John Gilliland Interview (for Pop Chronicles, KRLA, 1969)

December 8, 1967

[...]

[p. 11] Zappa: Well it is very—if there is any shock element of those records, it is very mild compared to what we do live on stage. In our 5 month engagement in New York some of the things we did on stage were physically shocking. You know, not just saying things that some people might say were taboo. Some of the things that we did on stage really upset people, or made them cry. It disturbed them so that they were so wasted when they left there that they didn't know what had happened to them. Like the night that we had 3 full dressed United States Marines on stage.

John: What did they do?

Zappa: Well, they volunteered to sing and I said, "Well, if you volunteer to sing, you will also have to take part in the show. When I give you the signal you lunge for the microphone and start screaming 'kill kill'." So they did—you know—and the audience thought this is really weird. After it was all over and they clapped I motioned to them to thank the audience. One Marine walks to the microphone and says, "Eat the apple—fuck the core," and the second Marine walks up and says, "Eat the apple—fuck the core," and the third one walks up and says, "Eat the apple—fuck the core—some of us love our mothers more." And nobody knew what to do. These guys were in full dress blues. They just burned the flag on our stage. So the second half of the show we got this giant baby doll. We didn't show it to them. They were up there bopping around and having merry fun. They were a little drunk—you know—and doing the normal Marine Corp. fun time routine. I stopped the music and said, "Ah—we are going to have a little basic training. Boys and girls, this is a gook baby and the Marines are going to kill it for you." Here, and I threw it to them, "Kill this baby," and they ripped the piss out of it, stomped it, wasted the head—you know—just completely ruined it. We made crashing, smashing, noises on the instruments—you know—and the audience was getting nauseous. We quieted the music down and made it real sad and I held the doll up by the hair and showed the injured parts of the doll to the audience for ten minutes. Then we stopped and that was the end of the show. And there was this guy in the front row that had just come back from Viet Nam that was beggin' us to stop all the way through the whole thing. That is an atrocity and can't record it—you know—because it doesn't come off on record. Live in person it is a very effective a—means of making people think a little bit about things that they tend to ignore.

[...]

[p. 14] Zappa: [...] I remember I did a show in a Boston with this guy that was really a Nazi of the first magnitude and he brought me on there with two of the kids from the Jefferson Airplane. He was going to play us off against each other, he thought. He comes on there, and I didn't know what was going on. He starts hitting on me, "Your music is ugly, everything you do is ugly—ugly," and it really in that tone of voice—you know. Grace and Spence from the Airplane are sitting there and going, "What is this? We like his music, it is wonderful." This guy is saying, "No, it's ugly, listen to this," and he had this cartridge all ready—you know—and he puts on "No Heart," which is one of the songs from the album that has a big orchestra on it, and when this big orchestra comes on it's not ugly, it's nice, and it sounds like a composer named Block that many people might not be familiar with—you know. It comes on and it is banging and smashing away and he said, "Oops," he had made a mistake and played the wrong one. It was just a comedy of errors—you know. A lot of people are out to prove that what we do is ugly and hateful. Eric Burdon thinks our music is evil.

[...] John: "It Can't Happen Here" just scared the pea out of me.

Zappa: You should have seen what it did to the engineers the day we recorded it. They couldn't believe that somebody was saying that stuff in their studio. (laugh) It was really good.

[...] John: What do you do on these pieces like "Wowie Zowie"? Do you plan in advance a certain kind of music you like to stick to?

Zappa: Sure—that was geared for Herman and the Hermits.

John: Oh really?

Zappa: Yeah—at the time it was made. Do you remember that a lot of the songs of Freak Out! are very old? They were old before we recorded the record and the album itself is better than a year old. A year in Pop music is like a century. [...] It is more the lyrics and the punyness of the song that was being parodyed. It is the idea why should anybody write a song as lame as that. It was like an exercise for me. I wanted to see how corny can you get.

[...]

