Frank Zappa, eclecticism made human

Omaggio di Zoa Studio a Frank Zappa

In many of the articles you find in this blog we briefly talked about Frank Zappa. It was time to dedicate him a whole issue, and we do it today, December 4th, commemorating the anniversary of his death in 1993.

American guitarist, singer and producer, Frank Zappa is first and foremost a composer with numerous and eclectic influences, ranging from rock to jazz to contemporary music, sometimes in a single composition.

During his 33-year musical career, Zappa proved to be one of the most prolific songwriters of his era, releasing over 60 albums, most of which consisted of original compositions. He was also a renowned (electric) guitarist and talented producer-engineer, who has personally made almost all of his recordings since his debut in 1966.

Now we will tell you everything.

The first years of Frank Zappa

Born in Baltimore on December 21, 1940 to a family of Greek-Italian and Lebanese origin, Frank Vincent Zappa grew up in California, in a mix of influences that blended avant-garde composers, such as Edgar Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, and local rhythms.

In fact, at the age of fourteen, Frank Zappa discovers Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, two works that had a notable impact for him: the influence of Varèse’s percussion led to the composition of Mice in 1959, work for percussion instruments.

Zappa also draws inspiration from Webern, Stockhausen, Ives, Copland and Ligeti. Zappa is not only interested in contemporary music but also in rock music, through Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Eric Dolphy, Spike Jones, Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling. Thanks to his different musical influences, Frank Zappa creates a musical synthesis between rock, jazz and classical music, using polyrhythm.

In 1956 he met Don Van Vliet, better known by the stage name “Captain Beefheart”, an important friend of Zappa and with whom he produced several albums, including Hot Rats (1969) and Bongo Fury (1975), and founded the group “The Blackout.” Zappa recorded his first single Break Times and 16 Tons in 1962 and in 1966 produced the very first “conceptual” rock album,  Freak Out.

The Mothers 

This is how the very first “conceptual rock” album came about. After a brief career as a professional singer-songwriter, Zappa joined a local R&B group as a guitarist. Soon after, he renamed the group The Mothers.

The Mothers were then accompanied by producer Tom Wilson and released the double album Freak Out! (1966), a mix of R&B and experimental sound collages. The intimate and eclectic Absolutely Free and Lumpy Gravy were released the following year. Zappa also records We’re Only In It For The Money, a satire on the traditional American way of life; the cover is a parody of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, replacing flowers with vegetables.

In 1966 Frank met the future Mrs. Zappa: Adelaide Gail Sloatman. A few years later Frank will say in an interview that it was love at first sight. They married a year later, in 1967 and became the Zappa family: Frank, Gail and their children Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva Zappa.

After several albums with the Mothers, including Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, or the concept album Uncle Meat, Zappa released Hot Rats, an instrumental solo album with chiseled writing in which his jazz-influenced playing appears. A live session album recorded at Fillmore East is also released with the participation of John Lennon and Yoko Ono (the collaboration does not appear on the record but in the live part of John Lennon’s double album “Some Time in New York City”). Zappa continued to produce in quantity in the early 1970s, but had a terrible month of December in 1971.

Smoke on the Water

On December 4, while performing with his group at the Casino de Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva,  a fire started in one of the rooms. The casino and the equipment of the Mothers were completely destroyed. This event will be immortalized in the song Smoke on the Water by the group Deep Purple, which recorded the Machine Head album in Montreux around the same time.

The accident and the end of The Mothers

On December 10, Zappa was thrown into the orchestra pit by a spectator, Trevor Howell, during a concert at London’s Rainbow Theater. The latter justified the attack in two ways: either he judged the quality of the performance too poor, or he believed that the composer-guitarist had looked too hard at his girlfriend. Frank Zappa suffers from several severe fractures, head trauma, back and neck injuries, as well as a crushed larynx. For more than a year Zappa remains in a wheelchair, unable to perform in concert and will suffer the consequences of the event:

“I eventually recovered, but my leg was still a little shorter than the other, hence the years of chronic back pain. During my wheelchair season, I turned down interviews and photos, just wanted to make music, and still managed to make three albums: Waka / Jawaka, Just Another Band From L.A. and The Grand Wazoo ”.

