Thing-Fish

The Broadway Show

FZ, interviewed by Gary A. Shay, Songwriter Connection, November, 1984

I tried to raise some money for it for Broadway. I couldn't. Now, all you'll be able to hear of that project is the 3 record box of the original cast recording. It was going to be all lip-synch. The whole show was on digital tape. I planned it so that all the lighting cues, all the cues for moving the scenery, and everything would be stored on the digital tape, so the show would run itself. Then you put dancers out there to mime the show. It would have been really terrific, but it would have cost 5 million dollars, and I was only able to raise about $400,000. So I said forget this, I'll go do something else. See, if the show had a more boring plot, it would have been okay, but it had a real controversial plot. It had stuff in it that has never been on Broadway before.

Bill Templeton, "The Music Interview With Frank Zappa," Music, January 25-February 6, 1985

Did you actually try to sell that as a play?

Of course!

To no avail . . . ?

Well, to some avail, because we estimated that it would take about 5 million dollars to put it on a stage, and I raised $400,000.

 

The Recording Sessions

Ike Willis

Ike Willis, interviewed by AJ Abrams, Jam Bands, March, 2000

I had a large hand in helping develop Thingfish. It was the hardest, most difficult and longest thing I ever did with Frank. The subject matter was difficult and there was so much material. Frank was writing and rewriting everyday. The album took on a life of its own and grew. Everyday the script changed and more and more lyrics were added.

c. 1982—Jay Anderson

Jay Anderson, on personal correspondence with Patrick Neve

The reality is that my involvement w/Zappa was 1 day of work, but what an interesting day it was.

Chad Wackerman was an old friend of mine. Frank asked if he could recommend and acoustic bassist. I was the guy. My schedule was nuts because I was permanently moving to NYC the day after the session . . . in fact I had to borrow a bass because mine was already in NY.

To be honest, I wasn't that familiar with Zappa's work. I knew that he was an amazing musician and looked forward to working with him. He had evidently just gotten the rights to some of his older music back from WB(?) in a lawsuit that he won. (you probably know more about it than me)

I was the only person at the session . . . aside from Frank and the engineer. I was there for about 12 hours. I don't know if Zappa even knew what was going to be what. He just wanted to get as much out of me in those 12 hours as he could . . . I was happy to oblige. I had heard about the difficulty of his music, so I was a little apprehensive about the task that lay ahead of me. Oddly enough, I didn't read one note of music.

Some of the work was replacing the bass parts on some old M.O.I. stuff. We would listen together . . . he'd ask my opinion, I'd transcribe the tune & bass parts and go. We probably did 8-10 tunes like that. The rest was just improvising over pre-existing live tapes and some studio stuff.

I remember at one point he said "wait 'till you hear the guy throw-up then pull out your bow and make it sound like rats running across the floor". This gives you an idea of what the session was into. It was a lot of fun.

He was very respectful, wanted my input, and was great to work with. I remember he wanted me to hear some other things he was working on. We spent an hour listening to guitar transcriptions that Steve Vai (?) had done of Franks vocal improvs. Amazing!

I don't know if Frank knew the music was going to be Thing Fish or not. Believe it or not I've never heard it! (or any of the other stuff I did) Chad told me that the stuff I did could be on many CDs, I have no idea. [...]

I did the session when I was about 27 (now 44).

 

Thing-Fish & AIDS

FZ, interviewed by Elin Wilder, High Times, December, 1989

HT: In your book you came up with this great thing on AIDS and how it was probably missionaries sticking people with unsanitized needles . . .

FZ: That's not my theory. I heard that from somebody else. The first I heard about AIDS was a news story which said that suddenly 700 people of a certain persuasion in a certain city had died in the month of November. Does that sound like any other epidemic you ever heard of before? An awful lot like Legionnaire's Disease, huh? Suddenly, a certain group of people in a certain place come down with a certain disease. Since I had grown up in a household where I knew about poison gas and germ warfare, it immediately sounded like an experiment to me, using civilians for testing. It's not farfetched to think of it that way because there have been plenty of other examples that have been reported in national media about when the government has used private citizens for testing against their will, including people who went into the Army, were given LSD, and not told that they were part of an experiment. In a hospital in Canada, some patients were used for testing by the CIA. It wasn't widely reported in the US, but they certainly know about it in Canada. And the CIA got caught doing it.

 

disc 1

1. Prologue

Mark Pinske, January 23, 2003

The into to the "Mammy Nuns" song which is the very first thing on the Thing-Fish album was taken from the sound check at the [Stadthalle] in Vienna [June 28, 1982].

Frank started out by saying to me in the recording truck to go ahead and roll some tape because he wanted to lay down an idea for later.

He then did a guitar chord "dahnt da ta da da dahnt" on his guitar and clicked his footswitch for his "MXR" digital delay to loop. He then set his guitar on the stand and let it loop so I could record "with the PZM mics" the way it sounded going out into the room. I had the mics on stage pointing out toward the audience so you could hear the sound roll out from the stage into the room.

Frank loved the sound of empty rooms when there were no people in them. He conducted the band at that point and I think Tommy Mars (my roommate) took the first solo on the comper.

There is no artifictial reverb on start of that track at all. That was the sound of the room. There were many edits on the cut like there were on most cuts that took us all around the world.

Science!

Patrick Buzby, March 19, 2010

I don't know if this has already been discussed, but "science!" near the end of Prologue sounds to me like a reference to Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science."

Thomas Dolby, "She Blinded Me With Science" (single, October 1982)

Science!
"Science!"

They appear wearing giant potato-head masks with human eyes set in randomly. The lower part of the mask is a custom-molded flexible duck-bill prosthesis. Their hands are Jolson-style white gloved monstrosities.

