Icon: Frank Zappa

Christopher R. Weingarten

By Christopher R. Weingarten

on 01.03.13 in Icons

It was actually Edgard Varèse who said, “The present-day composer refuses to die,” but there’s certainly a reason why it gets mentioned around Frank Zappa more often than not. Zappa wore his influences on his tobacco-stained sleeves, slamming chunks of Varèse-influenced tape-mutilation in the middle of rock songs, sneaking bits of Stravinsky into a doo-wop tribute album, writing a concept piece around a Kafka short story, copping “Louie Louie” every chance he got — even his signature beard puff was a tribute to R&B multi-instrumentalist Johnny Otis.

Keeping up with Uncle Frank was a Herculean task since his style and obsessions changed with the seasons. He was almost unreasonably prolific, amassing about 60 albums at the time of his death in 1993, but each one seemed to have seismic effects. Freak Out!, his 1966 debut and early experiment in the “concept album,” galvanized the Beatles and the Stones to make era-defining conceptual records of their own. The knotty licks, cultural skewering, boundless eclecticism and chops-heavy nonet (!) interplay of We’re Only in It for the Money left an obvious dent on George Clinton and P-Funk. The jammy jazz-rock of Hot Rats begat Phish, the quirky ill-metered pop of Apostrophe’ begat Primus and even though punk eventually exposed prog as the bloated dinosaur it was, the choppy chug of Weasels Ripped My Flesh forever made odd time-signatures a secret signifier of outlaw cool (everyone from John Zorn to Dillinger Escape Plan owes a debt of gratitude). And who knows how deeply Zappa altered the American landscape after his confrontationally diverse agenda and absurdist streak touched a young, impressionable Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.

Zappa was a razor-witted, anti-authority proto-punk who never lost his status as cult hero to the freaks and the underdogs — this despite the fact that he had major-label backing in the ’60s, legitimate chart hits in the ’70s, Grammy nominations in the ’80s and a posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the ’90s. Well, whether he was spouting nonsense or cloaked political rhetoric, who wouldn’t want to get behind a mission statement like, “Let’s make the water turn black”?

Ultimately, Zappa represented a multi-faceted creative visionary that today’s opening-week-sales-obsessed music industry couldn’t grant us: someone who could swing a First Amendment tirade or a poop joke with equal zeal; someone who’s as fondly remembered for serious orchestral work and pioneering fusion as he is for novelty songs and cuss words; someone who could make the most manic, acid-fried music on earth but eschewed drugs entirely. Maybe another one of Varèse’s quotes (one that is certainly attributed to him an awful lot at least) would be apt: “Everyone is born with genius, but most people only keep it a few minutes.” Zappa was one of the few who kept it as long as we knew him, leaving behind a vast catalogue where every mutation, at the very least, included something engrossing, entertaining, exploratory and provocative.

Freak Out!

Frank Zappa

To procure the funds to release Freak Out! intact, Frank Zappa took a cut in his publishing rate so Verve could press the 60-minute monsterpiece onto two vinyl slabs — making it rock's first double-album and one of the most audacious debuts ever. Lyrics like opening tirade "Mr. America walk on by/ Your schools that do not teach" (from freak-flag anthem "Hungry Freaks Daddy") illustrate the album's explicit political objective; but the far, far more subversive agenda was represented musically through broken doo-wop, dissonant avant-rock and maddening detours. Zappa's boldest move was side four, the 12-minute noisescape "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet," bashed out on $500 worth of rented percussion by an armada of Sunset Boulevard freakazoids.

Absolutely Free

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa quarantined his catchier numbers from his neuron-frying experiments by two separate pieces of wax on his debut, but seamlessly combined the two (along with elements of improv jazz and inharmonious transmutations of "Louie Louie") on the (relatively) tidy follow-up Absolutely Free. This concept album about American consumer culture kicks off with a seven-song cycle revolving around a daunting vegetable metaphor and closes with the schizophrenic "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," a seven-minute anti-school, anti-work, anti-suburbia rock opera that showcases Zappa's imaginative tape-splicing abilities and ability to cram hundreds of disparate ideas into a tiny space.

We're Only In It For The Money

Frank Zappa

Distancing himself from the so-called "freaks" associated with the previous year's Summer of Love, Frank Zappa envisioned We're Only in It for the Money as a scathing satire of hippie culture, exposing their fashion and drugs as a uniform no less constricting than the one tightly squeezing the straights. Although it's an answer to Sgt. Pepper's — down to its parody cover art (relegated by the label to the inner sleeve) — it's far more musically adventurous, full of violently shifting time signatures, gurgling musique concrète, early experiments in sampling, punchy jazz and, somewhere in this mangled cornucopia, some of his catchiest songs ever. Widely regarded as the ultimate Zappa experience, Money hit No. 30 on Billboard and even won a Dutch Grammy (which Zappa turned down after finding out the album was lyrically vivisected by an MGM censor before its release).

Uncle Meat

Frank Zappa

Uncle Meat was, as the note on the cover explained, "most of the music from the Mothers' movie of the same name which we haven't got enough money to finish yet." Mostly instrumental, this hypothetical soundtrack is full of jittery guitar solos, coffeepot marimba torture, in-jokes and "Louie Louie" (again!) played on the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ. Rhythmically complex and compositionally "serious," Uncle Meat was the last gasp of the song-based early LPs, and the earliest example of Zappa's impossibly intricate scores, quickly establishing his role as "composer."