Zappa: The reason it was dedicated to Elvis Presley is because See It Hurts (?) I am thinking that he had been in to see us but at the time we were playing at The Trip, messages had been conveyed to him about some weird dupe that was working down there playing a song called "Help I'm A Rock" and at that time the guy covered with the dimple, Elliot, was an extra in an Elvis Presley movie. When Elvis found out that he was in the group he came up and was rapping to him about our operation, so we dedicated it to him. Through the grapevine we tried to get a message to Elvis Presley to ask whether or not he would be interested in taking a job with us as a road manager. (laugh) I thought it would be the ultimate weirdness to go out on stage in the mid-west someplace and have some guy unannounced who sort of looks like Elvis Presley setting up your amplifier for you. I would just have him do one tour just for fun because he must be bored beyond belief up there in his pad, what an awful life.

John: Yeah and he really isn't utilizing all that talent he has either.

Zappa: In the middle of the show he could sort of just walk on and sing "Hound Dog" and then disappear.

John: Did he do anything that you really liked?

Zappa: "Let's Play House."

John: "Let's Play House"? How did you like "One Night"?

Zappa: I didn't like it because I heard the original by Smiley Lewis.

John: Do you think it would have been good if you hadn't heard the original?

Zappa: No—no—because in a way he is—he was doing then a lot of the things that I disapprove of that are being done by White Soul groups. I think it is a little bit stupid.

John: Like what specifically.

Zappa: Oh well you know I don't like to talk about other groups, name names like the whole branch of Pop music today is devoted to Blues being performed by young white boys who are trying to sound like [...?] like Muddy Waters and just why bother.

John: You don't know of any, in your opinion any Rock group that has been able to get close to it? Lou Rawls named a couple that he—I asked him if he thought there was such a thing as good white soul and he said like yeah man and the first name he mentioned was the Righteous Brothers who I have never been particularly turned on to.

Zappa: Well that is because they are merchandized as blue-eyed sould and if it appeals to Lou Rawls I am sure he is entitled to dance to anything he wants to. I like what Eric Clapton is doing because a lot of things that he is performing live on stage, begins with blues and manages to transcend it completely by the time he is done. He is such a good player. Their whole group concept, they are so intense when they play.

John: I unfortunately have not seen them in person and that I am sorry about.

Zappa: Yeah—they really get into it.

John: Would you like to see more people with a sense of humor and a sense of satyre and heresy in this—in this kind of—or anywhere on the tract?

Zappa: Sure I like to see people with a sense of humor anyplace. I would like to see it mostly in the government. On the Police force—

John: Well now we have had very few groups in this vain at all. I can't—I don't want to compare you with you I am just trying to think—

Zappa: Spike Jones.

John: Well I think of The Fugs for some reason, not necessarily musically but just the public reaction to them I think if nothing else.

Zappa: Yes and no—we know The Fugs pretty well, they are good friends of ours and we get compared to them all the time. It stems mostly from Robert Shelton's initial a writing someplace about—you know—the comparison beween us and The Fugs. Last year he apologized all over the place for doing it. There is no real relationship between the approach we take, what we do, there is just no comparison.

John: Is all your stuff head-head arrangement?

Zappa: No—a lot of it is written down. In fact most of it is written down in advance but like things that are written down are the poles that hold the tent up. They are structural landmarks so that people can a—it helps them to organize in their own mind the type of improvisation that we do, because when we improvise, it happens as a group. People will—like everybody at one point or another during our live performance gets a chance to improvise his end of the song.

John: Kind of a great old tradition.

Zappa: Well yes—it is like a cross between Lukas Foss and Dixieland. (laugh)

John: I don't know the first one.

Zappa: Lukas Foss does the chamber improvisation ensemble and experimented with UCLA several years ago with which I think was a very successful experiment but—you know—the idea was valid and we have carried that to great extreme at first. Some of our improvisations are poly-tone—multi-tone and just very strange things. We do electronic music live on stage.

John: I thought you were doing quite a lot of electronic music.

Zappa: Yeah—we do—we have a—the amount of equipment that we take with us and set up is pretty frightening.

