Rock’s great iconoclast

By Sergio Ariza

Trying to unlock the puzzle of one of the most restless minds that the world of 20th century music has given us, is an arduous task. In his barely 52 years among us Frank Zappa delivered a huge musical catalogue, with over 100 albums, dozens of collections, and various singles. His music is as unclassifiable as he is. He played dozens of styles, from doo-wop to classical music, passing through free-jazz, blues, progressive, musique concrète, vaudeville, rock theatre, and avant-garde. To reduce his vast catalogue to a few words is a bit ridiculous, so please view this as being merely a brief introduction to the Zappa universe.  

Where to start? Well we contradict Zappa himself and start with what is evident, the beginning. Frank Vincent Zappa came into the world in Baltimore on 21 December 1940, and the first instrument that he was bought was a drum kit when he was 12 years old. According to him he didn’t become interested in the guitar until he was 15, as in that time the key soloist instrument used to be the saxophone. From the start his musical tastes were as heterogeneous as his later music would be. His first love was R&B, in which he became an avid collector, but soon he started to become obsessed by the work of the contemporary classical music composer Edgard Varèse, so much so that his mother gave him a long distance phone call with the composer himself for his 15th birthday.

Next came his passion for doo-wop and he started to gain an interest in guitarists - particularly people like Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, Clarence Brown and Matt Murphy - while also getting himself an acoustic and a book by Mickey Baker about theory. At 17 he was already writing, organizing and directing vanguard music for the college band. It would not be until three years later that he would move on to an electric, first with a rented model and finally with a Jazzmaster; the first electric guitar that he bought. With that he was playing bad covers of songs, like Happy Birthday, in dives, but thanks to a contact he had the opportunity of writing music for a couple of B movies and started to earn a little money.   


With that money came his first important guitar, a Gibson ES-S Switchmaster with which he would record the first three records with Mothers Of Invention, a band that came about after his friend Ray Collins invited him in 1965 to be the guitarist in his R&B band Soul Giants. A short time later Zappa became leader and had changed the name to The Mothers, a word that in slang was an abbreviation of 'motherfuckers'. The band left their cover versions behind them and started to play Zappa’s songs, and managed to get a contract with producer Tom Wilson (who had recorded Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel) after he saw them play Trouble Every Day live; a song that showed that Zappa liked so much Elmore James as Stravinsky. This was one of the few times in which Zappa has come close to blues rock, and he did it to talk about the race riots in Watts in the mid-60s. The best part is when he says "You know what? I am not black but there are many times that I would like to say I am not white ".

The song would come to form a part of the band’s first album, Freak Out!, one of the first double albums in history. Released in June 1966, it is usually considered to be the first conceptual rock album, which also happens to provide us with his satirical vision of American pop culture. The song that opens it, Hungry Freaks Daddy, is an attack on American society disguised as a contagious pop song, with one of the best guitar solos prior to Hendrix that anyone can remembered. But there is a lot more on the album, from catchy pop melodies to collages of ‘avant garde sound’. Rock had found its great iconoclast.

During this early period it can already be seen that Zappa had creative incontinence; 1967 saw the appearance of two new albums, one together with Mothers Of Invention, Absolutely Free, on which his musical palette expands to include some jazz, and Lumpy Gravy, a solo record on which he doesn’t play but directs an orchestra with results close to musique concrète.

Next appeared We’re only in it for the money, the key album of his career. It was a definitive blow against the nascent hippie movement. It is a concept album in which Zappa doesn’t spare anyone, comparing the intransigency of the left and radical right, and letting rivers of ink flow against the hippies and 'flower power'. From the cover and the title, a satire of Sgt. Pepper's by the Beatles, to the lyrics “I'm really just a phony. But forgive me 'Cause I'm stoned”, We're only in it for the money is the definitive poke in the eye of ‘peace, love and music’. Furthermore, the album is a marvel of music, and shows that besides being an excellent composer, Zappa was a magician in the recording studio, speeding up some parts, recording in reverse others, cutting and sticking fragments, which make the record an amalgam of sounds and textures. From infectious pop melodies like Lonely little girl, one of the few occasions on which he showcases his guitar playing, Let's Make the Water Turn Black and Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance, up to orchestral experiments, the album also passes by his obsession with doo wop with What's the ugliest part of your body? (with other ‘Zappa brand’ lyrics: “What's the ugliest part of your body? / Some say your nose, some say your toes / but I think it’s your mind”).

By the time of the Mothers Of Invention’s fourth album, Zappa had decided to give free rein to his love for doo wop and record an entire album in that style. Considering that he recorded it in 1968 it cannot be considered a move more punk. Stuff up the cracks is the song that closes the album, which is a true marvel that sounds like a lost classic from the 50s until it comes a Zappa wah wah guitar solo, which reminds you that the author of Concentrated Moon always keeps surprises up his sleeve.

