The Father of Invention

By Chris Welch

Rock World, September 1992

"You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore!" screams his album cover, but FRANK ZAPPA has done it – on stage, on record and on film. On the release of the sixth and final volume of Zappa's 'greatest bits', CHRIS WELCH investigates a career that has produced some of the most challenging music and outrageous ideas of the rock epoch.

I dolised and vilified... Frank Zappa could be forgiven for being confused or bitter at his reception from the world at large. And yet, even in his darkest hours, Frank has retained that twinkling smile lurking behind the famous moustache. It's an expression that says: "Hey, don't get mad, just buy the album!"

At least I think that's what Frank has been telling us all these years. His love of pop, rock and jazz, his unceasing bafflement at the stupidity of the music business and his fight against censorship all reflect the inner conflict between Zappa, the serious composer, and Zappa the rebel. His son Dweezil, a real chip off the old block, has achieved much of the rock'n'roll fame his dad wouldn't have minded. But that's unfair, because Mr. Zappa, back in the crazed Sixties, was pretty much an idol in his own right. Sure, he didn't look much like Scott Walker, but when the Mothers Of Invention were coming on strong, their phantom composer, singer, guitarist and master of ceremonies became an overnight sensation!

Trying to pin down Zappa is a dangerous pursuit. He has been involved in so many different grand designs; from running touring bands to making movies, to producing bizarre new talent, to composing for classical orchestras, to making disco hits and funky jazz. The legacy of album recording over the past 24 years alone would require a leather bound volume of essays and analysis to do it justice. Highlights of his recording career cannot be reduced to the typical format of '20 Golden Greats', but have been released as a series of 6 double CDs titled 'You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore'.

Frank Zappa is best described as the allAmerican composer, a unique individual with influences, antecedents and attitudes that no other society could produce. He is perhaps a cross between Duke Ellington and Groucho Marx, an organiser and an anarchist. As such he has been viewed as a threat. In Communist Czechoslovakia, just listening to Zappa music could once lead to a severe beating from the secret police. But it was in liberal England that Frank was once knocked from the stage during a show by an enraged assailant and seriously injured. Whenever these outrages occur, the eloquent, witty, caustic and infinitely patient Frank responds by returning to his beloved studios, to experiment and write and play. And if there is more uproar at the results, nobody is more delighted than the composer.

Zappa's fame in England spread rapidly during the hippy summer of 1967, when it was impossible to attend a party and not spend hours crouched on the floor, rolling joints and trying to fathom out the meaning of the debut album by the Mothers Of Invention, Freak Out!'.

Here was the musical bible of the psychedelic movement, the first double LP and concept album. Even in the carefree, experimental Sixties this was a giant leap forward. When Frank and the band finally came to London they were greeted with a mixture of fear and reverence. But more surprises were in store, not the least when Frank Zappa turned out be not just a prophet, but a brilliant lead guitarist. The Mothers' lyrics also contained satirical messages that parodied the underground scene. The guru of the hippies didn't like hippies! The confusion would continue. At a memorable meeting between Frank and left wing students at the London School Of Economics, hotheads denounced him as a 'Hollywood' stereotype. "What do you mean? I come from Hollywood!" replied Frank.

But people always need to shout when Zappa is on stage. At one Royal Albert Hall show, a heckler was admonished: "Stop it, you'll hurt your throat!" He would retaliate fiercely when affronted. Record companies who earned his displeasure were regularly pilloried on stage. Critics (including myself) who expressed lukewarm opinions of a hot new Zappa album were publicly lambasted, while pompous symphony orchestra musicians who refused to play his work, or even ripped up the suits he hired for them, were rebuked in the most scathing terms. The man who has caused so much controversy over the years was born Francis Vincent Zappa, on December 21, 1940, in Baltimore. His Greek-Sicilian parents later moved to the West Coast, where Frank was raised. At school he led his first eight piece band called The Blackouts. His musical tastes veered from R&B to the works of modern classical composers like Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky. His professional ea reer began playing in bar bands and writing film music. Later he joined the Soul Giants which he renamed The Muthas. This became the Mothers and when they signed to Verve Records, they were asked to rename it The Mothers Of Invention. They had been spotted by producer Tom Wilson who spent over $20,000 on the 'Freak Out!' album which was released in 1966. Next came' Absolutely Free' and 'We're Only In It For The Money' with its famous parody of the Sgt.Pepper' album cover. It was the start of a succession of some fifty albums to come over the next two decades, including the complex and serious ('Lumpy Gravy') the entertaining ('Cruising With Ruben And The Jets') and the purely musical 'Hot Rats'). There were composite albums like Mothermania' and 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh' and the live albums like 'Fillmore East June 1971'.

The Mothers, exhausted by hard touring, loss of money and uneven audience responses, broke up in 1969, but Zappa would lead a succession of all-star, tightly-rehearsed bands during the next twenty years. The toughest period for Frank was probably at the turn of the Seventies. He fought to make the experimental '200 Motels' movie, which was greeted with hostility. A concert at the Royal Albert Hall was cancelled when officials said the lyrics to '200 Motels' were obscene. Later in 1971 he suffered a disastrous European tour. All the band's equipment was lost in the fire which destroyed the Montreux Casino (the event which sparked Deep Purple's hit Smoke On The Water'). Then he was seriously injured when he was pushed off stage by the husband of a fan at London's Rainbow Theatre. He received a broken leg and fractured skull and spent nine months in a wheelchair recuperating.

During the long climb back, he continued to make well-received albums like 'Joe's Garage', and in 1987 he received a Grammy Award for his 'Jazz From Hell' album. Most recently he's been working with classical orchestras in Germany and overseeing the re-issue of his collected works.

The enigma of Zappa is that here is a man who can write music in the vein of Stravinsky, and play some of the best blues guitar in the West, and is also responsible for choice ditties like 'He's So Gay' and 'Crew Slut'. Maybe we should all now take 'The Mothers Of Invention Anti-Smut Loyalty Oath!'.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)