Zappa: A Retrospective

By ?

Music Trader, December 1995

Although he was often dismissed as a flippant crackpot by conservative society and the straight music world, in retrospect Frank Zappa's career shows a musical perfectionist using only the highest standards of musicianship and the finest recording quality. Furthermore he is now rightly seen as one of the great guitar players of all time, as well as a phenomenal composer, performer and producer.

On December 21, 1940, a Sicilian-Greek couple in Baltimore Maryland had their first child and called him Frank. When Frank was 12 the family moved to POMONA LA, as a result of FRANK Senior's work in the guided missile industry for LOCKHEED. Zappa spent his teenage years listening to the vibes of THE PENGUINS, JOHNNY OTIS, THE SHIELDS, THE CLOVERS and all the other "doowop" and R&B groups of the time. Constant family moving made Frank a bit of a loner with no close friends, so he was pleased to hook-up with DON VAN VLIET, later the notorious CAPTAIN BEEFHEART, at the Antelope Valley High School. In 1956 Zappa started his high-school band, called THE BLACKOUTS, an eight piece in which he played lead guitar.

By 15 Zappa was heavily into "modern" classical music such as VARESE and STRAVINSKY, playing the former's IONIZATION so often his Mum banned it from the living room, while between the ages of 14 and 18 Zappa wrote a mass of music, most of which he would never have performed as it would've required a full-on orchestra. In the early Sixties Zappa wrote several low- budget music scores for which he was rarely paid, so to put food on the table and tape in the studio, Zappa took to playing ,cocktail music in bars for $20 a night, and worked as an artist in a greeting card company during the day. With advance cash from the score to the Western B-movie "Run Home Slow" Zappa purchased his first real electric guitar and secured a home-made five-track recording studio in Cucamonga (LA) which he called STUDIO Z and rented out at $13.50 an hour. By 1964 Zappa had spent countless hours in the studio recording experimental music with DON VAN VLIET, split with his wife KAY and was living in STUDIO Z with buddy JIM "MOTORHEAD" SHERWOOD and two unidentified chicks.

It was at this time that a significant event occurred in Zappa's life that was to change his personal, professional and artistic attitudes forever. Zappa was set-up by the San Bernardino Vice Squad to make an audio-sex tape for $100, which Zappa knew would buy a lot of food and tape. So he obliged, only to be busted by the ultra-conservative cops acting on behalf of a paranoid straight society. As a result he spent 10 days in jail, three years on probation and was exempted from the military call-up to Vietnam for being an ex-con. Since the bust Zappa almost single-mindedly turned his artistic energies to exposing the sanctimonious and hypocritical middle-American attitudes towards sex and generally tried to provoke authority wherever possible. He began by including heavy breathing on FREAK-OUT and followed it up with a pumpkin having an orgasm on ABSOLUTELY FREE. This initial experimentation prompted Zappa to become outrageously creative in ridiculing and offending the "silent majority" of the USA: music and songs about S&M, anal sex, groupies, graphic descriptions of almost every racial and minority group, cops, hippies, Jews, Catholics, disco girls, politicians and middle-class America itself.

One night whilst playing a drunken gig at The Whiskey in Hollywood, Zappa was approached by Dylan's producer Tom Wilson, who signed Zappa and his band The Mothers to the MGMNERVE label to back him in his first album. Unpredictably, Zappa demanded that he be allowed to record a double, concept album as a debut; no-one had ever released a double album of pop music before, and never as a debut album either.

FREAK-OUT was an album about real events in racially and, politically charged LA at the time, and how they were affecting the nation's youth. Recorded in 1966, FREAK-OUT was packed with free form guitars, seemingly mindless ramblings, overlapping vocals, KAZOO solos, mumbling and screams, all kept in place by a steady drumbeat. Zappa had virtually invented and defined psychedelic rock with his first release.

Zappa's next effort was the bitterly antagonistic ABSOLUTELY FREE released in MAY 1967 which unleashed Zappa's scorn for American society with songs like "Brown Shoes Don't Make It", "Plastic People" and "America Drinks and Goes Home."

