Back in the 1980s, Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine ran a series of Celebrity Photo Shoots – not, as you might think, nude layouts featuring up ‘n’ coming Hollywood starlets, but shoots that were directed by famous people. Obviously, they would have to be the sort of celebrity who didn’t mind being associated to the most controversial adult magazine on the market. Dennis Hopper did one, for instance. But the most spectacular and expensive shoot was that created by Frank Zappa as a promotional piece for his new triple LP and planned Broadway show Thing-Fish.
Thing-Fish was an ambitious and hilariously un-Broadway affair that told the story – narrated by the title character – of a racist theatre critic who creates a disease that will target African-Americans and homosexuals (Zappa was firmly of the belief that AIDS was created in a lab). He tests the disease on prisoners who become ‘Mammy Nuns’. There is also a sub-plot involving WASP couple Harry and Rhonda, who have to face up to their secret past sex lives after attending a theatrical performance by the Mammy Nuns. Along the way, Zappa satirises feminism, class war, theatrical snobbery, conspiracy theories and more. It’s as far removed from the nice, safe, populist Broadway musical as you could ever get.
It’s the Harry and Rhonda story that was adapted for the Hustler spread, which ran for a whopping 21 pages and cost a fortune to produce. The Thing-Fish mask, worn by Zappa band member Ike Willis, cost $7000 to make. Flynt footed the bill for the production, and Zappa was going to use the props for the stage show.
Model and actress Annie Ample played Rhonda, and Robert Axelrod as Harry. Both were actually part of the cast for the planned show as well (on the LP, the couple are played by Dale and Terry Bozzio). The art direction was by Stephen Sayadian, who was a Hustler employee at the time – but probably better known to cult movie fans as Rinse Dream, the mad genius behind bizarre X-rated movies like Cafe Flesh and Night Dreams. His visual style will be immediately familiar to fans of those films, and is in full flow on this shoot. It’ll make you wish that Zappa had dropped plans for the Broadway show and instead filmed the album in collaboration with Sayadian.
The Thing-Fish photo fantasy appeared in the April 1984 edition of Hustler (vol 10 issue 10). it might well be the most extravagant and ambitious photo spread ever to appear in an adult magazine. The cost of these shoots was not matched by an increase in sales, and Flynt soon dropped the idea.
Zappa, meanwhile, could not raise the $15 million needed to mount the Broadway show – this is perhaps unsurprising, give that the lyrical content of the LP saw employees of MCA refusing to handle production of the vinyl, and so saw Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin label switch distribution to EMI / Capitol Records. Some fans were critical of the release, noting that the expensive three-LP set mostly consisted on new versions of songs from Zappa’s last few albums. However, the project has been subsequently re-assessed by enthusiasts. A live version of the show was finally staged in London in 2003, though the extravagant elements were stripped back and the production was very much a low-budget, fringe affair. There is no sign of Thing-Fish making it to the West End just yet.
You can check out the whole spread below – click images to enlarge. Note that – surprise, surprise – there is nudity involved. If that worries you, here’s Zappa’s own Warning/Guarantee to reassure you: