Impelled by the lock down imperative, I have been gorging on YouTube, as previously mentioned. Yesterday, I came across prismfilms.co.uk and their ‘Prism Archives’, which include lengthy interviews with members of the Mothers of Invention 1.0. (MOI), Bunk Gardner, Art Tripp, Don Preston and Jimmy Carl Black. These can stand alongside the interviews by Sam Andreyev, with various members of Captain Beefheart’s greatest bands, those of 1969-71. Of course, memberships of the groups of these two immortal figures, Zappa and Beefheart, tended to overlap at the time (Elliott Ingber, Tripp, Estrada, Bruce Fowler, for example) - those who remain to be tracked down are (in particular) the ‘”straight man of the group”, the mighty Ian Underwood, and also the likes of latter-day Beefheart alumni such as Eric Drew Feldman, Bruce Fowler and Gary Lucas. Memorably, the MOI provided the background for The Blimp’ one of the most unforgettable tracks on Trout Mask Replica.
The Prism Films interviews appear to be a UK project (Jimmy Carl Black thoughtfully clarifies a few Americanism for his interviewer). Ray Collins is not featured (he passed in 2102), Roy Estrada is unfortunately in his own lifetime lock down in prison, and Black died in 2008, so these are important contributions to the legacy of Zappa’s greatest band. Jimmy Carl Black is an imediately immensely likeable interviewee, and by far the most enthusiastic of his peers, your own avuncular hippie guide, the ‘Indian of the Group’, and his recollections are priceless. He also seems also be the one most hurt by Zappa’s insensitive termination of the Mothers. It is interesting to hear how consistent their accounts are, and how they all regard this iteration of The Mothers as incredibly ‘tight’, both musically and socially (the least ‘intellectual’ but ‘warmest’ of all Zappa,s bands?) Enjoy their various accounts of the infamous Berlin Sportspalast gig of 1968, sabotaged by the ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ (SDS), a sort of homicidal version of our own Socialist Workers Party, who effectively undermined their own pretentious moniker by acting out from their own particularly obnoxious bully pit. I was reminded of Fleetwood Mac’s treatment, that time passive-aggressive, at the hands of the nominally more ‘benign’ upper-class German hippies a couple of years later.
Gardner, Tripp and Preston recall their appearances in drag on the cover of We’re Only In It For the Money, a gloriously self-abnegating gesture for this bunch of macho groupie-abusers. As they point out, however, the equally macho Rolling Stones beat them to it, on the cover of the Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby,,,7-inch single from 1966. After Ray Collins left in, ‘68, the MOI became, essentially, an instrumental band, but, as Jimmy CB also points out, “we could play 300 songs at the drop of a hat…we were the best band in the whole fucking world…really”. One can also remember, in counterpoint, his complaints, on Uncle Meat, of “we’re all fuckin’ starving, man!”. But Black’s general enthusiasm is entirely appropriate when reviewing this group. Don Preston and Bunk Gardner are somewhat more circumspect. What is not in doubt is the closeness this ensemble clearly experienced in the years of 1967-9, before Zappa pulled the plug for a variety of reasons, some of them financial (as a point of comparison, Bunk Gardner has an indelible memory of Duke Ellington asking for a loan of 50 bucks from a promoter at this time).
What I learned was the fact that Zappa asked both Art Tripp and Ian Underwood to stay on, to form a quartet with bassist Jeff Simmons (who Bunk couldn’t stand, as it soon turned out). Hot Rats ensued, later in 1969 with only Underwood in tow, arguably Zappa’s greatest recording (along with Uncle Meat and Burnt Weenie Sandwich, imho). 1969/9 were years of fantastic creativity for Zappa, but, as with Beefheart, he narcissistically played down the contributions of his musicians. Now, along with with Sam Andreyov’s interviews with Bill Harkleroad, Jeff Cotton, Rockette Morton and (again) Art Tripp III, these exemplary musicians are finally being recognised as magnificent lights in themselves, as opposed to being merely reflections of the ‘genius’ of their band leaders.