From 1967 Zappa and The Mothers of Invention ("of Invention" to appease a squarely paranoid MGM) played to the Garrick Theatre in New York with Ray Collins (vocal), Roy Estrada (bass), Jimmy Carl Black (drums), Don Preston (keyboard), and Bunk Gardner and Motorhead on saxes. Throughout this period band became a highly tight and proficient; outfit, Zappa training them to respond to his cryptic hand signals to change time signature, improvise or solo on a Zappa whim.

Many big-talkers have claimed one influence or another on The Beatles' SGT. PEPPER album, but McCartney only ever acknowledged one FREAK OUT by Zappa. He said that hearing the album gave him the confidence to "free" himself in the studio, to try the radical and irreverent.

In the late sixties and early seventies Zappa continued his excursions into the topical and bizarre with albums such as UNCLE MEAT, BURNT WEENIE SANDWICH and GRAND WAZOO, but his most monumental effort of the period was producing CAPTAIN BEEFHEART's seminal and classic album TROUT MUSIC REPLICA. HOT RATS was regarded by many to be Zappa's best melodic work, with heaps of inspired guitar playing and accessible tunes, which was directly reflected in his commercial success. In 1971 Zappa joined John Lennon on stage at the Fillmore and had a mega-jam with him which resulted in the jam appearing on Lennon's SOME TIME IN NEW YORK album.

Shortly afterwards Zappa embarked on what was to become a disastrous European tour. The first tragedy occurred when Zappa and The Mothers' equipment was destroyed when the celebrated Montreaux Casino in Switzerland burned down, an event commemorated in Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water." Then, to make matters even more traumatic, the groupie-loving Zappa had a bit of jealous-husband trouble whilst playing a concert at London's Rainbow Theatre; the slightly agitated husband of one Frank's fans stormed the stage, grabbed Frank by the throat and threw him off stage, crushing his larynx (lowering his voice a third), damaging his spine and keeping him wheelchair bound for almost a year. Since that horrible experience Zappa employed a huge bodyguard to accompany him everywhere.

The early seventies witnessed Zappa developing an extraordinary new species of big band fusion (WAKA JAWAKA and THE GRAND WAZOO albums), then dumping the "jazztette" in favour of an electric band. 1973's OVERNITE SENSATION utilised fusion-chops, explicit lyrics and guitar-driven rhythm. During this period Zappa achieved a palatable combination of jazz-based swing and a rich, thick rock sound, thanks to his interest in modern classical music. In 1974 APOSTROPHE (') became his commercial album yet, reaching No.10 on the Billboard chart.

In 1975 Captain Beefheart came out of retirement to give a hand on Bongo Fury, despite an earlier rift between the eccentric geniuses. ZOOT ALLURES in 1976 was a collaboration between Zappa and drummer TERRY BOZZIO. He then began experimenting with a musical process he termed "xenochronicity" (combining unrelated tracks to create a piece non-synchronous music) which one imagines would have been quite easy for Zappa. The results of Zappa's "xenochronicity" produced notable results on "Friendly Little Finger" with excel sleaze guitar on the title track and orgasmically orgasmic moaning on "The Torture Never Stops." Later in the year Warner Bros. released three excellent instrumental albums, STUDIO TAN, SLEEP DIRT, and ORCHESTRAL FAVOURITES with covers and sleeve notes unauthorized by Zappa, however these covers were adapted by Zappa for his CD re-releases without so much as a tiny pro-test.

At the time the world rock media was obsessed with punk and couldn't get a handle on what Zappa was doing with parodies of classical concertos and hysterical rock ramblings crossed with jazz and cartoon scores.

At this point a hassle was developing with Warner Bros. as they were getting cold feet about tracks like "The 'Torture Never Stops": 10 minutes of blood-curdling screaming, disturbing lyrics and guitar solos guaranteed to make any M.O.R. music lover throw up all over their Springsteen records.

