What was the single most extraordinary thing about Frank Zappa?
Was it the incredible diversity of musical styles – from classical to doo-wop to avant garde to jazz to rock? The facility for sharp, cruel satire? The endlessly surreal innovation? The strident campaigning against censorship? The sheer volume of work? The influence, not just on the countless musicians he worked with, but generations that followed?
It is too difficult to answer: the man was simply a colossus of music for 30 years or more. He made over 60 albums, produced dozens more, scored and directed films: some of the work was utterly brilliant, some beyond challenging, but it was all done with verve, passion, humour and vision. Let’s have a look back at an amazing life.
Frank, born in Baltimore Maryland, was the son of an engineer who worked on the development of chemical weapons. The family lived near the chemical plant where Frank Senior worked with mustard gas – they had gas masks in their home. zappa kidFrank was a sickly child, having sinus problems and asthma, possibly exacerbated by the proximity to the chemical plant. A doctor treated his sinuses by stuffing “therapeutic” radium up his nose. Look, it was the 1940s, ok? Gasmasks and chemical warfare often crop up in his lyrics, while hooters were a career-long visual preoccupation – for instance in ‘A Snail In My Nose’.
For his young son’s health, Frank Senior moved the family to California, eventually settling in San Diego. He started to get into R and B music and bought a simple drum kit, quickly becoming fascinated with drum tracks and percussion sounds and playing skins in a high school band. He came across a magazine article decrying the work of the avant garde classical composer Edward Varèse as “a weird jumble of unpleasant sounds.” Zappa had to know more, and was particularly pleased to note that a Varèse album cover depicted a man “who looked like a mad scientist”. A lifelong admiration of Varèse was born, and he wrote to and conversed with the composer, who wrote him back asking him to come visit if he ever came to New York. Varèse died before Zappa could take up the invite, but the letter was one of his most treasured possessions.
By the mid Fifties the Zappa family had moved to the Mojave desert town of Lancaster, where Zappa attended Antelope Valley High School and, as discussed last month, met and became friends with Don Vliet. Zappa drummed for a local band called The Blackouts, whose Motorhead Sherwood would become a long-time Mothers of Invention collaborator. In addition, Zappa was becoming interested in the guitar, developing a unique and inventive style that was influenced in part by Howlin’ Wolf and Clarence Gatemouth Brown but would become entirely his own as he grew as a player. Leaving school, he moved to LA, married Kay Sherman and worked, briefly, in advertising.
In the early Sixties he began to earn a living from music: he scored two low-budget films and started playing in a power-trio, The Muthers, to earn a bit of coin on the local bar circuit. He hooked up with a producer, Paul Buff, who had a small but very sophisticated studio in Cucamonga called The Pal, that boasted a five-track recorder – very rare for 1963 in anything but the mightiest commercial record company. Zappa later took it over and renamed it the Z Studio. He began to spend 12 hours a day or more in there, overdubbing and experimenting with the audio tapes. His marriage broke down. He also recorded a few songs with Captain Beefheart in a project called The Soots. They were rejected by Dot Records for having “no commercial potential” – a phrase Zappa proudly used on Freak Out’s sleeve.
As well as laying down his working methods, this early period also shaped Zappa’s attitudes towards authority. His modest success with movie soundtracks lead to a local paper article rather ambitiously describing him as “the movie king of Cucamonga”, which in turn lead to the police suspecting him of being a porno movie producer. An undercover cop approached him and offered 100 bucks for an audio (!) tape of people shagging, which was apparently going to liven up a stag party. Er, that sounds like one shit party. Anyway, Zappa and a lady friend were happy to (fake) record this… and in 1965, he was charged with conspiracy to commit pornography. He got SIX MONTHS, but most of this was suspended. Nevertheless, he spent 10 nights in jail. To add insult to injury, the police raided his studio and he lost some 50 hours of recordings (out of around 80 hours total material) and he was unable to keep up the rent on the studio. It was torn down in 1966.
But things began to look up for Zappa when he joined a local band called the Soul Giants, and managed to convince them to play his material, and to change their name to The Mothers. A performance of the song ‘Trouble Every Day’ – about the Watts race riots – caught the attention of Tom Wilson, who had produced Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, Another Side Of… and Bringing It All Back Home. He signed the band to Verve, a division of MGM, and insisted on the name change to The Mothers Of Invention.
Zappa made the brilliant, ambitious and unique double album Freak Out!, released in 1966. He moved into a house in Laurel Canyon that became a commune for stray groupies, musos and stoners. It cemented a lifelong disdain for druggies that seems in conflict with his surreal, whacked out lyrical brilliance, and to be honest makes me like him even more. He married Gail, the love of his life with whom he would have four children.
He followed up with 1967’s Absolutely Free – another groundbreaking record that totally redefined the use of rhythm in rock music. He was also turning his satirical eye not just on The Man, but on the Freaks and the counterculture as well, a theme expanded on in the Sergeant Pepper-baiting We’re Only In It For The Money.
Moving to New York, Zappa took a residency at the Garrick Theater, where he played a series of far-out stage shows and then, throwing his fans for a loop, released an album of doo-wop records Cruising With Ruben And The Jets (1968). Was it a piss-take, people wondered? Au contraire, said Zappa: he was re-imagining and subverting the clichés of a previous era, as his hero Stravinsky had done with musical themes from his own classical forbears. He was also developing a technical, you might say philosophical, approach to editing: cutting together takes from different gigs, or studio sessions, to form a track, believing that every performance and everything he ever recorded was all part of a greater whole – check out ‘King Kong’ on 1969’s Uncle Meat for a great example of this mash-up style.