John: Can you do all these thing now—could you reproduce the Freak Out! album on stage or would you be in the same situation The Beatles are when they say we can't—

Zappa: Well one of the reasons we couldn't reproduce some of the things from Freak Out! is like for instance "It Can't Happen" now it is all my voice.

John: All your voice?

Zappa: Yes—except for a few mumbling in the background all the predominant parts are my voice.

John: I didn't know that.

Zappa: So it is rough to sing 4 part harmony with yourself. Any time you have got voice doubling or things like that you can't do them on stage and make them convincing. Any of the other effects, including the orchestration, on the big things, we have played live on stage.

John: Was that vocal quartet thing we talked about ____? was that actually scored down on paper or was that—?

Zappa: It is available on paper now. It was taken down by dictation off the record by improvised in the studio. I did one track at a time and as I heard the track coming back I would make instantaneous decisions whther to harmoniza with it, sing unison with it or negate it—you know—so that we could have the structure coming along, the words were all spontaneous.

[...]

[p. 27] I had a theory in college, I tried to get a grant when I was going to junior college to do research on the effect of parallel fifths on the teen-age mind. I had a theory that parallel fifths are forbidden in harmony books as being unpleasant and sounding bad but when you listen to the things that are accepted in harmony books they are so emasculated—you know—there are no balls to Mozart, I don't think. There are no parallel fifths in it—you got down at the bottom the guts type appeal. I was thinking of the chanting that was done in the Catacombs the sort of modal chanting that tended to keep minority groups together under pressure. You think about that for a minute. You've got all these Christians and they are struggling down the Catacombs and it is really the shits, the lions are going to eat them—you know—but they had their music, they had their soul and it was full of that kind of sound. At the time I was listening to Rhythm and Blues—you know—my high school period that music was full of parallel fifths and it had a lot of that same type of modal— —like a Blues scale it is a type of mode and it had that same appeal. I felt that people that were really digging Rhythm and Blues then were a minority group, much the same as the early Christians. Because in those days you couldn't get a car from your folks anytime you wanted it and if you had wanted to stay out past 12 o'clock you might have had to beat your father up to do it. Now that's the way it was. You didn't have all this—you know. The generation that I came from was the pioneering generation that helped it bust it right open for the kids that a—you know you say to your father now, let me have the car for the evening and he says which one—you know. It is not the same. Well anyway all I wanted was 700 lousy dollars to live on while I was doing my research and they said well first you have to get a degree in sociology and I said well fuck this, so I dropped out of college.

John: How much—did you have any musical training?

Zappa: Mostly the library and listening to records. I had a harmony course that I was taking for credit in—see when I was in High School they kept throwing me out. I was an incorregible problem units and they thought well maybe it is just that he wants to a—maybe he doesn't want to go into life as a—in agriculture because I was going to this Farm and Country school and maybe he wants to—maybe he just wants to get into music. So they had this junior college nearby and they would send me up there a couple days a week to take a course of music in the junior college while I was still in hight school. It was so stupid you know. They would show you well here is your exercise for the day, write this choral and it's got to sound just like Bach—big deal. So you are writing a hymn tune—who is that fellow?—It doesn't even make you feel like you are learning music. So I garbaged my way through that for awhile and I didn't retain very much of it. I got out of Hight School and drifted around for a little while. Then I decided well I'm not getting any pussy because everybody I knew went back to college so I went to college and it was ridiculous. I went back to the same harmony course and I had an extension of the same bull-shit that I had before and I quit school and I started writing, and just kept on going.

[...]

