1971, Part 2

Fire and Chains

1971 was a busy year, and once Frank was home there was no time to dwell on the events back in London. 200 Motels had to be dealt with - the film itself, and a soundtrack album - and a new tour, taking in North America in the summer and Europe at the end of the year.

200 Motels was finished and ready for release in the autumn, although, on a slightly downbeat note, according to Dominique Chevalier in Viva! Zappa (p.18) 'United Artists were suspicious of the film's contents and at first it was only shown in four cities, Los Angeles, Boston, Ann Arbor and Atlanta, before general release in January 1972'; and the North American tour proceeded satisfactorily. Recordings from concerts at the Fillmore East, New York, in June and the Pauley Pavilion at UCLA in August featured on a pair of live albums, Live at the Fillmore East and Just Another Band from L.A. Extracts from one of the Fillmore shows which featured guests John Lennon and Yoko Ono were also released on Lennon's album Sometime in New York City, which came out early the following year.. (Zappa's own version of this collaboration did not surface until the release of the CD Playground Psychotics precisely 20 years later).

The Fillmore album, incidentally - which was quite a popular one - produced my favourite album review of all time, in the weekly pop paper Disc and Music Echo. The opening paragraph, you must agree, is hard to beat:

"Masochism is not one of my favourite indulgences, and when I said last week that I'd not heard the Mothers since their very first trendy LP the last thing I expected was to be landed with this, undoubtedly the biggest waste of time, money, wax, instruments and hall hire in the history of modern music!"
[David Hughes, 21 Aug 1971]

Good, eh? My second favourite part is this one:

"I listen to, and write about music because I enjoy it, and I pride myself in being able to derive enjoyment from every type of music. But this is just not music. It is simply (with two exceptions I will mention later) nearly 45 minutes of aimless jibberish, linked by occasional instrumental bursts from Zappa's guitar or the keyboards of Ian Underwood and Bob Harris.

The tracks are named individually but all roll into one long noise, much of it vulgar, most of it spoken or screamed by grown men! It has no musical merit and no artistic merit."

(The two exceptions, of course, were Happy Together and Tears Began to Fall). I don't know if Frank ever saw this particular review. If so, he may not have laughed as much as I did, but it may have contributed in some small way to his view of this country and our critics.

But I digress. The tour moved on to Europe, the plan being to start in Scandinavia, move on to Germany, Holland and Austria, returning westwards through Switzerland, France and Belgium to Britain, where four shows were arranged on two nights at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, London, followed by further British gigs in Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield. Quite a substantial British tour, in fact.

The outward leg of the tour was fine, and it was not until heading back towards Britain that disaster struck. It was Saturday, December 4th, at Montreux, Switzerland, where the Mothers were playing the lakeside Casino, when it happened. Right in the middle of Don Preston's synth solo in King Kong. This is how many of us read about it in the weekly Sounds:

Zappa flees fire on stage


FRANK ZAPPA'S concerts in Britain will go ahead despite the band losing all their equipment, worth 25,000, in a massive fire which swept through the famous Casino in Montreux in Switzerland where they were appearing at the weekend.

Zappa and the group flew into Britain this week, and with the assistance of tour promoters Fred Bannister promotions, are engaged in a desperate search to find suitable replacements for the burned out equipment. Fortunately much of it was British made. [?]

After Saturday's disastrous fire, Zappa's gigs in Lyons, Paris and Brussels were cancelled in a bid to salvage other dates on the European tour.

Zappa was more than mid-way through the concert and about to begin an instrumental called King Kong when the fire struck. It began only as a small blaze but as it quickly spread after part of the ceiling collapsed, the band and audience had to flee the hall.

Dick Barber, American management representative for the band, who was at the Casino, told Sounds that Zappa stayed very cool and told the audience of over 2,000 that they must leave the hall.

In the fire the group lost passports and other personal possessions as well as their equipment which included amplification, instruments and lighting.

They will be rehearsing with new equipment in this country later on in the week before appearing at the Rainbow Theatre on Friday and Saturday.
[11 Dec 1971]

It was a front-page story in the Melody Maker, under the headline "Frank's hot gig" and a big - almost full-page - picture of Frank on stage.

Frank's own version of the story in The Real Frank Zappa Book (pp.112-113) is a little more detailed.

As to how the fire started, he says: "Somebody in the audience had a bottle rocket or a Roman candle and fired it into the ceiling, at which point the rattan covering started to burn (other versions of the story claim the blaze was the result of faulty wiring)."

If the rocket theory is correct, this was quite ironic:

"As a young boy I was fascinated by the aesthetics of fireworks."
[Air Sculpture, BBC Radio 1, 20 Nov 94. Interview date unknown]

"I spent my recreational hours . . . making homemade explosives from whatever ingredients I could find."
[The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.25]

I don't know how much of their equipment was 'British made', but Frank explains that amongst the instruments lost were a 'customized Fender Rhodes piano, and other specialized synthesizer gear we couldn't buy off a shelf in Switzerland.' His guitar, too, was gone. According to Ben Watson in The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (p.192) 'a solitary cowbell was rescued from the cinders.'

By all accounts, there was a lot of confusion as the fire took hold:

"The owners had chained shut the exit doors because there were people still trying to get in, so one of the roadies smashed a large plate glass window to enable the audience to escape. The auditorium filled with smoke and shortly after the band had to escape through the backstage tunnel, the heating system exploded, blowing several people through the window. No one was killed."
[Frank Zappa - A Visual Documentary by Miles, p.55]

Also there that night, doing some recording, the group Deep Purple were so impressed by the sight that they penned the song Smoke on the Water to commemorate the event. The song's riff is so much more well-known than the lyrics, it is often forgotten that it is one of the few rock numbers to mention Frank by name:

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile,
We didn't have much time.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the Water,
A fire in the sky,
Smoke on the Water

[Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple (Paice/Glover/Gillan/Lord/Blackmore)]

So the Mothers arrived, shocked and equipment-less in London. They obtained replacement instruments and amplifiers, and prepared for the important shows at the Rainbow. Their appearances were, as usual, keenly anticipated - the BBC's rock programme The Old Grey Whistle Test broadcast a 'Zappa Special' on November 16th, in preparation; the four shows were sold out. I personally was disappointed, as I couldn't get a ticket. In the event I was not so upset; Frank must have wished he'd never made the effort to get here.

Surely, things couldn't get any worse? They could, and - as at the beginning of the year - it happened in London.

Go to [Part One | Part Three | Part Four]

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