By the end of the decade, Zappa had set up two record labels, and had produced Trout Mask Replica for Beefheart. He also put out releases by Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer, as well as Lenny Bruce’s last record. By 1969, he had grown tired of financially supporting a large band and entourage and moved to disband The Mothers Of Invention. He put out the superb solo album Hot Rats that year, a record noted for some scorching guitar playing and the vocal contribution of Captain Beefheart on ‘Willie The Pimp’. It also features ‘Peaches En Regalia’, one of his greatest tracks, and was a massive factor in the development of the jazz-rock genre.
The early Seventies saw Zappa work with the LA Philharmonic on the 200 Motels project, a film about the life of a rock musician whose soundtrack loosely comprised of a series of musical sketches developed for large orchestra, but he found the experience frustrating and rewarding in equal part. A 1971 tour to England saw him work with the Royal Philharmonic but fall out over obscene lyrics at the Royal Albert Hall. He put together a new Mothers band, but all their gear was destroyed when a fan burned down the venue they were playing in Switzerland. Even worse, a fan pushed Zappa off the stage at the Rainbow Theatre in London in 1971, causing serious head trauma, back injuries and a crushed larynx. His voice was permanently altered and he had back problems for the rest of his life.
He took time off touring, but returned with a 20-piece band called The Grand Wazoo (sometimes, a smaller version called The Petit Wazoo). In 1974, he released Apostrophe, which broke into the Billboard top ten album chart, a unique achievement for Zappa. He remained prolific throughout the Seventies, issuing records on the DiscReet label, formed with long-time manager Herb Cohen. The live album You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Volume II captures the superb performances of often highly challenging, technical pieces from around the mid-Seventies. 1975’s Bongo Fury, which also featured Beefheart collaborations, was another high point.
Much of the 1970s were befouled by legal and contractual wrangles, including a split with Cohen, and a row with Warner Brothers that was exacerbated when Zappa went on the radio, broadcasted an entire album and encouraged listeners to home-tape it. You wonder what he would have made of, say, the Napster furore. He also got drawn into a censorship stand-off when a song about a sex criminal ‘The Illinois Enema Bandit’ was decried as obscene.
“What do you make of a society that is so primitive that it clings to the belief that certain words in its language are so powerful that they could corrupt you the moment you hear them?” he wondered.
But a tumultuous decade ended on a high with 1979’s release of arguably Zappa’s greatest album: Joe’s Garage, a concept record about a world where music is illegal. Joe’s Garage contains some brilliant work, especially ‘Watermelon In The Hay’. The same year saw him battling his critics again, when the song ‘Jewish Princess’ from the album Sheik Yerbouti was slammed for anti-Semitic sentiment, which he vehemently denied. He also released the film Baby Snakes, which proclaimed “A movie about people who do stuff that is not normal”. Indeed!
As the Eighties began, Zappa hooked up with Steve Vai for Tinsel Town Rebellion, and this time it was sexism that he stood accused of by his critics. He railed against Reaganism and greed in You Are What You Is, turning his fire on TV evangelists on ‘Heavenly Bank Account’ and then onto middle-class teenagers on ‘Valley Girl’. This, unwittingly, gave Zappa his biggest single hit – a kind of novelty record with his daughter Moon Unit mocking the “like, woah, dude that’s bogus”, rising-inflection speech of teens in the Valley. Its success seemed to annoy Zappa. He had another bash at orchestral works, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Zappa was hugely excited by the Synclavier, the sampler/sequencer that allowed him free-rein for his often technically all-but-impossible desires. He teamed up with the great conductor Pierre Boulez for an orchestral/ Synclavier project that was a qualified success. He then released a 1984 album Thing-Fish, a sort of Broadway musical score about AIDS as government creation and social engineering tool. By contrast, Shakin’ Stevens was in the UK top ten at the time. Zappa: not for everyone, eh?
Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of PreventionAnd all the better for it. In 1985, he went up against the Parents Music Resource Centre, that nest of conservative vipers and politicians’ wives lead by Tipper Gore. Testifying in a Senate state committee, he called their proposed rating scheme for music “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense” and the experience inspired 1985’s Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention.
He spent the last years of the eighties remastering his back catalogue for digital release, won a Grammy in 1987 for Jazz From Hell and effectively predated iTunes by about 15 years with the idea for a paid-for digital download service through phone or cable TV. He became friendly with the President of Czechoslovakia and was appointed a cultural attaché, but his 1990 diagnosis with prostate cancer – in an advanced stage, undiagnosed for ten years sadly – curtailed a lot of his activities. His last appearances were as a conductor at the Frankfurt Classical festival, recordings from which feature on his last release, The Yellow Shark. He died in December 1993.
His legacy is found in the huge variety of musicians that he has inspired – from Phish to Sabbath – and his fights against censorship. As an artist, he embraced an astonishing array of technique and genres, yet all his work was characterised by a singular vision – everything was part of the greater whole and seemed to make sense, kind of, in its contribution to his overall oeuvre. Plus, there was dental floss.