Last December, it was Frank Zappa’s 70th birthday. Twentieth-century music’s most prominent Sicilian-Greek-Arab-American guitarist, composer and satirising iconoclast was duly celebrated by hard-core adherents on both sides of the Atlantic. Festivities were only slightly dampened by the fact the man himself had been dead for 17 years.
Whether he would’ve appreciated this heartfelt commemoration is questionable. When he wasn’t touring, Zappa was a near-recluse. After his death from prostate cancer in 1993, Zappa was buried in an unmarked grave in California’s Westwood Cemetery. He insisted that it wasn’t important to be remembered – ‘legacy’, in Zappa’s eyes, was for the megalomaniac Ronald Reagans of the world to worry about.
Such Zen-like serenity sits incongruously beside the image of Zappa the brash, lewd, caustic purveyor of manically surreal stadium rock. This is a man who would cheerily take his band of world-class jazz-fusion instrumentalists and make them play songs about anal lubrication. But, then again, Zappa was a paradoxical individual – depending on how he was feeling at the time, that song about anal lubrication might well lurch into a mind-bending six-minute guitar solo quoting Stravinsky and the Dragnet theme.
Frank Vincent Zappa was born in December 1940 in Baltimore. His father was a first-generation Sicilian immigrant who worked as a chemist for the military, his mother French and piously Catholic. Suffice to say, parents and child didn’t always see eye to eye.
22 year-old Zappa being avant-garde on the Steve Allen show, in 1962.
In 1956, the Zappas moved to California. Aged 15, Frank arrived in a small town in the Mojave Desert as a gangly rhythm and blues enthusiast. He’d also developed a taste for avant-garde classical – as a teenage birthday present his mother paid for him to ring his favourite left-field composer Edgar Varese (he was out, but sent back a letter that Zappa had framed).
Zappa hated school, but it did afford some opportunity to explore his musical interests. He would compose pieces and conduct the school orchestra as they played them. Later, he would work in a recording studio writing music for bargain-basement Westerns and other B-movies. He also had multiracial blues band called the Blackouts, in which he played the drums. He didn’t properly switch to the electric guitar until he was 21.
But it was as a hippie renegade rather than an earnest blues-man that Zappa was launched out of small-town obscurity. He assumed leadership of a fairly convention RnB band called the Soul Giants in 1965, retooling it for the countercultural climate of mid-60s Los Angeles. Rechristened the Mothers of Invention, the band melded doo-wop and blues with Zappa’s penchant for the surreal and the experimental musique concrète of his beloved Varese. Their albums bristled with recorded voices, crackling sound collages, bizarre humour and, most notably, acerbic social commentary.
‘Who Needs The Peace Corps’, from 1967’s We’re Only In It For The Money
Zappa was countercountercultural. Mothers records exhibited a razor-edged cynicism, equally apportioning disdain to both the staid American Establishment and the conformity and superficiality of California’s rich young hippies. These early albums established themes that Zappa restated throughout the rest of his career: that drugs, conformism, and most people were bad.
Zappa’s ‘70s output tends to cleave his fan-base in two. With the dissolution of the Mothers of Invention in 1969 – he was unhappy with their musical limitations – he briefly segued into producing lush, invigorating jazz-fusion instrumentals, before diverting (some would say squandering) his genius into writing purposely dumb, regularly crude songs which either satirised something that got on his nerves or that were so surreal that they had no real point at all. The ‘80s followed in the same vein, with scatology, prurience and politics combining with bafflingly complex musical arrangements and an intense touring schedule.
‘Raising my lonely dental floss’, ’74
He had also become gleefully inflammatory. Songs like ‘Jewish Princess’, ‘Catholic Girls’, and ‘He’s So Gay’ were accused of being variously racist, sexist, and homophobic. But much like The Simpsons writers he so inspired, Zappa insulted everybody, but didn’t insult anybody as much as the white heterosexual American male. Spiky libertarianism led him to rail against Republicans, evangelicals, corporations and unions, fighting censorship wherever he encountered it and seriously considering running for US President. If he hadn’t been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1990, he probably would’ve stood for elected office. Instead, he devoted his remaining time to his orchestral work.
Piercingly, often brutally articulate, Zappa was an able spokesman for the embittered cynics of post-‘60s America, as that decade’s alternative verve fell to the inauthenticity of rich white kids who just wanted to wear flowers in their hair and listen to Pet Sounds. In interviews, he tore through the sunny vacuity of consumer America, and the moralising right-wingers who increasingly seemed to dominate it. In his music, he cherry-picked from sniffily inaccessible genres like jazz and avant-classical, and added them to more conventional blues and rock and roll, along with a much-needed dash of pomposity-pricking humour.
Rapping about televangelists, October 1981
Twenty-five years long and sixty-two albums thick, Zappa’s career offers a staggeringly broad, endlessly inventive alternative to mainstream Western entertainment to anyone strange enough to look for it or lucky enough to stumble across it. Frank himself stood out as a lone dissenter amongst a roster of rock and rollers content to keep their heads down and watch the money pour in. In an era in which music became increasingly seen, made, and marketed like a toaster or an ironing board or any other product, and a product meant to instantly gratify at that, Zappa dared to be pessimistic, misanthropic. In California, that’s tantamount to revolution. ‘What’s the ugliest part of your body?’, The Mothers sang, ‘… I think it’s your mind’.