Frank Zappa 1940-1993
By Mike Muso
Now that we've had time to think about the death of Frank Zappa, I'd like to have a chat about him, his music and his beliefs. Although we'd been told ages ago that this was going to happen it still came as a huge shock and loss to me.
I was also annoyed and offended by the way most of the news presenters skimmed over the fact in an un-interested and un-affected manner. For example on the day the news of his death was revealed, one of the news programmes I heard on radio one was too preoccupied by that fat piece of pink crap getting to the top of the charts to even mention the fact. It's a sad state of affairs when the world loses one of this century's greatest musical geniuses and Mr. Blobby still dominates the news. Not that the charts are of great importance anyway.
Frank Zappa was probably cynical enough to realise that his death was never going to be acknowledged by the fickle society he sneered at throughout his career. 'Shifting units' is what counts in this business.
Frank Zappa was born on the 1st of December, 1940 in
Being a workaholic and perfectionist, he refused to compromise his music or lyrics. Needless to say, he stirred up a fair amount of opposition from the many groups in Western society he attacked.
Musically he received both criticism and acclaim for his experimentation with time signatures, harmony and counterpoint, stylistic fusions and his instrumentation.
Though he was thought of as a cult hero, Zappa had amassed an enormous world wide following with over fifty albums and somewhere in the region of twelve hundred titles.
Idolising Zappa isn't a simple case of thinking the guy was a genius. There are two separate ways of looking at his work. Do you think the music he produced over his career was brilliant on its own merits, or do you admire the man, his ideas and the way he used his music and songs to take the piss out of the very musical styles he was playing?
There's a problem in there somewhere, Unlike Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits who also use surreal and often furtive humour in their music and lyrics, I don't think Zappa was as sincere with the music he churned out. It was all beneath his compositional brilliance. He could throw out album after album without even trying.
To some of his audience (myself included) the man could do no wrong. On musicality and sheer workload I'd be quite prepared to compare him to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach etc as the modern rock equivalent.
I get the impression that he wasn't particularly interested in nostalgia or looking back. He just got on with whatever he was creating at that moment, made it available to the public and moved onto his next project, regardless of what people thought. When told in an interview that he could quite easily make top ten hits and sell millions of records, frank's reply was simply:
FZ - "Yeh, but who wants to go through life with a tiny nose and one glove on".
He knew his work was brilliant. He knew there was no music he couldn't write, arrange and play (he must have covered almost every style).
Through his many "Industry" law suits and strong will power he had complete control over the work he presented to the artistic and commercial worlds.
But the fact is, him being a music cynic of the highest order, even a snob who's lyrics, comments and music showed no mercy towards any group that humoured or annoyed him meant that even his most loyal fans could end up on the receiving end of his wit. With Zappa, no-one was exempt from critisism.
At nine years old Zappa and family moved to the
By this time he'd fallen in love with R&B – he'd even managed to convince "Opel and
FZ - "So now I had the ability to eat good chili and listen to Three Hours Past Midnight by Johnny "Guitar" Watson for most of my junior and senior years".
He was introduced to the music of Charlie Parker and other jazz greats, but it never left a great impression on him at the time. Whether he grew to love it or not I don't know, but its' influence can be heard in music throughout his career. At the time he couldn't understand it; the music just sounded like people were "noodling" about.
FZ - "Now, I can understand where they are noodling, why they're noodling and the difference between good and bad noodling. Without certain musical clues it just all sounded like noodles to me".
He was quoted as saying that "jazz is unemployment music" after doing a jazz tour and seeing Duke Ellington backstage, begging the road manager for a ten dollar advance. He certainly didn't want to be part of that struggling musician scene.
Possibly the biggest influence on Zappa's life and career was Modem Classical music, particularly the composers Stravinsky and Varèse. Like lots of other teenagers, Frank wanted to be different from the rest, he knew he would become renowned for his innovative way of thinking and his style of life. When he first heard recordings of "Ionization" and other works by Edgard Varèse, he immediately fell in love with this weird style of composition, He could relate to the sort of mind that would create these sounds. This led him to experiment with atonal, dissonant, twelve lone, discordant music and themes,
FZ - I liked it a lot, nobody had to explain it to me, it wasn't like jazz. They were doing some noodling in there but they sounded like they knew what they were doing".
