Friday, February 18, 2011


Frank Zappa was one the most interesting musicians and composers of the 20th Century. He produced a diverse body of work that included elements of rock, jazz, classical, electronic music, and theatrical humor. His influences included R&B, Doo-Wop, Be-Bop, and the work of avant-garde French composer Edgar Varese, whose work emphasized timbre and rhythm, and was an early practitioner of electronic music. Zappa created experimental sound collages that combined all of these elements, and was an excellent and original electric guitarist. He also produced and directed films and music videos and even designed many of the album covers. Zappa produced almost all of the more than 60 albums he released with the band The Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist.

In the early 1960s, Zappa was living in LA and did various music related work to make a living. He created soundtracks for low-budget films and wrote and produced songs for local bands. He also gained experience recording music with a five-track tape recorder which was more sophisticated than most studios that had mono or two-track. At this time he spent entire days recording and experimenting with overdubbing and audio tape manipulation. Aided by his income from film composing Zappa took over a studio and named it Studio Z. Zappa earned enough money to allow him to stage a concert of his orchestral music in 1963 and broadcast and record it. This led to an appearance on The Steve Allen Show where he played a bicycle as a musical instrument. 

In 1966, Zappa and The Mothers were gaining attention in the LA underground music scene. They were discovered by Tom Wilson who produced records for Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkle. He signed them to a contract on Verve Records, and the Mothers of Invention recorded the groundbreaking double album Freak Out! The album mixed R&B, doo-wop, musique concrete, and experimental sound collages that captured the freak subculture of LA at that time. Freak Out! had a raw, but sophisticated sound and established Zappa as a radical new voice in rock music. The lyrics had dada elements, praised non-conformity, and questioned authority and were influenced by the Beats like Allen Ginsberg and comedians like Lenny Bruce.

Absolutely Free came out in 1967, and focused on songs that defined Zappa's compositional style of introducing abrupt, rhythmic changes into songs made up of diverse elements. Plastic People and Brown Shoes Don't Make It contained lyrics critical of the hypocricy and conformity of American society. The Mothers satirized everything including the counterculture of the 60s.

Lumpy Gravy (1967) was Zappa's first solo album which intertwined orchestral themes, spoken words, and electronic noises using radical audio editing techniques. 

Zappa and the Mothers moved to New York and had an extended gig at the Garrick Theater. We're Only In It For The Money came out in 1968, and featured songs that ruthlessly satirized the hippie and flower power phenomena while using innovative audio editing and production techniques. The cover photo parodied The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album and initiated a life-long collaboration between cover designer Cal Schenkel and Zappa.

Crusing With Ruben and the Jets came out in 1968 and took a different approach by presenting  a collection of doo-wop songs both as satire and as a tribute to the genre. Zappa was influenced by how Stravinksy took the forms and cliches of classical music and warped them in his neo-classical period. Zappa applied this idea to the doo-wop songs. There is even a reference to The Rite of Spring in one of the songs.

Zappa was constantly using tape editing as a compositional tool and he applied this technique of combining studio and live elements into a whole on Uncle Meat (1969). He dubbed this process xenochrony (strange synchronizations) and also believed in conceptual continuity where any project or album was part of a larger project. This allowed for musical themes and lyrics to appear on later works in different forms. The major piece on Uncle Meat was King Kong, one of Zappa's greatest compositions. 

Around this time, Zappa continued to develop the business side of his career and formed Bizarre Records and Straight Records which were distributed by Warner Brothers. Zappa produced the double album Trout Mask Replica for Captain Beefheart and produced the last live performance of Lenny Bruce.

In 1969, Zappa released his masterpiece jazz/rock fusion album, Hot Rats. The album fuses the compositional sophistication of jazz with rock's down-and-dirty attitude. There is a loose and gritty quality to the extended jams and a tight elegance to the shorter pieces. Besides some great guitar work by Zappa, there are also great contributions by Ian Underwood, Jean-Luc Ponty, Lowell George, and Don "Sugarcane" Harris, as well as an amazing vocal by Captain Beefheart on Willie The Pimp. The song's greasy blues riffs work perfectly with Beefheart's Howlin' Wolf theatrics. On the other hand Peaches en Regalia is a beautiful instrumental of shifting instrumentation. The album peaks with The Gumbo Variations with sizzling sax work by Underwood. This is simply a great album, and probably my favorite Zappa recording.

