Frank Zappa


June 1989 , Volume: 1
by Barbara Stratyner
 
Personal Information
Full name, Francis Vincent Zappa, Jr.; born December 21, 1940, in Baltimore, Md.; son, of Francis Vincent Zappa; married Gail Sloatman, 1969; children: Dweezil, Moon Unit, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan, Diva.
Education: Attended Chaffey Junior College, 1959.
 
Career
As a child, studied guitar and drums; played in a rock and roll band as a teenager; in the early sixties, joined with Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart); founded group the Soul Giants, 1964, which later evolved into the Mothers of Invention; has recorded and toured widely; head of several of his own labels (distributed by a number of major record companies), including Bizarre, Straight, DiscReet, and Barking Pumpkin; president of Pumpko Industries Ltd., Los Angeles, Calif.; has also directed films, including "200 Motels," 1971, and "Baby Snakes," 1980.
 
Awards: Named pop musician of the year by down beat magazine, 1970, 1971, and 1972.
 
Addresses
Office--Pumpko Industries Ltd.,
7720 Sunset Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90046.
 
"If you're not known as a popular musician, you don't exist," Frank Zappa told John Rockwell of the New York Times. "The audience that receives my music is a pop audience. If you don't appear as a pop musician, they don't even want to know what you're talking about. I've always assumed that anything I put on records would be bought by everybody in the world. I like my music, from the simplest to the weirdest. And I know that there are people out there who have the same idea of a good time as I have." In the 25 years since Frank Zappa first astonished an audience, he and his group have expanded the horizons of his personal fusion of electronic music.
 
Born in Baltimore in 1940, Zappa moved with his family to California where he first studied drums and guitar. He learned from the masters, as he told Rockwell: "Most musicians learn their trade by listening to records and imitating them. While we were first starting out, all we had was Chuck Berry." Zappa told Guitar Player, in an analytical profile of his own guitar style, that he had collected R&B records by guitar players "Gatemouth" Brown, "Guitar" Slim Eddie Jones, Matt Murphy, and "Guitar" Watson. After an adolescent rock and roll group, he joined with Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, in the early 1960s. Zappa switched to electric guitar at 21. His earliest pop song was "Memories of El Monte," with Ray Collins, which was recorded by the Penguins.
 
The first of the many variations of Zappa's band, the Mothers of Invention, began in 1964 as the Soul Giants. By 1966, when its first recording contract was negotiated, the group included Zappa, Collins, guitarist Elliot Ingber, keyboard player Ian Undrwood, bass guitarist Roy Estrada, and percussionists Billy Mindi and Jimmy Carl Black. Their first albums for Verve, Freak Out!(1966), Absolutely Free(1967), We're Only in it for the Money(1967), and Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets(1968), were satirical, self-conscious records that used tape-montages and over-dubbings. Lumpy Gravy(1967) was Zappa's first to use a large orchestra.
 
It was the live performances that gave the Mothers of Invention their unique reputation and established Zappa as, in the words of Rolling Stone, incontestably the first of the pop freaks whose music had the impact to give his outrage real authority. "Rumours spread about incidents in the small theaters in which the Mothers of Invention played, but, as Zappa told David Rensin in Circular(a Warner Brothers press newsletter): "we played for whoever would come in and take part in what we were doing. We would involve the audience so that what we did was an extension of the personalities of the people in the group and in the audience instead of a locked-in spectacle type show. It was spontaneous, and our credo was that we weren't afraid to do anything as long as the audience was going to get off on it. I do weird things onstage, but nothing involving material discharges from the body or small animals subject to injuries.
We've done some strange things, but we don't hurt people or animals, and it doesn't smell bad." His reminiscences were more specific in a 1968 interview in Rolling Stone: "We performed a couple of marriages on stage. We pulled people out of the audience and made them make speeches. One time we brought 30 people up on stage and some of them took out instruments and the rest of them sang 'Louie, Louie' as we left."
 
A contract with Warner Brothers gave Zappa his own label, DiscReet (originally called Bizarre and Straight), on which he also produced records by Captain Beefheart and the young Alice Cooper. His solo recordings--Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh(both 1970)--were instrumental with more jazz elements than in Mothers of Invention albums. The Mothers of Invention reformed in 1971 as an instrumental backup for Zappa's narratives--few if any of which could be played on the radio. His first hit single,
"Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," from Overnite Sensation(1973), was probably aired only because its language was incomprehensible. Even the New Grove Dictionary of American Music describes the Mothers of Invention's 1970's cannon as "scatological rock."
 