Next came Zappa's milestone albums, SHEIK YERBOUTI (1979) and JOE'S GARAGE with the former continuing a scathing attack on various sectors of US society and earning Zappa a couple of nominations for Grammy Awards (amazing!). Now that he had his own label, BARKING PUMPKIN, Zappa could release anything he wanted to, and did with the full-scale rock-opera of JOE'S GARAGE, which Zappa described as "a stupid story of how the government is trying to do away with music!"

Anyway, after SHEIK YERBOUTI, Zappa stopped being so philosophical and became utterly, pragmatically political; on TINSELTOWN REBELLION and YOU ARE WHAT YOU IS Zappa attacked the growth of the fundamentalist Right in America. Zappa's daughter MOON UNIT (yes, that's correct!) was guest vocalist on 1982's SHIP ARRIVING TOO LATE TO SAVE A ROWNING WITCH, which contained the minor hit single "Valley Girl" with MOON UNIT bagging the hell out of young moneyed Hollywooders in a satirically biting mock Californian accent.

In the early eighties Zappa made an effort to return to England to supervise the recording of six of his orchestral pieces by the 100-member London Symphony Orchestra. It was an 'effort' because Frank avoided England due to an almost pathological fear recurrence of the type of violence which once hospitalised him.

Until 1985 Zappa devoted much of his time to collating and re-issuing his back catalogue on CD, the major work being the monumental You CAN'T DO THAT ON STAGE ANYMORE (a 12 CD set of live recordings, from 1969 to 1984) a mind-boggling 13 straight hours of some very bent Zappa. I don't care if I'm known or remembered, respected or get famous," the ephemeral Zappa has commented. "The reason I write music is because I like people to listen to it, and if there are other people who like to listen to it, then that's fine." Perhaps one of Zappa's most satisfying projects was SHUT UP AND PLAY YER GUITAR, a collection of three albums (now a triple CD boxed set) featuring only his and Steve Vai's (Zappa's guitar prodigy) live lead breaks. That's right. No singing. No words. No keyboard atmospherics. Just three CDs full of blistering lead solos. It sounds so magically sweet, just push play, sit back and get severely launched with Zappa.

Zappa then became even more adventurous, discovering an obscure 18th century composer named Francesco Zappa and recording his work on a synclavier; and having renowned French composer Pierre Boulez conducting his work on PERFECT STRANGERS, as well as releasing THEM OR US (1984) which further expanded the impact of Zappa's randomly inventive guitar work. JAZZ FROM HELL featured wordless compositions on synclavier and THING FISH was a 'Broadway musical style' album about AIDS, homophobia and racism. The next big project was a 12-piece big band playing covers, instrumentals, and newly antagonistic political songs released collectively in 1988's THE BEST BAND YOU NEVER HEARD IN YOUR LIFE and MAKE A JAZZ NOISE HERE.

In Czechoslovakia, where Zappa had long been a hero of the neo-cultural underground, President Vaclev Havel appointed him as their official Cultural Liaison Officer to the West, and in 1991 Zappa announced he would be standing as an independent candidate in the 1992 USA presidential elections, which prompted several hardcore left AND right-wing death threats almost immediately ........... ! In November 1991 daughter MOON UNIT confirmed reports that Zappa was suffering from prostate cancer and in May 1993 Zappa, clearly weak from intensive chemotherapy, announced that he was fast losing the battle against modern society's greatest killer as the cancer spread to his bones. He died in LA on December 4, 1993.

History will recognise Zappa as a sophisticated, serious composer and a highly accomplished master of music; the fact that he had done it all with a remarkable sense of humour should be seen as a special bonus. To commemorate the life of the magnificent musical mastermind that was FRANK ZAPPA, MUSIC TRADER MAGAZINE has one set of the entire ZAPPA catalogue to give away, courtesy of the Zappa-friendly people at FESTIVAL RECORDS. Yep, a marvelous 57 CD set including all the works mentioned in this article, solo efforts, BEEFHEART collaborations, MOTHERS' albums, live work, classical stuff and more! You could own this licentious library of licks (yours to keep forever, see Page Four 4, that is IV), for details.