Frank Zappa: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ 40 Years On

Recently, I was pleased and very surprised to hear a youngish (30s?) sales assistant playing Zappa’s Apostrophe while guarding the till at a local charity bookshop.

A quick and enjoyable conversation led us to agree that of all the major music figures who emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, FZ may be the least respected/understood these days.

You’ll seldom see a major piece about him in the heritage rock magazines (and the family estate keep a close eye on such, as I discovered when writing this piece), but if you do, it’ll probably focus on the ‘golden’ era – i.e. the late 1960s.

Maybe Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece had more power than he anticipated, and he certainly wasn’t the only naysayer – many were turned off by Zappa’s unapologetic, un-PC lyrical stance as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. But his musical intelligence is beyond question and pretty much unprecedented in the ‘rock’ era.

Frank kicked off the 1980s with the release of the stand-alone ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ single, recorded on 16th and 17th February 1980 at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles and released 40 years ago this month. A satirical comment on the draft policy of the Carter administration, it was the first product issued on his own Barking Pumpkin label – and reached #3 in the Swedish singles chart!

It kicked off an incredibly busy decade for FZ. Two albums – Francesco Zappa and Thing-Fish were released on the same day in 1984. There were two albums of guitar solos (one triple and one double), three major orchestral works and hundreds of instrumental pieces for the Synclavier. Not forgetting many other studio/live albums, compilations, and two books, ‘Them Or Us’ and ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, though both contained some previously-published material.

In the live arena, Zappa embarked on major tours in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1988. Now that he, Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul are gone, it’s hard to imagine that any other major artist will ever again play such virtuosic, challenging music in front of large crowds, whilst also blooding young musicians in the process.

Author Ben Watson memorably described FZ’s final 1988 tour as ‘the wildest and most speculative music…heard in rock arenas since the days of Cream, Hendrix and the Mothers Of Invention’.

One of the pleasures of lockdown has been discovering some ’80s FZ works I hadn’t heard (Francesco Zappa, London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 and 2) via Charles Ulrich’s excellent book ‘The Big Note’. What struck me again is the lack of sentimentality in his music (off the top of my head, only three ’80s tracks feature those ‘bittersweet’ major-seventh chords: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’, ‘Jumbo Go Away’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), something that also seems to drive ‘rock’ critics crazy.

It ain’t all good, but the best of Zappa’s ’80s output is absolutely superb, and it really pays to have a root around in his discography. I’ve tried to separate the wheat from the chaff here. There’ll never be anyone like FZ again.

London Lockdown Circa 1980: ‘Babylon’ & ‘Breaking Glass’

One of the few positives of this lockdown may be investigating your local area more than usual.

And if London is your manor, the mostly-silent, near-empty streets may just take you back to the city of your youth, when car ownership was relatively rare and there was plenty of room to kick a football or swing a cricket bat – mainly for sporting purposes, you understand…

Joking aside, London felt pretty edgy at the turn of the ’80s. Youth subcultures fought each other, and the police fought them. Some parts of the city had barely moved on from the Victorian era. There were great swathes of wasteland, still reeling from World War 2 bombs. Tube trains and stations were often deserted and you might even get a slap (there didn’t seem to be many knives around) if you wandered into the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood (hello Gary Bates…).

It was a world accurately captured by feature films like ‘Babylon’, ‘Rude Boy‘, ‘DOA‘, ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle‘ and ‘Breaking Glass’, all released 40 years ago. ‘Babylon’ was illuminated by sumptuous photography by legendary Brit cinematographer Chris Menges (‘Kes’, ‘The Mission’, ‘The Killing Fields’), capturing rundown, turn-of-the-decade Lewisham, south-east London, site of a notorious August 1977 battle between the National Front and 10,000 protestors.

All of these films accurately capture the energy of inner-city life during the late-’70s and early-’80s, and the pressures of young people living at the sharp end of recession, racism and unemployment. Also ever-present is the constant theme of music-business skullduggery and police brutality. But it’s all shot through with healthy doses of humour and humanity, particularly throughout ‘Babylon’.

