An interview with
Peter Frame (1999)

By Beppe Colli
Aug. 12, 2003

"Legendary" is a word that gets tossed around a bit too easily, but in the world of rock criticism Peter Frame fully deserves the appellative. Nowadays very well-known for inventing the Rock Family Tree format - a dream come true for those who prize accuracy and details - Frame is held in high esteem for being the founder of UK's Zigzag, the magazine that in the 60s covered the less commercial part of the music spectrum and that functioned as a school of music journalism.

Having never seen an interview with Peter Frame anywhere (the following conversation - which, by the way, appeared in Italian language in Blow Up magazine, issue # 14/15, July/August 1999, and which appears here in English for the first time - was in fact his first interview in Italy), I assumed that he was the proverbial "difficult type".

In fact, the opposite was true. The most recent Rock Family Tree collection sported a fax number. I sent a fax, was given a phone number, we had a chat, then I sent some questions via snail mail and got the answers via e-mail just a few days later, on June 3, 1999.

It had been my intention to update the interview, but the old e-mail address I have is not valid anymore, dialling the old phone number I am told that he went away about two years ago, and none of his colleagues that I could get in touch with had any recent news nor address.

Ha! At the time of our interview, Peter Frame told me he didn't like having pictures of him appearing in print, so...

My first question concerns your personal background with regards to music: When - and why - you got interested in music? And how did you make the transition from being a fan to writing about music?

I became a teenager the month (November 1955) that Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley & the Comets went to number one in Britain. Most people saw it as a novelty record, but I was intrigued by the rhythm, the lyrics, the sound, the style, the exuberance. It was different from anything else I had ever heard on the radio. I had not previously been interested in pop music, but I started buying the NME and became fascinated - particularly by the American singles chart and American records.

The BBC (which was the only national radio service) hated rock 'n' roll and rarely played it, but I listened to Radio Luxembourg and during 1956, I heard Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino... and records took over my life. I found them more interesting than schoolwork. Most of my friends at school preferred traditional jazz - which I hated. Rock 'n' roll was mocked as music for morons; no-one took it seriously... but I loved it and thought it was culturally important.

All through school, I had been taught the importance of getting a secure job, so I went to work for the Prudential Assurance Company as a Trainee Surveyor. I stuck it for eight years, but my interest in rock music was overwhelming. I went to as many gigs as I could. All around me, the 60s were reaching a crescendo... and I knew I had to "drop out and do my own thing, man". At the time, there were no publications dealing with the music I loved, so I decided to start one: Zigzag. The first issue was April 1969. I had no training as a journalist and just relied on enthusiasm to carry me through.

Just a few weeks ago I bought a book by John Platt about Cream. He lists the people one could have seen playing in London in just one week in June '66: the names are mind-boggling! Were you aware at the time that those were REALLY special times? (I mean, everybody at 16 think their times are special, but in hindsight I think those were "double special" times.) I just re-read the article you wrote for Zigzag, called "The year of love, including the birth of Pink Floyd": bloody good!

(John Platt was a Zigzag reader; I encouraged him to start his own magazine - Comstock Lode. He now lives in New York).

In the 50s, England was bleak and poor and still recovering from the War, but with the arrival of rock 'n' roll everything went technicolour and life became very exciting. I enjoyed every minute of the 60s and consider myself very lucky to have lived through it - and even luckier that I managed to remember most of it! There was something new and amazing happening all the time. I saw so many acts... the Stones, Dylan, the Doors, Hendrix, the Beatles, the Everlys, Little Richard, the Who, Sam Cooke, Cream, Yardbirds, Floyd, Zeppelin, Joplin, the Byrds with Gram Parsons, everyone you could think of. I saw most of them in small venues, where you could get up really close. The 70s seemed very exciting, because I was so much more involved, but looking back, it was nowhere near as wonderful. Having said that, if I was a teenager now, I would think the 90s was the greatest decade.

Since I just mentioned Zigzag, would you mind talking about the magazine, since I imagine it's unlikely that the majority of our readers know anything about it?