Uncle Meat
is, in a way, the culmination of this first stage of his career, and the record opens up the way for what follows, with the vanguard gaining weight against the melodies, the pastiches and the doo wop. It is an album in which the influence of free jazz figures like Archie Shepp and Eric Dolphy start to be much more present, without forgetting songs as irresistible as Last Breath and The Air. It was, also, the end of the Mothers first line up, which gave him the freedom to record under his own name another of his reference works, Hot Rats.

The album opened with what possibly is the best known song in his repertoire, Peaches En Regalia, a marvellous instrumental that takes you down different paths that sound new and refreshing each time you hear it. Some have seen it as a cross between Steely Dan and Weather Report, which says a lot about Zappa, as neither of these two groups existed in 1969. Within a great album that is almost completely instrumental, Zappa gives free rein to his passion for jazz fusión, the other great moment most remembered on the album is the only song that contained a sung part, Willie The Pimp, a basic blues rock number on which the powerful voice of Don Van Vliet - that is Captain Beefheart - stands out, Beefheart was another rock's iconoclast and was his friend since adolescence, his complicated relationship would leave other great moments like the live album Bongo Fury. Willie the pimp shows Zappa’s mastery on the six strings and is the best exponent of the guitar who substitued the Switchblade, a 52 or 53 Les Paul Goldtop that has been completely modified, with a Bigsby added or a single coil, among many other things.

Also in 1969 he released another one of the great guitar songs of his career, My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama; one of the best and most direct melodies of his working life. Because of how it is put together (and from the song’s title) it seems that at a particular moment the song is going to go into an explosive guitar solo, but instead of that Zappa puts in an instrumental bridge that surprises with a delicate, totally ‘folky’, solo acoustic, before it returns to the ‘normal part’; and it is only at that moment that the song delivers the promised excellent electric solo.

The start of the 70s was tumultuous. On 4 December 1971, while he was playing in Switzerland, there was a fire and all his equipment was burnt. This event was immortalized in rock history on Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple. Less than a week later a crazed fan pushed Zappa from the stage in London and almost killed him. Zappa was left in a wheelchair for months and the experience had physsical consequences for him for the rest of his life. 

But that did not affect his creativity. In 1972 he released three albums and the following year he arrived at his commercial peak with a couple of records that he recorded at the same time. Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe are the key albums of Zappa’s middle period. It is an epoch that starts to liberally employ his scatalogical sense of humour but that, musically, are the most "normal" albums in his discography; making them a perfect place to start to familiarize oneself with his universe. Perhaps Dirty love is his most rounded song of this period, but other songs such as Camarillo brillo, I'm the slime and Cosmik Debris should not be forgotten; on them you could hear Tina Turner and the Ikettes doing splendid backing vocals. The sound is nasty and ripped apart (thanks to a Pignose amplifier), which is the perfect complement for the lyrics.

It is also in this epoch when he achieves perfection as a guitarist, as can be seen on Roxy & Elsewhere where he appears with another of his legendary guitars, an SG. It was a real Gibson but when an airline broke the original he changed it for a handmade copy with 23 frets - instead of 22 - and called it Baby Snakes.

In 1975 Zappa released One size fits all, an album on which he is accompanied by one of his most remembered bands, with Napoleon Murphy Brock as singer, saxophonist and flautist, George Duke on keyboard, Ruth Underwood on vibraphone and marimba, Chester Thompson on drums and Tom Fowler on bass. If to all this we add the great Johnny 'Guitar' Watson contributing his tremendous voice to the end of San Ber’dino and Captain Beefheart on harmonica, we have another great classic of his discography.

On Zoot allures the guitar is the great protagonist on themes such as Black Napkins or the title song, with Zappa working with a much reduced band. At the end of the 70s came albums like Sheik Yebouti, on which one can see that he was not joking when he praised Brian May, or the triple rock opera Joe’s Garage, with songs like the title track, on which he rages against totalitarianism and punk, (with a narrration that is, in the typical Zappa nonsense style, totally punk) and Watermelon In Easter Hay, the favourite guitar moment of his father to his son Dweezil Zappa.

Until his early death on 4 December 1993 he continued imparting his master classes with a new group of excellent musicians, something that he never stopped doing throughout his career. We can remember that people of the calibre of Ian Underwood, Lowell George, Shuggie Otis, Terry Bozzio, Aynsley Dunbar, Adrian Belew and Steve Vai, have all played in his band, and that all of them feel proud to have ‘registered’ in one of the most prestigious universities in rock, which was led for decades by Frank Zappa.

It could be that his work is as complicated as he was, something like a mirror of his personality, excessive, intimidating and frequently a bit too much dense, but also, unique, intelligent, fun and completely personal.