Frank Zappa

Visionary. Genius. Iconoclast. Provocateur. Madman. Mad scientist. Guitar hero. These are just some of the ways Frank Zappa has been described since he first burst onto music scene and the public consciousness in the mid-1960s.  Impossible to pigeonhole and ridiculously prolific, FZ has always defied categorization. His canon can be intimidating to the uninitiated, and he had so many phases of his career that people can and do like, all, some, or none of his work.  The music of Frank Zappa can seem impenetrable to the outsider, and he's rightly been mischaracterized as someone who writes "comedy" or "novelty" songs, who was needlessly vulgar (he was, sometimes), and "dangerous," but those who have an open mind, a sense of humor, and are willing to really pay attention to the music  will find that most of the above labels do apply to Frank, and they will be richly rewarded.

Frank Zappa was born on December 21, 1940 and, after moving around with his family for a while, grew up and graduated from high school in the Los Angeles area.  From a young age, he developed an interest in music, but not the typical rock and roll that other teenagers in the 1950s were going crazy over. Instead, Zappa had an interest in classical, jazz, avant garde, blues, and doo-wop music, all of which would eventually find their way into his subsequent career. After initially starting off on drums, he moved to guitar as a teenager, which is the instrument he would become famous for. After high school, Frank started working at a studio, eventually taking it over and dubbing it "Studio Z" before it closed down. He finally got with a serious band in LA in 1965; calling themselves the Mothers (later changing it to the Mothers of Invention at the insistence of their record company), he embarked upon the career that we all know and love.

I think from here that it's most convenient to discuss Zappa's career by phase, starting with the first one. This is his classic Mothers phase that ran from 1965 through 1969.  One thing to note is that throughout his career, Frank had numerous different band line-ups. All of them were comprised of incredible musicians; they had to be in order to play the complex music he wrote. Many of them went on to successful careers after their tenure with him, such as Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, George Duke, Adrian Belew, Mike Kenneally, and many others. All of his bands had their own unique identity and sound, both of which neatly corresponded with the particular phase Zappa was in. So, getting back to the original Mothers, this was the lineup that announced to the world that this wasn't your run of the mill American rock group of the mid-to-late 1960s. They certainly couldn't have burst onto the scene with a better debut than 1966's Freak Out!, which was a double album showcasing Zappa's eclectic style, with songs ranging from pastiche and parody to social comment and scathing teardowns, all of which would remain a staple of his entire oeuvre. Songs like "Trouble Every Day" ruminated on the 1965 Watts Riots in LA while the more avant garde and musique concrete songs, especially "Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" predated the Beatles' own forays into this with "Carnival of Light," "What's the New Mary Jane?" and "Revolution 9." The album was, in fact, a favorite of Paul McCartney's and one of his inspirations when coming up with the concept for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Further albums such as Absolutely Free, Uncle Meat, and 1968's brilliant piss-take of Sgt. Pepper, hippies, and the commercialization of the Summer of Love, We're Only In It For the Money, showed that Zappa and the Mothers were a band to which attention must be paid. However, internal struggles and band members bristling against Zappa's dictatorial control led to the disbanding of the group in 1969, giving way to phase two of his career. Beginning with the excellent Hot Rats album in 1969, Zappa began stretching his instrumental chops and embarked on a more theatrical phase of his career. A new band, fronted by Flo & Eddie (really Mark Vollman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of the Turtles who had to assume stage names for legal reasons) recorded and toured their version of an rock and roll vaudeville troupe, with extended song suites that told stories, like "Billy the Mountain," the hilarious "Groupie Routine," culminating with the 1971 film and album "200 Motels," about life on the road in a "typical rock band" (which they certainly were not!).  An incident in 1971 almost killed Frank, however, when a deranged fan who was paranoid that the band were going to steal his girlfriend away rushed onstage during  show at the Rainbow Theatre in London and shoved Zappa off the front, into the concrete orchestra pit below. His injuries resulted in a broken back and leg and a crushed larynx. The broken bones led to him being confined to a wheelchair for a while and the incorrect healing of his leg led to it being shorter than the other, resulting in a lifetime of back pain. The crushed larynx resulted in his voice being lowered by a third for the rest of his life, which is most pronounced on his first non-instrumental album after the injury, 1973's Overnite Sensation (which we'll return to later...).

