This week I engaged in some help from a few friends who are more knowledgeable in the world of Frank Zappa than I am. Granted, I am no slouch to begin with. When I was just a boy in the late 80’s, I had a record player in my room and my father would play his favorite records for me. The top 2 albums he played for me were Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Freak Out from the Mothers of Invention. I really had no idea what I was getting into at the time, but I would stomp around the house singing ‘Kansas, Kansas, doo doo loo doo loo doo..’ and other such gems. When I was in 8th grade, it was the height of the BMG cd delivery services and one of the first cd’s I picked up for that penny was the combo disc of Apostrophe and Overnite Sensation. After that I was never the same person again. My favorite song from that combo was Camarillo Brillo, its just a geniusly laid out tune, and builds its instrumentation with every verse in such a beautiful fashion.
Now, I’m no expert in the field of Zappa, so I got some friends to chime in and tell us why “Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is THE BEST.”
#1. Alexi- 26, recent Plymouth State graduate, New Hampshire.
I first got into Zappa’s music when I heard the band Psychedelic Breakfast’s cover of thesong, “Peaches en Regalia.” The song’s triumphant melody had me hooked instantly and I sought the original version from the album Hot Rats. Upon listening to Zappa himself, I was a little overwhelmed. I had not yet become interested in jazz music and was just getting into the Grateful Dead and the Beatles and all that classic rock from the 60s and 70s, so listening to Zappa was hard work. These aren’t tunes you can just sing in the shower. Hot Rats had little effect on me at that point and I was content to just listen to PB’s versions of Zappa’s music. Besides, Zappa has so many albums I had no idea where to start.
The real turning point was a few years later when I was browsing a discount bin at the record store and stumbled upon a compilation of Frank Zappa songs selected by John Fishman from Phish. I was quite the Phish enthusiast and figured that this compilation would start me off in the right direction, and indeed it did. The songs on this disc illuminated the humor and musicianship that I was drawn to in the music of Phish and Psychedelic Breakfast. This time I was really hooked. There was no turning back when I stumbled upon You Can’t’ Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 2. A full live show from 1974, there is no way that you listen to it and are not changed forever.
Zappa is the man for several reasons. First off, he’s one of the most original and talented composers/arrangers of all time. I mean a real musician’s musician. This guy knew everything about music and brought it all together to make some extraordinarily diverse and unique compositions. His music has always been and still is ahead of its time. Secondly, his bands were the tightest groups on Earth. The songs these guys could pull off on stage required the utmost musicianship and endless practice. If you wanted to play with Frank, you had to be the best of the best. If he thought you weren’t the best, you’d get replaced. Zappa made his musicians practice their asses off and live performances were always super high-energy. Thirdly, Frank Zappa was a social force. He was very intelligent and articulate. His lyrics criticized everything he thought was bullshit, from politics to fads. He spoke on television and testified in front of Congress when he felt the government was being stupid. He did not hesitate to speak his mind and encouraged everyone to do the same (unless you’re stupid). Lastly, a lot of Zappa’s music is hilarious. Humor DOES belong in music and Frank showed the world exactly how. It involves the right mix of taking yourself seriously and being a total goofball. Songs like “Fembot in a Wet T-shirt” illustrate how you can get a funny lighthearted song that suddenly becomes a very complex composition.
In order to explain why I love Frank Zappa’s music, I need to divide FZs career into eras. The first era of Zappa was the original Mothers of Invention. There is nothing like the original Mothers. Humor is everywhere in this music. The songs from the first Mothers albums are a mix of twisted doo-wop and post-modern and avant-garde classical music. In other words, they are completely different than anything that was being made at the time. The lyrics were highly critical of American society, poking fun at the middle class, the hippies, the government; whoever. Live recordings from this era are rife with stage antics. Frank had his system of hand signals, each telling the band what kind of noises to make. Many of the songs from the early albums are performed as instrumentals, seamlessly segueing into each other throughout each performance. (A good example of the Mothers live is the album, Ahead of Their Time. The first half of the album is a play written by Frank and performed by the band, followed by a 10-track medley of classic Mothers tunes.) Basically, FZ’s early music is completely unique, ahead of its time, full of social commentary, and weird as hell. For the win.
