Frank Vincent Zappa is probably one of the most influential musician and composer of the last 50-odd years.
His whole production (60+ albums) is too vaste to be properly analyzed without having to write the encyclopedia of the contemporary music as a result.
The most salient and constant characteristic of his musical production is the absolute nonconformist and caustic satire of the American culture that oozes out of every single composition he wrote.
But restraining his contribution to the moders music to the sole role of censor and jester-jongleur of the American Way of Life would be restrictive, short-sighted and flat-out offensive.
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His musical genius spans the realms of rock, pop, jazz, fusion, classic and minimal music, just to mention a few streams where this colossal creative mind was active in some way or another, often transcending the boundaries of all of those streams in one direction or another.
He was an accurate and incredibly gifted composer, not only of songs, but of whole modern and improvisation music and jazz. His creative mind was absolutely free of any restriction imposed by the so-called musical “canons”. Mealy choirs are thrown in together with dissonances belonging to the best dodecaphonic tradition, all in the short space of a few bars.
His incredible versatility has often disoriented his listeners and critics alike, who too often thought they knew where Uncle Frankie was going to, just to be completely thrown into a totally different direction by his next album or even the following track within one single album.
And all this was always done with incredible lucidity and purpose, never only “for the jest” as such, or just for the enjoyment of schocking the listener.
Self-taught composer and performer, his school first encounter and friendship with Don Glen Vliet (later Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart) was so important for his whole future musical career, that the two have remained friends and each other’s musical mirrors until Zappa’s death in 1993. Many a track from each of them has been influenced by the other, both musically as well as empathically. In many occasions, they were on stage together to play or just for the fun of it.
His all-embracing style is evident from the start, when his first official Freak Out! comes out, in 1966. Zappa surrounds himself with an incredible battery of musicians, many of whom will accompany him during his whole musical career and who will be known to the world as “The Mothers of Invention” (a more than appropriate name for such a fantastic collective of musicians).
Here again, as for King Crimson, making the Mothers of Invention roadmap would require a separate bookwork. The below scheme should suffice all those who are more interested in the details.
In Freak Out! we can already see the incredible lucidity of its structure (if you look beyond the apparent chaos and the short musical collages), transcending the canons of everything that had been composed so far.
This admirable capacity will be one of the characteristics of Zappa’s whole musical universe/production, even in the least shining albums that he will create (and he will, sometimes), independent of the basic form that he was using (jazz, rock or classsical).
Through his music, he not only was the century’s iconoclast and sometimes joker, but also a fervent advocate for freedom of speech, political participation, abolition of censorship (which goes arm in arm with the freedom of speech) and always strongly against all mainstream educational systems or organized religion.
In 1967 the second album of the Mother of Inventions will come out: Absolutely Free, actually recorded in 1966 but mixed later on in New York. The album is a template for many of Zappa’s future production, with his characteristic and abrupt changes of rhythm and scale, sometimes a few times in a single track.
Almost at the same time (1967) Zappa was working on a collection of instrumental works which would be published under his own name: Lumpy Gravy. However, due to contractual problems, the production was suspended and Zappa took that chance to drastically restructure and extend the contents in what will be the final Lumpy Gravy published in 1968.
A contract to perform for six months at the New York’s Garrick Theater, was the motivation for Zappa, wife and The Mothers of Invention to move to NY, where he would expand his theatrical presence on stage and at the same keeping a tight control on the performance by means of agreed hand signals for almost everything that had to be played.
During the NY period, another album will be issued, in 1968: We’re only in it for the money, which saw Zappa take the first steps into the producer role, something that from then on will be his prerogative for both the Mothers albums as well as his own and for other bands. Vivid example is the explosive and groundbreaking Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beffheart and His Magic Band.
Next, dear Uncle Frankie unbalances his audience and critics alike with something completely different and seemingly out of place: Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (1968), apparently a collection of doo-wop tracks, which left everyone (except Zappa & The Mothers) guessing at what the point was. Zappa himself stated (later) that the album had been conceived in the way Stravinsky’s compositions were aimed, during his neo-classical period: “If he could take the forms and clichés of the classical era and pervert them, why not do the same…?”
Immediately after, he will release a new record: Uncle meat (1969), where he and the Mothers of Invention roam the musical genres, from top to end, including orchestral symphonies, free jazz, blues, doo wop and rock and roll, together with spoken word segments featuring the preposterous underage groupie Suzy Creamcheese.
After a couple of touring seasons (mainly in Europe), the financial Zappa disbanded the Mothers of Invention, mostly due to financial difficulties (he was paying royalties for all their members, whether they had been playing or not) but also because he had the feeling that some of the members did not do their best. This led to some quarrels between Zappa and some of the Mothers, but in general, many of them will continue to play with and for him, whenever asked.
In 1969, Zappa releases what is his most iconic work: Hot Rats, where we can find one of his most famous tracks: Peaches and Regalia. Here Zappa moves for the first time, actually, guitar solos more to the foreground and is surrounded by many R&B session players and former Mothers of Invention members, like Don “Sugarcane” Harris (violin), John Guerin and Paul Humphrey (both on drums), multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood and Shuggie Otis, together with his old chooltimes pal Don Van Vliet (Cpt. Beefheart) singing the volcanic lyrics of Willie the Pimp.
