Sunday, January 11, 2009

Frank Zappa's 'United Mutations' fan club, 1967 comic book advertisement, w/ art by Cal Schenkel

(click on image to enlarge in a new window)

◀ This full-page ad could have looked just a little out of place when it first ran in mainstream American comic books towards the end of 1967.

(UPDATE, 1.13.09: It's been verified that the ad's design was indeed by
Cal Schenkel, longtime Zappa visualist.
More info below.)

'Pop-Art' and psychedelia may have begun to make gentle inroads into the look of the funny books by then, but this ad was something a bit different.

It promoted 'We're Only In It For The Money', the (then brand new) third album by Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention, an LP every bit as innovative and mind-bending as their previous two, experimenting with familiar rock idioms in combination with
avant-garde sound collage and large doses of social satire.

That alone is noteworthy, as despite the 'wholesome' tone of the ad's copy, this was clearly not squeaky-clean teen pop combo music like you'd have heard on your top ten AM radio or seen on TV's 'Hullabaloo' or 'American Bandstand' back in the day.

Hell, it still isn't.

But without providing any details, the ad also entices the reader to clip the coupon and send a letter off to 'United Mutations'.

United Mutations was the name of the Mothers of Invention's fan club, which
Frank Zappa started in '67 as a way to respond to the often unusual fan mail the band received.

It's easy to assume that the average curious and presumably innocent young comic book reader would probably not have known this, however, just as it's easy to assume that they likewise would perhaps have had little familiarity with Zappa and The Mothers.

- So the question arises, had you cut the United Mutations coupon out of your comic and sent it in, what would you have received?

According to Chris Federico's Zappology site, you'd have received a 'thank you' form letter that included an application questionnaire for joining the club.

The text of that first letter read:

"We could have sent you a cheesy form letter,
all 'The Mothers of Invention want to thank you blah blah for writing such a nifty letter blah and they love their fans who are so loyal and thoughtful blah and blah. But they are so busybusybusybusy that it would be virtually impossible for them to even begin to attempt to consider the possibility of any sort of warm personal reply, blah, blah, blaaahhh.'

"We could have sent you that sort of cheesy letter; instead, we have sent you this cheesy letter, the text of which reads:
'Dearest Wonderful and Perceptive Person: The Mothers of Invention want to thank you blah blah for writing us such a nifty letter, some of which you have written to us on toilet paper -- how wonderfully original. Golly gee, we are so awful busy being thrown out of restaurants and hotels in Montreal, ignored by taxis in New York -- have you had that trouble too? It's getting so you don't even have to be black to not be picked up -- mugged by policemen in Los Angeles and scrutinized by the censors of all major U.S. media. Willikins! It takes so much time to do all that crap, we hardly have any time to answer each of you in a warm, personal way.
'So: If you are a worried girl and you wrote to us because we turn you on and you want our bodies and/or you think we are cute, here is your own personal section of the letter: The answer to any and all questions is, yes, we love you even if you are fat, with pimples.
'If you are, or are considering the possibility of becoming, a boy, and you think you are very hep and swinging, and you wrote to us on a piece of toilet paper, this section is for you: Keep up the good work. We would like to encourage you to become even more nihilistic and destructive. Attaboy. Don't take any gas from your metal shop teacher or that creep with the flat-top in physical education who wants to bust your head because you are different. Give them all the finger, just like we would give you the finger for writing to us on a piece of toilet paper.'

"Would you be interested in joining what's called a fan club for the Mothers?
The official name of the organization is United Mutations. We call it that because we are certain that only a few special people might be interested in active participation.

"It will cost you three dollars and you must fill in the accompanying questionnaire:
Name, age, sex, height, weight, address, state, zip, father's name, profession, mother's name, profession.
Answer these questions briefly: Who is God?
ESP: Yes? No? Describe.
Best way to describe my social environment is:
If I had my way I would change it to:
How will you change your social environment? When?
What are you afraid of? What sort of help can the Mothers give you?
On another sheet of paper, describe your favorite dream or nightmare in clinical detail.
Send both sheets with three dollars to the address above, and in return, we will send you useful information about the Mothers and a small package with some other things you might be interested in.

"Thank you. Your signature in ink, please."

- According to the Zappa Wiki Jawaka , sending in the $3 would get you a club membership kit that included photos and biographies of the Mothers Of Invention band members, a membership card, copies of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and a second form letter / questionnaire.

The text of the follow-up letter read:

"Hello. Thank you for responding to our initial proposal. It is necessary to know a few more things about you. We hope you won't mind answering another form letter; our files require it for continued membership.

"If you are interested in this worthwhile program of, let's call it self-help, please be advised that our work can be continued only if your membership is kept paid yearly and we have periodic reports of your activities within the context of our program. You will be notified by mail for your next membership report.

"For now, please fill in this form and return it to us, and read the enclosed material carefully. We are happy you took an interest in us.

