Born Frank Vincent Zappa into an Italian-American family in Baltimore, Maryland 1940 the younger man was surrounded by books and music. Following their son’s sickly childhood the family moved to Claremont, California, then San Diego. Evidently a prodigiously smart student and a gifted musician Zappa was a drummer first who then became obsessed with percussion, the avant-garde, doo-wop 1950s rock and roll and Latino and Pachuca ethnic sounds.
This heady mix enabled him to immerse himself in nascent psychedelia while sending it up rotten. His mistrust for both the underground and the mainstream would fuel his passion for personal truth. In the interim he became friends with fellow maverick Don Van Vliet – later known as Captain Beefheart – and developed more interest in the blues. By the early 1960s he’d formed The Muthers, a power rock trio who would become The Mothers – or Mother’s Day – before a liaison with Tom Wilson the producer and Verve, lead to a name change and The Mothers of Invention were born.
Wilson, Zappa, singer Ray Collins, bassist Roy Estrada, drummer Jimmy Carl Black and guitar player Elliot Ingber created an almighty mess of magic on the 1966 debut disc Freak Out! and the ensuing Absolutely Free (1967) by which time woodwinds, extra drums and piano were in the mix. Classic songs on this opening brace are – the whole lot! Try “Who Are the Brain Police?”, “Trouble Every Day”, “It Can’t `Happen Here”, “Plastic People”, “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” and “America Drinks & Goes Home”. As arcane as these sounded to the ears of those just recovering from the cosier British beat invasion they were also light years ahead of the competition in terms of ambition and ambience. Every cent the band had was poured into production and the latter disc made the Top 50 without breaking even while Freak Out! – a fat double that caused consternation at Verve (also the second double rock album ever made) is now recognized as a stone classic.
Whenever possible seek out the expanded CD versions. Many cite the fully augmented Absolutely Free as their favourite Zappa/Mothers period.
Lumpy Gravy (Frank’s debut solo disc) and We’re Only In It For the Money (1967/68) upped the ante with lengthy free form acid rock (Frank wasn’t a drug user) and short, snappy mind game riddles jostling for space amidst a bizarre cacophony of aural destruction. These four albums are certainly essential and ought to be discovered by anyone with a taste for the 1960s in full motley regalia. At the time they were very popular with British audiences and many a schoolboy earned kudos by turning up for assembly with one or more Zappa items tucked under the great coat.
Having even lampooned The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s (they didn’t mind) on We’re Only In It For the Money, Zappa took his Mothers back to the doo- wop and rock and roll era on Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (1969) and also linked up with Herb Cohen to form his offshoot imprint Bizarre Records who provided a home for kindred spirit Wild Man Fischer.
The second double disc Uncle Meat is available in vastly expanded form and contains excerpts of live recordings in London, LA and Copenhagen. Hot Rats (Frank’s #2 solo) pursues ever more cosmic rock territory with Ian Underwood’s keyboards a vital ingredient, as are the multi-layered brass and percussion instruments. Multi-tracking was still in its infancy but Zappa was a studio pioneer and made true stereo come alive. Lowell George can he heard on “Gumbo Variations” on the reissued Hot Rats and it’s worth recalling that members of Little Feat and Henry Vestine (Canned Heat) passed through the ranks: Zappa gave so many a chance and a grounding in rock ensemble work, encouraging them to solo with his famous hand-gestures.
In the 1970s his output increases exponentially. Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Weasels Ripped My Flesh (containing the excellent `”My Guitar wants to Kill Your Mama”) and Chunga’s Revenge seemed to emerge within months of each other while his line-ups were equally bewildering with Flo and Eddy, Max Bennet, Don “Sugarcane” Harris and John Guerin arriving to add hard core West Coast rhythms and comedic fusion mayhem.
Fillmore East – June 1972 finally provides Frank and co. with a hit disc of sorts – hey, it makes #38 – and is tricked out with more scurrility, profanity and absurdist rock theatre than can be imagined for 1971.
The early soundtrack to the movie 200 Motels and Just Another Band from L.A. won’t sell quite as well but are now considered to be classics of the Zappa sort with some sterling main man guitar work filtered through some semi-straight arrangements - though nothing too bland you understand.