In 1970,  Zappa released two albums of live material from the earlier Mothers incarnation. Burnt Weeny Sandwich opens and closes with 50s pop covers, but the best pieces are Holiday in Berlin and The Little House I Used To Live In that features a virtuoso piano solo by Ian Underwood. Weasels Ripped My Flesh featured more complex material and improvised stage madness. It segues between arty experimentation and traditional song structures. Odd rhythms and time signatures, dissonance, and wordless vocal noises collide with avant-garde jazz and straight ahead rockers. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue, and My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama all appear on this recording.

Later in 1970, Zappa formed a new version of the Mothers that included Aynsley Dunbar, George Duke, Ian Underwood, Jeff Simmons, and ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (Flo and Eddie) on vocals. They produced several albums in this period with probably 200 Motels (1971) being the highlight. 200 Motels was a soundtrack to a film that featured The Mothers, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and Keith Moon. It was co-directed by Zappa and was filmed in a week at Pinewood Studios outside of London. The film deals loosely with the life on the road of a rock musician. It was one of the first features photographed on videotape and transferred to 35mm film which allowed for wacky special effects.

In 1971, Zappa suffered two setbacks while touring in Europe. Their equipment was destroyed in Montreux, Switzerland when an audience member fired a flare that started a fire and burned the Casino they were playing in to the ground. This of course was immortalized in the Deep Purple song Smoke On The Water. A week later at the Rainbow Theater in London the band used rented equipment and during the encore Zappa was knocked off the stage by an audience member and suffered serious fractures and head trauma and injuries to his back, leg, and neck. He also suffered a crushed larynx that caused damage to his voice. When it first happened the band thought Zappa had been killed.

At this point Zappa disbanded the Mothers and turned back to the studio and started writing jazz/rock music scored for wider instrumentation. Waka/Jawaka came out in 1972, and is comprised of two extended instrumentals and two shorter pieces. Big Swifty is a theme and solo showcase and became a live favorite. The album featured the work of keyboardist Don Preston, trumpeter Sal Marquez, and saxaphonist Mike Altschul.

Next came The Grand Wazoo (1973) which was also mainly an instrumental jazz/rock album and one of Zappa's best. It tells the story of two warring musical factions but the major focus is on Zappa's skills as a composer and arranger. The compositions are melodic and consistently engaging while being shifting and complex. Hot Rats is probably the peak of Zappa's jazz/rock fusion efforts, but The Grand Wazoo comes close and is an essential recording for anyone interested in the music of Frank Zappa.

Later in 1973, Zappa again changed directions and released the watershed album Overnight Sensation. The album took social and sexual humor and put them into tight song structures, but with excellent musicianship and great solos. There are jazzy chord changes and funky rhythms combined with a technically accomplished guitar rock feel. Zappa's voice takes over the storytelling and the lyrics are brilliant, clever, explicit, controversial, and hilarious. Dirty Love and Dinah-Mo-Humm are satirical takes on male stupidity. Montana is great both musically and lyrically and features an amazing uncredited backing vocal from Tina Turner and the Ikettes, and a great Zappa guitar solo.

Apostrophe (1974) followed in the same direction and was full of dirty jokes and clever instrumental passages. It has the narrative feel of a willfully absurd concept album and is very entertaining.

Roxy and Elsewhere (1974) is a double live album and one of my favorites. It is a bridge between his comedic rock records and his more complex jazz/rock instrumental compositions. Napoleon Murphy Brock is the vocalist of an excellent band that includes George Duke, Ruth Underwood, and the Fowler Brothers. Penguin in Bondage and Cheepnis are hilarious and the combination of Son of Orange County and More Trouble Every Day is emotionally powerful and is perhaps my favorite Zappa live performance.

One Size Fits All came out in 1975 and alternates between humorous rock songs and more challenging instrumentals. Inca Roads, Florentine Pogen, and Sofa all became classic tracks and live favorites.

Bongo Fury (1975) captures live performances of Zappa with Captain Beefheart during their brief reunion tour of 1975. It is a pastiche of live and studio performances. The album has both technically complex jazz pieces and surreal spoken word pieces by Beefheart.

Zoot Allures (1976) sounds stripped down compared to the albums before and after it, and contains lots of bass and whispered vocals to create a work of slow, dark, sleazy rock. The Torture Never Stops is ten minutes of suggestive lyrics, crawling riffs, searing solos, and female screams of pain. Wind Up Workin' in a Gas Station and Disco Boy frame the other numbers on the album and are lighter and more humorous. Black Napkins and Zoot Allures contain some of Zappa's most impressive guitar solos.

