The radio was always playing in the house when I was growing up, but it was The Beatles that first made me sit up and really listen – when I was about five or six, I guess. I was very caught up in the whole Beatlemania thing. Having an older brother to share in this probably helped, though he always had first dibs on the memorabilia. So I’d end up with the “I Love Ringo” badge.
Who were some of the first bands/artists that you really liked and why?
Aside from The Beatles (who continue to move me to this day – will the same be said of One Direction in 50 years time?), I really liked The Dave Clark Five – that great thumping sound, with saxamaphones. In the late ’60s/early ’70s, I used to watch Top Of The Pops on TV every Thursday and listen to the top twenty on the radio every Sunday. I also went to a church youth club where we’d bring our own records to play to one another. Someone brought Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” single in and I was very impressed by that. I thought the singer was a woman though!
With bands like Free, Jethro Tull and Deep Purple getting into the charts, and Top Of The Pops having an album slot that one time featured Yes playing “Yours Is No Disgrace”, I found that I really liked that type of music as opposed to the likes of T. Rex, Sweet and Slade, which my schoolmates seemed to prefer. Again, I was undoubtedly influenced by my big brother’s tastes here. Of all those bands, the mighty Zep were the next band I really fell for.
When and how did you first discover Frank Zappa?
A junior school friend of mine, Kevin Armstrong, could play the guitar really well and generally impressed me to no end. He borrowed the Mother’s Day compilation, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Hot Rats from his new Grammar school buddies and I listened to those in amazement. That my brother didn’t like it was possibly significant – I’d found something different. That means a lot when you’re 12.
What are some of your favourite Zappa albums/songs and why?
I still regard Hot Rats as one of his very best albums – it’s not really like any of the others. And “Son Of Mr Green Genes” continues to blow me away. Other favourite albums are One Size Fits All, Make A Jazz Noise Here, Uncle Meat… those cover a lot of ground. Every Zappa album has something entertaining on it – the whole canon is just so diverse.
I love songs like “Mother People”, “Yo Mama”, “The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution”, “We Are Not Alone”, you name it. Just great, great music. Good singin’, good playin’ and with a tremendous sense of humour.
Discuss your book, Zappa The Hard Way.
Well, I never set out to write a book about Frank’s final tour. In 2008, Wymer, an independent book publisher here in the UK, listed Zappa The Hard Way as “in the pipeline”. I asked them when it would be available and they said that it hadn’t even been started yet. Wymer’s owner, Jerry Bloom, wanted to write it. But he saw my website, and the list of people that I’d interviewed, and felt that
I was better placed to do it. The timing was perfect: my application for early retirement from the Civil Service had just been accepted, so I felt that I had the time to do it. I certainly had the inclination.
Did you obtain the permission or the blessing of Gail Zappa and/or the Zappa Family Trust before you started working on the book?
Well, it wasn’t actually necessary to obtain permission to write a book about the tour but before penning a word, I felt it prudent to notify Mrs. Zappa that I’d been approached to do it. I asked her to let me know if she had any concerns or questions but she never replied. I was given a deadline by Wymer, so I just cracked on and wrote it. I know that Gail has since seen a copy of the book but I think that her main interest was whether we’d breached any of the Trust’s copyrights. We haven’t, so she has never been in touch.
Approximately how long did it take for you to write the book?
A little over a year. It was surprisingly easy. I managed to help ghost write another book and compile a CD during the same period.
What sort of process, if any, did you employ when writing the book?
I decided to write it chronologically, chapter by chapter, and not to get bogged down with theorising as to why certain things came to pass – just let the band tell their story (enhanced by the new interviews that I conducted with the surviving members). So the first chapter sets the scene, touching on the previous couple of Zappa tours, then taking you through rehearsals up to the eventual Broadway the Hard Way tour. In Chapter Two, the tour itself starts. And so on.
I was very surprised to read online someone saying that they found the book jumped around time wise. It really doesn’t. Where, for example, I talk about The Beatles’ medley, I naturally detour into Frank’s relationship with the Fabs. But then it’s straight back on to the tour and the next gig. All I can assume is that person didn’t read the book properly. And, thankfully, it’s one of the few criticisms I’ve read – I’ve been overwhelmed by the very positive response that it’s received more generally. A close friend of mine re-read it six months after it came out and said he hadn’t appreciated how much information was in there first time around. It’s not a lengthy book, so I think it can perhaps be read a little too quickly by some. Take your time. Enjoy.