Country, blues slide rock and progressive jazz fusion become the norm – if that’s the right word – for a good period now – this during a time when Zappa was assaulted by a ‘fan’ at the Rainbow Theatre in London and forced to record in a wheelchair for the next eighteen months. He emerges from this dark time with four of his greatest commercial successes: Over-Nite Sensation, the Top Ten Apostrophe (‘), his biggest selling disc ever, Roxy and Elsewhere (a great live set) and One Size Fits All.
Frank’s prolific output will continue throughout the next decade and encompass ever more exotic strands of modern rock. For a taste of his scabrous humour and eclectic bandleader skills try the full fat Zappa in New York, much expanded on the 2-CD version. To hear Zappa’s excursions into outer funk home in on Studio Tan where luminaries and guests include George Duke, Paul Humphrey and Bruce Fowler.
With albums arriving thick and fast now – five in 1979! – Zappa reenters commercial territory on the expert Joe’s Garage Act 1, Shut Up n’ Play Your Guitar and Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, the latter featuring his hit single “Valley Girl”, a parody of the LA phenomenon that became a badge of honour for its subjects though Frank and co-writer Moon, his 14-year old daughter, were bemused at the reception. That didn’t stop the song popularizing “Valspeak” and the single went top twenty and hit #32 on the Billboard chart, his one and only excursion into such rarified realms.
Pretty much self-financed by now thanks to his concert work Zappa will be seen as both a cottage industry and an American National Treasure. His forays into orchestral, classical and synclavier dominated keyboards textures become an obsession. Box sets of these various styles abound and there are notable albums to rediscover right up until his final disc, The Yellow Shark (1993), feted by Tom Waits (another Zappa associate) in his description: “The ensemble is awe-inspiring. It is a rich pageant of texture in colour. It's the clarity of his perfect madness, and mastery. Frank governs with Elmore James on his left and Stravinsky on his right. Frank reigns and rules with the strangest tools."
That’s a very apt description of his approach. For those who wish to delve further the posthumously assembled discs offer sustenance, and for a handy primer compilation you could investigate Strictly Commercial where his more evidently accessible and vocal lead tracks are gathered and cherry picked with aplomb -offering a kind of Best of Frank Zappa, if it’s possible to make such a bold statement.
Whatever, once you get the Frank Zappa bug it’s likely you’ll be amazed at the sheer audacity of his career. There is much to marvel at and plenty to enjoy. One thing is for certain, we won’t ever see or hear his like again.
Words: Max Bell
One of the most ambitious debuts in rock history, Freak Out! was a seminal concept album that somehow foreshadowed both art rock and punk at the same time. Its four LP sides deconstruct rock conventions right and left, eventually pushing into territory inspired by avant-garde classical composers. Yet the album is sequenced in an accessibly logical progression; the first half is dedicated to catchy, satirical pop/rock songs that question assumptions about pop music, setting the tone for the radical new directions of the second half. Opening with the nonconformist call to arms "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," Freak Out! quickly posits the Mothers of Invention as the antithesis of teen-idol bands, often with sneering mockeries of the teen-romance songs that had long been rock's commercial stock-in-trade. Despite his genuine emotional alienation and dissatisfaction with pop conventions, though, Frank Zappa was actually a skilled pop composer; even with the raw performances and his stinging guitar work, there's a subtle sophistication apparent in his unorthodox arrangements and tight, unpredictable melodicism. After returning to social criticism on the first song of the second half, the perceptive Watts riot protest "Trouble Every Day," Zappa exchanges pop song structure for experiments with musique concrète, amelodic dissonance, shifting time signatures, and studio effects. It's the first salvo in his career-long project of synthesizing popular and art music, high and low culture; while these pieces can meander, they virtually explode the limits of what can appear on a rock album, and effectively illustrate Freak Out!'s underlying principles: acceptance of differences and free individual expression. Zappa would spend much of his career developing and exploring ideas -- both musical and conceptual -- first put forth here; while his myriad directions often produced more sophisticated work, Freak Out! contains at least the rudiments of almost everything that followed, and few of Zappa's records can match its excitement over its own sense of possibility.
