Frank Zappa (December 21, 1940 - December 4, 1993) was an American rock/jazz fusion musician, composer, and satirist.
Early life and influences
Born in Baltimore, Maryland on 21 December 1940, Zappa was of mixed Sicilian, Italian, Greek, Arab, French, Irish, and German ancestry. He was the oldest of four children, with two brothers and a sister. In January 1951 the Zappa family relocated to the west coast because of Frank's asthma, settling in Monterey, California, on the coast about 100 miles south of San Francisco. They moved to Pomona, then El Cajon before moving a short distance once again to San Diego in the early 1950s. By 1955 the Zappa family relocated to Lancaster, which at the time was a small aircraft and farming town in the Antelope Valley in the Mojave Desert 73 miles north of downtown Los Angeles north of the San Gabriel Mountains. By age 15, Frank had attended six different high schools, which may have contributed to his sense of alienation in adult life.
His father, a chemist who was born in Sicily, worked nearby at Edwards Air Force Base which had at the time a federal government chemical warfare research facility. Due to their proximity to Edwards AFB, he kept gas masks at home in case of an accident, and this evidently had a profound effect on the young Frank. References to germs, germ warfare and other aspects of the 'secret' defence industry occur throughout his work.
Lancaster's location gave the young Zappa access to the exciting sounds coming from radio stations in Los Angeles and beyond, as well as exposure to the hype that went with it, and his parents were affluent enough to afford a record player, records, a TV, and musical instruments. TV also exerted a strong influence and references to TV and TV shows, including quotations from themes and advertising jingles, can be found in almost every piece he wrote.
Another formative event was a persistent sinus problem during his early teens. To Frank's lasting horror, his doctor treated the stubborn ailment by inserting a pellet of radium into his nose on a probe. Nasal imagery and references to the nose also recur, both in his writing and in the classic collage album covers created by his longtime visual collaborator, Cal Schenkel.
As a student, he was bored and given to distracting the rest of the class with his antics, and was once suspended from school for a dangerous prank involving explosive chemicals and a Parents' Open House night. He left community college after one semester in order to make low-budget films. He maintained his disdain for formal education throughout his life, taking his children out of school at age 15 and refusing to pay for their college. Nevertheless, he was in essence a polymath. He was highly intelligent, ambitious and articulate, widely read, and possessed a voracious intelligence, drive, singular concentration, enormous creativity and a huge capacity for work and organisation. However, he was passionately interested in music, developing wide-ranging and highly idiosyncratic musical interests and demonstrating superior ability at an early age. His parents were not musicians but had broad musical tastes also, and he grew up influenced in equal measures by avant-garde composers such as Edgar Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, local rhythm and blues and doo-wop groups (particularly local pachuco groups), and modern jazz, including bebop and free jazz, all of which influences show up in his work.
Zappa was from the first interested in sounds for their own sake, which led to his interest in modern composers. His introduction to Stravinsky seems to have been a pivotal musical discovery but he was soon ranging even further afield, musically, in addition to his interests in jazz, doo-wop, R&B, and rock'n'roll. After reading a magazine review panning Varèse's dissonant drum piece in "Ionisation" (actually The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One) as 'a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds', the teenage Zappa became convinced that he should seek out Varèse's music. When he spotted a copy of The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One in a local record store, where it was being used as a hi-fi demonstration record, he convinced the salesman to sell him the copy despite the fact that he didn't have the full price, beginning a lifelong passion for Varèse and his music. Zappa's mother gave him considerable encouragement. Although she greatly disliked Varèse's music, she was indulgent enough to give Frank the gift of a long distance call to the composer at his home in New York as a fifteenth birthday present. Unfortunately, Varèse was away in Europe at the time, but the young fan spoke to the composer's wife. He and Varèse subsequently wrote to each other. Zappa had Varèse's letter framed and he kept it for the rest of his life.