IONISATION (1929-31) was one of the first western works created for percussion alone. Zappa loved this percussive prominence; the idea was new to him. This particular work was the optimy of earlier works by
AMERIQUES was the first work written in
Zappa was undoubtedly highly influenced by the above works and others that Varèse and his associates composed. Signs of this can even be seen outwith his own classical compositions. For example, some of his main musical trademarks are the use of extra bars of music to cause chaos in an otherwise manageable rhythm, very fast melodic and often unmelodic lines using the most unexpected instrument. These elements of Zappa's rock music are often thought of as humorous musical extras, although in actual fact after studying his influence the chances are that these bits are where most of his sincerity lies.
LYRICS (part 1)
Frank's lyrics were a very prominent feature of the complete Zappa package as viewed by his audience, fans and critics. He is famed for lyrically mocking politicians, religious leaders,
Not surprisingly the resultant "titties and beer" were seen unfit for radio consumption. Not so much titillation in his eyes, just relevant everyday subject matter. It seems bizarre that radio waves these days carry a stream of violent, sado-sexist messages, when the tacky cheesiness of Frank's everyday observations was sewn as something infinitely sinister twenty years ago.
Though actually affecting him, being banned and hated by so many people probably gave him more inspiration and material to write about. As he himself said;
FZ - "It's pretty easy to hate me for whatever you choose to hate me for, because I'm virtually unrepentant. I just don't care,"
OK, so there was a lot of swearing and sexually explicit scenarios in his songs. He certainly got into a lot of trouble for writing them, but he refused to compromise purely to make greater financial gains.
"Dynamo watched from the edge of the bed,
Her lips just u twitchin'
And her face gone red,"
FRANK ZAPPA (Dynamo Hum)
Sex happens and it happens a lot. It's not generally illegal so why not write about it?
"On Halloween night at the costume ball,
She's a goblin girl and she can gobble it all,"
FRANK ZAPPA (Goblin Girl)
Zappa's argument was that if he had a degree and went into the jungle or rain forest to study tribe's and their wily ways, then the findings would be highly praised no matter how vulgar. As the tribes he did study were a bit too close to home, the 'decent' people of the West threw their arms up in horror.
FZ - "A young lady has felt that my treatment of women in my lyrics and social comments haven't been particularly positive, there's no reason why they should be, you should take your lumps along with everyone else cos women do stupid fuckin' things just like the guys do."
Frank Zappa's lyrics have often been called puerile by listeners who have picked up on songs like the two I have quoted. But out of Zappa's twelve hundred titles, there are only a hundred or so that have such sexual content (allegedly). So if it were agreed that such lyrics were way out of order, there are still eleven hundred titles that could conceivably be given airplay.
If the argument is, however, that the lyrics are detrimental to women as a whole, then I'd have to disagree. They are all based on 'real life' situations and scenarios. These songs are detrimental to the people actually involved, not all of them women.
I actually find it all delightfully politically incorrect. Frank obviously bad a huge respect for downright dirty sex, and wanted to celebrate the fact with whoever cared to listen.
Zappa was of the belief that "sex looks silly. So what if it feels good, it looks silly". He thought it was ridiculous that our generations were now trying to impregnate youth/sex cultures with computerized, virtually realistic, sexual aids. "There's got to be an albums worth of material in there somewhere".
In an age where sex is blunt and to the point why shouldn't the same apply to sexual lyrics?
Zappa's guitar playing technique was completely original in the rock world. Unlike most guitarists who used scale patterns or tried and tested shapes on the guitar – Zappa created what was named 'Air Sculpture. He did not need to rely on tried and tested musical devices and tricks for he had the ability to play any note (all twelve tones/chromatic scale) on the guitar, over any key. This style of improvisation was also used by jazz guitarists (and no doubt brainy bastards with immaculate hearing ability, beards and banjos .... Sore Ed.) The trick is to know in which order to play the notes.
Zappa was renowned for playing outsized, self indulgent guitar solos. Where other guitarists would lose concentration and get stuck up their own arses in clichés and riffs for lack of imagination, Zappa would gain momentum six or seven minutes into the solo. He could imagine inventive, phrases and passages that were not confined to scale forms and shapes. He expected the same level of competence of his band, and would make them practice continually leading up to gigs, only telling them the running order of the set an hour or so before they look the stage, expecting them to instinctively know how to link the songs together info one piece of music.
As with every other area of life, Frank refused to fall for the glossy bullshit of Americanized religion and liked to ridicule God-fearing Christian folk at every opportunity. Basically he believed strongly that if you do believe in god then "go direct".