Faced with their commercial failure, Zappa decides to become more easily accessible without compromising his quality standards. The results are Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe, Roxy & Elsewhere and One Size Fits All, with a new version of The Mothers, one of his best bands with George Duke on keyboards, Napoleon Murphy Brock on saxophone and vocals, Ruth Underwood on percussion, Chester Thompson on drums. It is also the latest variant of the Mothers. After one last live album recorded in 1975 with his old accomplice Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa finally disbanded them, and released only in his name.

It’s Frank Zappa, record this album

In 1977 Frank Zappa wanted to produce an eight-sided (four-disc) box set which he called Läther (only 300 boxes of 4 Lp would be distributed to radio stations) and which was to represent his work in the studio, on stage and in orchestration. But the company that was to distribute it, Warner, refused to publish it. The contents of this “lost” record (until 1996, work that his family will put on the market as initially conceived in the form of a CD box set three years after his death), will appear scattered on four different albums: Zappa in New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites. Other songs will also be featured on Shut Up ‘N’ Play Yer Guitar and Zoot Allures.

In December 1977, on the KROQ radio station in Pasadena, Läther broadcasts in its entirety declaring into the microphone “It’s Frank Zappa, I’m your temporary disc jockey, take your little cassette and record this album which may never be available to the  general public”.

Zappa attacks Warner who refused to pay him all this material which he published anyway. Then he created his own label “Zappa Records”, distributed by Mercury / Phonogram, and released in 1979 Sheik Yerbouti (album based on live recordings of his 1978 European tour), which marks the beginning of a very good period in terms of commercial success and which contains a song that will rank # 1 in Norway: Bobby Brown. In the group that accompanies him then, the drummer Terry Bozzio, the guitarist Adrian Belew, and the keyboardist Tommy Mars stand out for having been able to merge perfectly in the spirit and technicality of Zappa’s music.

The publication of rock opera and the 80s

Meanwhile, the brilliant “American composer” (as he liked to call himself), who will admit that he was never able on stage to play guitar and sing at the same time, released his three-act “rock-opera”, Joe’s Garage, performed by a new group consisting of singer Ike Willis, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Arthur Barrow and guitarist Warren Cucurullo and where all genres of rock music (from reggae to disco through funk, pop, pure rock, rythm ‘n ‘blues etc.) are combined in the “Zappa sauce”.

In particular, he scoffs at the Church of Scientology which here becomes the “Church of Appliantology” whose founder is called L. Ron Hoover (and not L. Ron Hubbard). There is also the manifesto phrase “Music is the Best”. It will be one of the biggest commercial successes of him.

Since the early 1980s, Zappa has explored the links between the music he has always played and academic music; most notably recording two albums with the London Symphony Orchestra. On January 9, 1984, Pierre Boulez and the Intercontemporain Ensemble performed three pieces by Zappa.

After a hiatus, Zappa returns and much of his later work is influenced by his own  use of synclavier as a scenic or compositional instrument, as well as from his mastery of study techniques to produce singular sound effects. He is the inventor of xenochrony, a studio technique used on many albums. His work becomes even more explicitly political: he makes fun of the television preachers and the American Republican Party.

The 90′ and the death of Frank Zappa

In the early 1990s, Zappa devoted almost all of his energy to orchestral work and the synclavier. Also in 1990, he composed the soundtrack of the documentary “Outrage At Waldez”, at the request of Commander Cousteau (who later became the traveling ambassador of the brand new Czech Republic).

In April 1991, Zappa announced his candidacy in the US presidential election as an independent party on a Berkeley radio. Sadly, his eldest daughter Moon Unit reveals shortly after that her father has prostate cancer, which will prevent Zappa from engaging in any possible political activity.