None of the English music papers wrote about the music I liked. They all concentrated on popular acts, but I was interested in the Underground scene. So I decided to start a magazine for people who liked the same kind of music I did. I called it Zigzag after the Captain Beefheart track Zigzag Wanderer and also the cigarette papers, which were used for rolling joints. I found out about lay-out, printing, distribution, all those kind of things and quit my day job. John Tobler, who I had met at the Prudential in 1962, came in too and he was good at getting advertising, so we managed to keep going. The first five issues had on the front covers: Sandy Denny, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Edgar Broughton and Jeff Beck - and during the first year, we had interviews with Captain Beefheart, Zappa, Robert Fripp, Jeff Beck, Arthur Lee, all sorts of people. I kept it going until issue 30, then went off to do other stuff, but I came back for numbers 59 to 74, but then left again when punk came in. I felt I was too old to run a contemporary music magazine and handed it over to Kris Needs, who was a punky friend. The magazine kept going until issue 135, I think.

Zigzag was a very pioneering magazine - the blueprint for the current Mojo.

I'd like to know about the idea behind the Rock Family Tree format (the first one you did was about Al Kooper, right?). What I really like about your work is that it manages to be accurate AND entertaining at the same time... I think readers would be curious to know how long it takes to make one...

As a rock journalist, I was finding it difficult to write about all the personnel changes and connections between other groups - and one day, after I had interviewed Al Kooper in summer '72, I just thought it would be easier if I drew out his musical history in a family tree design. It appeared in Zigzag 21 and also in my book More Rock Family Trees. As you can see, it was very primitive... but I started doing more and more family trees in Zigzag - Jack Bruce, Stoneground, Fairport Convention, etc - and made them more and more detailed. Jac Holzman, the boss of Elektra Records, wanted to do a book of them but then left Elektra - so I did a deal with Omnibus Books in London and have been with them since 1980.

My family trees have also appeared in Rolling Stone, all the UK music papers, various tour programmes and albums, all over the place. There have also been two BBC television series in Britain and we are currently working on a third. I also did a Manchester United football family tree, which was turned into a TV programme, and a Monty Python family tree, which will be a TV programme in October.

The great thing about my family trees is that I can write as much as I like - and editors cannot edit them! I've got all this stuff in my head and it's good to pass it on to anyone who might be interested.

Looking back, when I was at school, I would have liked to be an architect, a novelist, a musician or a painter - but I knew I wasn't bright or clever enough to succeed at any of them... but now I seem to have found an area between them all.

Among the things I've appreciated in your work over the years is the fact that you've chronicled a lot of different people and "styles" - I mean, it's not common for somebody who has seen the 60s up close to remain interested in what happened next... (Maybe this is a dumb question, but what I mean is that, as age increases, one has the tendency to became so attached to what happened in his youth as to attribute little value to what came later... or at least this is my personal experience when it comes to most people I read/know.)

My favourite music is from the 50s and 60s, but I like lots of stuff from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Even if I don't like a band's music very much, I usually like them as people - and I still get very excited in researching their backgrounds. I will also applaud and encourage any new band that's having a go. I don't like manufactured groups, but I like real bands. There are always good new ones coming up.

Here in Italy we have always considered England as the country of the weeklies (NME, MM, Sounds) whose main problem, in my opinion, is that they feel they really have to find a new trend every two weeks! I think that Mojo is the first monthly after Zigzag to offer accurate, in-depth informations and good interviews. Am I wrong? Did I miss something big over the years?

As you say, Mojo is like a modern version of Zigzag - but Mojo is owned by a Stock Exchange company and is backed by big money. So too are the weeklies. It's all very different now. Back in the days of Zigzag, we were independent, and there were very few people writing about rock music. Since then, it has become a recognised career. There are too many people doing it now, too many magazines and papers. I used to read them all, up until about ten years ago, but I don't have time to read many of them now. I find most of them as boring as shit. A lot of them just recycle stuff we did decades ago.

