Frank Zappa. A game changer. And much of the aesthetic projection can be credited to Cal Schenkel…
by Art Chantry ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
Where would we all be if there had never been a Frank Zappa? I mean, the guy was out there beating a path through the wilderness for decades. A true pioneer/cult figure, he only achieved commercial success by accident when he had a novelty number (“don’t eat yellow snow”). however, if you ever listen to the lyrics of his songs, you’d soon realize that where was nothing ‘novelty’ about that song at all. all his lyrics were in that turf. he thought it was funny.
I think Frank and his extreme devotion to pushing the limits of creative ‘taste’ and breeding influenced far more of the people who went on to create the current American culture than almost anybody this side of the Beatles. If you read interviews with movers and shakers from the last 40 years, it seems all of them discovered Zappa as a youngster and it opened up the world to them – and such an odd world. all them ‘nerds today/cool cats tomorrow’ were Zappa heads. it’s almost universal.
And good ol’ Frank fought the good fight long before his famous testimony before congress – where he exquisitely laid down the law on freedom of speech (to universal applause). this ( first image ) is the early dust jacket that was used in the vanity label he started indie the Warner Bros. contract, called ‘Some Bizarre records’. it was one of those ground breaking and trend setting and completely eccentric efforts that was so purely Zappa. I mean, he signed Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, recorded and produced Captain Beefheart and (the recently deceased – RIP) Wild Man Fischer. he actually record and released the GTO’s! his own solo records and band efforts by the Mothers are well known. All of it on his own strange little in-house label. It created deniability for the parent company of Warner Bros. records. it was the only way he could do what he wanted.
You see, Zappa was charting his own course since very early days. as a young man (kid, really) he had built his own studio and was following his musical interests while starving to death (literally) when he was approached by a sleazy character to make a ‘sex’ recording in his studio for that sleazeball to sell on some imagined “audio porn” market. It was desperately needed money, so, Zappa got a couple of friends together and they had big laugh making groaning noises and fake sex talk in the studio. when he turned the tape over to the sleazeball, it turns out he was an undercover cop and had set up a sting on the ‘weirdo hippie.’ now, Zappa has an old (grossly unfair) porn charge in his history. that sort of wet his tongue for some of the battles he fought the rest of his life. I mean, the whole sting was ridiculous. It was fake porn! that’s illegal? how?
When Zappa had some cash (from the warner’s empire) to build his own label, one of the first things he did was make these dust jackets (the paper sleeves that fit over the actual vinyl disk before it gets slipped into the album cover). on it, he reproduced the first amendment of the United States constitution! some dirty hippie freak was using the constitution to proclaim his creative freedom! Imagine that! It almost pisses you off to the point where you want to wrap yourself in an American flag! I had this dust jacket thumb-tacked to my studio wall for over 20 years.
When I first saw this thing, it really blew me away. I mean, look at it! not only does it have that wonderful first amendment on it to refer to, the design is almost frighteningly bizarre. those little ‘dot eyes’ in Frank’s face gave my little kid mind nightmares (i guess i was sensitive?) and what’s with that ‘label’ stuff in the upper right corner? “LA? SFO? NYC? danger? self-destruct?” huh? almost a threat of some sort?
I think Zappa’s in-house artist, Cal Schenkel, designed this thing. not sure about that, but it sure looks like his work. Cal was such a huge influence on my own work that I think of him as my starting point in my life journey in graphic design. through loving his work I was drawn to dada (duchamp, picabia, schwittwers) and then Warhol and pop art. the obvious end point of that whole dialog is graphic design, which is exactly where I got permanently lodged.
At one point, while art directing the Rocket magazine back in the early 1990’s, I wanted to hire Cal Schenkel to do a cover for us. trying to hire your hero is a nervous and frightening task. how do you even contact the guy? I had a copy of the letterhead of Frank Zappa’s private home label (“Barking Pumpkin records”) sitting around because they sent review copies to the rocket. so, I called the phone number and started asking questions.
The guy on the other end of the line was very very friendly and pleasant and smart. he even knew what the Rocket was (a regional northwest alt monthly). he even recognized my name!!! how on earth did he know who I was? when I brought up Cal, the voice on the other end got all soft and affectionate and said, “ah, yes. Calvin. of course, I’ll hook you up…” and he gave me a phone number.
After I got off the phone, I was thinking about the conversation and it bothered me that I felt like I knew that voice on the other end of the line. It was SO familiar. then it struck me – it was FRANK ZAPPA! I mean, Barking Pumpkin was literally run out of the basement of his house. So, why not him hanging around working it? It was HIS voice on the phone. I was talking with FRANK ZAPPA hisself, yer honor!
I never really worked up the nerve to call Cal after that conversation. The idea of actually chatting on the phone with Frank Zappa had so unraveled my cool that I was a mess for a few days.
so it goes….
AC:did you see the one with abbie hoffman and jerry rubin? remember the’patriotic poster’ they so proudly displayed to the camera – the stars and stripes with a big “fuck communism” stenciled on it? remember how speechless joe became – almost paralyzed with anger? and abbie and jerry just kept innocently asking him, “well, gee, joe, don’t you agree with it? i mean, “yea team!”, right? we think it’s great.” it was hilarious. and also, wasn’t jeff simmons an old seattle guy? wasn’t he in a band called ‘easy chair’?…