The disease caused his death on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52. His last tour accompanied by a rock formation took place in 1988, with an ensemble of 12 musicians to whom he asked to know more than 800 compositions, most of which were taken from Zappa’s repertoire, but who separated by disagreement before the end of the tour. This is however immortalized in the albums The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life (with songs with “political” lyrics and covers mainly of film music), Make a Jazz Noise Here (mainly instrumental and experimental music), Broadway the Hard Way ( new songs), as well as some songs from You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 6.

Last production

You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore is the last major production of his life. A great project that he can barely complete. Volumes 5 and 6 are published in 1992: he recorded, in six double CDs (and almost 20 hours of listening), three decades of theatrical performances, mixing (sometimes in the same song) all his different groups and all the eras without any chronological order.

It is a dizzying plunge into what he called conceptual continuity, the conceptual continuity that defines the overall coherence of his work. Very soon, Frank Zappa had made a commitment to record all of his concerts. The tapes, which often served as the basis for his live or studio albums, were stored in a mythical place called The Vault (The Vault) that the Zappa family drew on to release albums on a regular basis.

Some time before his death, Zappa once again dealt with Czech cultural politics at the request of Václav Havel, first president of Czechoslovakia and later of the Czech Republic; the two men held each other in high regard.

Legacy of Frank Zappa

The Zappa family did not end with Frank. His two sons, Ahmet and Dweezil Zappa, are also musicians; together they formed the Z group. In May and June 2006, his son Dweezil organized and directed the Zappa Plays Zappa tour with songs composed exclusively by his father.

Zappa’s music is very heterogeneous, ranging from doo-wop to contemporary music, sometimes in the same song. The influences are many, and unfortunately at times we have reduced Zappa to his influences. The point is that if they are sometimes recognizable, they are nonetheless blended into a unique and very personal art. A phrasing by Zappa is immediately recognizable.

We can try to distinguish the styles in the Zappa house, to better show how they intertwine. First of all, classical music, mainly that of the twentieth century. Zappa did not like classical music of previous centuries, since composers were only slaves in the service of patrons. He loved Bach only for the sound. He said he had received the biggest musical shock of his life in his younger years with Edgar Varèse’s Ionisation and Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, as we told you at the beginning.

The greatest contribution of contemporary music to Zappa’s work is on a rhythmic level: the use of irregular beats and polyrhythms, that is, the superimposition of different divisions of the same tempo, or of the same group of times.

An original musician

Zappa’s tracks are never really finished. Concerts are always an opportunity for new arrangements. Zappa never plays the same song twice, in fact. For example, let’s take “Black page”: on Zappa in New York we find a first version with drum solo, added percussion, then reduced orchestra; in the same album we find the second version, which has a rhythm that we could define disco-funk and much more bombastic arrangements; on Make a Jazz Noise Here, we can listen to the new age version, very slow, driven by languid brass, and which ends up picking up at full speed.

In addition, Zappa had developed an entire sign language that allowed him to indicate any change of interpretation at any time: therefore, a specific gesture meant that it was necessary to play in reggae style, or hard rock, etc. For example, if he turned a finger to the right and behind his head as if he were playing with a dreadlock mat, the band behind him was playing reggae; if he did the same with both hands, the group would play ska.

If he brought both hands to his groin while mimicking a large pair of testicles, the musicians knew they had to play heavy metal. Zappa was therefore able to modify his composition at the very moment in which the group played it on stage.


Zappa entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, where it was introduced by Lou Reed. In the same year, the only known statue of Zappa was installed in the center of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Konstantinas Bogdanas, the most famous Lithuanian sculptor, previously specializing in portraits of Lenin, immortalized Zappa.

A bust of Zappa can also be seen in Bad Doberan in northeastern Germany, where the Zappanales are held annually. To go to this music festival click here: 

A second older bust is also visible in Prague (Czech Republic). In addition, an asteroid was named in honor of him (3834) Zappafrank. Last but not least, the “Frank-Zappa-Strasse” was inaugurated on 28 July 2007 on the outskirts of the former East Berlin.

There are many opportunities to meet Frank Zappa, one is the homage we pay him today.



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