Friday, February 2, 2018

Learning to Love Frank Zappa

I couldn’t bear Frank Zappa. There was nothing about his implacably over-complicated music I enjoyed, and I deplored his apparent belief that if something were difficult to play, it must be good. I read about how he would require musicians auditioning to be in his band to play in 17/12 or something, and think, “What a ponce!” Nor did I find him funny. I thought what he marketed as satire was actually just cruel mockery of the sort one might expect from a precocious fifth-grader. 

But fair's fair. I loved how he pointed out on Crossfire in 1986 that the USA even then was on its way to becoming a fascist theocracy (Mr. Pence, please pick up the white courtesy telephone), and his observation that things were much more interesting in the days when the titans of the record business admitted they neither liked nor understood rock than after they started acting on the recommendations of cokespoon-necklace-wearing A&R hotshots in satin tour jackets. 

Record companies had some really wacky beliefs back in the day. Following the lead of the movie business, they were forever throwing huge parties at their artists’ (deferred) expense, imagining that those invited would write favourably about the feted recording artist. This might have worked when the feted artist was some glistening-haired crooner in white patent loafers, but boy, did it not work from around 1968 onward, after which faux revolutionaries who scorned personal hygiene and The Man (that is, corporations and capitalism and the other usual suspects) in equal measure displaced the docile 31-year-olds in neckties who’d been covering popular music for the big daily newspapers. 

Appalling graphic design, I believe.
The  layout of the headline! 
The new breed of music writer felt it his or her moral mandate to manifest scorn for the record companies, even while living off the sale of promotional copies of their records. At the parties to which the record companies kept inviting them, they would stuff themselves on lobster canapes, guzzle gratis corporate alcohol, and then, by peeing or throwing up in the punchbowl, demonstrate how deeply offended they were by the notion of The Man trying to secure their blessing (via a favourable review) with delicious free food and drink. Take that, running dog lackeys of The Man! 

In the most ludicrous print advertisement in the history of popular entertainment, Columbia Records tried to co-opt the presumably lucrative faux revolutionary market with its famous But the Man Can’t Bust Our Music ad, which depicted a holding cell full of imprisoned young long-haired music lovers and the placards (Grab Hold, Music Is Love) they’d been allowed to bring with them, and several recent Columbia Records releases that would apparently set free the spirits of even the unjustly incarcerated. 

At parties for artists deemed uncool, the young revolutionaries would pretend the artists weren’t even there. I recall one for an insufficiently hip duo whose name I won’t reveal at which a woman publicist in immoderate false eyelashes virtually begged rock critics at least to say hello to one of our heroes, and was told by one of those to whom she appealed that he’d do it for a blow job. Rumour had it that he got it. Grab hold! 

What the record companies were missing then, and continued to miss, was that the real power wasn’t that of the slovenly young revolutionaries throwing up in their punchbowls, but the programming directors at key radio stations. Over and over, some little twerp who wrote for Circus, say, or even Rolling Stone, would declare So-and-So the next Beatles or Dylan, and So-and-So’s album would sell 128 more copies nationwide. (This happened with my rapturous Rolling Stone piece on the glorious Move.) But let Johnny Cokespoon from WCKE order his DJs to spin a track from the album every 90 minutes, and the next thing you knew, So-and-So, flanked by a gaggle of sniffling combover boys invariably named Artie, would be seen in Billboard or Cashbox holding up his or her gold record and looking mortified with embarrassment, as tradition dictated. 

Fun times, those, unless you found yourself downwind of one of the new breed of writer, or between him (the really obnoxious ones were all male) as he staggered toward the punchbowl with an emphatic refutation of corporate greed in mind. 

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