During his convalescence, Zappa and his band recorded two instrumental big band rock/jazz albums, both of which are excellent: Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo.

Once he was fully healed, the next (and my favorite) phase began, with the aforementioned Overnite Sensation. Starting with this album and running all the way through 1979's Sheik Yerbouti, this was the closest Frank came to mainstream success. This was due to a more accessible sound, where he pared down the avant garde leanings while still retaining the ridiculous musical complexity he was known for. This is also the stretch where he really began to flex his muscles as a guitarist, with a soloing style and tone that was wholly unique. The apotheosis of this prowess was three albums of instrumentals focusing on his various guitar solo styles: the albums Shut Up N' Play Yer Guitar, Guitar, and Trance-Fusion. There are so many great albums during this stretch of the 1970s (and Frank was so damn prolific) that it's almost impossible to cover them all in a reasonable-length post, but my favorites are Overnite Sensation, Apostrophe('), One Size Fits All, Zappa In New York, Sheik Yerbouti, and Lather. 

After Sheik Yerbouti, Frank continued his prolific pace with some excellent albums, like the scathing rock opera Joe's Garage and the complex music contained on the albums Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites. However, it was also around this time when he seemed to get unnecessarily vulgar and puerile, and while his lyrics still meant something, he was often saying it in ways that were so obscene and juvenile that it got tiresome. I'm certainly not someone who gets offended easily, and being offended is not the reason I feel this way; it's just there, whereas previously Frank did it sparingly and cleverly for maximum impact, by this point it was his default position and just got boring after a while. The nadir of this approach is 1984's ThingFish album, which I've only been able to listen to a handful of times.  It was also during this phase where Frank scaled back his relentless touring and focused instead on composing his classical pieces, mainly on a new piece of technology called the Synclavier. Honestly, there is very little of this period of his music that I listen to on a regular basis. The lone bright spots (for me) are the live recordings released that come from his penultimate tour in 1984 and his final tour in 1988, both of which featured perhaps his most technically accomplished band. However, this tour ended abruptly in acrimony due to band infighting and FZ's worsening health. He had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer in the mid-1980s, but he worked until he literally couldn't work anymore. Frank passed away surrounded by his wife and kids at the age of 53 in December 1994.  However, he left behind mountains of recorded music (he recorded EVERYTHING), much of which has been released since his death and is quite good.  A lot of this is live music, and on a good night, Frank and his band were unstoppable. He also encouraged audience participation, making the concerts truly interactive. They look and sound like they were a blast and it's one of my regrets that I was born too late to ever see him live.

Beyond his writing, guitar playing, and relentless productivity, FZ was also a pioneer as a producer, inventing and developing several studio techniques that led the way to wholly unique and interesting sounds and which are now taken for granted. His extensive use of overdubbing and varispeeding allowed him to make clarinets and saxophones sound like string symphonies and various percussion overdubs to sound like monstrous drum kits. He also created and developed a technique he called "xenochrony," where he would lift passages from live performances, drop them onto a reel of studio tape, and build entirely new songs around them. In most cases, it was a guitar solo from one of his songs that he would lift, put onto a new tape, and build an entirely new song around.  If this sounds daunting, it is...think of the different time signatures and keys that a single guitar solo track would be played in. It's a testament not only to Frank's genius but the skill of his band members that they could play what he wrote so well that the songs sound fully formed and cohesive. Most of the Joe's Garage album was constructed this way, as well as the song "Rubber Shirt" from Sheik Yerbouti, which was put together by taking a drum track from one live song and a bass guitar track from a totally different song and blending them together. Different time signatures and rhythms, but it worked.  FZ was also the master of introducing what he called Conceptual Continuity into all of his albums, where everything he ever recorded was somehow connected to what he'd done before and what he had yet to do. This was done via musical passages, vocal melodies, lyrics, in-jokes, and album artwork and has led fans to spend years digging for every link they can possibly find between songs and albums.