Zappa began his playing career on drums, taking his first lessons at school in the summer of 1953, aged 13. He drummed with local teenage combos, but later switched to guitar, which he quickly mastered. Although he performed as a singer-guitarist for most of his career, Zappa always retained a strong interest in rhythm and percussion. His bands have been notable for the excellence of their drummers and works such as The Black Page are notorious for the virtuoso complexity of their rhythmic structure and arrangement, featuring radical changes of tempo and metre and short, densely arranged passages which are contrasted with free-form breaks and extended improvisations. Classically trained percussionist and drummer Terry Bozzio, who played for Zappa in the late 1970s as well as playing and recording many well-known classical and avant-garde works, is on record as saying that Zappa's writing for percussion is as difficult and complex as anything else he has played.
In 1956 Zappa met Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) while taking classes at Antelope Valley High School, when Zappa was playing guitar in a local band, The Blackouts, a racially-mixed outfit that also included Euclid James "Motorhead" Sherwood, who later lived with Zappa at 'Studio Z' and was a member of the Mothers of Invention, playing on many of their most famous recordings. They became close friends, influencing each other musically, and becoming collaborators in the late Sixties and mid- Seventies (on the album Bongo Fury, released 1975), although they later became estranged for a period of years. Van Vliet's own feelings about Frank Zappa were perhaps best summarized in a quote published in a March 1994 issue of Musician magazine: "I knew him for thirty-seven years, and in the end, the relationship was private."
In 1957 Zappa was given his first guitar and quickly developed into a highly accomplished and inventive player. He considered his solos "air sculptures", and developed an eclectic, fluent and extremely individual style, eventually becoming one of the most highly regarded electric guitarists of his time. It is possible that he might have become a professional jazz musician, but he was soon drawn into rock music, although he retained a lifelong attachment to jazz forms, voicings and structures and often drew his band members from the jazz world, if only because of the high degree of musical competence his music demanded.
Zappa's interest in composing and arranging burgeoned in his later high school years and he dreamed of being taken seriously as a composer. Although he was primarily self-taught, his music teacher gave him considerable encouragement. By his final year he was writing prolifically and had not only composed, arranged and conducted an avant-garde performance piece for the school orchestra, but had also contrived to have the event both broadcast on local radio and recorded. A portion of this historic recording is included on the CD The Lost Episodes. Zappa did see his childhood dream realized, as the London Symphony Orchestra played a program of his music, and the Ensemble Modern in 1992 received a 20-minute ovation after performing a program of his work a the Frankfurt Opera House.
During high school Zappa had also developed a strong interest in graphic arts. After graduating in June 1958 he worked for a time in advertising. His sojourn in the commercial world was another important influence on his work, and within a few years Zappa was co-opting the techniques he learned as a commercial artist, and was using them to deconstruct music, the music business, the media and society at large by combining them with the ideas he had gleaned from his studies of dada, situationism, and surrealism.
Zappa always took a keen interest in the visual presentation of his work, rapidly developing from album cover designer (e.g. Absolutely Free) to director of his own films and videos. Zappa's album covers are highly distinctive, and frequently bizarre and surreal. His two most important visual collaborators were Cal Schenkel in the Sixties and early Seventies, and Donald Roller Wilson in the Eighties and Nineties. One of Zappa's best-known and best-loved album images is that created for the 1969 compilation Weasels Ripped My Flesh, a disturbingly surreal painting by renowned album artist Neon Park.
Zappa moved to Los Angeles in 1959 and spent most of the rest of his life there. He began working as a graphic artist while trying to establish himself as a musician and composer. Among his earliest professional recordings are two adventurous and remarkably accomplished scores for the low-budget films Run Home Slow and The World's Greatest Sinner.
In 1962 he appeared as a solo artist on the Steve Allen Show performing a satirical dadaist piece involving a bicycle. Although many of the tapes of this series were later destroyed, the video of Zappa's remarkable performance survives. He married his first wife Kay the same year but the relationship soon deteriorated and they divorced two years later. In 1963 he began playing professionally around Los Angeles and bought the small Pal Recording Studio in Rancho Cucamonga, California (formerly called Cucamonga), which he renamed "Studio Z".