For all the benefits of ‘gentrification’ and the corporate restructuring of the capital, true Londoners of a certain age probably feel a tinge of nostalgia about the time when they seemed to own the streets, when there were many secrets to be found in the city’s nooks and crannies – for better or worse.

Jeff Beck @ The Royal Albert Hall: 1983 v 2004

Legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns has worked with many of the biggies (The Beatles, Led Zep, The Stones, The Who), but arguably his most important task was putting together the Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) concerts on Ronnie Lane’s behalf.

For the London iteration – taking place at the Royal Albert Hall on 20th September 1983 – Johns opened his address book and assembled a tremendous lineup of Brit greats: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, John Paul Jones, Andy Fairweather-Low, Bill Wyman, Kenney Jones, Charlie Watts.

The whole concert is worth watching and occasionally superb (check out Clapton’s versions of ‘Lay Down Sally’ and ‘Cocaine’), but Beck’s set is particularly fascinating. It was three years since his (superb) last studio album There And Back and he hadn’t played a major gig for almost that long. A clearly under-rehearsed band did their best with the RAH’s famously dodgy ‘rock’ sound (despite Beck’s gorgeous stereo delay, if you’re listening on headphones/speakers), not helped by drummer Simon Phillips being set up about 20 yards behind the rest of the group!

But it’s a great success, mainly through the musicians’ sheer force of will and Beck’s outrageous playing (check out his solo on ‘Led Boots’). The Tony Hymas/Fernando Sanders/Phillips rhythm section is terrific, and there’s even a funny version of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ featuring Beck’s reluctant vocals alongside Winwood and Fairthweather-Low.

Just over 20 years later, on 24th June 2004, Beck was back at the Albert Hall for his 60th birthday gig, and I had a good seat. His live outings were much more common at this point; recently he’d played Hyde Park and also celebrated 40 years in the music biz at the Royal Festival Hall with John McLaughlin and The White Stripes.

But this concert was particularly notable for featuring enigmatic keyboard genius Jan Hammer, one-time Mahavishnu member and chief collaborator with Beck on Wired and There And Back. Making up the numbers were the phenomenal Mondesir brothers: Mike on bass, Mark on drums.

Beck hardly seemed to have aged. Wearing black jeans and black vest, he stalked the stage like a born showman, exchanging grins and winks with Hammer, occasionally punching the air to emphasise a musical flourish. However, things started a little uncertainly; ‘Freeway Jam’ and ‘Star Cycle seemed leaden. But by the time Beck roared into ‘Big Block’, the energy level of the band had gone up two or three notches.

Old favourites ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Blue Wind’ seemed to mean little to the Albert Hall audience but the long-hairs reacted more positively to Beck’s most recent work from albums like You Had It Coming and Who Else?. There were some unintentionally amusing Tap-esque moments too, like the big-screen footage of Jeff’s souped-up hot rods during ‘Big Block’ and the cloud of dry ice which almost engulfed him during ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’.

For the encore, Ronnie Wood sauntered on to play a charmingly ramshackle version of The Meters’ ‘Cissy Strut‘. Two old rockers from Surrey playing a funky New Orleans anthem? That’s the majesty of fusion!

So, while they’re still around, let’s cherish El Becko and the best of British. (And I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve featured Jeff – one of my all-time musical heroes – on this website. Better late than never, I suppose…)

Story Of A Song: Prefab Sprout’s ‘Nightingales’

Prefab Sprout’s 1988 album From Langley Park To Memphis was their pop breakthrough, reaching #5 in the UK charts, and is probably most casual fans’ favourite.

But let’s take a close look at the fifth track, the epic ‘Nightingales’. Featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica and released as the fourth single from From Langley Park in November 1988, it remains one of Prefab’s most beguiling songs.

Written by Paddy McAloon under the influence of Barbra Streisand’s Broadway Album, it’s a stellar piece of work by any standards; melody, harmony and lyric are inextricably linked, as if the song had always existed and was just plucked out of the air.

Thought follows thought, musical idea follows musical idea completely naturally, without any songwriter ‘tricks’ such as looped chord sequences or vamps.