I know that I’ve asked you this privately but I’m going to ask you publicly as well – will you ever record and release an audio book version of Zappa The Hard Way (preferably unabridged)? You certainly have the terrific speaking voice for it.
Thank you – but I can’t agree about my voice. I don’t like the sound of it at all!
When the book first came out, someone suggested a very dear mutual friend, Gamma, do an audio version of it. That would have been fantastic. But, very sadly, he passed away a few months after publication. He had this great booming Vivian Stanshall-type voice and his conversation was littered with Zappa references. He was an alcoholic and it might have been akin to Chris Morris hiring a bunch of homeless guys to provide the audio commentary on his Brass Eye DVD. Better than anything I could do, fer sure. But that’s not to say I might not give it a go one day.
As a writer, who are some of your influences and why?
My favourite author by far is Kurt Vonnegut. I always find his books so easy to read, his world view so insightful, and also – importantly – just so very witty. I’ve always liked a laugh, so I guess I’d have to also single out Spike Milligan. I loved reading his books when I was younger and he undoubtedly left a mark on me.
But while those two gents are hugely inspirational, there’s no way that I’d compare my writing skills to them. I never studied grammar or literature at school and only got a Grade 3 Certificate of Secondary Education in “English”. But since then, I’ve always read. And I love and res
pect the English language and enjoy having a bit of fun with it. Respectfully. I kid myself I have a readable, unorthodox writing style.
What were the circumstances that led to you collaborating with Scott Parker and Mick Ekers on the ZappaCast podcast?
I’ve corresponded with Scott on and off for the past several years and out of the blue, he one day mentioned his plan to start podcasting and asked if I’d like to be involved. Initially, it was just to read the news, but that quickly evolved into roundtable discussions and other little solo segments relevant to the subject of each episode. Scott is very easy to get along with. We just seem to be on the same black page.
Around the time of Episode One, news of Mr. Ekers and his Zappa’s Gear book emerged and Scott quickly pounced. And pounced again. As Mick told you, we soon found out that we lived just down the road from each other, so we now meet up for beer and a natter every now and then. Another really nice guy.
Prior to doing the ZappaCast, had you ever done any type of radio or broadcasting?
Discuss the Zappa tribute albums that you’ve put out.
In 2005, Cordelia Records in Leicester put out Let Me Take You To The Beach, an album of surf instrumental bands performing Zappa’s music. I loved it and wrote to Cordelia asking if they had any plans for a sequel: Let Me Take You To The Beach Again. The label’s owner, Alan Jenkins, wrote back to say they hadn’t, but joked that he’d put out 20 versions of “The Idiot Bastard Son” if I could provide them. So I decided to call his bluff and rounded up some of my musical buddies. In short, I got him his 20 renditions and he put them out in 2008.
One of the contributors to that album suggested a follow up: 21 Burnt Weeny Sandwiches – the idea being to get artists to condense the whole of the Burnt Weeny Sandwich album into a five minute piece. I managed to pull that one off too and Cordelia duly obliged by releasing it in 2010.
The final album that we’re currently working on will feature some of the cover tunes that Frank performed on the Broadway tour – the twist being that they’re to sound like they’re actually Zappa compositions. A number of the same artists are again involved and already, it’s sounding great.
Discuss your Zappa website.
Ever since 1988, I’d been writing for various Zappa fanzines, most notably T’Mershi Duween. After Frank’s passing, production of that slowed down but I continued to find that I had news and more to report. In 2000, I bought my first computer and decided to takes its bastard offspring online. Twelve years and nearly 300,000 hits later, www.idiotbastard.com is still going strong. Essentially, it’s a news site but it does contain all of my interviews with various Zappa alumni and reviews of FZ and related products. Really, it’s just an excuse to blag free CDs and befriend musicians that I admire.
Do you have plans for any more books?
Yes, I do. Aside from publication of the aforementioned autobiography that I helped ghost write (which may or may not be called Onside – The True Story Of Football’s Mr Fix-It by Anton Johnson), a couple of possible collaborations on books exploring particular aspects of FZ have been discussed (I don’t see any point in another full biography, especially as Gail now has Mr. Clayson on the case).
I have also started on a novel about a session man but I’m not sure if anyone would want to publish that, so it’s taking a bit of a backseat as I now work on a second book for Wymer. They plan to publish a series of step-by-step guides to the official recordings of a number of artists. They’ve initially asked me to cover my first love, The Beatles. A well trodden path, I know, but I’ll strive to give it a little twist. The series is supposed to be a beginner’s guide that will eventually include Zappa The Easy Way!