Zappa had begun recording at Pal since the early 1960s and after receiving a payment for one of his film scores he was able to buy the studio. Soon after, his marriage ended and he moved out of his apartment and into the studio, where he began routinely working 12 hours per day and more, setting a pattern that would endure for almost all of his life. Although only a small business, Pal was particularly attractive to Zappa because it contained a unique 5-track tape recorder built by the previous owner, Paul Buff. At this time, only a handful of the most expensive commercial studios had multitrack facilities and for smaller studios, the industry standard was still mono or two-track. By the time he recorded his first LP with The Mothers in 1966 he was already an accomplished recording and mastering engineer and from his third LP on and for the rest of his career, he produced all his own work.
After being approached by a customer who wanted him to produce a suggestive tape for a stag party, Zappa and some friends jokingly faked the "erotic" recording, which purported to contain the sounds of people having sex. Unfortunately the customer turned out to be an undercover member of the Vice Squad and Zappa was jailed for ten days on charges of supplying pornography. His entrapment and brief imprisonment left a permanent mark on him, and was a key event in the formation of his anti-authoritarian stance.
The Mothers of Invention
After a short career as a professional songwriter — his elegiac "Memories of El Monte" was recorded by The Penguins — in 1964 Zappa joined a local R&B band, The Soul Giants, as a guitarist. He soon assumed leadership, renaming the band "The Mothers" (and, later still, "Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention" at the insistence of the record company).
They gradually began to gain attention on the burgeoning Los Angeles underground 'freak scene' and in 1965 they were spotted by leading record producer Tom Wilson, who had earned acclaim as the producer of the seminal Bob Dylan albums Bringin' It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, as well as the breakthrough 'electric' version of Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds Of Silence. Wilson was also notable for being one of the only African-Americans working as a major label pop producer at this time. Wilson signed The Mothers to the Verve label, which had built up a strong reputation for its fine modern jazz recordings in the 1940s and 1950s, but was then attempting to diversify into pop and rock, but with an "artistic" or "experimental" bent. Around this time, Zappa also met and signed with longtime manager Herb Cohen.
With Wilson credited as producer, The Mothers recorded their groundbreaking double album debut Freak Out! (1966), a mixture of often topical R&B and experimental sound collage that attempted to capture the 'freak' subculture of Los Angeles at that time. One of the first record albums united by an underlying theme, it was also only the second double LP of rock music ever released, and firmly established Zappa as a major new voice in rock music. Wilson is also credited with producing the even more accomplished follow-up Absolutely Free; but for the third LP, Wilson was listed as 'Executive producer', and Zappa took over as producer for all the Mothers and solo Zappa recordings issued from that time on. It's clear that even on the two first albums, Zappa was already responsible for virtually all of the musical decisions, with Wilson providing the industry clout, credibility, and connections to get the unknown group the financial resources they needed to produce a double album with use of an orchestra; by the third album, Zappa had already enough of a proven track record to allow for a more accurate description in the album's credits of their respective roles. During this period, Wilson also had Zappa collaborate with The Animals on the song "All Night Long" on their album Animalism.
Zappa's second and third studio albums were landmarks of record production and were highlighted by liberal use of his famous 'cut-up' editing techniques. The brilliant Absolutely Free (1967) continued Zappa's lyrical preoccupations with the hypocrisy and conformism of American society and the sinister suppression of underground and alternative culture. It was followed by the album widely regarded as the peak of the group's late Sixties work, We're Only In It For The Money (1968) which featured some of the most radical audio editing and production yet heard in pop music, and ruthlessly satirised the hippie and flower power phenomena. The cover photo (which included Jimi Hendrix) famously parodied that of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This was bookended by two closely linked companion pieces. The dazzling audio collage Lumpy Gravy (1967) took Zappa's production techniques to a new peak and, according to Zappa himself, took nine months to edit. After We're Only In It For The Money, next was his Doo-Wop tribute Cruisin' With Ruben And The Jets. Other important Mothers recordings from this period (including the pivotal song Oh No) were collected in the 1970 compilation album Weasels Ripped My Flesh.
During the late Sixties Zappa continued his rapid artistic development, emerging as a superb lead guitarist, a skilled producer and engineer, and a composer and arranger of extraordinary range and facility. He increasingly used tape editing as a compositional tool; his editing skills are apparent on the stunning work he produced in the late Sixties with The Mothers.