It’s fair to say that by the time of From Langley Park’s recording, McAloon was becoming a proficient pianist; eight of ten songs on the album were written on keyboards, including ‘Nightingales’. Its harmonic concept, with an emphasis on major-seventh chords (including an audacious jump from F#m7 to Cmaj7 in bars four and five of the chorus) and triads superimposed over apparently unrelated root notes, possibly reveals a Brian Wilson influence, but the final effect is more Stephen Sondheim than ‘Surf’s Up’.

‘Nightingales’ also has no apparent antecedents in the 1980s pop firmament, though, at a stretch, approaches one of Green Gartside and David Gamson’s gossamer Scritti Politti ballads. In a year when Acid House and the ‘Madchester’ sound were gestating and Stock Aitken Waterman ruled the charts, McAloon delivered something unabashedly romantic and somewhat old-fashioned; the opening line (‘Tell me do, something true‘) and general tenor of the lyric are more akin to ‘Daisy Bell’ than anything by the Stone Roses (and Paddy made no secret of his general distaste for late-’80s pop).

The song’s protagonist analyses his love affair, asking his paramour whether their love is fleeting like a ‘firework show’ or whether it’s a lasting, valuable entity. They agree that such questions are unhelpful and/or irrelevant – the key is to live in the moment.

‘Nightingales’ was co-produced by Jon Kelly and McAloon. By 1987, London-born Kelly was an experienced, highly-regarded producer and engineer, probably best known as one of Kate Bush’s key early collaborators on the classic 1980 album Never For Ever. He had also worked on successful albums by Chris Rea (Dancing With Strangers) and Paul McCartney (Ram) and just produced Deacon Blue’s debut album Raintown, the latter definitely influenced by Prefab.

Double and triple-tracked keyboard parts dominate ‘Nightingales’, played by McAloon and legendary British session player Wix, AKA Paul Wickens. They closely follow the chord voicings of McAloon’s original acoustic piano demo, echoed on this lovely live version from 2000:

By the time of the first chorus, sampled sleigh bells and silky Synclavier drums are added to the mix alongside McAloon’s rather incongruous but effective (sampled?) banjo. Robin Smith’s widescreen string arrangement becomes increasingly prominent throughout the track; particularly notable is a flurry of ascending, almost celestial notes in three distinct phases beginning at 2:14 (and check out the rustle of fake locusts at 4:26!).

Stevie Wonder had long been a hero of McAloon’s, the album Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants being a particular favourite. Mentioning as much to Prefab manager Keith Armstrong one day, Paddy half-joked that a Stevie harmonica solo on ‘Nightingales’ would really bring the track to life.

Armstrong stunned McAloon by informing him that he was a good friend of Wonder’s operations manager Keith Harris and would put in a good word for the band (it’s also worth noting that Wonder played some sublime harmonica on Thomas Dolby’s ‘Don’t Turn Away’ a year before the recording of ‘Nightingales’ – perhaps Thomas gave the band a good reference…).

Wonder’s harmonica solo was recorded in a very rushed session during September 1987 at Westside Studios in Notting Hill, West London. He apparently learnt the song quickly, disappearing into a corner of the studio with a rough mix on his Walkman, and then recorded two takes in the lower octave and two in the higher. The released solo is a composite of the four.

Richard Moakes was the young engineer tasked with capturing Wonder’s solo on tape. According to McAloon:

He (Moakes) looked at me and said, ‘Oh God, I’m a bit worried I won’t know how to get his sound’. I said, ‘Well, look, we’ll just see what happens’. And of course you put the microphone on him and you turn the fader up and he sounds like Stevie Wonder. You don’t do anything. Unless you’re doing something really silly, you’ll get it and it will be identifiable. So I thought, OK, when you play a guitar, don’t blame an engineer if you don’t know what you’re doing…

New York mix engineer Michael Brauer cooked up the 12” version of ‘Nightingales’. He made some drastic changes from the 7” single, placing the sleigh bells right at the front of the mix, reinstating some of Wendy Smith’s stacked backing vocals originally left on the cutting room floor, stripping McAloon’s lead vocal of its reverb (though adding a lot more to the snare drum) and leaving more space for Smith’s string arrangement and McAloon’s banjo.

