My post about Keith Moon appearing in Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels movie inspired comment about Frank being pushed from the stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre. As it happens, I was there that night and, indeed, witnessed the incident from a perfect vantage point. 

I’d become friendly with the Rainbow’s manager, John Morris, a friendly American whose vast concert experience included stage managing the Woodstock Festival. As Melody Maker’s News Editor from 1970 to 1973, I wrote plenty of stories about the Rainbow and generally did my bit to promote what I viewed as a top-quality rock venue in London, great for fans and the rock world in general. John appreciated this and gave me an ‘Access All Areas at All Times’ pass to the theatre, truly the Platinum Amex for rock fans. 

On December 10, 1971, a couple of months after the Rainbow had opened, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention opened the first of four scheduled shows there, twice a night over a Friday and Saturday. Because my pass enabled me to come and go as I pleased, I’d turned up for the end of the first concert, intending to have a beer or two in the backstage bar in the break between shows, maybe even grab a quick interview with one of the Mothers, before catching and reviewing the second show.

        In the event, because I could roam anywhere I’d wandered down towards the front on the right side and was leaning against the wall by an exit door watching Frank and the Mothers do their encore, a tongue-in-cheek cover of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ during which a photo of the Fabs was beamed on to a backdrop. This was a tribute to The Beatles who, at the end of 1963 and start of 1964, had played a 16-night Christmas season at the theatre when it was known as the Finsbury Park Astoria. 

        Frank and his Mothers no doubt had fun rendering this old Beatles’ song, the first of their singles to grab America by the throat. Singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, late of The Turtles, were as good as it gets in the vocal department and clearly inspired by playing on a stage where JPG&R had once trod. 

        What happened next happened really quickly, just as the song finished. Frank was acknowledging the applause when, from the very front row, this bloke ran up the side stairs, onto the stage and gave him a hefty shove from the rear. Into the orchestra pit he went, guitar and all. The man rushed off stage but was grabbed by members of the audience who handed him over to Frank’s road crew to deal with, no doubt harshly. Meanwhile, an ambulance was called and Frank was stretchered out of the stage door.

        I’d been in the perfect position to see all this – I actually climbed on stage after the incident – and was now in the perfect position to observe the aftermath. The audience was asked to leave, which they did in an orderly manner, but not before a rumour spread that Frank was dead. The departing crowd, probably 3,000 plus, mingled with those outside waiting for the second show, another 3,000 plus, so there was a huge mass of people outside on Seven Sisters Road, most of whom believed Frank Zappa had been murdered by a crazed fan who, it later transpired, was jealous because his girlfriend was attracted to him. 

        “The band thought I was dead,” Zappa later recalled in his 1989 book The Real Frank Zappa Book. “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 paralysed.”

        Frank spent the best part of a year in a wheelchair. John Morris was mortified. Not only had one of the world’s most gifted and popular rock stars been savagely attacked in his theatre but the losses on the cancelled shows, all sell outs, was critical. Ticket money had to be returned and this might cause the theatre to close. It didn’t but John told me it was touch and go for a while – he needed to sell out three shows a week just to break even – so I doubled my efforts to help in any way I could.

        Meanwhile the fan, 24-year-old Trevor Howell, appeared in court the following March charged with assault. “I did it because my girlfriend said she loved Frank,” he said before being sentenced to 12 months inside. 

A live recording from the show on three vinyl LPs was released in March last year, its cover the illustration above.


Anonymous said...

I remember that - think I was somewhere between Top Pops, Fab208 and LFI at the time - think we were all a bit shocked except, possibly, for Murfet's mob whose business quadrupled shortly after the incident. I saw Elton (the 'solo' tour with just a drummer - boring!) and James Brown (spent two hours trying not to look too obviously white) at the Rainbow and, I just remembered, I also went to see the Carpenters at, I believe, the London Theatre (something like that!) I love brackets - don't you?

Flotsam said...

This year will mark 30 years since we lost Frank and he's been much missed. Not just for the excellent music but for his social commentary and sense of humour. He was a one-man genre too.

I didn't see him at the Rainbow but did catch him at Wembley, Hammersmith and the Best Concert Ever at Knebworth.

Coincidentally, this is the second mention of FZ I've read today. He was fact checked on Snopes.

Glenn Burris said...

Terrific tale, Chris.

That's the only first-hand account of the Rainbow incident I've read, other than Frank's own recollection or maybe somebody in the band. It's certainly the first time that I have heard of a rumor saying FZ was DOA. And the other accounts don't describe when in the show it happened, nor that a second show that night was scheduled.

I saw Frank once with a Zappa vet, and he said, "There's Bald-Headed John, the bodyguard." That's when I learned that Zappa might have been the best-protected rock star on earth, all thanks to what happened in London. I understand John to have been hired as soon as Frank could walk again, and that guy was never more than a moment from Zappa afterwards.

Seriously, one look at Big John Smothers (in his martial arts kimono, brandishing a flashlight the size of a toilet pipe) and any notion of harassing Frank would leave your mind pretty damn quick. He led Frank onstage and made sure everybody in the room knew he was around. Then he'd hide in the wings or the side of the pit. But he could have been on stage in a split-second, I'm sure.

Interviews with John painted him as a good-natured and funny fellow, who loved orchestral music. He claimed he worked for The Stones, The Beatles, Elvis and others before he was hired by Zappa. But, that's what you would say if you wanted the job, right? So, I was wondering if you knew of John tending to others, or had any contact with him.

Thanks again for the story.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Hi Glenn. Thanks for your comment. I have never heard of a John Smothers working for Elvis, the Stones, Beatles or anyone else, though I certainly don't blame FZ for employing someone like him after what happened at the Rainbow.