Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


ZAPPA, Frank

(b Francis Vincent Zappa Jr, 21 December 1940, Baltimore MD; d 4 December 1993 of prostate cancer) Guitar, other instruments; bandleader, composer. He moved across the country with his family at age nine, to the Mohave Desert area in 1956; he listened to R&B and to composers like Edgard Varèse and spent his life creating a unique body of bizarre rock crossed with avant-garde contemporary music.

He led a high school combo the Blackouts, played in cocktail lounges, wrote 'B' film music (The World's Greatest Sinner, Run Home Slow) and used the money to buy a three-track studio in Cucamonga; he recorded Captain Beefheart. He made a sex tape for money, spent ten days in jail (becoming draft-exempt) and raised bail for the girl involved by co-writing 'Memories Of El Monte' with Ray Collins (d 24 December 2012, Pomona CA), recorded by the Penguins (and based on the chords of 'Earth Angel'). Zappa took over a group called the Soul Giants which included Collins, renamed it the Mothers; they were heard by producer Tom Wilson and signed to Verve, by then a subsidiary of MGM, who renamed them the Mothers Of Invention. A lineup with Elliot Ingber and Roy Estrada on guitars, Jimmy Carl Black on drums (b James Ishkanish Jr of Cheyenne ancestry, El Paso TX; d 1 November 2008 aged 70 of lung cancer), and Collins on vocals began sessions resulting in rock's first two-disc set Freak-Out! '66 (specially priced at the time), also one of the first concept LPs, including '50s parodies ('You Didn't Try To Call Me', etc), social commentary ('Trouble Every Day', 'Who Are The Brain Police'), also autobiography/rock-opera: 'The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet', 'Hungry Freaks, Daddy', 'Help, I'm A Rock', 'Susie Creamcheese'. The album reached Billboard's top 200 LPs, establishing the group as an underground attraction and Zappa as an important figure. This first album seemed wildly surreal at the time but was musically immature compared to later work; surprisingly, though, the savage satire of the Mothers period has not dated, perhaps because America never really changes.

Absolutely Free '67 carried on the reaction against boredom and hypocrisy in post-war USA, which was gathering steam in the counter-culture ('Brown Shoes Don't Make It', 'Plastic People', 'America Drinks And Goes Home'); We're Only In It For The Money '67 was a satire of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper and an ominous send-up of the hippy era; Cruising With Ruben And The Jets was a send-up of '50s rock'n'roll, though with an affection that Zappa could not deny. Verve subsequently issued compilation LPs, of which only Mothermania was assembled by Zappa. On Mercury For Real and Con Safos were issued '73 as by Ruben and the Jets.

[Guitarist Roy Estrada (b 17 April 1943, Santa Ana CA) went on to play with Little Feat, then Captain Beefheart. In 2012, already a convicted sex offender, he was sentenced to 25 years without parole for molesting a 14-year-old female relative.] 

Zappa formed his Straight and Bizarre labels; the former issued Alice Cooper's debut LP and Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, one of Zappa's most memorable productions; he also produced Permanent Damage by the GTOs (groupie collective Girls Together Outrageously), An Evening With Wild Man Fischer (a Los Angeles street entertainer), etc. Bizarre issued the two-disc Uncle Meat '69 (the score for an unmade film, with Beefheart, Jean-Luc Ponty on violin) and Weasels Ripped My Flesh '70; Burnt Weenie Sandwich '70 was on Reprise. By this time the Mothers no longer toured; Ingber had left to join Fraternity of Man (he wrote 'Don't Bogart That Joint', heard in soundtrack of Easy Rider '69), later Beefheart; drummers Black, Billi Mundi, Art Tripp (also to Beefheart) all came and went, as did Lowell George (formed Little Feat with Estrada). Zappa made solo LPs Lumpy Gravy '68 with 50 pieces, Mothers on vocals; Hot Rats '69, often called his best, with synthesizers, vocal by Beefheart on 'Willie The Pimp'; Chunga's Revenge '70, with Don 'Sugarcane' Harris on violin; also wrote King Kong: Jean Luc Ponty Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa (played uncredited guitar).