In 1977, Zappa In New York came out and presented a double live album recorded at the Palladium. It contains versions of songs from Overnight Sensation, One Size Fits All, and Zoot Allures, as well as other humorous works such as Titties and Beer and The Illinois Enema Bandit.

Zappa had a four record box set called Lather to be put out in 1977, but due to conflicts with Warner Brothers the material was released on various albums including Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites. There is some very good music here including The Adventures of Greggery Peccary and Strictly Genteel and would point to way to further orchestral works in the future.

Sheik Yerbouti (1979) continued with tighter melodic songs of social satire and sexual preoccupations.

Zappa ended the decade with his rock opera Joe's Garage (1979). It is comprised of three acts and uses Zappa's xenochrony technique, in which guitar solos from older, completely unrelated recordings were extracted and overdubbed onto new songs. Ike Willis is the voice of Joe, leader of a stereotypical garage band who journeys through the miasma of the music business. The Central Scrutinizer provides a character with a menacing mechanical voice that narrates the story and invades Joe's psyche with McCarthyism 50s era paranoia. At the end of the story, music become illegal. It was inspired by the 1979 Iranian Revolution which outlawed public musical expression. The story parodies groupies, sexual repression of the Catholic Church, Scientology, struggling musicians, and the censorship of music.

In late 1979, Zappa's movie Baby Snakes premiered in New York. It contained footage from concerts in New York around Halloween 1977 that featured guitarist Adrian Belew, and also had several extraordinary sequences of clay animation by Bruce Bickford. 

In 1981, Zappa released Shut Up and Play Your Guitar which is simply a collection of guitar solos. They are edited out of their original context, and show what an ever-inventive player he was. Later in the 1980s he would release another album of this nature simply called Guitar.

In 1982, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch was released and featured tighter satirical rock songs and more complex rock instrumentals. It even contained a hit Valley Girl that included the vocals of Zappa's daughter Moon Unit who was 14 at the time. The song pastiches and satirizes rich girls from the San Fernando Valley and their particular way of talking.

The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano made a recording of Zappa's work in 1983. The music is moody and ponderous, slow with dramatic passages and is clearly influenced by Stravinsky. Other recordings of orchestral work would come out, but Zappa's music was quite difficult to play and he was not always happy with the results.

In 1984, Them or Us came out and was Zappa's last studio rock album. It contains a little of everything that Zappa explored throughout his career and even contains a cover of the Allman Brother's Whipping Post.

Also in 1984, Zappa brought out Thing-Fish an ambitious three-record set in the style of a Broadway play dealing with a dystopian scenario involving feminism, homosexuality, manufacturing and distribution of the AIDS virus, and a eugenics program conducted by the US government. It was controversial and misunderstood and is one of Zappa's more obscure works.

In 1985, Zappa testified before Congress against what he saw as the coming censorship of music. He later released an album Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers of Prevention where he included a sound collage that included tape loops of the voices from the congressional hearings.

Zappa also became interested in the Synclavier as a compositional and performing tool and considering the complexity of his music, he felt it would allow him to realize anything he wanted. Jazz From Hell (1986) is a great example of the music he created with the Synclavier and features the composition G-Spot Tornado.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Zappa released several live albums including Broadway The Hard Way, Make A Jazz Noise Here, and a series of 6 double-cds called You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore that contain live work from his entire career. There were also releases of numerous bootlegs of live recordings.

In 1990, Zappa was diagnosed with terminal prostrate cancer. He devoted most of his remaining energy to modern orchestral works and Synclavier works. In 1993, he completed Civilization, Phase III, shortly before his death.

In 1992, Zappa was approached by Ensemble Modern, a German chamber ensemble who wanted to play his work at the Frankfurt Festival. Zappa even conducted one of the pieces but was too ill to attend all of the performances, but was still exhilarated by the experience. The recordings of the concerts appeared on the Yellow Shark (1993) which was the last album released during Zappa's lifetime.

Frank Zappa was a musical genius who created an amazing and idiosyncratic body of work that included elements of rock satire, jazz-rock fusion, guitar virtuoisity, electronic wizardry, and orchestral innovation. Today his legacy is being carried on by his family and numerous recordings are constantly emerging. His son Dweezil with his group Zappa Plays Zappa still performs the music of his father.

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