Zappa: Sure I do. They would never know as a matter of fact because a lot of the satire that I indulge in is so arcane, so abstruse and bizarre that they just can't dig what level it's on because in satirizing something else, many of the best levels of it go completely un-noticed for instance the most obvious example of it is a tune "America Drinks And Goes Home" on the Absolutely Free album. Many people have not come to realize that the chord progression itself for that song is one of your all time satires on chord progressions—on chord progressions—on chord progressions, that have been used until they are coming out your ass hole, in those old Pop tunes. The melody itself is constructed to fall against that chord progression in such a way that creates a—apparently the bitter-sweet nostalgia of that era, couple with the lyrics which are a parody on not just the lyrics of that era but the attitudes of the people who might have raised their children talking about the good old days. In other words they have got their kids in college now with the class ring and all that shit. I put as much secret stuff into the music as i can so that it becomes interesting for me when I go to listen to it myself later. You work on an album and your hear that stuff over and over again for a month or two months and I really get to hate it so that when I finish an album I can't event stand to listen to it for awhile after it is done. Then when I do, there had better be something there that I can fool around with to keep me—

[...p. 33] Zappa: It is my own secret teen-age theory that the longer your hair is the better off you are, if you really like to be sensitive to your environment because I have experienced a certain increase in the amount of empathy that I can feel for my environment and for different things that wouldn't matter to most people, that has taken place since I grew my hair and I think it is brain ends. It is connected to your head, it is little wires coming out of your head—you know—like little antenna or something.

[...p. 39] John: Well that is kind of how I feel about some of the current groups. I dig what they are doing instrumentally, like Love for instance, but I can't groove with the cat all the time for singing the vocal. You mentioned you liked him.

Zappa: Well the thing I like about Arthur Lee I must say that I like the first album better than the second, is that where-ever he is he is too much of it. It is so gross that I really like it.

John: He sound to me like a colored cat trying to sing like a white cat singing like a colored cat.

Zappa: I think he sounds like an injured seal. (laugh) Don't you think that Arthur Wade sounds like an injured seal?

[...p. 40]

John: Good—who else do you like in the contemporary type, I don't care where they are?

Zappa: Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band. Have you heard them yet?

John: Yeah, I have heard them but not heard them if you know what I mean.

Zappa: You listen to them I am telling you. That is the only group in the United States that is doing things in the same general aesthetic area that we are doing. A lot of people listen to Captain Beefheart and think it is a blues band with the guy and the funny voice. I grew up with those guys, and I taught a lot of them how to play.

John: Does it take closer listening?

Zappa: It does, and you have to realize that there is a lot behind his songs. In songs like "Drop Out Boogie" and "Grown So Ugly" and things like that. They are really groovy songs, I really like them. You may not like them but of course you may not like our music either so go fuck yourself. (laugh) But I think they are an excellent group and I would like them to really make it. When I got their album I just rolled all over the floor, I really liked it.

John: Have they got one album only?

Zappa: I think they just have one which is called Safe As Milk. You see I happen to know a lot about the a—well the guy Vliet, Don Van Vliet, as he calls himself these days. He is one of your more neurotic and entertaining high school companions and a lot of the incidences that produced the songs that he is singing now, are so amazing and funny in school. I am sure he may have even forgotten what it was that made him write a song like "Grown So Ugly" I will demonstrate. "Grown So Ugly" record is a song about a guy that returns to his girlfriend and she doesn't recognize him. He is saying that he has grown so ugly that he doesn't even know himself. Well Don Vliet is a narcissist and his mother sold Avon Products door to door. The whole house was full of them. He is one of my best friends but you have to be realistic about this stuff so anytime there was a new cosmetic in the house he would splash it on some part of his body. He would just see what it would smell like, or see what it would do. So he took some Avon after-shave lotion and dumped it on his hair one day and it started falling out and then his face broke out in a giant rash and it looked like alligator skin, he was allergic to the stuff. Everything in the house was Avon. he was breaking out in scales and scabs. He was a junior in high school see, so he got so bad and he lost so much status and he could get no action whatsoever on the pussy circuit at school that he left Lancaster and moved to East L.A. to live with his mothers relatives and stayed there for 2 months. So he comes back and his face is okay but he has got this stuff on his neck, this rash. For years we could always remember Don Vliet with his head up like this going (making funny sound) Maybe that is why I dig his stuff so much, because I know what he is talking about.

