The 1960s were a time of immense musical and cultural advancement. At the forefront were four lads from Liverpool who, upon the diligent study of the rhythm and blues music which captivated them as teens, resolved to relentlessly challenge its boundaries. The lads in question were The Beatles, and by the time of 1966’s Revolver, the group had all but completely transcended their status as happy-go-lucky purveyors of inoffensive pop music. They’d begun assuming a more significant role within the zeitgeist.
It was during this same period that Frank Zappa, a fellow student of R&B and resolute iconoclast would appear on the scene with his own manifesto in the form Freak Out, the debut album from the Mothers of Invention which predated Revolver by about a week.
For years Zappa and The Beatles would progress on somewhat parallel paths, occasionally acknowledging one another. When asked his thoughts on The Beatles, Zappa was characteristically critical of what he felt was the group’s willingness to be merchandised and to participate in the commercialization of their art, though he did profess to enjoying a few of their songs. Paul McCartney has suggested that Freak Out was a principal influence on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967. Zappa would return the favor less than a year after Pepper’s release, parodying the album artwork for his third album with the Mothers of Invention, We’re Only in It for the Money.
The groups behind these projects would dissolve shortly thereafter, with Zappa dismissing the original Mothers of Invention lineup in late 1969, and Lennon announcing his departure from The Beatles in September of the same year, although the decision was kept from the public until April of 1970 when McCartney announced that he and the group would no longer be working together.
Following the dissolution of The Beatles, members of the group would focus their energies on their respective solo careers, a practice in which Lennon had begun to engage even prior to the release of the band’s penultimate album – 1969’s Abbey Road. By that time, he’d released his first single, “Give Peace a Chance,” under the Plastic Ono Band moniker, and would release 1969’s “Cold Turkey,” as well as 1970’s “Instant Karma,” prior to the public announcement of the band’s intention to disperse.
Zappa, likewise, was on to bigger and better things following the dismissal of his band, swiftly assembling a new Mothers lineup which included Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of the recently defunct Turtles, among others. The two camps would cross paths in 1971 following a Lennon interview with Howard Smith during which, upon learning that Zappa would be Smith’s next interview subject, expressed a desire to meet the iconoclastic leader of the Mothers of Invention. Smith, accompanied by Lennon and Yoko Ono, then made the journey to Zappa’s hotel room, where the interview was conducted, and the parties discussed the possibility of playing together. It was decided that Lennon and Ono would join Zappa on stage that night for the encore set of Zappa’s show at the Fillmore East; arrangements had been made in advance to capture the proceedings on tape.
The performance itself, while arguably unremarkable, went off without a hitch. Following the show, Zappa gave Lennon a copy of the master tapes with the understanding that each party could release their own mix of the recordings. Zappa’s release of the material occurred less than two months after the show itself in the form of the live album Fillmore East – June 1971, which was released in August and featured none of the recorded contributions from Lennon and Ono. Issues would arise only after the release of Lennon’s 1972 album, Some Time in New York City, a double album featuring a disc of politically-charged material recorded in the studio, as well as the Live Jam disc comprised of material from a 1969 London concert and material from the concert with Zappa.
The inner sleeve of Some Time in New York City contained artwork for the Live Jam disc in the form of Zappa’s own hand-sketched artwork for his Fillmore East – June 1971 album, albeit with additional modifications from Lennon applied in red marker. The true point of contention, however, was more a concern of business than artistry. Two of Zappa’s original compositions from the performance, “King Kong” and “Scumbag,” were included on Some Time in New York City, with Lennon and Ono crediting themselves with writing and publishing on both, and removing Zappa’s credit entirely for the former; it was released under the title “Jamrag.”
Attempts by Zappa to contact Lennon’s representation regarding the matter proved unsuccessful, and the composer would ultimately see little restitution going forward. Lennon would soon commence his notorious Lost Weekend while Zappa directed subsequent iterations of the Mothers of Invention. The two would not meet again prior to Lennon’s passing, although Zappa’s recordings of their performance would surface just prior to his own passing on the 1992 release Playground Psychotics.
Despite the dream collaboration of two anti-establishment heroes of the 1960s proving less than the sum of its parts, the subsequent records documenting the fortuitous happening remain fascinating artifacts of musical and cultural history.
Photo: composite of John Lennon (Getty) and Frank Zappa (Discreet Records via Wikimedia Commons)