The second era of Zappa as I see it is the early through mid-seventies when Frank flourished as a guitarist, composer and bandleader. This is the FZ music I recommend to people who want to get into Zappa. The albums Hot Rats, Chunga’s Revenge, Just Another Band From LA, The Grand Wazoo, Waka Jawaka, Over-nite Sensation, Apostrophe(‘), One Size Fits All, Roxy and Elsewhere, Bongo Fury, Zoot Allures, and Zappa in New York are so incredibly diverse and contain so much amazing music that it’s hard to get into it here. But seriously, just listen to those albums and you’ll understand. The fusion of badass rock n roll, funk, jazz and classical elements and constant onstage shenanigans via dynamic lead vocalists is at its best among recordings from this era. Live performances from ’73-76 (including the aforementioned YCDTOSA volume 2) are too hot to believe.
The late ‘70s through early ‘80s saw the Zappa band shift from a grittier, funkier sound to a bigger, arena rock sound. The bands were tighter than ever. Frank was joined on stage by other lead guitarists and plenty of synth. Songs began to focus more on social commentary and making fun of people, making this era of Zappa tough for some people to get into. That distinct “80s” sound infiltrated Zappa’s band via extensive keyboard effects and electronic drums, but the music still rocked (see YCDTOSA volume 3). Albums like Joe’s Garage, Tinseltown Rebellion, and the music intended for the then unreleased Läther album rocked the worlds of those who listened. A newly released live FZ concert from 1979 entitled Hammersmith Odeon is a good example of how badass that band was. Check it out.
The last great era of Frank Zappa was the 1988 tour. Just one, final tour. But it was HUGE!! The band was huge, the repertoire was the biggest of any FZ tour and they absolutely killed it. Songs were dusted off and revisited, often with new arrangements. Shenanigans abound throughout each show, as can be heard of the albums Make a Jazz Noise Here and The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life.
Certain songs in the FZ catalog were played live throughout Zappa’s touring career. These songs were often rearranged from tour to tour, so that they essentially become a different song; often only the melody would stay the same. Some of these songs would become instrumental in live renditions, others would gain lyrics. My favorite example of this is the song “The Black Page.” Originally written as a drum solo, Frank eventually added a melody and would often change the arrangement for live performances. For the full story, check out “The Black Page #1” and “The Black Page #2” from the album Zappa in New York, then compare to the version from Make a Jazz Noise Here. All three are amazing performances and you can hear the song transform from a drum solo to a new age easy listening piece.
#2. Bernard- 32, music school graduate, HIV researcher in an acedemic setting, former audio engineer and current band member, Los Angeles.
I didn’t get into Zappa until late in college. As a Phish fan, I had heard Peaches En Regalia, and I knew some of the “hits”, but around the age of 20 someone handed me a copy of Apostrophe, and I was hooked. I love the sense of humor combined with the complex compositions and changing meters, executed flawlessly with incredible guitars and vocals and vibes and a healthy dose of irreverence….how can you not? There’s a lot of music out there that has several of these elements, but I can’t think of any artists who have all of them, and at such high levels.
Around that time, I started seeing Ike Willis and Project/Object every time they came through the Northeast. Getting to see some of the original Mothers (at one point, P/O has Mothers from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s at once) gave me a glimpse of how much fun seeing FZ himself might have been, Titties, Beer, and all.
As I kept exploring more and more of his work (I also have problems thinking of any artist as prolific as he), I was amazed by the breadth of his catalog and the skill of his orchestrating….some albums have grit and blistering guitar solos, some have irreverent stories, and then you can pop in “Strictly Genteel” and marvel at his orchestral compositions.
I don’t think I can name one single FZ tune that encapsulates what I love most about him. Maybe a few: “Watermelon In Easter Hay” has one of my favorite guitar solos ever. The opening four-track sequence from Apostrophe show off fun stories, irreverent and dirty humor, changing meters, great vibes playing, and cool background vocals. “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” is just dirty, raw fun.