A video was also made, though it’s almost impossible to track down these days – never a sure sign of quality…

15 Great Goals From The 1980s

So it looks like the football season is ending with barely a whimper, and we may not see any tennis or cricket at all this summer. So there’s time to indulge in a little nostalgia.

Here are some memorable goals of the 1980s, in no particular order, a decade during which this writer cared passionately about the game, unlike now… (Favourite players: Glenn Hoddle, Bryan Robson, Ray Houghton, Matt Le Tissier, Gordon Davies, Steve ‘Headband’ Foster.)

Ray Wilkins and Jimmy Case’s strikes have special significance, as I was present at the games, and I certainly would have been watching Ricky Villa, Steve MacKenzie and Norman Whiteside’s wondergoals live on the TV. But all of the below still deliver a frisson of excitement.

(And for those who can’t stand football – and I kind of sympathise – normal service will be resumed shortly…)

15. Jan Molby: Liverpool v Manchester United, 26th November 1985

14. Ray Wilkins: Manchester United v Brighton, 21st May 1983

13. John Barnes: England v Brazil, 10th June 1984

12. George Best: San Jose Earthquakes v Fort Lauderdale Strikers, June 1981

11. Norman Whiteside: Manchester United v Everton, 18th May 1985

10. Jimmy Case: Brighton v Sheffield Wednesday, 16th April 1983 (at 1:40 below)

9. Diego Maradona: Argentina v England, 22nd June 1986

8. Marco Van Basten: Holland v Soviet Union, 25th June 1988

7. Ricky Villa: Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City, 14th May 1981

6. Glenn Hoddle: Tottenham Hotspur v Watford, 24th September 1983

5. Justin Fashanu: Norwich City v Liverpool, 9th February 1980

4. Cyrille Regis: West Bromwich Albion v Norwich, 13th February 1982

3. Graeme Sharp: Everton v Liverpool, 20th October 1984

2. Steve MacKenzie: Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur, 14th May 1981

1. Kenny Dalglish: Scotland v Belgium, 15th December 1982

Any great 1980s goals missing from the list? Get in touch below.

Lou Reed: The Best Of The 1980s

Lou’s gallows humour has been giving me a lift recently, a tonic for these troubled times. There’s just something very apt about his cast of characters ‘that just squeak by’, with no hope of salvation.

His marriage of rock’n’roll music with the language of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Chandler and Tennessee Williams also seems totally timeless, and it’s barely believable that we’re approaching seven years since his death.

The predictable critical narrative is that Reed had a dodgy 1980s, not releasing a decent album until New York. But I’d throw in ’82’s The Blue Mask and ’84’s New Sensations too; by my reckoning, his only dog of the decade is 1986’s Mistrial. He also seemed to develop, slowly leaving behind the drugs/booze and moving towards higher climes by ’89.

Here’s a selection of the good stuff, often featuring such quality players as Robert Quine, Fernando Sanders, Fred Maher and L Shankar. He put a lot out there, addressing jealousy, addiction, violence, ecological issues. A cliché though it may be, it’s hard to imagine anyone ‘getting away’ with some of this these days.

Check out the playlist here and lyrics below. Keep calm and listen to Lou…

 

‘The Power Of Positive Drinking’ (1980)

Some like wine and some like hops
But what I really love is my scotch
It’s the power, the power of positive drinking

Some people ruin their drinks with ice
And then they ask you for advice
They tell you, I’ve never told anyone else before

They say, candy is dandy but liquor makes quipsters
And I don’t like mixers, sippers or sob sisters
You know, you have to be real careful where you sit down in a bar these days

And then some people drink to unleash their libidos
And other people drink to prop up their egos
It’s my burden, man
People say I have the kind of face you can trust

Some people say alcohol makes you less lucid
And I think that’s true if you’re kind of stupid
I’m not the kind that gets himself burned twice

And some say liquor kills the cells in your head
And for that matter so does getting out of bed
When I exit, I’ll go out gracefully, shot in my hand

The pow-pow-pow-pow-power of positive drinking

 

‘Average Guy’ (1982)