Words: Steve Huey
Frank Zappa's liner notes for Freak Out! name-checked an enormous breadth of musical and intellectual influences, and he seemingly attempts to cover them all on the second Mothers of Invention album, Absolutely Free. Leaping from style to style without warning, the album has a freewheeling, almost schizophrenic quality, encompassing everything from complex mutations of "Louie, Louie" to jazz improvisations and quotes from Stravinsky's Petrushka. It's made possible not only by expanded instrumentation, but also Zappa's experiments with tape manipulation and abrupt editing, culminating in an orchestrated mini-rock opera ("Brown Shoes Don't Make It") whose musical style shifts every few lines, often in accordance with the lyrical content. In general, the lyrics here are more given over to absurdity and non sequiturs, with the sense that they're often part of some private framework of satirical symbols. But elsewhere, Zappa's satire also grows more explicitly social, ranting against commercial consumer culture and related themes of artificiality and conformity. By turns hilarious, inscrutable, and virtuosically complex, Absolutely Free is more difficult to make sense of than Freak Out!, partly because it lacks that album's careful pacing and conceptual focus. But even if it isn't quite fully realized, Absolutely Free is still a fabulously inventive record, bursting at the seams with ideas that would coalesce into a masterpiece with Zappa's next project.
Words: Steve Huey
From the beginning, Frank Zappa cultivated a role as voice of the freaks -- imaginative outsiders who didn't fit comfortably into any group. We're Only in It for the Money is the ultimate expression of that sensibility, a satirical masterpiece that simultaneously skewered the hippies and the straights as prisoners of the same narrow-minded, superficial phoniness. Zappa's barbs were vicious and perceptive, and not just humorously so: his seemingly paranoid vision of authoritarian violence against the counterculture was borne out two years later by the Kent State killings. Like Freak Out, We're Only in It for the Money essentially devotes its first half to satire, and its second half to presenting alternatives. Despite some specific references, the first-half suite is still wickedly funny, since its targets remain immediately recognizable. The second half shows where his sympathies lie, with character sketches of Zappa's real-life freak acquaintances, a carefree utopia in "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," and the strident, unironic protest "Mother People." Regardless of how dark the subject matter, there's a pervasively surreal, whimsical flavor to the music, sort of like Sgt. Pepper as a creepy nightmare. Some of the instruments and most of the vocals have been manipulated to produce odd textures and cartoonish voices; most songs are abbreviated, segue into others through edited snippets of music and dialogue, or are broken into fragments by more snippets, consistently interrupting the album's continuity. Compositionally, though, the music reveals itself as exceptionally strong, and Zappa's politics and satirical instinct have rarely been so focused and relevant, making We're Only in It for the Money quite probably his greatest achievement. [Rykodisc's 1987 reissue restored passages censored on the LP, but included re-recorded rhythm tracks and sounded quite different. Their 1995 re-reissue contained both the original music and content edits.]
Words: Steve Huey
Lumpy Gravy, Frank Zappa's first solo album, was released months before the Mothers of Invention's third LP (even though its back cover asked the question: "Is this phase two of We're Only in It for the Money?") and both were conceptualized and recorded at the same time. We're Only in It for the Money became a song-oriented anti-flower power album with one contemporary/musique concrète/sound collage hybrid piece by way of conclusion. Lumpy Gravy collaged bits of orchestral music, sonic manipulations, spoken words, and occasional pop ditties into two lumps of 16 minutes each. This album presents Zappa's first recordings with a decent orchestra, the 50-piece Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra. His symphonic writing was very much influenced by Stravinsky and Varèse. It still had to lose its sharp edges and find the lushness found in 200 Motels. The segments of music are loosely tied together by bits of dialogue from inside the piano. MOI members and friends were invited to talk with their head inside a grand piano with the sustain pedal depressed (the technique was immortalized in the song "Evelyn, A Modified Dog"). The reverberating space gave the voices an eerie quality, but made it very difficult to convincingly edit the material. Thus, the plot emanating from these portions remains very vague (it was clarified 25 years later in Civilization Phaze III). The song bits include "Oh No," "Theme from Lumpy Gravy" (aka "Duodenum"), "King Kong," and "Take Your Clothes off When You Dance," all in instrumental versions, all making their first appearance on record. The starting point of Zappa's "serious music," Lumpy Gravy suffers from a lack of coherence, but it remains historically important and contains many conceptual continuity clues for the fan. The opening line of part one ("The way I see it, Barry, this should be a dynamite show") became a classic reference.
