Happy Zappadan, my friends! From December 4th (the day of his death) until the 21st (his birth) we celebrate the life and music of Frank Zappa. Guitar player, songwriter, bandleader and chief engineer at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, Zappa toured around the world with a rotating lineup of professional musicians from the mid 60s until his death in 1993. He is known for his signature moustache–soul patch combo and “statistically dense” song compositions as well as his quirky, often controversial lyrics.
In the 60s, Zappa joined the Mothers of Invention (a band name that had to be changed from “The Motherfuckers” due to a record company dispute) and toured across the States playing music that he wrote from albums such as ‘Freak Out!‘ and ‘We’re Only in It for the Money‘. The band was known for its elaborate and comedic live shows and “freaky” sounding music that strived to shock America’s complacent consumer culture. An avid cigarette smoker and coffee drinker, Zappa never took any other drugs when writing or performing. In fact, he disapproved of drug use in the band and even kicked some musicians out. The 1966 album ‘Freak Out!‘ –– a relatively experimental album for its time –– contained not only rock tunes but also rhythm and blues, orchestral-sounding music and parody-tinged homages to 50s doo-wop songs.
Throughout the 70s, Zappa started a solo career using a rotating line-up of musicians to perform his music, which ranged from complex and intricate pieces to spoken-word rock songs like “Cosmik Debris” His deep, alluring vocals tell the story of a Mystery Man guru who tries to sell a ticket to Nirvana “for a nominal service charge” while a slow blues/shuffle lays down the basic track featuring George Duke on keys.
Zappa loved to combine various instruments to play on top of each other to create interestingly textured sounds –– some of his more big band and instrumental music featured this technique. His most famous song “Peaches En Regalia” is known for its intricate over-dub composition where Zappa and a musician or two played all the parts. But one of my favorites from this era is “Blessed Relief”, a soothing big band piece that features an interesting blend of guitar and brass.
By the end of the 70s Zappa had already created nearly 30 albums with different line-ups of musicians. To be fair, many of them were rock songs with comedy spoken dialogue or topical jokes sprinkled in with absurdist live performances: in other words, pretty esoteric and generally not good. But in 1979 he came out with Orchestral Favorites, a compilation of instrumental songs including “Duke of Prunes.” This track features Zappa’s original guitar playing: he incorporates amplifier feedback, distortion and whammy bar vibrato to create one of my favourite guitar solos done by any artist.
Zappa, besides being one of the 20th century’s more original and experimental song writers, is an excellent guitar player. Zappa always hired top-quality musicians to be in his band, and the group always sounded so tight. I want to leave you with a song done by Zappa’s 80s band during the ‘Does Humor Belong in Music‘ world tour. While listening, I tend to think about how Zappa wrote out every single note you hear in the recording (besides soloing) or how he combined various instruments to create a singular, multi-leveled melody. Enjoy the last day of Zappadan with a great piece: “Zoot Allures.”
Words: Scott Silberberg