Music

Finding an entry point to the fabulously weird world of Frank Zappa

Where to begin with Frank Zappa's back catalogue? Deb Grant celebrates the remastered treasures of the prolific artist

Frank Zappa in an American flag hat, March 1979 in Los Angeles.

Frank Zappa sports a natty hat in March 1979 in Los Angeles. Image: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images

Approaching Frank Zappa’s back catalogue is an intimidating prospect.

I discovered his music as a teenager via my parents’ copy of Hot Rats, his 1969 LP which lumbers from the psychedelic jazz fusion freakout Peaches En Regalia to the gruff, crude and catchy Willie the Pimp, touching on everything from hard rock, doo-wop and parlour music in between.

My curiosity piqued, I headed to the Zappa section at Tower Records in Dublin, where it dawned on me pretty quickly that I’d probably never feel qualified to call myself a Zappa fan.

I had hoped to find an entry point, his Blood on the Tracks, or Exile on Main Street, or Rubber Soul. What I found instead were at least 30 different LPs, plastered with lewd and colourful cover art which in all their striking vividness gave nothing of their content away. Where to begin? Where indeed.

Despite being a self-proclaimed iconoclast, Frank Zappa is still probably one of the most iconic and recognisable musicians of the 20th century. Ferociously inventive and tirelessly prolific, he had a talent for blending seemingly disparate genres of music together with sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant results.

He was heavily influenced by jazz and its complex chord progressions and rhythms, and he was a linchpin in the 1960s avant-garde movement, which in turn inspired many pop groups to follow suit and break convention.

A line can be drawn very clearly between Frank Zappa’s late-’60s output and The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example. He was pedantic about composition and performance in the manner of a classical composer; hearing the music in his head first, notating it precisely and directing his band uncompromisingly. Yet, despite his rigorous approach, his music is often full of satire, convivial humour and playfulness. 

That playfulness also extends to his substantial classical output, mostly inspired by the spiky, confrontational compositions of Stravinsky and Varèse, and generally touching on the same subject matter as his rock music – satire, politics and suburban life.

Frank Zappa with Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern
Zappa with Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern during rehearsals for the world premiere of his work The Yellow Shark in 1992. Image: Kurt Strumpf/AP/Shutterstock

His fully orchestrated album The Yellow Shark, the final collection of music he conducted in public before his death aged 52 in 1993, earned him a 20-minute standing ovation after its premiere in Germany the previous year.

I saw The Yellow Shark performed live recently and even before the orchestra warmed up, spotting a banjo, a mandolin and a cimbalom (a Hungarian instrument which looks like a stringed snooker table) on stage next to the traditional brass and string sections felt like a testament to his genius before even one note was played.

Frank Zappa’s conviction in his music carried through to his politics too. Even those who have never heard a Zappa album will likely be aware of his outspoken stance on freedom of speech and artistic expression, including his now-infamous testimony at the 1985 senate hearing instigated by Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Centre’s outrage at explicit content in music. Zappa witheringly compared their list of demands to “an instruction manual for some sinister kind of toilet-training programme to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few”.

However, although he was passionately anti-censorship, he also spoke out emphatically against recreational drug use, calling it “boring” and describing drugs themselves as “neither moral nor immoral – it’s a chemical compound. The compound itself is not a menace to society until a human being treats it as if consumption bestowed a temporary licence to act like an asshole.” It seems a shame that his voice is absent from the current political discourse.

Fortunately there is still plenty of his music yet to be heard. Zappa Records, founded in the 1970s and now run by the Zappa Family Trust, has been unearthing and reissuing various live recordings and other remastered treasures from the vast Zappa archive for many years. Last December a new box set was released to mark the 50th anniversary of his Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo albums, featuring alternate takes which give a great insight into Frank Zappa’s nous as a bandleader.

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The albums, which are heavily jazz influenced, were created with the Electric Orchestra, a project formed during an especially prolific time in his life, while he was recuperating from injuries he sustained after being pushed off stage by a fan.

A new live album will follow, a recording of a 1980 set at Frank Zappa’s favourite NYC nightclub – the famous counterculture hotspot Mudd Club, including a track which he wrote in tribute to the venue itself. One gets the impression that, besides the 62 studio albums he released between the 1960s and 1990s, there are still hours of unreleased material still in the vault, waiting to be someone’s perfect Zappa entry point.

Deb Grant is a radio host and music critic @djdebgrant

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