Twenty-nine years ago today Frank Vincent Zappa passed away at the age of 52 after a long battle with prostate cancer. An immensely influential composer, musician, statesman, activist, and artist, Zappa never let anything stand in the way of speaking his mind and expressing his art. Over the course of his career, Zappa channeled his pioneering originality into a bafflingly long catalog of recorded music—both as a solo artist and with his band, the Mothers of Invention—employing a vast array of styles, genres, and approaches.
Prolific beyond compare, he released over 60 (!!) albums during his lifetime, ranging from avant-garde conceptual pieces to straight-ahead rock and roll to full classical symphony compositions. More than that, he accomplished all of this with a singular personal style as distinct as any we’ve seen before or since. Whether it was creating nonsensical tales of rebellion and inequity, playing blistering guitar solos, making surrealist movies, or writing essays and defending free speech to the highest powers in the country, everything Frank Zappa did was uniquely Frank Zappa.
The man was a fascinating blend of determination, wild talent, and relentless work ethic. Almost completely self-taught, Zappa haunted the libraries in his youth, studying feverishly to progress his dreams of becoming a composer, honing his abilities in every facet of music’s unending expanses. He demanded nothing less than the absolute best from himself and those he worked with—at all times, and in all areas. His tireless drive alienated some who tried to work with him, but his methods earned him the respect and loyalty of a core of fellow musicians, fans, and even critics.
The fervor of his fans is the stuff of legends. From his earliest days with The Mothers (later, out of necessity, rechristened The Mothers Of Invention), from rock operas to actual operas, fans followed Zappa through every transformation and permutation. His admirers ranged from other influential musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, and Trey Anastasio, to senators, to housewives. European nations erected statues in his honor, and during his trips abroad he was treated as a sort of visiting diplomat. He’s had everything from bacteria to asteroids named in his honor by researchers and explorers.
Watch Frank Zappa speak about his band’s approach to live improvisation, how they picked the name of the band, and more in this 1974 interview for German television.
Frank Zappa interview 1974
Entire bookshelves have been filled not just by Frank’s collected works, but by biographers and students of history. We honestly don’t have the space to give a proper examination of his life in words—we’d be here all day—so we thought we would honor the man in the most fitting way possible…through his music. What follows below is a partial examination of the many styles, genres, and eras of his work. Hopefully, the sampling below provides some insight into the mind of a true iconoclast.
In an era of “Happenings,” love-ins, and open social rebellion, it took a lot to shock people. The Mothers Of Invention managed to do just that with their debut album, Freak Out! The music showed an intelligence and coherence that much of the material in that day lacked. Rather than simply raging against control, the Mothers dissected and eviscerated society’s conventions with a deft touch of which few, if any, were capable at the time. Here’s a playlist of their first album in its magnificent, game-changing whole.
The Mothers Of Invention – Freak Out!
[Video: The JukeboXx]
His orchestral compositional style and storytelling prowess made an eventual transition to film writing and scoring a logical step. In 1971, he released the film 200 Motels, a scattershot madcap romp roughly based around an imaginary rock musical. The movie featured a number of well-known actors and musicians of the day, including Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and even the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Crazy effects, original music, and laugh tracks abound. Watch the movie trailer below.
200 Motels – Trailer
Zappa wasn’t afraid of slipping some autobiographical details into his work, though he would often disguise them in the surreal landscapes he was creating. His industry legal issues were touched on in this now-classic album, which he once described as a “stupid little story about how the government is going to do away with music.” The three-part album touches on a wide swath of styles and uses unique recording processes like “xenochrony,” the practice of splicing old live solos into new studio recordings. Due to management greed and his battles with his labels, Zappa’s middle period was dominated by near-endless touring, as it was his only sure source of income. Listen to the album’s title track below.
Frank Zappa – “Joe’s Garage”
[Video: Iannis Tripis]
Zappa’s lyrics were often smokescreens for greater societal commentary. In the song “Cosmik Debris”, Zappa took on the self-help movement with a biting, snarky edge. A free thinker and avid student of life, people offering pre-packaged answers to difficult questions angered him as much as those who wanted to protect the status quo.