Zappa evolved a unique compositional approach — which he dubbed 'conceptual continuity' — that ranged across virtually every genre of music. His work combines satirical lyrics and pop melodies with virtuoso instrumental prowess, where long, jazz-inflected improvisational passages are counterbalanced with densely edited and seemingly chaotic collage sequences that mix music, sound effects and snatches of conversation.
He also became famous for regularly quoting musical phrases that influenced or amused him — one of his most famous and regular quotes was the riff from the perennial Sixties rock hit 'Louie Louie', which appears in various forms in more than twenty separate recordings over the whole span of his career. He also frequently quoted from or referred to TV show themes and advertising jingles, from famous rock songs such as My Sharona and Stairway To Heaven, and from classical works such as Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring".
Zappa earned a fearsome reputation as a ruthless taskmaster who possessed a seemingly limitless capacity for work (he regularly worked as much as twenty hours a day in the studio until very late in his career) who also possessed immense technical knowledge and a photographic memory of the contents of his vast archive. He also became known for dismissing the contributions of his musicians, going so far as to withhold royalties rather than share the glory.
During a residency in New York's Greenwich Village in late 1966, Zappa became friends with Jimi Hendrix and is reputed to have introduced Hendrix to the Wah-wah pedal.
The Mothers' anarchic stage shows were legendary — during one famous 1967 performance at the Garrick Theatre in New York, Zappa managed to entice some soldiers from the audience onto the stage, where they proceeded to dismember a collection of baby dolls.
Around 1968 Zappa also began regularly recording his concerts, beginning with a simple two-track portable recorder and eventually progressing to a portable 48-track digital system. In the process he built up a vast archive of live recordings. In the late 1990s some of the best of these recordings were collected for the 12-CD set You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. Because of his insistence on precise tuning and timing in concert, from the 1970s on Zappa was able to augment his studio productions with excerpts from live shows, and he is known to have inserted 'live' guitar solos into the final studio recordings of some compositions.
Although they were lauded by critics and their peers and had a rabid cult following, mainstream audiences often found much of the Mothers' music, appearance and attitude impossible to comprehend, and the band was often greeted with derision. More importantly, the financial strain and interpersonal tensions involved in keeping a large jazz-rock ensemble on the road eventually led to the group's demise in 1969, although numerous members would remain with or return to Zappa in years to come.
During this period Zappa also produced the extraordinary double album Trout Mask Replica for his old friend Captain Beefheart as well as releases by Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, Wild Man Fischer and The GTOs.
After he disbanded the original Mothers, Zappa released the acclaimed solo instrumental album Hot Rats, featuring his jazz-inflected guitar playing backed by jazz, blues and R&B players session players including violinist Don 'Sugarcane' Harris, drummer John Guerin, and bassist Shuggie Otis. It remains one of his most popular and accessible recordings and arguably had a major influence on the development of the jazz-rock fusion genre.
Around 1970 Zappa put together a new version of The Mothers that included British drummer Aynsley Dunbar, jazz keyboardist George Duke, previous Mothers member, multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood and singers Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, who had been the lead singers in Sixties folk-pop band The Turtles. They were nicknamed "The Phlorescent Leach and Eddie" by Zappa. (Their own music was later published under Liccianetti Music.) Because contractual problems prevented them from recording as The Turtles or even under their own names, Volman and Kaylan were often billed as "Flo and Eddie".
The new lineup debuted on Zappa's next solo LP Chunga's Revenge, which was followed by the sprawling soundtrack to the movie project 200 Motels, featuring both The Mothers and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. At the time George Duke was in the band and appears both in the film and on the sound track as a musician. He left the band to play with Cannonball Adderly and was replaced Don Preston from the original Mothers, who acted in the film, but is not playing on the soundtrack. This double disc album was followed by two superb live sets, Fillmore East - June 1971 and Just Another Band From LA, which included the 20-minute track "Billy The Mountain", Zappa's satire on rock opera, set in Southern California. The former features hilariously low-concept cover art just at the apex of the era of great rock "album cover artwork". The latter was released according to FZ to provide some royalties to the band members who were suddenly in limbo, unable to tour.