Even if The Mothers of Invention had been disbanded, two more albums collecting their previously recorded tracks saw the light in 1970, both produced by Zappa directly: Weasels ripped my flesh and Burnt weeny sandwich. These collect mostly live tracks, where the songs intertwine with avant-garde jaz improvisations. Once again Good old Uncle Frank nails it.
After a not quite rewarding experience with a classical orchestra (directed by Zubin Mehta), Zappa re-formed The Mother of Invention, this time under the simplified name The Mothers, whith a rather different composition with a couple of old chums and so,me new ones. This led to the release of Chunga’s revenge (1970), which seems to be suspended between the older satirical albums and the more jaz-oriented ones, as if Zappa was not yet sure which way to go, or maybe to reinforce the fact that the one can co-exist with the other.
With this ensamble, Zappa will enbark in a film adventure, which will produce the movie 200 Motels (1971) and relative soundtrack album. The movie was a success in the underground scene, but never became a successful movie according to the Hollywood standards, which is absolutely a positive thing.
After that experience, the band went on tour, which yelded two live albums: Fillmore East – June 1971 (1971) and Just another band from L.A. (1972).
It was at this point that Zappa experienced two of his worst setbacks. While touring in Europe, during the Zurich concert a flare thrown on stage by someone in the audience, started a fire that destroyed good part of the equipment for a value of 320.000 dollars (at 2020’s rates).
Even more grevious was the episode that took place the next week, when playing at the London’s Rainbow, when a jealous fan (who was pissed off at Zappa because his own girlfriend had a crush on the musician) pushed Zappa off the stage. Zappa nearly died and suffered several fractures, head trauma and a crushed larynx, which will cause his voice register to drop by a third, after a long recovery.
The incident, the long time to heal and the impossibility to work, created a situation where Zappa could not provide anymore for his band and they all went their own ways, leaving Zappa to mull over what would be his further musical direction.
Towards the end of his revalidation, he release two solo albums, Waka/Jawaka (1972) and The Grand Wazoo (also 1972), both very close to the jazz fusion tradition, but still indisputably Zappa from begin to end.
Soon after, he was able to resume touring, which he did with different formations, from a large 20-piece big band that he called the Grand Wazoo to a drastically reduced one that he named Petit Wazoo, or with smaller groups that included some or all of his former Mother of Invention buddies, like Ian Underwood (reeds, keyboards), Ruth Underwood (vibes, marimba), Sal Marquez (trumpet, vocals), Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, flute and vocals), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), Ralph Humphrey (drums), George Duke (keyboards, vocals), and Jean-Luc Ponty (violin).
The 70s were a prolific period for Zappa, who kept releasing one album after the other. In this period will see the light: Over-nite sensation (1973), Apostrophe (‘) (1974) which will be probaly his most commercially succesful album until then, the live album Roxy and Elsewhere (1974), One size fits all (1975) featuring a classic Mothers of Invention lineup, Bongo fury (1975) with the Mothers and Capt. Beefheart, then Zoot allures (1976) which features one of his probably most famous guitar solo tracks “Black Napkins”.
Involved in some intense legal fights with labels, Zappa could not access all his master recordings due to processual restraints and could bear the costs only by touring, which he extensively did to pay for his sustainment and the legal expenses.
Towards the end of the 70s, after a brief pause in his production, and after having solved almost all legal issues, he regained access to his master tapes and produces the last seven albums of his 70s production: Zappa in New York (1978), Studio tan (1978), Sleep dirt (1979), Sheik Yerbouti (1979) which will be his best selling album, with more than 2 million copies sold, then Orchestral favorites (1979), culminating into the release of his best known rock-opera Joe’s Garage Act I (1979) and Joe’s Garage Act II & II (1979) a satire about the dangers of political systems and the suppression of music and freedom of speech, all important themes in Zappa’s production.
By now, he also had been released by all his former label obligations and was running his own eponymous label. Soon, he was also recording in his own studio, which he named the “Utility Muffin Research Kitchen” (UMRK), becoming thus free of doing what he wanted, whenever he wanted to and for how long he wanted.
After Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981) once again a political satire in music, he produced three excellent instrumental albums: Shut up ‘n play yer guitar (1981), Shut up ‘n play yer guitar some more (1981) and Return of the son of shut up ‘n play yer guitar (1981).
At the beginning of the 80s, Zappa discovered the synclavier, which would perfectly fit to his requirements in precision of execution of his more and more intricate and complex performances. He once explained in an interview that “With the Synclavier, any group of imaginary instruments can be invited to play the most difficult passages … with one-millisecond accuracy. Every time”.
During the 80, Zappa kept touring and deepened the application of the synclavier to his musical production, together with exploring the modern orchestral composers and incredibly complex harmonies. At the same time, he started to re-master all his previous vinyl works for the new digital compact disc medium, a huge task he insisted to rupervise personally.
His genius was starting to spin out of the galaxy and was deepening in many different directions.
Unfortunately, we will never know if Zappa would reach a peak, as in 1990 he was diagnosed with termial prostate cancer, to which he will succumb three years later, on December 4th, 1993.
Many more albums have been release just before his passing away or even posthumously and for those who absolutely want to know every single one, a full detailed discography can be found in the excellent article on Wikipedia.
The important thing in the whole Zappa oeuvre is , in his own words: “It is incorrect to say that I want to destroy the system. I want to modify it to the point when it works properly”.
And in that, good Uncle Frank has partly succeeded, leaving his mark not only in music but on the ideas of a whole generation and a couple to follow…
R.I.P. Uncle Frank….