Who needs the Peace Corps: Zappa (****) & White Riot (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2021)

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“A lot of what [The Mothers of Invention] do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it. As long as they don’t feel their environment – they don’t worry about it – they’re not going to do anything to change it and something’s gotta be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.”

– Zappa, on Zappa…from Zappa

Directed by actor Alex Winter (yes…”Bill” as in “Bill & Ted”), Zappa (****) is the best film portrait of composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa I’ve seen to date (and I’ve seen a lot of ’em). Intimate and moving, it covers all aspects of his career, but it’s the first doc to (rightfully) position him as one of our greatest modern composers (not just a “rock star”).

While there are brief performance clips, this is not a Zappa performance film (there are plenty of those already) but rather a unique attempt to get inside his head; to understand what inspired him, what pissed him off, but mostly what drove a Picasso-like need to create up until the end (which came much too soon when he died of prostate cancer in 1993, just weeks before his 53rd birthday).

In a recent IndieWire interview, Winter expounded on his decision to take an intimate approach:

“I came up in the entertainment industry, where you’re surrounded with mythologizing and so much bullshit. It’s so hard to tear those things down and find human beings there or retain your own humanity. So I think there was an aspect of my own interest in Zappa, how he retained his humanity and the consequences he faced for living the life that he did that compelled me all the way through.”

Winter was given unprecedented access to the family archives, so he had his work cut out for him:

“For me, the gold in his vault was hours and hours and hours of him shooting the shit. The stuff that we made narration out of was literally him on his easy chair in the basement talking to Matt Groening or talking to a musician or a pundit. We just cut all the other people out and made a narrative. Then we chopped the narrative up, so he would start his prison story in ’68, he would keep it going in ’85, and he would end it in ’92. We’d use all of that in one sentence. So, we were very aware of the idea of trying to demystify yourself while you re-mythologize yourself which was something Zappa did himself.”

One prevalent theme in Winter’s portrait is that Zappa was an artist with intense creative focus (the one time I got to see him perform in Troy, New York in 1976 I remember marveling how he was able to sing, play and conduct the band…all while chain-smoking through the entire set). His perfectionism and 3-dimensional chess mindset (as Winter appears to be implying) could have contributed to Zappa’s reputation as a brusque and manipulative “boss” with some of his players.

That said, there is also a well-chosen roster of former band members (Ruth Underwood, Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, Steve Vai, et.al.) and creative collaborators on hand to parse his strengths and weaknesses from a first-hand view, and offer illuminating insight into the blood, sweat, and toil that went into producing such an impressive body of work (over 60 albums released in Zappa’s lifetime, plus uncounted hours of live and studio tapes spanning 30 years that languish in the family vaults). Some of them do acknowledge that Zappa could be cold and dismissive…well, an asshole.

But as The Burning Sensations sang: Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. Winter’s main thrust isn’t about the traumas and psychodramas. It is about the creative process of an iconoclast who (by his own admission), worked day and night composing the music that he wanted to listen to, simply because no one else was. And if other people happened to like it…he was cool with that.

“Zappa” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms

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As a musician, Eric Clapton has rarely played off-key…but he really hit a sour note with music fans attending a 1976 concert in Birmingham, England. During the performance, Clapton launched into a shocking, racial epithet-laden anti-immigrant harangue, essentially parroting the tenets of the fascistic, far-right National Front organization that was gaining substantial political power and declaring his glowing admiration for former Conservative MP-turned demagogue Enoch Powell.

Clapton wasn’t the only U.K. rock luminary at the time who sounded like he was ready for the white room with no windows or distractions. David Bowie infamously stated in one interview “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership.”  (Bowie would later blame it on the drugs, laughing off the comments as “theatrical observations”). Rod Stewart made the unfortunate comment “…immigrants should be sent home.”

Something else was trending in the U.K. music scene circa 1976-the burgeoning punk movement. In addition to its prime directive to shake up the rock establishment that included the likes of Messrs. Clapton, Bowie and Stewart, there was an anti-fascist political ethos streaking through the punk ranks.

Granted, there was a certain segment of the “skinhead” subculture that became synonymous with National Front rhetoric…but not all skinheads were NF sympathizers. In short, it wasn’t simply Mods vs. Rockers anymore. The U.K. music scene had become …complicated.

