By Richard Unwin
For most people, Frank Zappa will be a musical enigma. His name evokes thoughts of an individualistic, mercurial talent, but the songs themselves are less remembered than those of the more commercially successful bands his work inspired. Always playful, Zappa's music shifts from cynical, psychedelic pop through jazz-fusion to orchestral flights of fancy.
Throughout, it carries an identifiable quality, but it swirls around, never easy to pin down and define. One of the original boundary breakers, Zappa floats above the urge to categorize. It seems fitting then that the closest I ever got to this 20th Century legend was before I was even born, when my father inadvertently bumped into him at the Adelphi hotel, Liverpool in the early 1970s.
Zappa died twenty years later in 1993, but coming up in November, with almost another twenty years between us, on the 70th anniversary of his birth, London's Roundhouse will stage a three-day spectacular celebrating all things Zappa. Bringing together the people who knew the man they call FZ best, the shows will include a rare on stage appearance by Frank's wife, Gail, performances by son, Dweezil, and a live tribute from Zappa mega-fans The Mighty Boosh.
The Roundhouse's Dave Gaydon told Flux that, "The celebration will be a kaleidoscopic exploration of FZ's music and influences. Performances by Dweezil Zappa's Zappa Plays Zappa with guest appearances by members of FZ's touring and recording bands, the UK's best contemporary classical ensembles, and an appearance by Gail Zappa and other members of the Zappa family, will be accompanied by talks, films and an explosive exhibition."
Gaydon admits that Gail, who controls the Zappa archive, has a reputation for closely guarding her husband's legacy. In this case, though, as Gail herself explains, the Roundhouse plan hit the right notes. "Zappa Plays Zappa played Shepherd's Bush last June and I was approached backstage by Dave - you have to hand it to him as the responsible party - his enthusiasm won the argument, if ever there was one. He had this date available and FZ loved fireworks and Halloween - this is about as close as you can get in the British Isles."
Alongside the musical performances, the free exhibition 'Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All' will see an ambitious attempt to turn the Roundhouse into the inside of Zappa's head. Asked whether, as outsiders, or even as a wife, we could ever really hope to understand her husband's inner world, though, Gail is suitably illusive. "There is a big difference between the brain and the mind. I think the Roundhouse just might have a great idea that could be a lot of fun if no one takes the idea or themselves too seriously. But as to your question about how I thought about his music when he was busy making it I have to say that not being a journalist I am sure my answer would disappoint you. I was surrounded by it. It moves through you while you are moving through it. It is right there with the air you breathe. You walk in and out of mixes in the studio, the guitar is right there and always has a lot to say - without an amplifier. You instinctively know the difference between maintaining callouses and finding the best way to play a challenging line - you hear the new idea in the metallic sound of the wire wound on a string, you feel it by touch in the fingers, the muscles, the physical person. You see the person become more who he is through more music."
The more you delve into the world of Zappa it seems, the more slippery things get. Gail's argument is that we should let the music do the talking. Amongst those performing on stage at the Roundhouse will be Scott Thunes, who played a series of international tours with Zappa throughout the 80s. Summing up the experience, Thunes says, "I loved him as a man, and a fellow band-member, standing on stage with him and banging-out his tunes, many of which I'd loved since my childhood. His genius was in having an innate ability to put disparate elements together into a new entity. This causes him to equate all sounds as musically worthy."
Thunes' comments are echoed by Joe Travers, who, as vaultmeister of the seemingly endless Zappa archive, knows the music better than most. "Frank's voice is a truly unique one. He has touched so many people in so many different areas throughout his career. His contribution musically has been extremely important to open the doors for the industry to develop as it has over the years. He always pushed the envelope, provided optional entertainment for those who needed it and doing it all with a sense of humor. He's a hero for many, a mystery to most, and an icon that is a leader in his field that will continue to be respected throughout history."
As Dave Gaydon concludes, Frank Zappa never himself got to play the Roundhouse, "but he did attend an 'Implosion' night in 1970 where he gave the DJ / promoter Jeff Dexter an acetate of 'Sharleena' which he promptly played. The Roundhouse is steeped in magical moments of rock n roll history and we are hoping this event will be one of those."
• RICHARD UNWIN
Frank Zappa at the Roundhouse runs from 5-7 November 2010.
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