Words: François Couture
Frank Zappa loved '50s doo wop music. He grew up with it, collected it, and it was the first kind of pop music he wrote (like "Memories of El Monte," recorded by the Penguins in 1962). Cruising With Ruben & the Jets, the Mothers of Invention's fourth LP, is a collection of such music, all Zappa originals (some co-written with MOI singer Ray Collins). To the unexperienced, songs like "Cheap Thrills," "Deseri," and "Jelly Roll Gum Drop" can sound like an average doo wop song. A closer look reveals unusual chord sequences, Stravinsky quotes, and hilariously moronic lyrics -- all that wrapped in four-way harmony vocals and linear piano triplets. A handful of songs from the group's 1966 debut, Freak Out, were rearranged ("How Could I Be Such a Fool" and "Anyway the Wind Blows" give the weirdest results), old material predating the Mothers was recycled ("Fountain of Love"), "Love of My Life," and "You Didn't Try to Call Me" became live staples. [For the album's first CD reissue in 1985, Zappa had bassist Arthur Barrow and drummer Chad Wackerman re-recording rhythm tracks for all but one song. Since then, all reissues have followed the 1985 mix, leaving "Stuff up the Cracks" the only surviving example of what Cruising With Ruben & the Jets really sounded like. Finally, in 2010, the original vinyl mix was released by the Zappa Family Trust as Greasy Love Songs.]
Words: François Couture
Just three years into their recording career, the Mothers of Invention released their second double album, Uncle Meat, which began life as the largely instrumental soundtrack to an unfinished film. It's essentially a transitional work, but it's a fascinating one, showcasing Frank Zappa's ever-increasing compositional dexterity and the Mothers' emerging instrumental prowess. It was potentially easy to overlook Zappa's melodic gifts on albums past, but on Uncle Meat, he thrusts them firmly into the spotlight; what few lyrics there are, Zappa says in the liner notes, are in-jokes relevant only to the band. Thus, Uncle Meat became the point at which Zappa began to establish himself as a composer and he would return to many of these pieces repeatedly over the course of his career. Taken as a whole, Uncle Meat comes off as a hodgepodge, with centerpieces scattered between variations on previous pieces, short concert excerpts, less-realized experiments, doo wop tunes, and comedy bits; the programming often feels as random as the abrupt transitions and tape experiments held over from Zappa's last few projects. But despite the absence of a conceptual framework, the unfocused sprawl of Uncle Meat is actually a big part of its appeal. It's exciting to hear one of the most creatively fertile minds in rock pushing restlessly into new territory, even if he isn't always quite sure where he's going. However, several tracks hint at the jazz-rock fusion soon to come, especially the extended album closer "King Kong"; it's his first unequivocal success in that area, with its odd time signature helping turn it into a rhythmically kinetic blowing vehicle. Though some might miss the gleeful satire of Zappa's previous work with the Mothers, Uncle Meat's continued abundance of musical ideas places it among his most intriguing works.
Words: Steve Huey
Aside from the experimental side project Lumpy Gravy, Hot Rats was the first album Frank Zappa recorded as a solo artist sans the Mothers, though he continued to employ previous musical collaborators, most notably multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood. Other than another side project -- the doo wop tribute Cruising With Ruben and the Jets -- Hot Rats was also the first time Zappa focused his efforts in one general area, namely jazz-rock. The result is a classic of the genre. Hot Rats' genius lies in the way it fuses the compositional sophistication of jazz with rock's down-and-dirty attitude -- there's a real looseness and grit to the three lengthy jams, and a surprising, wry elegance to the three shorter, tightly arranged numbers (particularly the sumptuous "Peaches en Regalia"). Perhaps the biggest revelation isn't the straightforward presentation, or the intricately shifting instrumental voices in Zappa's arrangements -- it's his own virtuosity on the electric guitar, recorded during extended improvisational workouts for the first time here. His wonderfully scuzzy, distorted tone is an especially good fit on "Willie the Pimp," with its greasy blues riffs and guest vocalist Captain Beefheart's Howlin' Wolf theatrics. Elsewhere, his skill as a melodist was in full flower, whether dominating an entire piece or providing a memorable theme as a jumping-off point. In addition to Underwood, the backing band featured contributions from Jean-Luc Ponty, Lowell George, and Don "Sugarcane" Harris, among others; still, Zappa is unquestionably the star of the show. Hot Rats still sizzles; few albums originating on the rock side of jazz-rock fusion flowed so freely between both sides of the equation, or achieved such unwavering excitement and energy.