Frank Zappa – “Cosmik Debris”
[Video: Leo Doe]
“Eat That Question”
Zappa’s music wasn’t all clanging bells, abstract percussion, and untamed guitar. He would toss in entire jazz albums that would easily stand among the work of his contemporaries in the genre. While recovering from an awful spill caused by a fan, he released two albums of pure jazz that caused his detractors to reevaluate their position that he was a one-trick pony. Here he is with legendary keyboardist George Duke on “Eat That Question”.
Frank Zappa – “Eat That Question”
“Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”
Zappa was a storyteller, and one of his more memorable tales was that of an Eskimo named Nanook, and the trapper who confronts him with shocking results in the tune “Yellow Snow”. The song is a 10-minute wandering tale that changes perspective between the two characters and features many of the tropes established in his earlier works, boiled down to their essential elements. After hearing a three-minute edit of his 10-minute opus done by a Philadelphia DJ, Zappa created and released his own shorter version and was rewarded with his highest-charting single. Listen to the complete version of “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” below.
Frank Zappa – “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”
[Video: Viso Gonzalez]
Zappa And The PMRC Senate Hearings
Zappa faced legal difficulties throughout his career for his often profane and jarring lyrical content. He lost a lawsuit against the venerable Royal Albert Hall in London over their declining to allow him to mount a production at the theater because of their objections to his songs’ subject matter and the language used. His entire life and creative attention were focused on expanding the horizons in all directions, and he bristled at any restrictions. A well-spoken intellectual, he could convincingly debate these topics and was often called on to defend his thoughts in a variety of settings—none more important than the Parents Music Resource Center Senate hearings, which debated the legality of Tipper Gore‘s initiative to require parental “ratings” on albums and restrict music displaying certain themes. He fought the “Washington Wives'” Initiative Committee over adding warning labels to albums, calling a spade “a spade”—and calling censorship “censorship.”
Frank Zappa at PMRC Senate Hearing
He did have some regrets, however. The highest-charting single of his later years, “Valley Girl,” would inspire a nation to adopt a style of speech and attitude that he personally reviled. The song was a condemnation of some of the people his daughter attended high school with, but it ended up catching the public’s attention for its outward silliness instead of its satirical meaning. The song went on to inspire hit movies, fashion trends, and thousands upon thousands of truly bad impressions.
Frank Zappa – “Valley Girl”
[Video: Chris Reno]
“The Yellow Shark”
In his final years, Zappa was completely focused on his classical compositions, producing entire concertos and conducting them across Europe, where sold-out crowds were devouring his music with a passion that is rare among the traditionally staid appreciators of the field. Though his failing health necessitated a second conductor, the music produced at the end of his life mirrored the rest of his career: He made something only he could make, and he made it his way. Watch Frank perform a segment of The Yellow Shark in 1992 below.
Frank Zappa w/ The Ensemble Modern – The Yellow Shark
Rebelling Against His Declining Health
Zappa’s music was filled with whimsy, imaginary drama and social commentary. His use of lyrics as both storytelling devices and counterpoints to the musical compositions was unheard of and unmatched both then and now. He created a body of work second to none among his contemporaries, earning him recognition as one of the greatest musical composers in history. One of the great tragedies of humanity is the loss of centuries of music to the dust of time, Zappa himself was dismissive of his place in the annals of music. In this instance below, Zappa’s vision failed him.
Music is eternal. And true originality is so rare that it is not only to be celebrated but held close as the treasure it is. Zappa’s life’s work is exemplary of a mind not ahead of its time, but completely of its time. He crystallized the insanity of the world around him and made it into a wholly new, coherent, and insanely logical confection.
One of the last interviews he granted, the following shows him as he was at the end, defiant, creative, and still trying to speak his mind, as his body failed him.
Frank Zappa Interview Today 1993
Rest in peace, Frank Zappa, and thank you for the questions you asked, and the answers you found, and the lessons you taught us along the way.
[Originally published 12/4/17]