Frank Zappa: Rock's Greatest Genius, Joker, Or Both?
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
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.
A Bunch Of Bad Mothers... Of Invention
After graduating from high school in 1958, Zappa, who had often been bored and unruly in high school, attended Chaffey College, but left after one semester. He worked in advertising briefly, wrote a couple scores for low-budget movies, but spent most of his time exploring new music and recording techniques in a facility he called Studio Z. In a highly questionable incident, Zappa was busted for "conspiracy to commit pornography;" he spent a few days in jail, lost many hours of recordings, and eventually had to give up the studio when he couldn't make his rent.
In 1965, Zappa joined a bad called the Soul Giants; he quickly took over as the main creative force, and the outfit renamed themselves The Mothers. Finding success on the underground L.A. music scene, the Mothers were signed by Verve Records, a jazz label that was trying to get into rock 'n roll. At the labels request, the group changed its name to Mothers Of Invention.
The Mothers Of Invention released Freak-Out!, their debut album, in June 1966; it was actually a double album, and just the second rock release (after Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde) to use that format. The album was unfavorably reviewed, and was not commercially successful. The album had better luck finding an audience in Europe, and many well known artists would claim it as an influence -- including Paul McCartney, who said Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was the Beatles' attempt at a Freak Out!.
Zappa, of course, would famously respond to Sgt. Pepper in his own way.
Frank Zappa Had No Sacred Cows
After Freak Out! the Mothers Of Invention released Absolutely Free (1967), We're Only In It For The Money (1968), Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (1968), and numerous others. In addition to musical experimentation and complicated (by rock-album standards) orchestration, Zappa was constantly skewering, well, everybody. While many musicians took political or anti-establishment stands during the late '60s, there was an unspoken solidarity. It was the younger generation against the older one; it was us against the man. Zappa, with and without the Mothers, wasn't one to play nice -- while he had plenty of criticism for the usual suspects (government, authority, society, what have you), he wasn't afraid to take shots at his musical peers. Which, as might be expected, made him an outsider.
Consider this: The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, hailed as the greatest psychedelic album of the '60s, and one of the greatest album of all time, in May of 1967. Months later, The Mothers were set to rain all over that parade with We're Only In It For The Money, which featured a cover photo collage that directly parodied the Sgt. Pepper cover. The collage ended up as interior art, when Capitol Records (the Beatles' label) threatened to hassle Verve. The negotiations (or lack thereof) delayed the album's release by five months. Even today, taking shots at the Beatles is a gutsy move given the group's standing in the history of rock 'n roll and popular reverence for their role in the late '60s. Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention did it in real time.
Frank Zappa, Family Man
Everything about Frank Zappa was unconventional. From his personality and style of music to his personal interests and choice of names for his children; Moon Unit Zappa, Dweezil Zappa, Ahmet Zappa and Diva Zappa. These names caught the attention of the world but considering the source, no one was the least bit surprised or concerned.
Frank Zappa once said, “most people wouldn’t know good music if it came and bit them on the ass.” He was known for his outspoken and sometimes inappropriate language that even his songs came with parental warnings; even the ones with no foul language.
Zappa’s only American hit single was the 1982 novelty song "Valley Girl," which he co-wrote and performed with his then 14-year-old daughter, Moon Unit Zappa. It became his biggest-selling single ever and made it to No. 32 on the Billboard Charts, popularizing such Californian teen-speak as "gag me with a spoon" and "tubular."
A Legacy Of Innovation That Lives On
Throughout his career, Zappa was frequently frustrated that his music was being censored. He always felt that it was a violation of his right to free speech. Zappa actually went to then-President Ronald Reagan in protest. When the president didn’t support his cause, he purposely got even more vulgar just to prove his point. The more shocking the better, as far as he was concerned.
Frank Zappa wrote so many songs that he didn’t get to publish all of his work in his lifetime. He left so much behind that to date, his family has released 38 additional albums of his music since his death in 1993, bringing the grand total to 100. Over the course of his epic career, Frank Zappa was quite a force to be reckoned with in the music world. Some loved him and some… not so much. The fact is that he didn’t care. He was being true to himself.
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