"Answer these questions briefly. Please enclose a small photo of yourself.
Are you a mutation?
What can you do to help us?
People's minds: How many do you control? Why not more?
How do you control your subjects? Do they know? Do other people know?
How do you avoid problems? Do you group-think?
Is there another operator near you? Who? Does he/she belong to our association? If no, why not?
Describe your relationship with your parents.
How can the Mothers assist you?

"Your signature in ink, please. Date."

The Zappology site cites a mid-1967 interview with Zappa, conducted by Frank Kofsky, in which Zappa talked about the fan letters, the club, and the questionnaires, and about trying to offer people something that makes it okay be strange.

(For all of that '67 interview, Click Here.)

That Zappa and the Verve Record label succeeded in placing an ad for The Mothers of Invention in mainstream comic books is funny and odd, and seems of another era.

That the ad could have also sought to target and 'recruit' teenagers who may have felt like outsiders, and offer them the notion that they belong is also funny and odd, as well as gently subversive and pretty wonderful.

- - And it all fits in nicely with underlying themes present in the lyrics of those first three Mothers albums, too.
Willikins!

I'm still very curious about that advertisement, though.
How exactly did it come about? There weren't too many recording artist ads in comics at that time...

I'm wondering if the ad's layout may have been designed by Cal Schenkel, who signed on with Zappa right around this same time, executing the memorable 'Sgt. Pepper' cover parody for 'We're Only In It For The Money'. (Yep! See update below)
It also looks just collage-y enough to have perhaps been done by FZ himself.

I'm sure we'd all love to hear from someone out there who knows about these things.
I'd also like to hear from anyone who did respond to this ad back then, or who was an early member of United Mutations.
(Yay! Another update, see below)

I hadn't seen this old ad in a long while.
Thanks are due to artist J.R. Williams, who posted a scan of it in one of his Flickr galleries and got me to thinking about it.
(Follow link for more on Mr. Williams)

UPDATE 1.13.09 - - (Continued from above)
I had a nice little e-mail exchange with graphic artist Wayno, who was kind enough to get in touch with Mr. Schenkel regarding that Mothers ad in this post.
Cal responded, "Yep, I dood it!".
Great to have that verification, many thanks!

Schenkel provided many album cover designs and other artwork for Zappa over the years, and remains the primary artist associated with Frank's visual style.

For more about Cal Schenkel ▶
and his credits, see also:
- The Wikipedia entry, and the Zappa Wiki Jawaka entry.

- Cal's website, www.ralf.com/, where he has artwork for sale.

- A 2001 interview at Eye Magazine.Com.

- Below ▼, a video link to 'Dental Hygiene Dilemma', an animated sequence from the 1971
Zappa & The Mothers film '200 Motels', based upon designs by Schenkel.



- ANOTHER UPDATE, 7.15.09:

(Click on image to ENLARGE) ▶

BIG thanks to Nick for sending in a scan of a precious artifact;
His copy of that introductory 'United Mutations' form letter, with a note signed by Pauline Butcher, Frank's personal secretary from '68 to '72, who ran the fan club at the time.

Nick said:
"I started getting into Frank Zappa in the 60's, and not long after I sent a letter to U.M. asking about pictures of the band. They sent me the first letter. I still have it, not filled out, in the envelope it came in, with a hand written note from Pauline on it. Maybe brown shoes don't make but this letter does."

Thanks for sharing Nick!

6 comments:

gilligan said...

Fascinating. I was a member of the KISS Army - not nearly so creative and subversive; however, I did get a fake blood capsule which, in a horrible error in judgement, I decided to bite down on in the library.... but I digress. Great post!

Timmy said...

Frankly, I don't think there was nor is a greater musical entertainer than Mr. Zappa. AND, you can still enjoy a live performance of his music by going to see the phenominal band Zappa Plays Zappa, which is headed by his eldest son. It's non cheesey...

Barry Baxter said...

Thanks for this post! Never seen the comic book ad before.

Zappa's genius as a composer is usually overshadowed by his potty-mouth rock ditties but his music is amazing. Do check out Zappa Plays Zappa when they come to your town, you won't be disappointed.

Nickaerdody said...

Hi I started getting into frank Zappa in the 60's and not long after i sent a letter to U.M. asking about pictures of the band. they sent me the first letter . I still have it not filled out in the envelope it came in with a hand written not from Pauline on it. Maybe brown shoes don't make but this letter does. TLC.

The In Crowd said...

Hey Nickaerdody - -

Thanks for your note! Very cool. Love to see a scan of your letter if you are so moved...

jl.incrowd@gmail.com

jimsock said...

I am privileged to say that I joimed the United Mutations right around 1967. Not only did I get the letter(s)and stuff, but I also received a couple of 8 X 10's - one of Frank and one of the Frank and the Mothers. I have been a loyal fan to this day. God Bless Frank & the Mothers.

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