I ain’t no Christian or no born-again saint
I ain’t no cowboy or a Marxist DA
I ain’t no criminal or Reverend Cripple from the right
I am just your average guy, trying to do what’s right

I’m just your average guy, an average guy
I’m average looking and I’m average inside

I’m an average lover and I live in an average place
You wouldn’t know me if you met me face to face

I worry about money and taxes and such
I worry that my liver’s big and it hurts to the touch
I worry about my health and bowels
And the crimewaves in the street

I’m really just your average guy
Trying to stand on his own two feet
Average looks, average taste, average height, average waist
Average in everything I do
My temperature is 98.2

 

‘Turn To Me’ (1984)

If you gave up major vices
You’re between a hard place and a wall
And your car breaks down in traffic on the street

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

If you father is freebasing and your mother turning tricks
That’s still no reason that you should have a rip
Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

When your teeth are ground down to the bone
And there’s nothing between your legs
And some friend died of something that you can’t pronounce

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

You can’t pay your rent
Your boss is an idiot
Your apartment has no heat
Your wife says maybe it’s time to have a child

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

When it’s all too much
You turn the TV set on and light a cigarette
Then a public service announcement comes creeping on
You see a lung corroding or a fatal heart attack
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

 

‘Doin’ The Things We Want To’ (1984)

The other night we went to see Sam’s play
Doin’ the things that we want to
It was very physical, it held you to the stage
Doin’ the things that he want to
The guy’s a cowboy from some rodeo
Doin’ the things that we want to
The girl had once loved him, but now she want to go
Doin’ the things that we want to
The man was bullish, the woman was a tease
Doin’ the things that we want to
They fought with their words, their bodies and their deeds
Doin’ the things that we want to
When they finished fighting, they excited the stage
Doin’ the things that we want to
I was firmly struck by the way they had behaved
Doin’ the things that we want to …
It reminds me of the movies Marty made about New York
Doin’ the things that we want to
Those frank and brutal movies that are so brilliant
Doin’ the things that we want to
‘Fool For Love’ meet ‘The Raging Bull’
Doin’ the things that we want to
They’re very inspirational, I love the things they do
Doin’ the things that we want to
There’s not much you hear on the radio today
Doin’ the things that we want to
But you still can see a movie or a play
Doin’ the things that we want to
Here’s to Travis Bickle and here’s to Johnny Boy
Doin’ the things that we want to
Growing up in the mean streets of New York
Doin’ the things that we want to
I wrote this song ’cause I’d like to shake your hand
Doin’ the things that we want to
In a way you guys are the best friends I ever had
Doin’ the things that we want to

 

‘The Last Great American Whale’ (1989)

They say he didn’t have an enemy
His was a greatness to behold
He was the last surviving progeny
The last one on this side of the world

He measured half a mile from tip to tail
Silver and black with powerful fins
They say he could split a mountain in two
That’s how we got the Grand Canyon

Some say they saw him at the Great Lakes
Some say they saw him off the coast of Florida
My mother said she saw him in Chinatown
But you can’t always trust your mother

Off the Carolinas the sun shines brightly in the day
The lighthouse glows ghostly there at night
The chief of a local tribe had killed a racist mayor’s son
And he’d been on death row since 1958

The mayor’s kid was a rowdy pig
Spit on Indians and lots worse
The old chief buried a hatchet in his head
Life compared to death for him seemed worse

The tribal brothers gathered in the lighthouse to sing
And tried to conjure up a storm or rain
The harbour parted and the great whale sprang full up
And caused a huge tidal wave
The wave crushed the jail and freed the chief
The tribe let out a roar

The whites were drowned
The browns and reds set free
But sadly one thing more
Some local yokel member of the NRA
Kept a bazooka in his living room
And thinking he had the chief in his sights
Blew the whale’s brains out with a lead harpoon

Well Americans don’t care for much of anything
Land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
With human life not worth much more than infected yeast
Americans don’t care too much for beauty
They’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
And complain if they can’t swim

They say things are done for the majority
Don’t believe half of what you see
And none of what you hear
It’s a lot like what my painter friend Donald said to me:
‘Stick a fork in their ass and turn ’em over, they’re done’