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Necessity Is: The Early Years of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention SAF publishing ISBN 0 946719 51 9 (2005)


'Necessity Is: The Early Years of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention' is another essential piece in the open ended posthumous jigsaw puzzle portrait of contemporary rock icon Frank Zappa. But there's a major difference. For although the subject matter never strays far away from Zappa this book comes to rest its analytical probing on the musicians that comprised the original Mothers of Invention.

'Necessity Is' actually widens its scope to include the later Mothers such Flo & Eddie and thereafter briefly traces the rest of the main characters in their post Zappa careers. It can be argued that as with anything connected with Zappa, everything had its place, and each original member of The Mothers was an integral part of a bigger musical picture. And while that is essentially true, the premise of this well researched and hugely enjoyable book is slightly diluted two thirds of the way through when Zappa called a halt to the original Mothers, and the rest of the book although interesting is of peripheral concern with the stated subject matter.

Aided in no small way by former keyboard player Don Preston, who opens the book with simple but telling quote, 'Here is the story of a bunch of strange guys who used to be in a band called the Mothers of Invention' and who as he goes on to say 'shook the fabric of the rock world as it existed then', 'Necessity' is the story of how it all began and the characters involved. The band survived a 6 year time span from the conservative South California of 1964 via the hippy and psychedelic explosion of 1967 to rock as big business at the turn of the new decade.

And the really big question permeating all the interviews, anecdotes and crazy memories, is whether Zappa could ever have established his unique niche without The Mothers of Invention. The answer is probably a guarded no. for having read this book it is clear he was going places with or without the Mothers who he subsequently dropped. But perhaps the most pertinent question concerning how much of the original Zappa oeuvre was due to the collective characters of the original Mothers while never satisfactorily answered, comes through loud and clear in the reminiscences of the band members themselves.

Each and every one of them was a character who shared Zappa's vision, enthusiasm and were willing to be moulded by him, and adhere to his tight disciplinary manner, and even starve for him. And it is the subtle change in their relationship with Zappa that is almost unwittingly played out in these pages. Billy James's craft lies in his teasing out the change of roles from willing musical accomplices touring a fast changing political and social landscapes to that of hired hands, who were justifiably shocked to discover that at the moment of their greatest success, they were firstly fired and rather than being paid of, were presented with bills by Zappa's then manager Herb Cohen, albeit FZ wrote them of.

Each Mother from Jimmy Carl Black, 'the Red Indian of the group' to the hugely talented Don Preston, the horn playing Gardner Brothers to the crazed falsetto singing Roy Estrada, and roadie turned sax honker Motorhead Sherwood to the retro vocals of Ray Collins all had their unique roles to play, and Zappa talent lay in not only utilising their musical potential but also to amplify their idiosyncrasies on stage.

Years later Jimmy Carl Black encapsulated how the band felt about their sacking. 'The Mothers were really the only band FZ ever had. All the rest of the guys have just been sidemen; we weren't sidesmen - we were partners'. Later still he reflected that 'If we had stayed together we could still be there just like the Rolling Stones'. Warming to the theme Don Preston agrees, 'we would be making about ten million a year now. Look at the Grateful Dead!'

And while those points of view are both with merit and understandable, they of course ignore the fact that Zappa never stayed still, even in the 60's as evidence by Billy James's research.

In a market place already full of books on Zappa 'Necessity Is' is a welcome almost nostalgic look at the role original The Mothers of Invention played in the genesis of the counter culture on the West Coast. The irony is of course that the Mothers who were an integral part of Zappa's ground breaking style, although a loveable bunch were essentially a collection of long in the tooth jazzers and r&b practitioners. But as Billy James's book lovingly portrays they were simply unique. Without them Zappa's brand of outrageous on stage satire, and off the wall humour may well have been lost in a sea of session men, who as his later career illustrated were musically far superior but characterless.


Review by Pete Feenstra

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***** Out of this world | **** Pretty damn fine |
*** OK, approach with caution unless you are a fan |
** Instant bargain bin fodder | * Ugly. Just ugly

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