The father of invention

By Robin Denselow

The Guardian, December 7, 1993

FRANK ZAPPA, who has died in Los Angeles of prostate cancer aged 52, was one of the great innovators of popular music of the past 25 years, a composer and performer whose prolific output spanned and often collided with rock music, jazz, avant-garde orchestral work and satire.

He was a confusing, often contradictory figure who will be remembered initially for his outrageous image back in the sixties and seventies: his rock band, The Mothers Of Invention, his campaigns against rock music censorship, and his more recent dips into international politics as cultural liaison officer to the West for the new Czech government.

But he deserves credit as a serious musician who was willing to take enormous gambles on and devote much of his own wealth to writing and recording his often idiosyncratic work. With Zappa, image and reality were often at odds.

It was a contradiction that he was well aware of. Back in 1975, he was in London to appear in court against the Albert Hall management (they'd banned him from appearing four years earlier). He complained: 'Tm very famous, but the number of people who know my music as opposed to seeing a poster of me sitting on the toilet is very disproportionate." On that occasion he had asked me to take him to Dingwalls, in Camden Town, after saying "I just sit, and people just invent their fantasies around me". Sure enough, he had just sat, continuing his dry and intense conversation, and the fantasies started. One man began explaining how the infamous poster had changed his life, and another suddenly offered to "throw out anyone who annoys you".

During the early eighties, he often spent months at home in Los Angeles, in the hills above Laurel Canyon. Across the road from his large family house was a building protected by a barred gate and video camera, that looked as secure as any jail. There Zappa spent most of his time with a recording studio and video editing suite. "I don't like Los Angeles. I only live here because I can get my equipment maintained. I haven't found anything that's as interesting to do as working, so my idea of a good time is to stay at home and work."

On that occasion, he was working (as usual) on an almost absurd list of projects. There were new albums, film treatments, videos, plans to retreat, re-release and partially re-record a back catalogue of 35 Mothers Of Invention albums, as well as his own orchestral works with complex rhythm patterns that "are derived from speech patterns".

Much of his orchestral work was performed live for the first time at the Barbican in 1983 by the LSO, bravely conducted by Kent Nagano. Zappa paid for the concert and subsequent recording, and had paid $500,000 for the scores to be written out. It was not intended as a commercial venture. "The reason I write music is because I like to listen to it, and if there-are other people who like to listen to it then that's fine. I've saved up for years in order to make this happen."

While other sixties heroes cashed in on nostalgia, Zappa moved on, lost interest in rock bands, and even in the guitar, though he was one of the great guitarists of his era. Instead he moved to electronics and the Synclavier sampler, which he used to create sounds that could not be achieved by conventional instruments.

As a self-styled "composer-businessman" he knew that he could have made a fortune by reviving his old material and re-forming the Mothers, but instead he worked on new, complex material almost to the end. A new album The Yellow Shark was released last month, and another, Civilisation Phase III, is due in the spring. There are thought to be hours and hours of unreleased material on tape in his studio.

His final "serious" compositions may have seemed a world away from the Mothers, but Zappa had taken an interest in avant-garde styles even when he first emerged as one of the wildest and freakiest figures on the West Coast. His early rock satires, such as We're Only In It For The Money, mixed meticulous playing, split-second timing and rapid shifts between different styles with the humour and obscenity that became Zappa's early trademark. He had grown up in Southern California listening to doo-wop, blues and rock 'n' roll, but also to Stravinsky and Varese.

HE STARTED out by playing in bar bands, recording music for low-budget films, and recording singles in his own studio. He joined a white soul band who were soon transformed to become a vehicle for Zappa's cynical, satirical songs and eclectic rock style, and re-named The Mothers Of Invention by an astute record company executive.

Starting with a double-album, Freak Out! (1966), Zappa released over 50 albums, with or without the ever-changing Mothers. He was always switching direction from rock satire to jazz-rock or the avantgarde and back again. As he insisted back in the mid-seventies: "I might be working on 10 styles at once, but only put one on a particular album. I keep reading about the direction I'm supposed to be going in, but that's wrong." He worked with musicians like Captain Beefheart, Lowell George and Jean-Luc Ponty, and much of his work "is written around the musicians, because I like people playing to the limits of their skill".

Inevitably, his vast back-catalogue includes peaks and troughs. His sixties output includes the often brilliant, vicious satire of We're Only In It For The Money, while in 1970 he demonstrated his impressive jazz-rock guitar work on the instrumental set, Hot Rats. The same year saw his first collaboration with classical musicians at a performance of 200 Motels, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. The orchestra were required to snap their fingers (which they did) and belch (which they didn't).

The blend of jokes, serious music and scatological humour began to wear a little thin by the end of the seventies and early eighties, with over-extended works like the three-album Joe's Garage, though song titles like Why Does It Hurt When I Pee continued to shock. His biggest commercial success, Valley Girl (1982), was a return to vicious satire in his treatment of California youth culture. It featured his then 14-yearold daughter Moon Unit.

Zappa may have spent much of his last years in seclusion but he could still grab the headlines. In 1985 he played a big role in the campaign against the censorship of rock lyrics, then being mounted by the influential Parents Music Resource Centre lobby. The PMRC were outraged by the deliberately provocative and sexually explicit lyrics of a new wave of heavy metal bands. For Zappa this wasn't a debate about an unsavoury pop subculture. It was about free speech, and Zappa took that very seriously indeed.

In September 1985, he testified before the Senate Commerce Committee hearings on pornography in rock, and in a witty but angry speech he argued that "bad facts make bad law, and people who write bad law are more dangerous than songwriters who celebrate sexuality". The hearing ended with a compromise: warning stickers had to be stuck on albums that contained explicit lyrics. Zappa stuck an enormous spoof sticker on his new album, Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (which included recordings of the Senate Committee hearing).

Zappa's success in Washington launched an unlikely new political career. His work had always been taken very seriously by dissident musicians in East Europe, and after the fall of Communism Zappa was invited to do cultural liaison work with the West for the new Czech government. He was involved in discussions with the governments of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and even Yugoslavia (before the civil war) on the creation of a regional cultural fund. There were indications that this campaigner for free speech and capitalism might have found something even more interesting to do than staying at home and working. He had begun to consider a political career in the States, and had been involved in voter registration work. He had even talked of plans to run for president, as a "non-partisan candidate" (he could never join the Republicans after his battles over pornography with the religious Right), but such plans were shelved as his illness became worse over the last four years. His death leaves America a greyer, more timid place.