Zappa's London

Several years ago, Zappa Gear author Mick Ekers and I talked about writing a Zappa’s London book together – detailing places in the UK’s capital where Frank stayed, played and recorded. This plan mutated into a possible ZappaCast video where we would film ourselves at the spots as they are today.

    Nothing came of either idea.

    I later became involved in helping put together The Zappa Tour Atlas, which included a map of all the places Frank ever dwelled in during his lifetime. One of these was a house in London, where he lived with Gail, Moon and Dweezil for several months whilst filming 200 Motels. Sam Ward of Treacherous Cretins is keen for a blue plaque to be placed there, and why not?

    This renewed my interest in Zappa’s London.

    Seeing a friend Tweet that he felt Liverpool was Frank’s spiritual home around the time that MOJO magazine issued maps showing notable places in Liverpool and London where The Beatles hung out, made me approach Art For Dinosaurs about the possibility of producing a Zappa’s London map. The plan was to have these ready for April 18, 2020 when Pygmy Twylyte, Treacherous Cretins and Napoleon Murphy Brock were scheduled to play in the heart of the city (this gig at the 100 Club was obviously postponed due to the pandemic).

    Anyhow, following its sterling work on the Lost Meat CD, Art For Dinosaurs came up trumps again. When I mentioned the map to Professor Ekers, he suggested I stick it on a tea towel! But instead, we produced a spiffy Zappa’s London pocket map (on A3, 170gsm gloss paper, folding to 148.5 x 140mm, in full colour, double-sided) with text detailing the significance of 18 locations. A thing of beauty, which you can now buy from The Idiot Bastard Shop.

    I got 100 of these printed up, plus a limited edition set of six 25mm pin badges of ‘hot spots’ was also produced.

    To coincide with this, I compiled a Spotify playlist, stitched together a promotional YouTube video (with an exclusive soundtrack by Sam), and wrote the following essay.

Frank Zappa’s last concert in the UK’s capital took place 32 years ago on April 19, 1988. He wasn’t really a fan of London for a number of reasons, and he once described audiences there as “disgusting”. In spite of this, throughout his career he would return to the city time and again – and even lived there for several months. His family also chose to celebrate his 70th birthday at The Roundhouse in Camden (see programme here).

    Let’s have a look at some of the London ‘hot spots’ he visited.

    The Mothers played their first ever European date at the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington on September 23, 1967. Frank hired Pamela Zarubica to be Suzy Creamcheese: “All she did was sit on the stage when we played the Albert Hall – didn’t do anything!” he said. You can see Zarubica reminisce about the show here. (She now lives in North London, incidentally.)

    The Mothers returned to the Albert Hall in 1969, but were denied a third appearance on February 8, 1971 when the hall’s management cancelled a planned performance of 200 Motels – describing the songs as “filth for filth’s sake”.

    FZ often stayed at The Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington – famously having his photo taken while seated on the toilet in Room 412 by Robert Davidson on August 16, 1967 (read an excerpt from his book I Shot Frank Zappa here). This was the same day Frank met his future secretary, Pauline Butcher, who he later took to see Cream at The Speakeasy Club and introduced her to Eric Clapton. The first script-reading of 200 Motels also took place in the Royal Garden Hotel in January 1971.

    The Mothers played two shows with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank on October 25, 1968. Excerpts from the concerts were issued on the 1993 album Ahead Of Their Time. 42 years after the Albert Hall cancelled a performance of 200 Motels, the Festival Hall played host to its UK premiere.

    In June 1970, FZ “cut about eight tracks” at Trident Studios in Soho with Ian Underwood, George Duke, Jeff Simmons, Aynsley Dunbar and Flo & Eddie. (These sessions were posthumously released on Disc One of The Mothers 1970 album.)

    While his view of London may have been coloured by events in the intervening period, seven years later Frank would say that he didn’t care much for the studio.

    This new band line-up, the first incarnation of the so-called ‘vaudeville’ Mothers, played two shows at The Coliseum Theatre, Westminster on November 29, 1970. Stephen Stills appeared as a special guest. The following month, FZ moved into 56 Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill with wife Gail and their children Moon and Dweezil and stayed there till March 1971 while filming 200 Motels at Pinewood Studios. According to Janet Ferguson, “The house had a Coronation Bench in the sitting room, which Dweezil peed on.” After the family left, the house was purchased by the Queen’s cousin, Lady Elizabeth Anson, who established Party Planners there.