[...p. 42] Zappa: [...] when we were in Boston, several weeks ago, in a place, the worst fuckin place we ever worked, no maybe not the worst but pretty damn close to it. It is called Psychedelic Supermarket. It was what you call an unfinished club, with a very mediocre to say the best, PA system. We were forced to work there, so we did. A block and a half away is the Boston University Radio station with a disc jockey named Uncle T, running his show from midnight to 3 in the morning. He said come on down you guys and take over my show.

[...]

March 5, 1969

[...]

[p. 2] I approached some people while I was attending [Chaffey] Jr. College in Ontario, California, about doing research into the relationship between parallel fifths and teen-age hysteria. And the guy said, "What, you out of your mind? You don't have a degree." And I said, "Look, I'm still young enough where I can talk to kids, you know, and I can find things out and it might mean something later on." "You crazy? What do you think this would cost?" And I said, "Oh it won't cost but about 700 dollars. Just enough for me to eat for a few months while I was, you know, doing the work. Get myself a tape recorder. Goin' out. Ask people a few questions." He said, "Look, why don't you go through school, get yourself a few degrees, and then maybe you can get a grant from a foundation and go out and find out about that stuff." And that's when I quit school.

[...]

I had a harmony course. They showed you how to harmonize old time music, you know. They showed you all the ins and outs and whys and wherefores of how all those old guys used to harmonize their tunes. Most of which I could not identify with. It's very difficult for me to see how harmonizing a chorale would come in handy later on, in my teen-age career. I can still apply a little of that rudimentary nonsense that they show you in school but, whenever I do, you know, I always think that I'm getting my mind locked into a system that is outdated.

[...]

[p. 4] So we like to have a good time with our tunes. We'll take them apart for you. You know, like we'll play a little melody and . . . right before your very eyes and teen-age ears . . . we'll dismantle it for you and show you where we put the glue . . . show you where the screws and nails go . . . show you where the braces and the supports went to hold it out. You know, that little shiney part that we show to you in the front. And we show you all the gruesome stuff on the inside. It's like looking at the other side of the cave in a science fiction movie, you know, where the giant spider is. You know that cave is phoney. You know there's a bunch of boards on the other side . . . with a guy with a T-shirt on, leaning up agains it, eating a sandwich. That's what we show you, you know. You gotta be ready to accept that. That's real.

[...p. 7] 12. On the evolution of an album, We're Only In It For The Money.

Zappa: You just keep working on it until it's done, you know. It's done when you run out of money.

John: Well, did this begin with one song or with . . .

Zappa: It began with "Mom & Dad."

John: With "Mom & Dad"?

Zappa: Uh-huh.

John: Had you originally planned to put Lumpy Gravy . . . and the two of 'em in one jacket?

Zappa: I would've like to have done that but there were a lot of legal problems in doing that, because Lumpy Gravy was originally done for Capitol and it was still being contested at that time.

John: Well, the reviews for the first one have been better than for Lumpy Gravy. How do you feel about those two albums?

Zappa: Well, I think that they should have been completely integrated. I would like to have intercut them, you know. Like, if I had my chance to do it all over again, I would probably put that out as a two-record set and have the material more interspersed with orchestral interludes between the songs on We're Only In It For The Money. But I just couldn't put it together that way. And it doesn't bother me if people don't like what we do. I just feel sorry for them that they're not havin' as much fun as they ought to.

[...]

[p. 9] (After Spector's comment on the "awful-good" record)
"Well all I can say is that his taste and mine run pretty close together. I can name a couple more. I like 'Ninety-Six Tears.' (Loud reaction from group) I mean I thought . . . listen! 'Ninety-Six Tears'! Wow! That's an art statement. And . . . in the past I had said a bunch of bad things about Tommy James and the Shondles, you know. But, when I heard 'Crimson And Clover,' I said, 'Well . . . they really got something going for 'em.' That really turned out to be a winner. And 'Wild Things' was so bad it was magnificent. That was a heavy item. We did a version of 'Ninety-Six Tears' in the Bronx, that we called 'Tiny Sick Tears.' We have it on tape. Might wheel a bit of it over to you. (Reaction and Zappa laughing). 'I'm gonna cry tiny sick tears.'"

 

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