Talking about interviews: I just re-read the one you did with Jimmy Page, which appeared in Zigzag in '72/'73: extremely interesting. My question here is a bit on a general level: do you think that, as music has become a HUGE business, the relationship between artists and media has changed? (Such has been the case with regards to photos; for instance, everytime I see old pictures by Jim Marshall etc. I'm amazed at how much the "feel" of the pictures has changed.) What strikes me when I read the (best) interviews of those times is that people who already knew they were great (Hendrix, Page, Dylan, Lennon...) were much less "guarded" in their response - and how "down-to-earth" (well...) they were. I mean, these days it's very different with people like Madonna or Prince...

When I started Zigzag, even the biggest bands travelled in vans and played smallish venues... but as the audience grew, so did the scale of the rock business. Private planes, massive venues, chains of record shop, big business. Records used to come out, then get deleted... they were rare and precious, and not many people knew about them. Now a huge slice of the market is based on back-catalogue. I always knew that rock music was an important part of popular culture - and so it has proved to be. The "quality newspapers" never used to write about rock music, but they are full of it now. For example, the recent death of Skip Spence was covered by every quality newspaper in Britain - but none of them ever wrote about him when he was alive. But Zigzag did, of course.

When I used to go and interview musicians, they were always amazed that I knew so much, that I wanted to find out so many details...and they tended to open up because I was so enthusiastic. It still happens: in recent years, I did interviews with David Bowie (5 hours), Paul Simon (6 hours), Frank Zappa (4 hours, his last big interview) and various others for radio programmes and they held nothing back. I've never met Madonna or Prince. These days, I have gone back to interviewing minority-interest people. I live out in the country (in the same place for 29 years) and I go to London (50 miles away) as little as possible.

You've met/interviewed a lot of people over the years. Are there any anecdotes you wouldn't mind sharing with our readers?

Too many to think about! The best project I ever worked on was The Story of Atlantic - a 14 hour BBC radio documentary series in 1988. The producer (Kevin Howlett) and I went all over America - and I interviewed Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Jerry Wexler, Robert Plant, Steve Cropper, the Muscle Shoals guys, Ahmet Ertegun, 76 interviews in all.

My most embarrassing moment was in 1973, when John Tobler and I went to Los Angeles to do interviews. I smoked too much Mexican grass and passed out in Michael Nesmith's kitchen.

When I went to the States to interview Paul Simon, I was flying around with him and his band in their private plane. It is a law that you must give safety instructions before take-off... and Paul was standing there, like a stewardess, showing how to use a life jacket and pointing out where the emergency exits were.

One of the best things I did was sit on a couch with Frank Zappa, watching some of the videos he recorded from television, to show how stupid most Americans are. He died not long afterwards.

Information nowadays has become all-pervasive (some would say overabundant - if this English word exists!). But sometimes I have the impression that "back then" the scarcity of informations made everything one managed to find "important and valuable" (and those import copies!). Of course, everybody has his personal favourites, but I think that, on a general level, nowadays the "degree of involvement" is on the "tepid" side. Wrong?

You are quite right. These days, there are books on every aspect of rock history, but it was never like that in the 60s. There were only a handful of books back then. As pioneer writers, we would spend all our time and energy finding out about the music we loved and the people who made that music. Very few current writers have that philosophy. An exception is Johnny Rogan, who is as diligent and assiduous as any writer I know. He started out on Zigzag, of course!

Since your work has always been accurate, I'd like to ask you about the Web. The proliferation of sites and the spreading of informations have been considered as an advancement in the "democratic process". But from what I've seen the average level of accuracy with regards to music is pretty low. In this sense, I think that the magazine format, as a place where you can get informations that are "special" and "guaranteed to be true", will be with us for a long time... or not?

The Internet allows anybody to write about their passions - but you are right: so much of the rock stuff is either badly written or recycled. I am old fashioned: I like to read from paper pages. When I use the Internet, I always feel that I am wasting so much time - because you have to wade through so much rubbish. The good thing about specialist magazines is that the standards are higher and you can file them away for future use. I am surprised by how much money you have to pay for old copies of Zigzag.

I have never wanted to be rich and famous. I fact, I would hate to be famous. But I am glad that my work has encouraged a few people to enjoy music more.

© Beppe Colli 1999 - 2003 | Aug. 12, 2003