Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

"Memories of nearly 50 years in the Biz"

Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby radiofan » Sat Jun 13, 2009 6:24 pm

Brian Lord's Radio Stories

Frank Zappa and "The Big Surfer"


In the fall of 1962, there was this comedian named Vaughn Meader who struck upon the idea of doing an LP spoofing the immensely popular Kennedy family: John F., Jacquie, Robert, Teddy and a few others. It was called "The First Family" and was non-political, just stuck to basic comedy. JFK had created an aura surrounding the White House which was dubbed Camelot. After the humorless, Cold War, Eisenhower years, there was a fresh spirit and the president was not above making jokes about himself, his brothers and whatever took his fancy. Meader capitalized on this -- much to Kennedy's pleasure -- the president even gave copies of the LP, which by this time had sold over one million copies, away as Christmas mementos.

The LP sold well into 1963 breaking all kinds of records; a follow up was done but was weak when compared to the initial album.

This was during the Surf Music craze and for something like this to come out of left field was pretty odd but so what? it did. Kennedy had an easy accent to imitate. I had no problem with it and occasionally I used to drop in ad-libs while on the air with the JFK New England dialect. I never plagiarized, never used material from Meader's LP -- but gave the time, the name of the records we played and one-liners as Kennedy would have sounded. I also appeared on stage at a Saturday afternoon rock concert the station was promoting, using the impersonation. It went over well enough. I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the United States or Canada who was doing this, basically building on "The First Family" phenomenon, as I say JFK was not hard to imitate.

One afternoon the switchboard operator, Shelia, called me in the music library and said there was some guy name Frank Zap on the telephone and could I take the call. It had to be a record promoter and as I was Music Director it was my job to field these calls. "Hello, this is Brian Lord". A voice with a faint New York accent was on the line. "Are you the disc jokey who impersonates the president, John Kennedy?" I figured this may be trouble, the FBI or whoever.

But far from it. The guy went on to say, "My name's Frank Zappa and I got an idea for a record. You know how popular Surf music is and you know how popular "The First Family" album is? -- well what I wanna do is combine them -- I wanna make a record of Kennedy judging a Surf Contest here in California. I have a band, the Midnighters, and I've heard you do the Kennedy bit. How would you feel about coming to my Cucamonga studios after your shift and just reading a few lines in your Kennedy accent over a basic rock riff with a few sound effects to make it sound like the beach?" He went on to say that I would sign a standard recording artist's contract which meant I would get 3% of the proceeds of record sales. The song was to called "The Big Surfer" by Brian Lord and the Midnighters Composition credit was to be his, Frank Zappa, and he would retain publishing rights. "Sure, sounds like fun"

I went to Frank's little hole-in-the-wall studio in Cucamonga a few nights later after I got off the air at nine PM and met Frank and the rest of the band, Frank had his guitar and he had a stand set up for me; I was mic'd and we did the whole thing live ... no sound track ... no instrument over-dubs, just a straight read through over Frank's riff. I think we did it in two takes. One was warm up and the second was the finished product although Frank dubbed in sound effects later, including his own voice sounding like a giggling teenager. Zappa would nod at me when I was supposed to say my lines.

RadioWest has supplied a recording of the song, one of the very few in existence, it accompanies this story. It was as easy as cutting a commercial. There were obvious fades when the Big Surfer said something and we just waltzed through the whole thing in about a half hour. Zappa was a lot of fun to work with. Before recording he'd made a lot of jokes and really put me at ease.

And that was that. We thought. The station I worked for played it for a couple of days Capitol Records pressed 400 copies of the 45 RPM, (advance copies for DJ's) but it was recalled almost immediately. Why?

Frank Zappa and his partner had a record company called Vigah and they leased "The Big Surfer" to Capitol Records. Here's Frank's own words taken from an interview in Rolling Stone years later:

"Paul and I leased the master to Capitol for the unheard of sum of $700 advance. I mean that was a whopper. And the reason was because this record looked like it was gonna be unbelievably hot. You know why? It was called "The Big Surfer" and what it was, was a guy -- a San Bernardino disc jockey named Brian Lord -- who could do Kennedys voice better than Kennedy. It was like a take-off on the First Family album where Kennedy is judging a surf contest. And totally produced -- sound effects, the whole business, okay? The unfortunate part of the record was the punchline: the winner of the contest got an all expense paid trip as the first member of the Peace Corps to be sent to Alabama. Well, shortly after we signed the contract, Medgar Evers got killed and Capitol refused to release the record." Rolling Stone: "You were expecting this to be your big breakthrough?" FZ: "Yeah, well it could have been. It was a cool record."

