Thursday, December 8, 2011

40 Year Anniversary of Frank Zappa's Worst Week ...Ever

DECEMBER 4, 1971 MONTREUX, SWITZERLAND - In the middle of Don Preston's synthesizer solo on "King Kong", someone in the Montreux Casino audience decided to shoot off a flare gun into the rattan covered ceiling. And so Frank Zappa's worst week began.
Frank told the story like this:

There were between twenty-five hundred and three thousand kids packed into the room- well over capacity. Since more kids were outside, trying to get in, the organizers had cleverly chained the doors shut. When the fire began, the audience was left with two ways out: through the front door, which was pretty small, or through a plate-glass window off to the side of the stage.

I made an announcement- something like: "Please be calm. We have to leave here. There is a fire and why don't we get out?" You'd be surprised how well people who speak only French can understand you when its a matter of life and death. They began filing out through the front door.

As the room was filling with smoke, one of our roadies took an equipment case and smashed the big window. The crew then began helping people to escape through it into some kind of garden place below. The band escaped through an underground tunnel that led from behind the stage through the parking garage.

A few minutes later the heating system in the building exploded, and Some people were blown through the window. Fortunately, nobody was killed and there were only a few minor injuries- however, the entire building, about thirteen million dollars' worth, burned to the ground, and we lost all our equipment.

From across Lake Geneva, members of Deep Purple watched the fire. Together they wrote their most famous song,"Smoke On the Water".

They burned down the gambling house/ 
It died with an awful sound/
Funky Claude (Nobs--director of the Montreux Jazz Fest) was running in and out/
pulling kids out the ground

On the live album version of "Smoke on the Water", Deep Purple's Ian Gillan yells "Break a leg, Frank". It's not really that funny a line.

DECEMBER 10, 1971 LONDON, ENGLAND - That's because six days later, a deranged member of London's Rainbow Theatre audience attacked Zappa on stage. In the melee, Zappa fell ( or was pushed) off the stage:

"The band thought I was dead." Zappa wrote  in The Real Frank Zappa Book. "I had fallen fifteen feet down into a concrete-floored orchestra pit, my head was over on my shoulder and my neck was bent like it was broken. I had a gash in my chin, a hole in the back of my head, a broken rib and a fractured leg. One arm was paralyzed."

Howard Kaylan of Zappa vocalists Flo and Eddie writes about the night in his brilliant memoir Shell Shocked:

We had already taken our group bow and I was happily leaving the stage, feeling fulfilled and exonerated. As I reached the wings, I heard the audience suddenly stop applauding and gasp as one. There was a shocked silence in the Rainbow. I ran back to the stage, but I couldn't see anybody. Band and roadies were standing on the apron at the edge of the platform and gazing down into the darkness of the orchestra pit below. I ran over to see what the lack of commotion was all about. It sure didn't sound good.  

   There, at the bottom of the pit, lay Frank Zappa. He was unconscious and silent, his twisted body fallen below in the shape of some anatomical swastika. His arms and legs were bent at bizarre angles and I couldn't tell if he was breathing or not. Humans aren't supposed to bend like that. There was no reason to believe that Frank Zappa was still alive. 

This had been a very deliberate act. It seems that an audience member named Trevor Howell, who was very, very high indeed either a) didn't feel as if he had gotten his money's worth or b), more likely, was responding to his girlfriend articulating her crush on Frank at the end of the concert. For whatever reason, this maniac jumped onto the stage just as Frank, his back to the audience, was placing his guitar in its stand. He pushed Frank in such a way that he first hit his head on the wall of the orchestra pit before falling to its bottom. We all thought Frank was dead.
Howell tried to get away, but the audience restrained him and brought him to the front of the theater. Here, official accounts vary. But I was there, and I know. Before Howell was delivered to the local authorities, Herb Cohen personally beat the shit out of him. Newspaper stories through out the years have attributed this beating to angry roadies, but in fact, it was Cousin Herb who took control of an out-of-control situation. We were ushered out of the theater and back to the hotel before anyone with authority could tell us anything. Sure, why tell the band anyway?"-

As a result the rest of the Winter European tour was cancelled. Zappa spent most of 1972 in a wheelchair and endured chronic back pain for the rest of his life. The fall also crushed Zappa's larynx which is how he came to acquire that mysterious deep singing voice. The next several albums, Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo,  would feature a jazz fusion sound but almost no vocals at all.

Here's Zappa and the band performing at The Roxy in 1973


  1. nice blog very hard working get more songs and movies from

  2. No, I think you are wrong. It was last week, the week when he died.

  3. It's not just ironic that December 4th is the anniversary of both terribly tragic events. 12/4/71 Montreux fire, 12/4/93 Frank succumbs to cancer; 20 years ago today.

    Rest in peace Frank. You are still missed severely by you family, your friends and your fans. "Music is the best"