The jazz and rock fusion that Zappa had created depended on equal parts of surreal theatricality and expert instrumental playing. In the mid-1970's, critics complained that the Mothers of Invention were presenting just "a good if somewhat kinky rock-and-roll show," as Robert Palmer put it in the New York Times. A 1972 concert reviewed by Don Heckman in the Times garnered a more positive response: "Zappa gave [the audience] a mixed-bag of jazz-rock-classical music from a 20-musician ensemble." Heckman's list of musical genres evident in Zappa's concert ranged from Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, and Milhaud to rock rhythms, and it ended by labeling him "the
Leonard Bernstein of rock." Chip Stern, writing in the Village Voice in 1984, created a similar list of influences: "The appeal for me ... was Zappa's musical scope: anything from affectionate parodies of roots doo-wop to note, rhythm 'n' blues, Chicago-style lead guitar, modern jazz, psychedlia, electronics, opera and 20th century classicism night turn up in his early albums--oftentimes simultaneously."

Zappa had legal problems with a succession of recording companies in the 1970's, ending up with a mail-order label, Barking Pumpkin, which is distributed by CBS. His novelty hit single, "Valley Girls," based on the slang of the teenagers in the San Fernando Valley, featured his daughter, Moon Unit. His eldest son, Dweezil, has also become a popular guitarist and rock singer. Zappa has also directed two films with his own scores--"200 Motels" (1971) and "Baby Snakes" (1980)--that have cult followings. He announced in 1988
that he would begin a series of video productions of "state of the art weirdness for the home market."
 
Electronic music is somewhat more acceptable in classical circles, and Zappa's instrumental works have been performed in concerts since 1981. He recognizes the influence of Edgar Varese on his works, as famed jazz critic Ralph Gleason noted in BMI Many Worlds of Music, prophecizing that "the more a serious music audience develops for Zappa's work, the sooner we will have a concert in which he will expand his concepts of electronic music to include a diversification of sounds that should be astonishing." Zappa is also associated
with Pierre Boulez' Ensemble InterContemporain, which commissioned his The Perfect Stranger in 1984. His music has also been championed by Kent Nagano's Berkeley Symphony, which performed his Sinister Footwear(1984), originally commissioned by the Oakland Ballet. Three works, including The Perfect Stranger are included on a album of electronic music in 1984-Boulez Conducts Zappa for Angel; the work has been revived by many ensembles, among them, the Juilliard Chamber Orchestra in 1988. Zappa ha experimented
with the synclavier and has utilized its sampling ability in albums, such as his Jazz from Hell(Barking Pumpkin, 1988), producing sounds described in the New York Times as having an "almost fiendishly brittle, inhuman quality."
 
For a creative artist who has been described both as the "Leonard Bernstein of rock" in the Village Voice and as "the Orson Welles of rock" in the New York Times, Zappa has had a curious career. His music may become a staple in the classical repertory of the future or a document in the oddities of performance. He is, as he told the Times, a composer who deals with materials "that are not specifically musical."
 

Selected Discography

Freak Out, Verve, 1966.
Absolutely Free, Verve, 1967.
We're Only in It for the Money, Verve, 1967.
Lumpy Gravy, Verve, 1967.
Cruisin' With Ruben and the Jets, Verve, 1967.
Mother Mania, Verve, 1969.
Uncle Meat, Bizarre, 1969.
Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Bizarre, 1970.
Chungas Revenge, Bizarre, 1970.
Hot Rats, Bizarre, 1970.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Bizarre, 1970.
Live at Fillmore East, Bizarre, 1971.
200 Motels,(film soundtrack), United Artists, 1971.
Just Another Band from LA, Bizarre, 1972.
The Grand Wazoo, Bizarre, 1972.
Waka Jawaka, Bizarre, 1972.
Overnight Sensation, DiscReet, 1974.
Apostrophe, DiscReet, 1974.
Roxy and Elsewhere, DiscReet, 1974.
One Size Fits All, DiscReet, 1974.
Rock Flashbacks, Verve, 1975.
Bongo Fury, DiscReet, 1975.
Zoot Allures, Warner Bros., 1976.

Mothers Day, Verve, 1977.
In New York, DiscReet, 1978.
Studio Tan, DiscReet, 1978.
Sheik Yerbouti, Zappa, 1979.
Sleep Dirt, DiscReet, 1979.

Orchestral Favourites, DiscReet, 1979.
Joe's Garage, Act 1, Zappa, 1980.
Joe's Garage, Acts 2 and 3, Zappa, 1980.
Zappa and the Mothers, Verve.

Tinseltown Rebellion, CBS, 1981.
You Are What You Is, CBS, 1981.
Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar, CBS, 1981.
Ship Arriving Too Late, CBS, 1982.

Them or Us, EMI, 1984.
Boulez Plays Zappa, Angel, 1984.
Frank Zappa
Meets the Mothers of Prevention, EMI, 1985.
Jazz from Hell, Barking Pumpkin, 1988.
 
Sources
BMI Many Worlds of Music, spring, 1969.
Circular, December 10, 1973.
Guitar Player, January, 1977.
New York Times, September 24, 1972; November 2, 1976; December 27, 1976; August 28, 1984; September 30, 1984; June 17, 1987; April 13, 1988
Rolling Stone, July 20, 1968; July 4, 1974.
Village Voice, March 20, 1984.
 
~~ Barbara Stratyner