In her documentary White Riot (***), Rubika Shaw takes a valiant stab at sorting all that out in 80 minutes; specifically through the lens of the “Rock Against Racism” movement that was ignited (in part) by Clapton’s ill-advised foray into spoken word performance in 1976, and culminated in a game-changing 1978 rally/music festival in London’s Victoria Park headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band that was attended by an estimated 100,000.

Shaw mixes archival clips and interviews with present day ruminations from some of RAR’s movers and shakers, primarily represented by photographer/political activist David “Red” Saunders. Sanders, whose background ran the gamut from underground theater player and war photojournalist to doing professional photography for ad agencies, periodicals, and album covers, was the co-founder of Temporary Hoarding, the punk fanzine that became the “voice” of RAR.

In the film, Saunders recalls how he kick-started RAR with this letter to the U.K. music press:

When I read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, I nearly puked. What’s going on, Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage. So you’re going to stand for MP and you think we’re being colonised by black people. Come on… you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff, you know you can’t handle it. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B? You’ve got to fight the racist poison, otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and all the money men who ripped off rock culture with their chequebooks and plastic crap. Rock was and still can be a real progressive culture, not a package mail-order stick-on nightmare of mediocre garbage. We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in rock music – we urge support – all those interested please write to:

ROCK AGAINST RACISM,

Box M, 8 Cotton Gardens, London E2 8DN

P. S. ‘Who shot the Sheriff’, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

[Signed] Peter Bruno, Angela Follett, Red Saunders, Jo Wreford, Dave Courts, Roger Huddle, Mike Stadler, etc.

Now there is a mission statement that says: “Let’s kill it before it grows.”

And it was growing; “it” being the influence of the National Front. Initially flitting about the fringes of British politics as a coalition of radical right-wing groups in the 60s, the organization had a more centralized platform by the end of the decade. They had found a “champion” of sorts in Enoch Powell, a Conservative Party politician who gave an inflammatory address in 1968 dubbed the “Rivers of Blood speech”.

The speech was a populist appeal against non-white immigration into Britain, advocating (among other things) a repatriation program. While not as radical as the NF’s stand on immigrants (basically “round ’em up and send ’em all back”) it gave them a sense of empowerment to have a high-profile government official as an ideological ally (sound familiar?).

Stand back and stand by…there’s more.

There are a number of items that “sound familiar” in Shaw’s film, particularly in the recounting of an August 1977 clash in the streets between members of the National Front (who had organized an anti-immigrant march) and counter demonstrators. There was a strong police presence; the day would come to mark the first time they used riot shields on mainland Britain.

A number of the Bobbies also let their white slips show by demonstrating a marked preference for using strong arm tactics against the counter-demonstrators (many of whom were people of color), while coddling the NF marchers (August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin…anyone?).

Modern parallels resonate well outside the Colonies. From an April 2020 Guardian article:

Contemporary Britain is battling far-right rhetoric similar to that which divided the country in the 1970s, with the Brexit debate revealing how politicians continue to stoke racial tension, according to the director of a film about the formation of Rock Against Racism (RAR).

Rubika Shah, the director of a new documentary about the lead up to RAR’s march and concert in east London’s on 30 April 1978, says the UK is still struggling to counter the far-right populism that made the National Front a force in the 1970s.

“There are so many similarities,” Shah said. “I hope people look at some of the stuff that was happening in the late 70s and think: ‘Wow, this is actually happening now.’” […]

Shah said she deliberately included National Front slogans such as “It’s our country, let’s win it back” to show their echoes in modern campaigning, such as Dominic Cummings’ “Take back control” mantra that was used during the Brexit referendum. “It’s scary how that language creeps back in,” she said.

The director said she was shocked to hear Boris Johnson use the term “invisible mugger” to describe the Coronavirus, as “mugger” was a word used by the National Front and right-wing media to describe black people in the 1970s.

Make America Great Again!

Shaw’s film is engaging, fast-paced, and infused with a cheeky “D.I.Y.” attitude. Considering all the angles she covers, it may be a little too fast-paced; political junkies might find themselves craving a deeper dive into backstory and context. Music fans may be disappointed that despite the film’s title (taken from the eponymous Clash song), the film is not exclusively “about” the punk scene (tiny snippets of performance footage is the best you’ll get).

Still, it’s a fascinating bit of sociopolitical history, and an uplifting reminder that even in the darkest of times, a righteous confluence of art and politics can affect real and positive change.

“White Riot” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms

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