Frank Zappa was rock and roll’s sharpest musical mind and most astute social critic.
He was the most prolific composer of his age, and he bridged genres – rock, jazz, classical, avant-garde and even novelty music - with masterful ease. Under his own name and with the Mothers of Invention, Zappa recorded 60 albums’ worth of material in his 52 years. Many were double albums or CDs, making his output even more impressively huge.
Not surprisingly, he was occupied nearly every waking hour by the composing, recording, editing and performing of music. He also found time to produce and collaborate with acts as widely varied as Captain Beefheart, Jean-Luc Ponty, Grand Funk Railroad, Wild Man Fischer, the London Symphony Orchestra and Berlin’s Ensemble Modern.
Zappa challenged the status quo on many fronts. As a plainspoken curmudgeon, he confronted the corrupt politics of the ruling class and held the banal and decadent lifestyles of his countrymen to unforgiving scrutiny. He pioneered the artist-run independent record label, launching his Straight and Bizarre imprints back in 1969 and later founding the Zappa, DiscReet and Barking Pumpkin labels. In the Sixties, he mocked middle-class mores in “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” (from Absolutely Free) and sang about the climate of racial inequality and discord on “Trouble Every Day” (from Freak Out). In the Seventies, he satirized everything in sight, including disco music (“Dancin’ Fool,” from Sheik Yerbouti) and new-age movements (“Cosmik Debris,” from Apostrophe). In the Eighties, he enjoyed his one and only Top Forty hit, “Valley Girl,” and took on the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), delivering memorable testimony about the First Amendment at a congressional hearing.
He was born Frank Vincent Zappa in Baltimore, Maryland. Gifted with a keen interest in music from an early age, he became conversant in everything from doo-wop - to which he cast an affectionate nod on the album Cruising With Ruben and the Jets - to the “serious” music of classical composers Bartok and Stravinksky and avant-garde pioneers Varese and Shoenberg. In 1965, Zappa joined the Mothers of Invention (previously the Soul Giants and later, simply the Mothers), who were deliberately and diabolically unconventional. From the way they dressed to the music they played, Zappa intended the Mothers to be provocative, controversial and unafraid of the consequences. He often quoted mentor Edgard Varese’s credo, “The present-day composer refuses to die!”
Zappa brought a high degree of compositional sophistication to a genre that had typically taken its cues from the simplistic chord progressions of songs like “Louie, Louie.” At the same time, Zappa freely acknowledged the naive genius of “Louie, Louie” and the unalloyed brilliance of Fifties doo-wop and R&B, even incorporating them into his program material. Zappa greatly extended the range of rock, composing oratorios, symphonic pieces, ballets, digitized extravaganzas for the Synclavier keyboard, and satirical musicals. A brilliant guitar soloist who recruited similarly adventurous musicians, Zappa helped further the art of improvisation in a rock context. Over the years, his ensembles included such notable musicians as keyboardist George Duke and guitarist Steve Vai.
Throughout his career, Zappa darkly but humorously depicted a landscape of wasted human enterprise largely driven by Pavlovian desires for consumer goods, sports and sex. His brutal jibes began with the first release by the Mothers of Invention, Freak Out (1966), and continued to the posthumous release of his final recorded work, Civilization Phaze III (1994). He reserved some of his keenest insults for rock journalists, which he once described as “people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” But mainly he vented against mindless hedonism and the dumbing down of popular culture.
Rock’s foremost satirist tempered his borderline misanthropy with a high regard for human potential and a fierce belief in free speech and the ideal of democracy. Zappa frankly hated much about what America had become in the late 20th century, expressing deep disgust in this couplet from We’re Only In It for the Money’s “Concentration Moon”: “American way, try and explain/Scab of a nation driven insane.” His finest hour as a songwriter/satirist may have been “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” a seven-minute suite from a self-described “underground oratorio” that appeared on the second Mothers album, Absolutely Free (1967). In this audacious indictment of the American Dream gone awry, Zappa foresaw coming trends, equating political power with personal immorality (“A world of secret hungers perverting the men who make your laws”), reproving the vapid pastimes of a dim-witted citizenry (“Do your job and do it right/Life’s a ball!/TV tonight), and pointing out the stultifying effects of the corporate state upon the individual (“Be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn’t care”).
Zappa’s work sold largely to a core audience who faithfully attended his concerts and bought his records. His popularity with a broader audience peaked in 1973-74 with the albums Over-nite Sensation and Apostrophe, which married crude humor and virtuoso playing; both went gold (500,000 copies sold). Zappa finally infiltrated the Top Forty in 1982 with “Valley Girl,” a keenly observed satire of California “airhead” culture, complete with slang-driven repartee from daughter Moon Unit. This song’s title subsequently became a national catchphrase. At last being given some overdue recognition by the music industry, Zappa also went on to win a Grammy for his 1986 album Jazz from Hell.
With an unswerving conviction in his own rectitude, Zappa remained an often brilliant voice of dissent to the end of his career. When the music industry began branding albums with voluntary warnings about offensive content under pressure from the PMRC in the mid-Eighties, Zappa wrote a disclaimer of his own, which he stickered on his releases:
“WARNING! This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress. The language and concepts contained herein are guaranteed not to cause eternal torment in the place where the guy with the horns and pointed stick conducts his business. This guarantee is as real as the threats of the video fundamentalists who use attacks on rock music in their attempt to transform America into a nation of check-mailing nincompoops (in the name of Jesus Christ). If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us.”
In 1993, Frank Zappa died at age 52 of prostate cancer, but not before culling, mixing and sequencing enough material from his vast archive to ensure the release of even more albums long after his passing.
Frank Zappa (guitar, keyboards, Synclavier, vocals; born December 21, 1940, died December 4, 1993)