Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “Rock Legends,” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Of all the qualities that typified Frank Zappa, perhaps the most striking is that he was a paradox. A workaholic perfectionist rock star who eschewed the hippie culture of the 1960s, deploring its conformism, spurious ideals and drug use, Zappa was not only a brilliant rock guitarist but an orchestral composer, innovative filmmaker, music producer, businessman, iconoclast and perceptive political and social commentator. His oeuvre continually amazes: over 60 albums of music from rock to orchestral, in addition to innumerable films, concerts and other accomplishments.
Frank Vincent Zappa was born 21 Dec 1940, in Baltimore, MD.
His father’s profession as a chemical weapons specialist meant that he had to take strange medical precautions as a child, such as wearing gas masks. His parents were from different cultures and ancestries, and because his family had to move houses so much, he attended six different high schools. Such a diverse and extraordinary upbringing influenced Zappa’s highly critical views on mainstream politics, art, and media. He was famous for his critique of the Garden of Eden story, and for being a strong advocate towards freedom of speech and even self-education.
His testimony before the United States Senate in 1985 is a true example of his dedication against censorship.
He was playing in R&B groups by high school. After barely graduating from high school, and then dropping out of junior college (where he met his first wife, Kay Sherman), Zappa worked at such jobs as window dresser, copywriter and door-to-door salesman. With the money he earned from scoring Run Home, Slow (1965) (written by his high school English teacher, Don Cerveris), Zappa purchased a recording studio and, after concocting an allegedly obscene recording for an undercover policeman, spent ten days in jail. Zappa’s diverse range of albums (both with the seminal and protean groups The Mothers of Invention and Zappa; as well as solo releases) are renowned not only for their bravura musicianship and satire, but for offending various groups (usually conservatives, both religious and political).
Zappa had extremely diverse musical influences, including avant-garde composers such as Varese, Halim-al-Dabh, and Igor Stravinsky. During his time in high school, he had obtained an impressive collection of R&B records, which, coupled with his avant-garde musical collection, allowed him to study orchestral music independently.
His parents would let him practice with a snare drum while he was only a child, and by age 16, he was a drummer for a local band known as The Blackouts. Soon, Zappa would start playing the guitar, his influences mainly being American blues, soul, and funk music. After composing several orchestral and solo works, Zappa finally found his way into his first professional band ‘the Soul Giants’. He soon worked his way up to bandleader, after which he renamed the band to ‘The Mothers of Invention’. He worked with legendary producer Tom Wilson to release the band’s first album ‘Freak Out!’ in 1966. The band released its second album, ‘Absolutely Free’, in 1967. Zappa had also released an orchestral album independently (Lumpy Gravy) in 1968.
Almost all of his pieces were characterized by his atypical musical style, use of orchestral instruments, and wide use of blues, funk, and jazz music. His band released two more albums in 1968, and two more in 1970. However, after a number of setbacks, notably the event that was immortalized on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, when one of Zappa’s event venues burned down, Zappa moved on towards personal records and jazz oriented bands. During this time, he also created several record labels such as Bizarre and DiscReet, which proved crucial in funding his projects. The 1970’s was a highly prolific decade for Zappa, in which he wrote two of his most successful albums, Joe’s Garage and Apostrophe, alongside his most successful single “Don’t eat the yellow snow”.
The 200 Motels (1971) soundtrack was deemed too offensive by the Royal Albert Hall, which canceled scheduled concerts in 1975; and the song “Jewish Princess” (1979) led to Jewish calls for Zappa to apologize. These, and such events as Zappa testifying before Congress in 1985 against rock music censorship, being appointed by Czech president Václav Havel as his Cultural Liaison Officer or considering running for US president, have unfortunately been Zappa’s only real source of mainstream publicity
In the early 1980’s, Zappa released five guitar-only albums that distinguished him as a revolutionary guitar soloist. His biggest selling single, ‘Valley Girl’, was released right after this period. His final record was ‘Civilization, Phase III’ which was a major orchestral work of his.
Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991, Zappa nonetheless continued working at his Hollywood Hills home, until his death on 4 December 1993. His widow, Gail, and children Dweezil Zappa, Moon Unit Zappa, Ahmet Zappa and Diva Zappa, soon released a statement to the press that simply stated: “Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6pm Saturday.”