Rock irony from a master prankster

By Adam Sweeting

The Guardian, December 7, 1993

ALTHOUGH headlines like "Rock Legend Dies" have attended the death on Saturday of Frank Zappa, he was scarcely a household name of the sort you could bracket with Bruce Springsteen or Axl Rose. Some knew Zappa only as the man who christened his children Dweezil and Moon Unit. Others took one look at his alarming hawk-like nose, Billy Connolly hair and bandit's moustache (Zappa's parents were second generation Sicilian-Greeks living in Baltimore), and fled towards the comfort and safety of Adult-Orientated Rock.

However, discerning listeners who pride themselves on taking an investigative peek into rock's dimly lit, difficult places, recognise Zappa as rock 'n' roll's first satirist and its most original intellectual prankster. Young Frank began his musical life thwacking at a set of drums, bashing out rhythm 'n' blues with a group called The Ramblers, but equally important to his subsequent development was the early discovery of Edgard Varese's experimental piece, Ionisation. Thenceforth, his career would manage to cast a critical eye over the venality and crassness of. rock, while exploring widely across the spectrum of orchestral, improvised and "new" music.

By the time Zappa joined the Soul Giants in 1964, he had already dabbled with B-movie soundtracks and had a brush with the law over a spoof pornographic recording. By 1966, the Soul Giants had become the Mothers Of Invention and had recorded the provocative and barely house-trained Freak Out!, a riot of in-jokes, free improvisation and protest songs.

Zappa's ironic distance from the rock and pop mainstream was punched home by 1967's We're Only In It For The Money, the title alone displaying a cynicism decades ahead of its time while everybody else was wearing beads and flowers. Then he paraded his eclecticism with the doowop of Ruben And The Jets and the ferocious and precocious jazz-rock of Hot Rats. In 1971, he made the movie 200 Motels, with matching soundtrack, possibly thereby inventing the spoof "rockumentary" form exploited by Spinal Tap more than a decade later.

For the next 20-odd years, Zappa's musical and business career was an object lesson in restless self-determination. His music reflected and plundered from punk, movie soundtracks, modern jazz and big band music, never afraid to bound from Berg to Bartok to Berry (Chuck). He railed against America's corporate complacency and political lurch to the right, deplored racism and homophobia, and made a rare foray into the pop charts with the Top 40 hit, Valley Girl, in 1982. Away from the recording studio, he instigated legal action to regain ownership of master tapes of albums he recorded for MGM/Verve, and subsequently took on Warner Bros in his battle for control over his career. He set up his own Barking Pumpkin label as a vehicle for both new recordings and reissues of earlier work.

His homeland, famously lacking in irony, found it difficult to bestow the kind of recognition on Zappa that he deserved. However, Czechoslovakia appointed him its Cultural Liaison Officer with the West in 1991, Zappa having interviewed Czech premier Vaclav Havel on US cable TV the year before. Last night Havel said: "Zappa was a friend of our newly born democracy and one of the first people to visit here after the revolution [in November 1989]."

Zappa was too inquisitive and provocative to be easily pigeonholed, and it will take years for his achievements to be fully appreciated. Meanwhile, there's his new album with the Ensemble Modern, The Yellow Shark (Music For Nations), to be going on with.