Frank has told that same story in other publications and in a book. Doc Harris was the first person to bring it to my attention sometime in the 1980's. But at the time of release, I don't recall being all that disappointed; maybe I didn't think the record was really going to be all that big. And of course, who was Frank Zappa in the early 60's? just another Southern California guitar player trying to get a hit.

Although I never spoke to Frank again, today I own much of the vast volume of music he produced over the coming years, years when he proved himself an icon in American rock music.


Image

The Big Surfer

Thanks to RadioWest member Firedog for sharing this rarity with us!


Next time, Dave McCormick, best man. And walk till you drop.
Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
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Re: Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby tuned » Sat Jun 13, 2009 8:11 pm

Another great yarn! Brian should really write a book.. Being just a young lad at CJJC I had no idea that Brian had such an illustrious history. Can hardly wait for the next Chapter!
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Re: Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby Steve Sanderson » Sat Jun 13, 2009 9:38 pm

WOW!!...Who would have thought that Frank Zappa would have been into Surfer music??
Not I ! :shock:
Like " tuned " said..." Another great yarn "
..Keep them coming.
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Re: Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby The Unknown Copywriter » Mon Jun 15, 2009 1:41 pm

"Studio Z" probably saved Zappa from being drafted.

His studio was a local nuisance, and in the way of a real estate development, so the townsfolk were looking to get rid of him and the studio. Some undercover vice cops set him up to create an adult "audio track" for a party...moaning and groaning, but, according to Frank, all just faked, with no real sex involved. When he handed the tape over, he got busted and was now a felon...unfit for service.

Studio Z was closed.

Enjoyable to hear the story in Brian's words...I've had a copy of it for some time. Neil Foisy (when at CHRX) managed to get me a copy on cassette from Brian somehow, many years ago.
T.U.C.

"The present day composer refuses to die!"
Edgard Varese

"Kill ugly radio."
Frank Zappa
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Re: Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby CubbyCam » Mon Jun 15, 2009 4:15 pm

I've been a friend of Brian's ever since we worked together at WX years and years ago... and he constantly amazes me with his stories. Brian has never been one to crow about times past... so I'm SO glad he's chosen to direct his writing in his Philippine retirement to the exploits he never even told his friends about. I've been encouraging him to write a book for some years and have actually read some of his first drafts. If and when it ever is published, it's guaranteed to be a great read. We keep in touch on Skype now... and he also writes a regular blog which may be of interest to some of you at: http://caswellwhiteside.wordpress.com/ under the name of Caswell Whiteside. Try it. You'll like it. :-)
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Re: Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby Fillinguy » Sun Jan 06, 2013 9:18 am

Cool story, Really enjoying the series
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Re: Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby hagopian » Sun Jan 06, 2013 11:53 am

Brian passed away a few years ago.

I was lucky to have worked with him

He was known as Baby Blue on CFUN, back in the day.

He was a fascinating character.

Bless him.
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Re: Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby Fillinguy » Sun Jan 06, 2013 12:20 pm

Yes I know. For some reason I just needed to post that i was enjoying it very much. Funny how we are isn't it? I hope someone combines this into a book, or at least an ebook.
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Re: Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby CubbyCam » Sun Jan 06, 2013 1:20 pm

Fillinguy wrote:Funny how we are isn't it? I hope someone combines this into a book, or at least an ebook.
Hey Fillinguy... it was made in to a book, as Brian had planned, not long after he died. It's available for a very reasonable price at this link: Buy one. You'll love it. http://tinyurl.com/a5jwmrw
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Re: Part 12: Frank Zappa and The Big Surfer

Postby Fillinguy » Sat Jan 12, 2013 1:34 pm

Thanks Mr C.. i will ! Need to make this required reading at BCIT :)
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