Hot Rats

Frank Zappa

His first record sans Mothers (save the hyper-experimental tape-manipulation tornado Lumpy Gravy), Hot Rats is a jazz-fusion essential, mixing deviously complex rockers like the classic Rimsky-Korsakov funk of "Peaches En Regalia" with sprawling jams like the sizzling 16-minute skronk-boogie "The Gumbo Variations" (featuring seven minutes of rabid saxophone seizures from Mother Ian Underwood). A surprise hit in England considering its jazz lilt and instrumental content (the one vocal track is coarsely ribbited out by Captain Beefheart, no less), this is a venerated gateway to the Zappa catalogue and a great place for his searing guitar solos to shine, completely unadorned by wonky time-signatures and jarring tape-edits.

Weasels Ripped My Flesh

Frank Zappa

As the darkly comic evisceration victim on the cover would imply, Weasels Ripped My Flesh is Frank Zappa and crew gleefully ripping through odd time signatures and bent melodies in a particularly heavy and sinister fashion. A mix of live and studio gems, Weasels is most notable for the herky-jerky ostinatos of "Didya Get Any Onya?" and "Toad of the Short Forest" that predate the mathy thud of prog-metal ("At this very moment on stage, we have drummer A playing in 7/8, drummer B playing in 3/4, the bass playing in 3/4, the organ playing in 5/8, the tambourine playing in 3/4 and the alto sax blowing his nose"). Not that Weasels is short on melody: Little Richard's "Directly From My Heart to You" is reverently covered via Don "Sugar Cane" Harris's vocals and howling electric violin.

The Grand Wazoo

Frank Zappa

A wheelchair-bound Frank Zappa, recovering from a broken leg and fractured skull after being shoved off a London stage, disbanded the Mothers and focused on studio work, penning the glossier Hot Rats sequel Waka/Jawaka and its companion, the fiery big-band workout The Grand Wazoo. Working with a group of 19 West Coast jazzers, Zappa occasionally sings (his crushed larynx lowered his voice a third) and occasionally solos, but the main focus is Zappa conducting the crew from his chair. This bitchin' brew is a chance to hear seasoned virtuosos like trumpeter Sal Marquez (who'd previously worked with Buddy Rich and Woody Herman) play off Zappa's trademark rhythmic restlessness in a cooler, more reserved environment.


Frank Zappa

Zappa's equally essential 1973 album Over-Nite Sensation was an unexpectedly catchy, occasionally filthy set of tunes that flowed into one another both musically and conceptually, establishing the sound Zappa would evolve over the next decade. Follow-up Apostrophe', however, cemented it, and even provided Zappa with a bona fide hit: the scatological 7/8 gutter-groover "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," which became his first charting single (and drove the album to become his first gold record). The lyrical threads are beyond absurdity (dog-doo snowcones, saintly pancakes, one-celled Hammond organisms), but somewhere under that sea of non sequitur lay solid themes of religious skepticism and anti-materialism.

Zappa In New York

Frank Zappa

On In New York, Zappa proves his ingenious musical improvisations are a perfect analogue to his impeccable comic timing. His dry, hilarious banter reaches new heights in a run-though of "Titties and Beer," a "Devil Went Down to Georgia"-esque tale where he faces off with Satan himself. Drummer Terry Bozzio (who must have sold his soul to churn out drum solo "The Black Page" from this set's second disc) uproariously plays the role of the Unholy One and returns later to express his love for Punky Meadows of metallers Angel in the giddily lewd "Punky's Whips" (a song pulled from the original pressing by litigation-fearing Warner suits). This is the ultimate Zappa live experience, full of virtuosic excursions and riotously perverse antics — although "I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth" is, thankfully, an instrumental.

Sheik Yerbouti

Frank Zappa

Zappaphiles bemoaned Frank's post-"Yellow Snow" obsession with ultra-hooky novelty songs and potty humor, but it exposed him to his biggest and broadest audience ever — and it enabled him to afford orchestras for his more serious work. But for fans of Zappa's smuttiest material, Sheik Yerbouti is Frank at his bawdy best. The notorious album received many dubious honors: disco send-up "Dancin' Fool" was Zappa's first Grammy nomination and a Dr. Demento staple, synthy S&M snark-fest "Bobby Brown Goes Down" rankled American gay rights groups and became a Norwegian chart-topper and his most controversial track ever, the unrelentingly offensive (not to mention catchy-as-hell) "Jewish Princess," garnered an FCC protest from the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai Brith. Cash-in from misunderstood artiste or daring experiment from First Amendment champion, Sheik's dumbed-down hooks are still some of Zappa's most addictive.

Make A Jazz Noise Here

Frank Zappa

One of three double albums chronicling Zappa's final tour, Make A Jazz Noise Here focuses solely on the most challenging rock compositions in the Zappa catalogue, making it the essential listen for chops-geeks engrossed by his band's technical prowess. Nailing every twist and turn of Zappa's shape-shifting syncopation, his 11-piece band sounds like they are linked by extra-sensory projection, attacking Zappa classics like "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" at dizzying speeds and craftily working their way through labyrinthine pieces like "King Kong" — throwing in snatches of Stravinsky, Bartók, "The 1812 Overture" and Synclavier noise along the way.

The Yellow Shark

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa focused most of his final years on art music, working with Pierre Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain, composing dozens of works for Synclavier and releasing The Yellow Shark, his work with German classical group the Ensemble Modern and, ultimately, his final album. An ideal entry point into Zappa's classical works, Shark pits Zappa classics (Uncle Meat's title track and "Pound for a Brown") against his modern compositional stylings, running the gamut from chunky repeating patterns like those of Rite Of Spring (or, say, rock music) to exhilaratingly formless note runs to wild sound effects. After years of complaining about shiftless orchestra union members being unable to devote the proper time and energy to his work, Zappa's string-torturing sonatas finally got the treatment they deserved.