#3. Valerie- 32, classically trained pianist and composer, full-time musician, Los Angeles.
I tried Zappa on for size before but the music never really took until just a short while back. My Dad played me some Zappa when I was about 13 but at the time I was too preoccupied with learning about the dissonant late 20th century composers to be interested in anything else. A bassist friend of mine in college 7 years later played me some Zappa but I was too busy learning about jazz funk and improv-based music. Two and a half years ago I went to a show where Zappa Plays Zappa was one of the opening acts and my jaw dropped. I know it’s not this way for everyone but personally I needed the period of time between 13 and 29 to get from Schoenberg to the Allman Brothers (who I discovered around the same time); my ears were not ready before then.
I dig on Zappa because it’s the perfect blend of harmonic content and rhythmic intricacy across several genres of Western-European music. The use of unorthodox chord-pairings that interweave almost seamlessly with diatonic based changes calls to mind the rock stars, neo-classicists and jazz fusion artists of approximately the same decade. The metric base of much of his music conforms to standard subdivisions of time but when he deviates his transitions are almost literally perfect; you notice the time has changed because you’re not tapping along to 4/4 anymore but you can’t point out when that happened, and suddenly you find yourself tapping along to 4/4 once more like it never occurred.
And the reason it works is because of what I understand one of his basic philosophies behind writing melodies and rhythmic structures the way he did: summed up, it’s because we don’t talk, walk, and think in perfect bouts of rhythm and diatonic melody. That he can so brilliantly write those transitions is my favorite part about his music – Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat is a great example of this and up there in my list of Zappa favorites. That when he was a teenager he discovered Edgar Varese in some record store and that’s what set him on the path to unorthodox harmony is cool beyond anything some academic music teacher tries to make you understand – and I’ve had quite a few of those over the years.
#4 Gary- 36, works for amazon.com, Seattle.
It is impossible to explain FZ or his music in a few sentences. Although musically proficient, daring, and audacious, the cultural connections within his conceptual continuity are the stuff of history and legend. Without at least some interest in the life of a professional touring musician in the latter half of the twentieth century, much of FZ’s wit and observational humor are lost. This continuity, which weaves itself throughout his work from the earliest Cucamonga Studios sessions, to his final avant garde masterwork, “Civilization Phase III,” tells of the lives of musicians, music lovers, free thinkers and liberated cynics during that time, and of their trials, trivialities, and battles won and lost.
If that culture is important to you in your time, then FZ may indeed be the best there is. Musically, his prolific dedication to uncompromising authenticity and originality may be more the stuff of legend than the actual legends being examined within, but the two don’t stand alone. The words and music, although not always presented at the same time, are a part of each other. I know of no other artist of the era who so eloquently reminded all those highfalutin’ Summer-of-Love types that, yes indeed, their shit did stink. As time passed, FZ’s skewering of the sacred cows of punk rock, new wave, and jangle pop saw those pop-music critical darlings similarly cut down to size. If you want to peel back the layers of the onion of popular culture, and expose the nonsense and self-aggrandizing pomp within (possibly to the detriment of your idealized beliefs,) then this is where you’ll know you’ve come home.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute to FZ is the fact that in the years since his death, there has really been no one stepping-up to fill his role as the trickster god of pop culture. No one is willing to go down that road these days. The world of music doesn’t pick on itself enough anymore. Who will step in to speak for the ugly people with talent, the societal misfits who can play in something other than 4/4, and those with enough artistic integrity to actually rehearse before walking onto a stage? In an age where televised talent shows and brooding record executives are still the norm, real music needs a new FZ more than it needs the next Lil’ Wayne clone.
#5 Kevin- 43, intrepid traveler, Florida.
