California Dreaming: Sharleena

The Mothers of Invention had disbanded. Well…sort of.

Frank Zappa had brought the band to an end, tired of losing money paying the salaries of a large band. The final straw came at a show in 1969 when the Mothers were on the same bill as Duke Ellington, and Zappa saw Ellington backstage begging his agent for a ten dollar advance. Zappa had been losing a great deal of money, and seeing a musical legend having to grovel for ten dollars brought this into sharp focus. He wasn’t going to be paying the salary of a ten-piece band any more — he was going to try to make money, not lose it. So the Mothers split, and Zappa recorded a solo album, with Ian Underwood from the Mothers, a few of the best session musicians in LA, and Captain Beefheart guesting on one song. That album, Hot Rats, became Zappa’s biggest commercial hit, reaching the top ten in the UK.

And then, as soon as most of the members had found other work — Art Tripp joining the Magic Band; Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner, and Buzz Gardner forming a hard rock band, Geronimo Black, with Tjay Cantrelli of Love; and Lowell George and Roy Estrada forming a new band, Little Feat — Zappa started putting together a new lineup of Mothers.

Other than Zappa himself, Ian Underwood was the only continuing member (although Don Preston would later rejoin the band, temporarily replacing George Duke), but Zappa wanted to have a “rock and roll band” and so kept the Mothers’ name.

The reason he wanted to have a rock band is that he had a new idea for making his music more commercial, while still allowing him to make the kind of satirical comments he wanted — the band were going to satirise the pop music scene, singing about the lifestyle of bands on the road, groupies, casual sex, and other aspects of the culture that was growing up around rock.

But to do that, Zappa needed some genuine pop stars in his band — someone who could easily be recognised as a genuine teen idol, and who would also have the comic skills to sell the comedy routines that were going to be part of the new stage shows.

He chose Micky Dolenz.

Dolenz was asked to join the band in 1969, as Zappa knew that the Monkees TV show had come to an end. Unfortunately, Dolenz would have had to quit the Monkees, and while the band were winding down, he didn’t have the money to buy himself out of his contractual obligations, and so he had to turn Zappa down.

Meanwhile, the Turtles had split, and Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were at a loose end. They’d been offered roles in the LA production of Hair, but decided that it would be the death of their careers. Kaylan had also been offered the role of lead vocalist in a new band formed by two songwriters he knew, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, but Steely Dan didn’t want Mark Volman, and the two came as a package deal.

So when Volman and Kaylan met Zappa backstage at a one-off reunion of the original Mothers, they were eager to join his new group. That eagerness was not necessarily shared by Zappa’s new rhythm section, Aynsley Dunbar and Jeff Simmons, who thought of themselves as serious blues-rock musicians, not pop performers or comedians, but Volman and Kaylan soon won them round with their musicianship.

Volman and Kaylan were both technically excellent singers who had trained in sight-reading, they were genuine pop stars, and the fact that they were fat and so didn’t have the normal glamorous pop star looks was an advantage, as was their stage rapport. It also no doubt helped that Kaylan’s cousin was Herb Cohen, Zappa’s manager and co-owner of his label.

The first fruit of this new band was Chunga’s Revenge, released as a Zappa solo album, but definitely the work of the new Mothers, with Volman and Kaylan (under their new stage names The Phlorescent Leech (later shortened to Flo) and Eddie) singing on the six songs with vocals (there were also four instrumentals). The songs were mostly either jokes about sex, about the music business, or both.

Sharleena is typical of the new Zappa. Lyrically it’s a love song so banal that it parodies love songs, while still being able to be taken seriously should any buyer wish to do so. But musically, its a showcase for the vocal skills of Volman and Kaylan, who have at least four distinct vocal styles in the song. It starts with a parody of their falsetto harmonies, deliberately abrasive and dissonant, before going into a smooth, “serious” version of the same style, a lush, resonant, two-part falsetto harmony.

The two also then create a “Frankenzappa” voice, singing in unison with Zappa on the main verses in a lower register, so that the lead vocal sounds like a single composite voice, while they also add extra harmonies. And at the end, Kaylan takes on yet another vocal persona, this time a stronger, rockier, voice, belting the lyrics out.

Zappa had traded woodwinds and tuned percussion for pop vocals, wah-wah guitar, and a blues-rock rhythm section. The 1970s would show whether that was a sound decision, either artistically or commercially, but here we leave him, and his new Mothers.

Sharleena

Composer: Frank Zappa

Line-up:
Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals), Howard Kaylan (vocals), Mark Volman (vocals), Ian Underwood (saxophone, piano), George Duke (organ), Jeff Simmons (bass, vocals), Aynsley Dunbar (drums)

Original release:
Chunga’s Revenge, Frank Zappa, Bizarre/Reprise MS 2030

Currently available on: Chunga’s Revenge, UMC CD

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