Frank Zappa: Rock's Greatest Genius, Joker, Or Both?

By | September 23, 2018

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Frank Zappa photographed in Amsterdam, Netherlands on September 17 1972 (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention band was one of the most important and challenging rock acts of the '60s, and as a solo artist Zappa continued to push the envelope with experimental music and controversial subject matter. Zappa, who died in 1993 at the age of 52, was a provocateur, a comedian, a free-speech advocate, and a naturally gifted and self-taught musician. With the Mothers Of Invention, Frank Zappa recorded 11 studio albums and numerous live albums; as a solo artist or with other collaborators Zappa recorded dozens more, bringing the total number of releases during his lifetime to over 60.

With no formal training, Zappa grew up listening to anything and everything he could get his hands on, a trait that shows up in his music. He studied classical music, jazz, and blues, and also listened to doo-wop and rock. When he began recording with The Mothers Of Invention in the 1960s, he was already questioning what does or doesn't belong on a rock record. At times, his music was catchy and lyrically coherent -- Zappa could write a pop song, if he wanted. But he was just as interested in instrumentals, soundscapes, and flat-out noise. 

Growing Up Near The Mustard Gas Factory

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Source: Reddit

Zappa's career as an unconventional musician goes back to a childhood that was, to say the least, unconventional. His father was a chemist and mathematician who worked for the defense industry and U.S. government. The family lived near defense facilities and arsenals, and young Frank was often sick -- he would later say that he believed the mustard gas stored near the family's home when they lived in Maryland may have been the cause.

The Zappas eventually settled in California. As a pre-teen, Zappa listened to all sorts of music on his family's phonograph, and he also began teaching himself to play the drums. He joined his first band, as a drummer, in high school. At Antelope Valley High School, Zappa bonded with a classmate named Don Glen Vliet, who would change his name to Don Van Vliet and eventually be known by the stage name of Captain Beefheart. Zappa began to teach himself guitar, and to compose pieces on his own. By the time he was a senior, he was conducting the school orchestra in avant-garde compositions he'd written himself. Due to the transient nature of his upbringing, Zappa had attended six different high schools.