I had always thought that when we went to see the Mothers of Invention (that’s Steve and I) in Manchester in 1969 it was at the Free Trade Hall. I’ve just discovered, through the delights of google, that they actually played at the Palace Theatre in 1969 and didn’t play the Free Trade Hall until 1970. I know it was 1969 because of the lineup – Frank Zappa, Jimmy Carl Black, Don Preston, Roy Estrada, Euclid James Motorhead Sherwood, “Bunk” and “Buzz” Gardner, Ian Underwood and Art Tripp.
It was my first ‘big’ concert (I was 20, a slow starter) and Steve smuggled a tape recorder in and recorded the concert – it’s okay, statute of limitations and all that; anyway the tape, sadly, is long lost. They were on tour to publicise Uncle Meat, which had come out earlier that year.
I had been a fan since buying their first album, Freak Out, in Morecambe in 1967. I’d never heard of them – who had in Morecambe in 1967 – but the title, the band name and the sleeve shouted New! Strange! Different! – all magnets to me at 18 when any music that was unlike any I had heard before was, by default, worth a listen (just as an aside I remember my sister Jackie, who had moved to London, telling me about a record she had by the Stan Kenton Orchestra that was ‘really weird’ and promising to bring it up to Heysham for me. She eventually did bring it and it was weird and I didn’t like it).
But The Mothers were different; they had songs ‘You Didn’t Try to Call Me’, social comment ‘Who Are the Brain Police’, and pieces which were unlike anything I had heard ‘Help I’m a Rock’. They also had Suzy Creamcheese who, by the way, lives in Lancaster and is really nice.
By the time of the Palace Theatre concert we were also listening to Absolutely Free and We’re Only in it for the Money, Zappa’s satirical attack on the whole hippie subculture and, in particular, The Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers, even down to the sleeve artwork, with the members of the group dressed in drag and the band name spelled out in vegetables – ‘Call Any Vegetable’ – rather than flowers. Sadly the record company made them put this image on the inside fold-out sleeve and front cover was, again, a parody of the Beatles’ album’s inner sleeve. Anyway, a great record.
So, by the time of the concert I had this image of the band as this bunch of very strange, probably stoned individuals who would come out on stage and deliver an anarchic set full of weird images and strange music. Well, the reality was very different. Okay the music was strange, a mix of orchestral (alto, baritone and tenor sax, trumpet) and rock instruments (electric guitar, drums, keyboards) but played by musicians who knew exactly what they were doing, and presided over by Frank Zappa who, with small gestures, stopped, started, slowed down, sped up and otherwise seemed to have a precise, almost military, control over the band.
So what do I remember? Well, there weren’t many people there (a few hundred) so Zappa asked everyone to come down to the front. Then there was the dancing – or the lack of dancing. Every so often Zappa would start to dance – stop – then announce, as though he had only just remembered that, according to the local bylaws, you weren’t allowed to dance on stage on a Sunday. I also remember ‘Motorhead’ doing an extended riff about cars and, after the concert, Steve and I going across the road to a cafe and bumping into Jimmy Carl Black and Don Preston, who were really nice, chatted to two overawed and shy teenagers, and autographed our programmes – these were actually album-sized booklets about Uncle Meat and I still have mine somewhere (I hope).
All in all a great concert, even if it wasn’t at the Free Trade Hall. I’ll probably find out I was wrong about the other group I saw at the Free Trade Hall around the same time, The Incredible String Band. That’s the strange thing about reality, it’s never what you think it is.