Despite the public perception of Frank Zappa as a musical mad scientist, from everything I've read and heard about him, he was a fairly normal guy (relatively speaking). A lifelong cigarette smoker, he hated drugs, having admitted to trying pot a few times in the 1960s but disliking it, and he never touched any illegal substances. He strongly discouraged his band members from doing drugs, although he certainly used some of their road exploits as fodder for his songs (see: 200 Motels). He was married to the love of his life, Gail Zappa, for nearly 30 years until his death, and they had four children (Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva). He had an intense dislike of organized religion and the education system and politically, he was a hardcore libertarian. He hated both Democrats and Republicans equally and believed in small government, personal freedom, and self-sufficiency. He was also an ardent anti-censorship advocate, famously testifying before Congress in the mid-1980s. 

So how did a normal middle-class kid in New England become such a big FZ fan? I had heard a few Zappa songs as a kid, such as "Montana" and "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," but it wasn't until I started high school in 1993 and a friend of mine played me a tape of Overnite Sensation that I was hooked. It was also around this time when one of the guitar magazines I routinely read had a multi-page cover feature on FZ and his playing, which led me to explore his discography and start buying all of his albums. As a teenager learning guitar, playing trumpet in jazz and symphonic bands at school, and trying to absorb as much music of any genre as I could, it was a revelation.  There was always something new to discover, and even now in my mid-30s, I find new musical quotations, conceptual continuity clues, and interesting aspects to his compositional and instrumental styles when I listen to his music. Certain songs that I must have heard hundreds, if not thousands of times still make me laugh out loud when I hear them now, and much of his social commentary has not only not dated, but is as applicable now as it was then. The targets of his words may no longer be with us, but the words themselves still resonate.  People typically have two opinions on Frank Zappa: they either love him or hate him. All that I would ask is, if you want to give him a try, is to have an open mind and pay attention to the whole package...the music and the words. He bristled against the notion many held that he only wrote "comedy music" (even sending himself up on 200 Motels regarding this). He was funny, yes, but he was a true musical visionary, genius, and a one of a kind talent that the world sorely misses. He died too young, but he left such a staggering body of work, both in terms of quality and quantity, that those interested will continue to discover, explore, and enjoy it for decades to come. 

If you're new to FZ and want any advice on where to start discovering his music, or if you're a big fan like me and want to talk about his music, let's talk in the comments section below!


  1. I was fortune enough to see Zappa twice, both times in Austin. The first time he played with Capt. Beefhearts at Armadillo World Headquarters around '73 (it's was around the time he was culling performances for Bongo Fury), and the other time at Frank Erwin Center with a slightly larger band in the 80's. I remember it was one of his band member's birthday and the birthday boy mooned the audience for whatever reason.

    I used to have pretty good rock street cred back in the day when I was buying music: The Association, Beach Boys, Beatles, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Rolling Stones, the Monkees, etc. until I bought Freak Out. I basically picked it up for the album cover alone. I thought, this has got to be weird, and it was. It had not been out long so the timeframe was around '67 or so. Even though it was a bit too avant-guarde for me, there was still some sutff on there that attracted my attention: Who Are the Brain Police, Trouble Every Day, Hungry Freaks Daddy, and most of the shorter numbers. To me at the time, it was sort of like psychedelic music. It was one of the more interesting albums that I'd discovered and I spent many hours unraveling the layers of it.

    I started picking up every album he released from then on, and they were all good, and sometime referred back to other themes like Suzy Creamcheese or whatever, or 50's rock, parody,etc. And they all had a growing listening factor to them, which is an essence in music that I still look for today--in other words. It's not quite accessible from the start, you have to continue to listen to it over and over as it grows on you. Even though I loved Freak Out, most of my friends thought I was nuts. I think Make A Jazz Noise Here was the last thing by him I really enjoyed. To some extent Thing Fish and parts of Man From Utopia, just didn't cut the mustard for me. There's a few cuts on Utopia like The Dangerous Kitchen, etc. but overall, it's sort of a weak effort. Still out of fifty-something albums, most are great.

    There was a cool Life is Hell comic strip that was sort of autobio by Matt Groening where he said his favorite album by Zappa/Mothers was We Are In It Only For The Money, and I sort of agree with that being one of his better ones. Such a beautiful album in its own way.

  2. Wow, you are certainly fortunate to have seen Frank in person all those times! I agree with you, after the early 1980s his albums were more hit or miss but some stuff was still quite good and his live shows were always top notch. Such a shame he didn't take care of his health, he might still be here with us. God knows he would have a field day with what's gone on in the 20 years since he left us!


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