FZ - "You go to church cos you want to hang out with your friends".
And when he was quizzed about American TV Evangelism:
FZ - "God does not live on television, and if God really is all powerful and all knowing he doesn't need any help from a jerk in a silk suit who's asking you for money".
Frank Zappa was totally against drugs throughout his life, proving that you don't need mind expanding drugs to create. Zappa had continued to explore new boundaries of innovation and would have considered any assistance of that kind a hindrance.
With the writing and releasing of an exceptionally "way out" film like "200 Motels" and classic albums like "Hot Rats" and "Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch", it proves that creative genius is either in you or not and can't just be plucked from the air with the assistance of a shit-load of hallucinogens. Basically if you can't do it without drugs, why bother trying? (On the other hand ... if Brian Wilson hadn't bothered, we would have missed out on some fantastic comedy interviews over the past few years).
The fact is, that Zappa never gave into this most obvious, stereotypical rock vice, Zappa's wish to keep drugs out of his life, didn't just apply to his own person, he disliked drug use on a more general level.
FZ - "And then all of the people who took LSD turned into Yuppies, and I said ... now there's a dangerous drug".
Frank had reasons other than basic morality for not wanting his band under the influence of illegal substances;
1) People buying the tickets to see him had the right to expect the band to be awake and in control of themselves when they played.
2) If ever any of the hand were caught with anything, Frank was the one that got the bad publicity", and it did happen.
FZ - ''The rule in the band was: you get wasted ... you're fired".
Because of his open views on drug users be was quizzed a lot about the hypocrisy of smoking too much,
FZ - "Well to me a cigarette is food ... now that may be a baffling concept to people in San Francisco who think they will live forever if they stamp out tobacco smoke ... I find that a little hard to deal with".
FZ - "I like tobacco ... always have and always will".
LYRICS (Part 2)
We know he created his own off-beat sexually and politically charged brand of lyrical humour. Whether these songs offend you or not, you can't deny that the word structure and sound bites 'reeked' of intelligent creation, Zappa's lyrics at their best, don't have any tie-ins with his personal ideology, They are a clever and silly combination of words and catchy phrases, When they don't make any sense, they're all the better for it.
"She could mutate insanely, she could mutate insanely,
And cars could crash all over the place,
As a result of people with Hawaiian shirts on"
FRANK ZAPPA (Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch)
These types of lyrics arc perfect for his music and together they form a truly unique Zappa sound.
"Sometimes the milk can hurt you
if you put it on your cereal before you smell the plastic container,
And the stuff in the strainer has a mind of its own".
FRANK ZAPPA (The Dangerous Kitchen)
In 1988 Zappa stopped touring due to differences within the band, and put some time into business and politics. He had meetings in
FZ - "As a result or these meetings, I proposed to them that if they needed some sort of representation in the west to get some investment, that I would he interested in doing that."
Zappa received a letter from the Czech government to say that he now represented them for Trade, Tourism and Culture. He got to work making phone calls. Things went wrong, though. At a luncheon engagement when
FZ - "I expressed the opinion that I thought it was unfortunate that a person such as President Havel should have to bear the company or someone as stupid as Dan Quayle for even a few moments or his life."
Quayle never came and instead James Baker the third stormed in and "literally lay down the law",
FZ - "He said you can either do business with the
Zappa was dropped.
Despite this set back, by 1991 Zappa was looking into the feasibility of standing for presidential election in the US, but due to his deteriorating health, decided to concentrate his energy into getting unreleased material (stored largely on computer) into general release. He continued to experiment, holding music sessions at his house involving musicians from all over the world, combining a bizarre mix of cultures and styles to create new and exciting music. Frank's incredible musical career, spanning from The Mothers of Invention right through to his prominent solo work and finally his business/political endeavors, showed above all his strength of character and his belief in his own ideals, When he wanted to do something, he did it. When something bothered him he spoke out.
Frank Zappa was an important component of the whole alternative rock scene. Love him or hate him you cannot deny his genius, He will be sorely missed.
FZ - "I don't use drugs, I'm not a religious fanatic and I'm neither a Republican or a Democrat ... I'm relatively sane."
essential Frank Zappa albums:
JOE'S GARAGE ACT I
YOU ARE WHAT YOU IS
SHIP ARRIVING TOO LATE TO SAVE A DROWNING WITCH
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net