Words: Steve Huey
Burnt Weeny Sandwich is the first of two albums by the Mothers of Invention that Frank Zappa released in 1970, after he had disbanded the original lineup. While Weasels Ripped My Flesh focuses on complex material and improvised stage madness, this collection of studio and live recordings summarizes the leader's various interests and influences at the time. It opens and closes on '50s pop covers, "WPLJ" and "Valarie." "Aybe Sea" is a Zappafied sea shanty, while "Igor's Boogie" is named after composer Igor Stravinsky, the closest thing to a hero Zappa ever worshipped. But the best material is represented by "Holiday in Berlin," a theme that would become central to the music of 200 Motels, and "The Little House I Used to Live In," including a virtuoso piano solo by Ian Underwood. Presented as an extended set of theme and variations, the latter does not reach the same heights as "King Kong." In many places, and with the two aforementioned exceptions in mind, Burnt Weeny Sandwich sounds like a set of outtakes from Uncle Meat, which already summarized to an extent the adventures of the early Mothers. It lacks some direction, but those allergic to the group's grunts and free-form playing will prefer it to the wacky Weasels Ripped My Flesh.
Words: François Couture
A fascinating collection of mostly instrumental live and studio material recorded by the original Mothers of Invention, complete with horn section, from 1967-1969, Weasels Ripped My Flesh segues unpredictably between arty experimentation and traditional song structures. Highlights of the former category include the classical avant-garde elements of "Didja Get Any Onya," which blends odd rhythmic accents and time signatures with dissonance and wordless vocal noises; these pop up again in "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask" and "Toads of the Short Forest." The latter and "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue" also show Frank Zappa's willingness to embrace the avant-garde jazz of the period. Yet, interspersed are straightforward tunes like a cover of Little Richard's "Directly From My Heart to You," with great violin from Don "Sugarcane" Harris; the stinging Zappa-sung rocker "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama," and "Oh No," a familiar Broadway-esque Zappa melody (it turned up on Lumpy Gravy) fitted with lyrics and sung by Ray Collins. Thus, Weasels can make for difficult, incoherent listening, especially at first. But there is a certain logic behind the band's accomplished genre-bending and Zappa's gleefully abrupt veering between musical extremes; without pretension, Zappa blurs the normally sharp line between intellectual concept music and the visceral immediacy of rock and R&B. Zappa's anything-goes approach and the distance between his extremes are what make Weasels Ripped My Flesh ultimately invigorating; they also even make the closing title track -- a minute and a half of squalling feedback, followed by applause -- perfectly logical in the album's context.
Words: Steve Huey
Chunga's Revenge marks the debut of Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (among several other musicians) with the Mothers, and while their schtick has not reached the graphic proportions it later would, the thematic obsessions of the 200 Motels period are foreshadowed on tracks like "Road Ladies" and "Would You Go All the Way?" Other vocal numbers include the hard-rocking "Tell Me You Love Me," the musicians' union satire "Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink," and the doo wop-influenced "Sharleena." Meanwhile, Frank Zappa's strong instrumental music incorporates Eastern European influences ("Transylvania Boogie"), cocktail jazz ("Twenty Small Cigars"), and the percussion-only "The Clap." Zappa's guitar tone is wonderfully biting and nasty throughout; George Duke provides another musical highlight by scat-singing a "drum solo." But while there are plenty of fine moments, Chunga's Revenge is in the end more of a hodgepodge transitional album, with less coherence than Zappa's other 1969-1970 works. Still, it will appeal to fans of that creatively fertile period in Zappa's oeuvre.
Words: Steve Huey