Mother Of All Musicians

By Top 40

Top 40, December, 1995

Over the course of the next year, Top 40 will be running a series of articles which will look back at the more influential but perhaps not so well known musicians of the last twenty to thirty years. To coincide with the re-release and re-mastering of all his work, this first article takes a look at the prolific composer, rock legend, satirist and master guitar player that was Frank Zappa.

Reviewing the early discoveries of my teenage years – musically speaking, that is! – I remember being driven around in a metallic green Cortina somewhere in Springs, a Cortina that had the full magnificence of an 8 Track Stereo Tape Deck, a machine that in those days was at the forefront of aural technology. The sound was unbelievable to my relatively uneducated ear; but what was even more unbelievable was the music. It was Overnite Sensation by Frank Zappa, and from that night on I was hooked. I was probably lucky to have heard that album first; it's certainly one of his more accessible, and probably is the only album that contains as much lyric as it does music. The mixture of musical styles, and Zappa's unerring ability to either be sneeringly accurate or utterly challenging is a heady mixture; and to an only slightly post pubescent teenager trapped in a small conservative town on the East Rand, it offered a brief glimpse of freedom, a snatch of what could be done with modern music in the post Woodstock era.

Delving into the rest of his music was at times disconcerting but always different; from Freak Out!, his first release with the Mothers of Invention in 1966, right through to Yellow Shark (put out a month before his death in 1993), Zappa made no compromise and took more chances with his music than any other musician before or since. Naturally, with that approach to music and to life, Zappa spent most of his life either hassling or being hassled by some form of authority. The difference between Zappa and most other people was that he had firmly fixed and very personal views about what was right, and if you abused that view he would use the full extent of the law to rectify that abuse, frequently at enormous expense. He sued everybody, ranging from his various record companies to the Queen of England – this as a result of the Royal Philharmonic walking out on Zappa midway through a recording because the lead violinist felt that his material was pornographic!

To many, his initial attraction perhaps lay in the bizarre and frequently filthy lyrics; all my mates and I could quote all the lyrics to Dinah Moe Humm, a song that fairly preposterously deals with a woman who bets the protagonist of the lyric that he can't make her come. ("Well I poked and stroked till my wrist got numb! But I still didn't hear no Dinah Moe Humm"). And there was the serious anti-establishment stuff too – Trouble Every Day, written about the Watts riots in the sixties, I'm The Slime, a biting piece of sarcasm about the control that industry and government exercise via the media. In fact it's one of my favourite lyrics, and certainly is worth quoting: "I am gross and perverted! l'm obsessed and deranged! I have existed for years! but very little has changed! l'm the tool of the government/and industry too! and I am destined to rule and regulate youl! I'm vile and pernicious! but you can't look away! I make you think I'm delicious! with the stuff that I say! I'm the best you can get/ Have you guessed me yet?! I'm the slime oozing out of your TV set."

Over the years, Zappa turned his baleful eye on everything from censorship to the music industry to the Californian equivalent of the South African kugel, and every time, with unerring accuracy, made everybody re-think their views on whatever topic he chose to write about. But under all the sneering sarcasm and satire was one of the modern era's finest composers. Zappa's first recordings were popular out of curiosity and gimmick value more than because people recognised his talent as a musician. But with the release of Hot Rats in 1970, Zappa got the attention of everybody, from serious critic to purist jazz fan. It was an astonishing blend of rock, jazz and soul, and it put Zappa out there with the guitar heroes of the time. The opening instrumental, Peaches and Regalia provides one of the most original and memorable Zappa classics, and would become a cornerstone of live performances in the years to come. Zappa had found his role, both as musician and composer. He had honed his own craft to an astonishing level of virtuosity, and he became legendary as one of the most difficult but rewarding musicians to play with. He was an exacting task master, and would frequently complain about the impossibility of producing good music with live musicians. The sheer challenge that his music presented attracted an array of musicians who played with Zappa that reads like a Who's Who of the seventies and eighties: George Duke, Johnny Guitar Watson, Lowell George, Steve Vai, Jean Luc Ponty, Adrian Belew, Aynsley Dunbar, Chester Thompson, Jack Bruce, Terry Bozzio – all these people either came from greatness or went on to achieve it. The live recordings are alarming in their precision; and Zappa's humour didn't reside only in his lyrics. There are ridiculous little twists, twirls and manic arpeggios that are awesomely hard to play but are designed merely to take away some of the solemn edge that music of this kind is so prone to. Tom Fowler, long time bass player in various incarnations of The Mothers and other Zappa acts, was frequently so overwhelmed by what he was expected to play that he could only play it whilst lying on his back, undistracted by any of the other amazing histrionics that the rest of the band was creating.

Zappa's talent was not only in the rock/jazz field: he composed and recorded a number of contemporary classical pieces for full orchestra, most notably the double album release The London Symphony Orchestra and Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger. Although orchestral pieces had appeared as early as 1968 on Lumpy Gravy, these were the first full length pieces to be recorded. Yellow Shark, released just prior to his death from cancer in 1993, is a live document of his classical works performed by the Ensemble Modern. This was probably the final realisation for Zappa: he had found a bunch of musicians who finally could play the music the way he wrote it and heard it. In the 80's, Zappa began to re-organise his whole body of work, which produced two of his greatest works, the all instrumental Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar and Guitar, which re-inforced his reputation as guitar player par excellence, and his ambitious six volume career history called You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. Zappa mused on the eve of his final tour: "The thing to stress is what the musical ideas are and what the structural ideas are. I regard the differences in performing entities as textural differences. If I'm writing for the instrumentation of the original Mothers Of Invention, that's me writing for the specific limitations of that format. If I write for the symphony orchestra, that's me writing for those limitations. If you step back and look at the whole picture, at some point the differences in the performing liabilities dissolve and you realise what could happen if there was one thing that could do it all. There is no one thing, of course."

Frank Zappa didn't care whether you got it or not. He just went on creating a different, challenging music that reflected on his surroundings and made you aware that there were no limitations to what you as an individual were capable of. Within the vast body of his recorded work lies his genius: occasionally flipping a finger at the closed thought conservatives, occasionally revealing a bright orchestral jewel, occasionally taking your breath away with a classic melody or a heart stopping guitar solo. It is to the benefit of us all that Frank Zappa went out there and did his great thing; and his music will survive for a good many years to come.  

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