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The Mothers of Invention

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This celebrated band was formed in 1964 when guitarist Frank Zappa (b. Frank Vincent Zappa, 21 December 1940, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 4 December 1993, Los Angeles, California, USA) replaced Ray Hunt in the Soul Giants, a struggling R&B-based bar band. Ray Collins (b. 19 November 1936, USA, d. 24 December 2012, Pomona, California, USA; vocals), Dave Coronado (saxophone), Roy Estrada (b. 17 April 1943, Santa Ana, California, USA; bass) and Jimmy Carl Black (b. 1 February 1938, El Paso, Texas, USA, d. 1 November 2008, Siegsdorf, Germany; drums) completed their early line-up, but Coronado abandoned the outfit when the newcomer unveiled his musical strategy. Now renamed the Mothers, the quartet was relocated from Orange County to Los Angeles where they were briefly augmented by several individuals, including Alice Stuart and Henry Vestine, later guitarist in Canned Heat. Jim Fielder was another bass player who passed through the ranks. He actually joined Buffalo Springfield before he had officially handed in his notice. These temporary additions found Zappa’s vision daunting as the Mothers embarked on a disarming mélange of 50s pop, Chicago R&B and avant garde music. They were embraced by the city’s nascent Underground before an appearance at the famed Whiskey A Go-Go resulted in a recording contract when producer Tom Wilson caught the end of one of their sets. Now dubbed the Mothers Of Invention, owing to pressure from the record company, the band added guitarist Elliott Ingber (Winged Eel Fingerling) before commencing Freak Out!, rock music’s first double album. This revolutionary set featured several exceptional pieces including ‘Trouble Every Day’, ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy’ and ‘The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet’, each of which showed different facets of Zappa’s evolving tableau. The Mothers second album, Absolutely Free, featured a radically reshaped line-up. Ingber was fired at the end of 1966 while Zappa added a second drummer, Billy Mundi, plus Don Preston (b. Donald Ward Preston, 21 September 1932, Flint, Michigan, USA; keyboards), Bunk Gardner (horns) and Jim ‘Motorhead’ Sherwood (saxophone) to the original nucleus. A six-month residency at New York’s Garrick Theater combined spirited interplay with excellent material and the set showed growing confidence. Satire flourished on ‘Plastic People’, ‘America Drinks & Goes Home’ and ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’, much of which was inspired by the ‘cocktail-bar’ drudgery the band suffered in its earliest incarnation. However, Zappa’s ire was more fully flexed on We’re Only In It For The Money, which featured several barbed attacks on the trappings of ‘flower-power’. Housed in a sleeve which cleverly mocked the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, the set included ‘The Idiot Bastard Son’ (‘The father’s a Nazi in Congress today, the mother’s a hooker somewhere in LA’) and ‘Who Needs The Peace Corps’ (‘I’ll stay a week and get the crabs and take a bus back home’) and indicated Zappa’s growing fascination with technology. The album also introduced new member Ian Underwood (saxophone/keyboards), who became an integral part of the band’s future work. Cruising With Ruben & The Jets was, to quote the liner notes, ‘an album of greasy love songs and cretin simplicity’. Despite such cynicism, the band displayed an obvious affection for the 50s doo-wop material on offer, all of which was self-penned and included re-recordings of three songs, ‘How Could I Be Such A Fool’, ‘Any Way The Wind Blows’ and ‘You Didn’t Try To Call Me’, first aired on Freak Out! However, the album was the last wholly new set committed by the ‘original’ line-up. Later releases, Uncle Meat (a soundtrack to the then unmade movie), Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, were all compiled from existing live and studio tapes as tension within the band pulled it apart. The musicians enjoyed mixed fortunes. Estrada joined newcomer Lowell George (b. Lowell Thomas George, 13 April 1945, Hollywood, California, USA, d. 29 June 1979, Arlington, Virginia, USA) in Little Feat, third drummer Arthur Dyre Tripp III switched allegiance to Captain Beefheart, while Jimmy Carl Black formed Geronimo Black with brothers Buzz and Bunk Gardner. A new Mothers was formed in 1970 from the musicians contributing to Zappa’s third solo album, Chunga’s Revenge, and the scatological ‘on the road’ documentary, 200 Motels. Three former Turtles, Mark Volman (b. 19 April 1947, Los Angeles, California, USA), Howard Kaylan (b. Howard Kaplan, 22 June 1947, the Bronx, New York City, New York, USA) and Jim Pons (b. 14 March 1943, Santa Monica, California, USA; bass) joined Aynsley Dunbar (b. 10 January 1946, Liverpool, England; drums) and long-standing affiliates Ian Underwood and Don Preston in the band responsible for Live At The Fillmore East, June 1971. Here, however, the early potpourri of Stravinsky, John Coltrane, doo-wop and ‘Louie Louie’ gave way to condescending innuendo as Zappa threatened to become the person once the subject of his ire. Paradoxically, it became the band’s bestselling album to date, setting the tone for future releases and reinforcing the guitarist’s jaundiced view of his audience. This period was brought to a sudden end at London’s Rainbow Theatre. A ‘jealous’ member of the audience attacked the hapless Zappa onstage, pushing him into the orchestra pit where he sustained multiple back injuries and a compound leg fracture. His slow recuperation was undermined when the entire new Mothers, bar Underwood, quit en masse to form what became known as Flo And Eddie. Confined to the studio, Zappa compiled Just Another Band From L.A. and used the Mothers epithet for the jazz big band on The Grand Wazoo. Reverting to rock music, the Mothers’ name was re-established with a new, tighter line-up in 1973. However subsequent albums, Over-Nite Sensation, Roxy & Elsewhere and One Size Fits All, were indistinguishable from projects bearing Zappa’s name and this now superfluous title was abandoned in 1975, following the release of Bongo Fury, a collaboration with Captain Beefheart. Since Zappa’s death a number of biographies have appeared; Neil Slaven’s Electric Don Quixote is particularly noteworthy. Zappa’s entire catalogue has been expertly remastered and reissued with the advent of the compact disc. Rykodisc Records are to be congratulated for their efforts, having purchased the whole catalogue from Gail Zappa for a large, undisclosed sum. The quality of those early Mothers Of Invention recordings is by today’s standards quite outstanding.

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