Al Jolson, "Mammy" (The Jazz Singer, 1927) (2:04 min.)

Al Jolson—The Jazz Singer (1927)

The 'MAMMY NUN' costumes resemble the habits of some unknown order from the neck to the waist, with skirts patterned after the blue & white checkered napkin material favored by the lady on the 'Aunt Jemima' Pancake Box.

Anna Robinson as Aunt Jemima
Anna Robinson as Aunt Jemima, c. 1933-1951.

2. The Mammy Nuns

Tan Mitsugu, October 29, 2008

The source for the guitar outro of Mammy Nuns is now identified as Genoa (7/5). About four seconds of guitar frenzy are edited out at 3:27.

 

10. Clowns On Velvet

FZ, interviewed by John Swenson, Guitar World, March, 1982

I am going for optimum solutions to musical problems. And I think I am doing it the right way. I am providing good solutions to the empty canvas problem. Okay, I think other people are providing really boring solutions to the empty canvas problem. Really safe, really boring, but entirely competent solutions to the problem. To me, a lot of other people sound like clowns on velvet. You know what I mean? If you have a piece of black velvet and wanted to solve that problem you'd paint a nice clown on there. You know? Or you do one of those Keane paintings with the children with the large eyes. You know, somebody likes that stuff. And there it is for them. That is not my solution to the empty canvas problem. I am going for something else.

The Missing Al Di Meola Guitar Solo

 

disc 2

1. The Crab-Grass Baby

Mark Pinske, YouTube, 2015

It was a very fun record to record for sure. Bob Harris did a wonderful job of playing "Harry as a boy". Frank would just laugh himself silly when he was programming the IBM computer voice. As for the space and delays. We intentionally used split stereo on the low end for most all the bass tracks and synthesizers to keep the center of the image more open for the Dialogue and featured item's.

FZ, interviewed by Robert L. Doerschuk & Jim Aikin, Keyboard, February, 1987

The first thing I did with Synclavier is on Thing-Fish. Listen to the "Crabgrass Baby" track, which opens up Act II. The background vocals are a repeated vocal chant with this computer voice singing over it. The computer voice is done with a little card that fits into an IBM computer, and the stereo background vocals were our first attempt at stereo sampling using the mono system.

Byron Holmes, June 14, 2016

The actual sound card he used to voice the Crab-Grass Baby was the Votrax SC-01A, a voice synthesizer popular in the early 1980s; its most notable use was spitting out phenomes in the Gottlieb arcade game Q*Bert. A version of the chip was distributed for IBM-compatible computers under the name "Type 'N Talk" around the same time the album was recorded, and presumably one came with Zappa's Synclavier or was purchased not long afterwards at a bargain.

[...] As an added bonus, I was able to find a photo of what was probably the aforementioned IBM model. If you ever decide to copy-paste any part of this email, please be sure to include the photo as well.

Votrax Type 'N Talk

 

2. The White Boy Troubles

Makin' matters woise, de Italian dat be ownin' yo' nativity bungalow been wondrin' 'bouts de hanky AN' de panky 'tween you 'n dem two concrete flamingos ovuh by de steps! You been messin' wit de State Bird o' New Jersey, muthafucker!

Charles Ulrich, March 16, 2010

Contrary to The White Boy Troubles, the state bird of New Jersey is the Eastern Goldfinch, also known as the American Goldfinch.

 

4. Briefcase Boogie

Oh, what fun it is to ride
To Chicago every day, oh . . .

An' I don't need you, MR. FIRST-NIGHTER!

"The First Nighter Program," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopaedia, May 30, 2010

The First Nighter Program was a long-running radio anthology comedy-drama series broadcast from 1930 to 1953. [...] The show's opening recreated the aural atmosphere of a Broadway opening.

My wonderful, wonderful pussy doesn't need you!

Biffy The Elephant Shrew, alt.fan.frank-zappa, April 4, 2010

May be a little thin, but in "Briefcase Boogie," "My wonderful, wonderful pussy" echoes "the wonderful, wonderful cat" from the Felix theme song.

Those are the Warner Brothers files, aren't they dear? Don't you think there'll be some questions about the condition of the blue paper?

Fred H. Banta, quoted on Arf: Notes & Comments

In many Los Angeles courts, you must submit your legal pleadings in "blue back" which is a piece of blue construction paper that you staple your documents to.

Lewis Saul, June 5, 2016

I was a legal secretary for 15 years and here in Arizona we followed the same rules as California—had to have that blue paper backing!

 

6. Wistful Wit A Fist-Full

The EVIL PRINCE and his BROADWAY ZOMBIES appear again. As a result of this previous raw chitlin' ingestion, he, and the rest are showing obvious signs of 'MAMMY NUN' nakkin-sproutulence. Making matters worse, his voice has changed, and now he sings like HARRY and talks like THING-FISH.

Charles Ulrich, November 25, 2004

This paragraph seems to be a cheap device for assigning (after the fact) lines performed by other actors to Napoleon's character of the Evil Prince. Napi told me that it is indeed Terry singing Wistful Wit A Fist-Full.

Terry Bozzio, interviewed by Andrew Greenaway, The Idiot Bastard, September 29, 1992

We went up to Zappa's one night just to visit and he said, "Here, read this, read this, read this. Chuck, you play the piano." And that was that. We had a lot of fun.

 

7. Drop Dead

Charles Ulrich, August 26, 2006

I talked with Ike Willis. [...] Ike played the Evil Prince on Drop Dead, and it's not slowed down.

 

 

Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos
http://globalia.net/donlope/fz/
Original provocation by Vladimir Sovetov
This page updated: 2017-10-24