    During the first of two planned shows on December 10, 1971, FZ was pushed from the stage of the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park into the orchestra pit by an irate fan. He sustained fractures to his leg, ribs and skull, a paralysed arm and a damaged larynx.

    After initially being taken to the Royal Northern Hospital in Holloway, FZ was moved to the London Clinic in Marylebone to recuperate from the injuries he sustained at the Rainbow.

    After returning to the US, he put together the 20-piece Grand Wazoo orchestra, which played its only UK show at The Oval cricket ground in Kennington on September 16, 1972.

    He next visited London in 1973 to play the Empire Pool Wembley with the band that featured two Fowler brothers, a pair of Underwoods and Jean-Luc Ponty. This would be the first of five shows he would go on to play at this indoor venue, the last being the above-mentioned 1988 show – by which time it had been renamed the Wembley Arena.

    In April 1975, Frank and then-manager Herb Cohen attempted to sue the management of the Albert Hall at the Old Bailey for banning the 200 Motels concert four years earlier. They lost their claim for £8,000 damages. Two months later, the One Size Fits All album was released featuring part of the London Underground map on its back cover.

    Between 1977 and 1984, Frank played over 20 shows at the Hammersmith Odeon. In 2010, an eponymous album was issued utilising recordings from four 1978 shows at the venue. (The basic tracks for many of the tunes on Sheik Yerbouti were also culled from these tapes.)

    FZ used the Electric Ballroom in Camden to rehearse his band at the end of August 1978 for its fall tour through Europe and North America’s East Coast. This was the first tour to feature vocalist Ike Willis.

    At the start of 1979, FZ produced L. Shankar’s Touch Me There album at Advision Studios in Fitzrovia – which included their co-composition Dead Girls Of London. The track was originally sung by Van Morrison – said Frank, “I got a call from Van while I was in London making the album and I said, ‘Hey, have I got a song for you. Come on over.’ So he came in. He was on his way to Dingwalls, and it took him fifteen minutes to sing it and leave for the club.” Sadly, Warner Bros and Morrison’s manager intervened, and Frank had to re-record the lead vocal together with Ike Willis (the pair were credited as Stucco Homes). The Van version was later issued on The Frank Zappa AAAFNRAAAAAM Birthday Bundle 21.Dec.2011.

    Once the Shankar recordings were done, Frank returned to the Rainbow Theatre to rehearse for his February-April tour of Europe. This time, the orchestra pit was covered over.

    Around this time (on 9 February 1979, to be precise), I was standing outside The Venue in Victoria having just seen Rod Argent & Friends (including Chester Cortez Thompson) perform there. A limo pulled up, and one of the guys I was with said, “Look, there’s that bloke you like!” Upon which, FZ got out of the car and darted straight past me into The Venue. So I just followed up the steps…but at the top, a security guy asked me to leave, which I obediently did. (I would see Frank again nine days later, ‘live onstage in London’.) It seems he may have been in Victoria that night to meet with The Venue’s owner, Richard Branson – who wrote in his autobiography (Losing My Virginity) that Frank was considering recording at The Manor in Oxfordshire (where Tubular Bells was made). He probably also wanted to hook-up with Chester, too.

    In January 1983 – after three days of rehearsals at Abbey Road Studio One and a one-off concert at The Barbican Centre – Zappa recorded the London Symphony Orchestra at Twickenham Film Studios, St Margarets under the baton of Kent Nagano. Initially, Frank said, “the net result of working with [the LSO] was really positive,” but later complained – in his resultant album notes – that “during the final ‘rest period’, the entire trumpet section decided to visit a pub across the street. They returned 15 minutes late. No recording could be done without them. The orchestra refused to spend another 15 minutes at the end of the session to make up for their glowing brass section neighbours. I have done as much as possible to enhance this fine British ‘craftsmanship’, but to no avail...the ‘human element’ remains intact.”

    Frank made his last visit to London in July 1991 for a series of radio interviews – notably one on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek show, where he met and befriended Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains (read a transcript here). Having successfully arranged an interview with Dweezil through Zappa Records’ UK distributor Music For Nations a few months earlier, T’Mershi Duween editor Fred and I tried to arrange our own chat with Frank. Sadly, my second – and final – chance to meet and speak with FZ didn’t happen.