In 1971 there were two serious setbacks. While performing in Montreux, Switzerland, the Mothers' equipment was destroyed when a flare set off by an audience member started a disastrous fire that burned the casino where they were playing — an event immortalised in Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water".
Then in December, Zappa was attacked on stage at the Rainbow Theatre, London. The jealous husband of a female fan pushed Frank offstage landing him unconscious in the orchestra pit, with serious fractures, head trauma and injuries to his back, leg, and neck, as well as a crushed larynx (which caused his voice to drop a third after it healed). This left him wheelchair bound for a time, forcing him off the road for over a year. (He was wearing a leg brace for a period thereafter, had a noticeable limp and couldn't stand for very long while onstage.) He said one leg healed shorter than the other -- a reference found years later in the lyrics of "Dancin' Fool" . He employed a bodyguard thereafter when touring, John Smothers, a former L.A.P.D. officer.
In 1971-72 he released two strongly jazz-oriented solo LPs, Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, which were recorded during the layoff from live concert touring, using floating lineups of session players and Mothers alumni. He began touring again in late 1972, first with a Grand Wazoo 'big band' and with groups that variously included Ian Underwood on brass and reeds, Ian's wife Ruth on vibes, Sal Marquez (trumpet), Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax and vocals) Bruce Fowler (trombone), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums) George Duke (kbds, vocals) and Jean-Luc Ponty (violin).
He continued a high rate of production through the early 1970s, including the excellent and accessible albums One Size Fits All and Apostrophe, OverNite Sensation and Roxy and Elswhere featuring ever-changing versions of a band no longer called the Mothers.
In 1980, Zappa helped former band members Warren Cuccurullo and Terry Bozzio launch their new band, Missing Persons, by letting them record their 4-song demo EP in his brand new UMRK (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) studios.
After a break Zappa returned, and much of his later work was influenced by his use of the synclavier as a compositional and performance tool and his mastery of studio techniques for producing specific instrumental effects. His work was also more explicitly political satirising the rise of television evangelists and the Republican party.
On September 19, 1985, Zappa testified before the US Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation committee, attacking the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC, a music censorship (though others would say watchdog) organization founded by then-Senator Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore and including many other political wives, including the wives of five members of the committee. He said,
"The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design.
"It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation."
Zappa put some of the PMRC hearings to music in his song "Porn Wars." Zappa is heard interacting with Senators Fritz Hollings, Slade Gorton, Al Gore (who admitted to being a Zappa fan), and, most notably, a funny exchange with Florida Senator Paula Hawkins over what toys the Zappa children played with.
His last tour in a "rock band format" took place in 1988 with a 12-piece group which was reported to have a repertoire of over 800 (mostly Zappa) compositions, but which split acrimoniously before the tour was completed. The tour was documented on the albums The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (Zappa "standards" and obscure cover tunes), Make a Jazz Noise here (mostly instrumental and experimental music), and Broadway The Hard Way (new original material), with bits also to be found on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 6.
In the early 1990s Zappa devoted almost all of his energy to modern orchestral and synclavier works. In 1990 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a disease which caused his death in 1993. Although ill, in 1992 he appeared as a guest conductor with the Ensemble Modern in a series of concerts in Germany devoted to his compositions, recordings from which appeared on Yellow Shark.
During these years, he edited numerous CD collections of concert recordings made throughout his career. In 1993, he completed Civilization, Phaze III, a major synclavier work he had begun in the '80s. He stated in interviews that he was working on hundreds of synclavier pieces, most of which remained unfinished.
Frank Zappa died on December 4, and was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California.
Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That same year the only known cast of Zappa was installed in the center of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Zappa was immortalized by Konstantinas Bogdanas, the famous Lithuanian sculptor who had previously cast portraits of Vladimir Lenin. In 2002 a bronze bust was installed in a square in Bad Doberan, a small town in the north of Germany, where, since 1990, there's an international Festival celebrating the music of Frank Zappa. Zappa received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.