Music is at the nexus of my mysterious neurological process. The synesthetic bonding agent that puts life, learning, culture, family and events into a suitable context. It’s the most common point of reference I use when trying to communicate some of the more inarticulate aspects of the things that are important to me. I really get off on Surreality and as a result it’s the Art of Salvador Dali, The music of Frank Zappa, The Films of David Lynch, The writings Tom Robbins and the politics of Anarcho Syndiclism that fully engage me and unlock the most passionate aspects of my nature.
I’m a weirdo, who hangs on the fringe of any scene. The observer, with the vaguely anti-social vibe. Much more than a wallflower. A kind friend shared this observation: He see’s me as a Social Anthropologist, but one who observes Humans in a way similar to how Dian Fossey engaged in the culture of the Gorillas. The difference being that I don’t trust or much care for the majority of humanity. It’s always been this way, since before I could speak. If you can crawl under or over my walls you’d find a warm, kind, generous and caring brother from another mother, but security is tight at this compound.
I don’t know anyone who has ‘discovered’ Zappa’s music for themselves. I had the benefit of having a cousin who is 15 years older than me. He turned me on to Zappa at the age of 8 or 9. I remember “Stinkfoot” being the tune that captured my mind in that innocent frame of youth. It made me think that Dr Demento was missing the boat by a wide margin.
I drifted along until the age of fifteen, exploring the vast musical territories of Jazz, Classical, Progressive rock, Psychedelic, Stand-Up Comedy and Classic Rock. Anything but Radio top forty, Pop or music that was in heavy rotation. I didn’t come back to Zappa, fully, until my Junior year of HS (1983). At that point my classmates and peers had glommed onto the Grateful Dead, staked out all the ‘good metal’ and tried to chat all knowledgeably about the classic rock bands like Zeppelin and the Doors. All that was left for the guy who wanted to remain outside the cultural stream of easy acceptance was Zappa and Punk.
How lucky was I to have my Zappa era begin in 83. I saw him the first time in Boston at the Orpheum theater…these fans were just like me. Zappa played to a packed house and I remember the crowd being aloof and anti social, with the rare exception of small groups of Berkeley students gathered and grooving together, the fan base was ‘individual’. By that; I mean, you may have come to the show with five friends, but when the show started…for all intents and purposes it was just you and Frank. He had to deal with the band and you had to deal with the crowd. Circumstances at a Zappa show were never perfect and were often tense…Like watching a high-wire act work without a net. Exhilarating and anxious all at once.
In 1988 I went to Italy with that cousin who turned me onto Zappa, we saw 3 shows in four days. In Europe, as is often the case, the whole vibe was different…those three shows are still ranked in my lifetime top ten. A top ten list that The Rolling Stones, The Who, Metallica and Pink Floyd failed to crack.
I used to have nearly the whole catalog on vinyl, but lost it all to a flood. I remember going to the neighborhood record store in the small town I was raised in and taking the recommendations of a guy named Willie, the stores owner (his wife was my therapist). On this one particular rainy Saturday afternoon I was buying The Allman Brother “Live at the Fillmore East”. He took it from me, went back on the floor and put it back, turned 180 degrees and pulled out Zappa “Fillmore East-1971” and waved my money off, telling me “Don’t Tell my wife I gave you this”. I was maybe 13 and had recently discovered pot (still as great a theraputic drug as I’ve experienced). That man passed away about 10 years ago…but I still listen to that album, more frequently than any Allman Bros disc, and every time I hear that truncated version of “Willie the Pimp” I can close my eyes and envision every detail of that day at “Rainbow Records”, Willie was a short balding man with wisp’s of ginger hair…he shared, with me, so many pots of gold.
As I came to know Zappa in the broadband age, I was lucky to have my friend Gary share with me many of the releases I had never found in my hunt for that singular musical treasure which is Zappa. I’ve watched various clips of Zappa fighting the establishment on Youtube. I realized why I love Zappa so much. He was a Social Anthropologist, and as such, he was one who observed Humans in a way similar to how Dian Fossey was engaged in the culture of the Gorillas. The difference being that he didn’t much trust or care for the majority of humanity. It’s always been this way, since before I could speak.
Thanks to the Zappa Family Trust for letting us Frank fans enjoy his music for generations to come.