sure the band delivers a good performance to the audience that's bought a 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 the reactionary forces of what in those days we called the 'Establishment': the Establishment which had, a few years before in the mid-60s, delighted in a campaign 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 Royal Philharmonic wrote to the Telegraph, saying:
". . . During the past eighteen months the RPO has given over 200 concerts of which only two have been with a pop group. The reason why we did so was because we felt the need to 'build a bridge' between those young people who may never have seen a full-scale symphony orchestra at work and the more 'conventional' concert audience.
The two groups with whom we have appeared were led by skilled and talented musicians with a good musical training behind them, and the works performed have been a serious attempt to link the two media. The audience were on both occasions extremely well-behaved and attentive throughout, and we hope that some of them have since attended our regular series of concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, Fairfield Hall and elsewhere . . ."
[Quoted in Mother! is the Story of Frank Zappa by Michael Gray, p.104]
(The other group with whom the RPO had worked was Deep Purple, when they performed and recorded organist Jon Lord's Concerto for Group and Orchestra - also, as it happens, at the Albert Hall. Deep Purple will enter 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 the production of what many regard as dreary and inartistic filth for money."
The case against the Albert Hall took four years to come to court. The story of what occurred then must be saved for another day, but suffice it to say that what should have been a straightforward breach of contract case - a civil matter - turned into what Frank himself accurately described as a 'bogus obscenity case' [The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.119]. The judgment is pithily summed up (by Frank) as follows:
 The material was not obscene.
 The Albert Hall had, in fact, breached its contract. But
 As the Albert Hall is a Royal institution, it would be improper for an American musician to prevail in a case like this, so - Yankee, Go Home.
We had moved on from the 60s by now, but old attitudes still remained, it seemed. Michael Gray concludes his chapter on the case in Mother! is the Story of Frank Zappa thus:
"Zappa lost the case. Anyone who attended it during the time he was in the witness box would find it possible only to conclude that what had been on trial was not a matter of contracts but of the sub-culture of dissent of the 1960s generation. In other words, it was a quiet but clear example of a British political trial."
Indeed, anyone reading the transcripts of the proceedings in the music press or 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 was prosecuted for obscenity. Contemporary reports describe the scene exactly as Frank portrays the interior of Court No 7 in the Law Courts in the Strand (". . . dark wood paneling; musty smell; robes; wigs . . . pompous assholes scorning each other - you get the picture." The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.120). Exactly the same effect was produced by the solemn, frequently uncomprehending, recitation in open court of the 'obscene' passages; exactly the same impression was received of the unbridgable chasm between the be-wigged judge and barristers and the 'long-hairs' on the witness stand. But that was the 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 and with his reputation well and truly blackened. And it was still only February.
Go to [Part Two | Part Three | Part Four]
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