He formed a new Mothers with keyboardists Ian Underwood and George Duke, drummer Aynsley Dunbar; bassist Jim Pons, vocalists Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (last two ex-Turtles, billed as 'Phlorescent Leech and Eddie', then 'Flo and Eddie'), Ruth Underwood on percussion, etc. This group toured; live material issued on John and Yoko Lennon's Sometime In New York City, also Fillmore East, June 1971 on Reprise, Just Another Band From L.A. '72 on Bizarre (then distributed by Reprise). Two-disc score 200 Motels '71 was a critical success; the film (with cameos by Ringo Starr and Keith Moon) got mixed reviews. (He played the score at a sold-out concert '70 with Zubin Mehta and the L.A. Philharmonic.) A tour of Europe was a disaster, with equipment destroyed in a fire and Zappa injured when shoved from the stage by a crazy fan in London. Waka Jawaka-Hot Rats with horn section and sidelong 'Big Swifty' was billed as a solo LP; the same group as Mothers made The Grand Wazoo; with changing lineups the Mothers were retired with Over-Nite Sensation (went gold), two-disc live Roxy And Elsewhere (including the instrumental 'Don't You Ever Wash That Thing') and One Size Fits All, all on his DiscReet label. Zappa solo Apostrophe (') '74 (reissued as A-Pos-Tro-Phe) was certified gold, including 'Don't Eat The Yellow Snow', his first Hot 100 single; the LP made no. 10 in the Billboard album chart, highest of 32 albums to chart '67-83. Bongo Fury '75 was made live in Austin with Beefheart and various Mothers; Zoot Allures '76 (issued on WB) was the last album from WB/Reprise/DiscReet (but previously unissued material came out '78-9: two-disc Zappa In New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favorites). A Zappa/Mercury/Phonogram deal yielded two-disc Shiek Yerbouti '79, the title a pun on K.C. and the Sunshine Band's 'Shake Your Booty'; the no. 21 LP yielded a no. 45 hit disco send-up 'Dancin' Fool', also 'Jewish Princess' (generating an Anti-Defamation League complaint to the FCC), and a Peter Frampton send-up 'I Have Been In You'). Joe's Garage '79 was intended as three-disc set: Act 1 was well- received as a single LP (including 'Catholic Girls'), two-disc Acts 2 And 3 was a critical flop but still made no. 53 in Billboard.

When Mercury would not issue his single 'I Don't Wanna Get Drafted' he left, formed Barking Pumpkin and a distribution deal with CBS; Tinsel Town Rebellion and You Are What You Is '81 were two-disc sets (the latter sending up religious fundamentalism); Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch '82 reached no 23, helped by Top 40 single 'Valley Girl', a monologue improvised by his daughter, Moon Unit (the title and cover drawing was a Roger Price droodle). Three-disc Shut Up'n Play Yer Guitar '81 sold through the post as single LPs in USA, issued as set in Europe, then as a set in USA. The Man From Utopia '83 charted (and marked the Palermo Riot, when the crowd and the band were tear-gassed); Them Or Us, Thing-Fish (a parody of a Broadway play), Francesco Zappa (an imaginary 18th-century ancestor's string trios, played on synclavier) appeared on Barking Pumpkin. Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Invention '85 was inspired by the 'porn rock' hearings in the USA; Jazz From Hell '86 won a Grammy the next year, almost entirely solo with Zappa on synclavier; Does Humor Belong In Music? '86 (live from '84) was first released in Europe only. Broadway The Hardway was from a tour '88, Make A Jazz Noise Here and The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life more of the same, the last two double CDs. Ahead Of Their Time '93 documented the Mothers playing live with members of the BBC SO '68; two-CD Playground Psychotics was more Mothers including guests Lennon and Ono at the Fillmore '71.

Despite the apparent anarchy, Zappa's music was always ambitious (he told audiences, 'You wouldn't know good music if it bit you on the ass!' and defined rock journalism as 'people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read'.) His mastery of production technology was complete; the output is regarded as variable in quality and some of its success is due to deliberate bad taste (an endless stream of titles like 'Broken Hearts Are Assholes', 'Why Does It Hurt When I Pee', 'Shove It Right In', etc). Some regard him as a great composer; his electric rock has already made its mark, but The Perfect Stranger And Other Works '84 on EMI/Angel in USA was no. 7 in the Billboard classical chart, three dances played by Pierre Boulez and his Ensemble Intercontemporain, others by the Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort (also Boulez Plays Zappa on Rykodisc). Typically, Zappa said that the title tune, commissioned by Boulez's IRCAM in Paris, is about a vacuum-cleaner salesman and a slovenly housewife. London Symphony Orchestra Vols I And II '83 was on Barking Pumpkin, Kent Nagano conducting Zappa's music with 102 pieces; six vols of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore were two-CD sets of '70s-80s tracks, much of it live. Before he died Zappa made a deal with Rykodisc and oversaw superb reissues of his entire catalogue on CD, with additional tracks or many of the original multiple sets now on fewer CDs. He also compiled The Lost Episodes, a 30-track compilation of favourite studio rarities including five vocals by Beefheart; Have I Offended Someone?, a collection of 15 politically incorrect favourites; and The Yellow Shark '92, including classical works and old pieces such as 'Uncle Meat' played by the 26-piece Ensemble Modern.

His son Dweezil released Havin' A Bad Day '87; Dweezil and Moon Unit became MTV video jocks. Frank Zappa Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa '96 was compiled by Dweezil on G&S Music (mail-order only), live versions of signature tunes ('Black Napkins', 'Zoot Allures' etc) pre-dating studio tracks for comparison. A Zappa piece was played in the '97 London Proms season; Strictly Genteel '97 was Uncle Frank's classical compilation, revealing the ponderous playing of the LSO '70s compared to the enthusiasm of later groups. Zappa hated David Walley's book No Commercial Potential: The Saga Of Frank Zappa '72; Walley wisely updated it '97 without rewriting the original body of it: it is harsh but fair, as Zappa thought himself to be.