The Real Frank Zappa Research Node

From doo-wop to satirical hard-rock to serious classical composition, Frank Zappa has done it all. Whether it’s “Burnt Weenie Sandwich” , “Catholic Girls”, or “Jazz from HellZappa’s music has broken all barriers between comedic satire and pop music; experimental sounds and orchestral pieces. By combining his own creativity with influences such as Edgar Varese and Anton Webern, Zappa became one of the most respected, influencial, and controversial artists of the 1900’s. His involvment in the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) displayed Zappa’s strong dissent against censorship in America and his protective activism for First Amendment Rights. His greatest work (completed shortly before his death on December 4, 1993) is “The Yellow Shark” a full length orchestra composed by Frank Zappa. Frank Zappa’s innovative creativity in his music, combined with greatly differing influences and political and social activism made him much more than a musician; an American legend.

Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore on December 21, 1940 ( Frank Zappa Biography). At the age of ten, he and his family moved to California where his father worked as a meteorologist for the military who researched poisonous gases.

Zappa’s musical career began in high school as a drummer in local garage bands and the school marching band. Zappa’s life and musical tastes changed in 1954, when he read a Look Magazine story about the Sam Goody record chain, which cited its ability to sell such “weird” music as “The Complete Works of Edgar Varese, Vol. One”. When Zappa finally found a copy, he embraced its avant-garde sound. It was then that the musical mix of influences began. Zappa was just as deeply influenced by Howlin’ Wolf and the Orioles as Bach, Varese and Webern.

Zappa’s first experience with composing classical music came as a high school sophomore in an unproduced early ‘60s pop opera titled “I Was a Teenage Maltshop” (narrated by his high school friend Don Van Vliet, who later became Captain Beefheart) (Tribute to the Great Wazoo). During the early 1960's, Frank was in various small bands including: The Ramblers (Zappa on drums); The Black-Outs; The Boogie Men; Joe Perrino and the Mellotones; The Soots (w/ Captain Beefheart; Mr. Clean, The Rotations; The Soul Giants and Captain Glaspack (thank you Psuedo_Intellectual!). Zappa’s breakthrough band was the “Mothers” (“of Invention” was added later by MGM Records). The Mother’s of Invention’s first album was called “Freak Out”, which was followed by “Absolutely Free” then “We’re Only in it for the Money” which was a strong satire of the Beatles’ “Seargent Peppers Lonley Hearts Club Band” as well as the alternative lifestyle of the Mothers’ fans (Frank Zappa Biography). During the 1960’s; however, Zappa, the Mothers’ chief writer, arranger, conceptualist and leader, was growing increasingly frustrated. This transpired in 1968’s “Cruisin’ with Ruben and the Jets,” in which the Mothers assumed an alter ego celebrating what Zappa called “cretin simplicity”. However, the Mothersrecords didn’t sell well and live work was rather rare for a band with such an eccentric sound. He became increasingly unhappy with the financial losses and the musicians whom he worked with.

With the Mothers Of Invention, and later, under his own name, Zappa played “rock” in instrumentation only; however, the complexity of Zappa’s rock music equaled that of any classical orchestra. Zappa’s work during the later years with the Mothers was a wild juxtapositioning of styles providing a cushion for Zappa's satirical and biting humor (Does Humor Belong in Music).

The Mothers were disbanded in 1970, when Zappa “got tired of playing for people who clap for all the wrong reasons” (Frank Zappa Biography). And while there had always been much caustic wit in his lyrics, ''Road Ladies'' (released in 1970) began a string of scatologically humorous songs that would lead many critics and to dismiss his work. Among these songs were “Dinah-Moe Humm” (about a woman who claimed she couldn't reach orgasm), “Illinois Enema Bandit”, and 1974’s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (Hall of Records). During this time period, Zappa’s reputation dwindled in the eyes of many to the level of a “fringe artist” who wrote perverse songs; however, his critics often failed to acknowledge the musical talent behind the “dirty” lyrics. On the other hand, “Don’t eat the Yellow Snow” turned out to be Zappa’s first hit single after a radio DJ cut it from 10 minutes to three and played it on the air). By the late 70’s and early 80’s Zappa’s style began to shy away from the scatological humor in albums such as “Joe’s Garage” (which was a musical narration of certain homosexual activities), and moved more toward intellectually questioning the nature of musical criticism and modern culture (such as the album “Does Humor Belong in Music?”, released in 1986)(The Real Frank Zappa Homepage). Zappa’s few “hits” during this time included: 1979’s “Dancin’ Fool” satirizing disco, and 1982’s “Valley Girl” which satirized California’s shopping mall culture (which included the voice of his then-14-year-old daughter, Moon Unit)(The Real Frank Zappa Homepage).

Zappa’s social and political involvment came to a head in the late 80’s when he took a strong stance against the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) led by Tipper Gore. This organization was lead by wives of congressman and senators, and aspired to have all music albums rated by a board or censors (appointed by the PMRC), and/or have the album’s lyrics printed on the outside cover. In 1985 Zappa spoke before Congress against the PMRC. His speech was brilliant in it’s allusions to other types of censorship and suppression of freedom and creativity. At one point Zappa proposed the question: “What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow "J" on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?” (Civilization, Phase III).

In September of 1992, Zappa recorded one of his most successful, creative and respected musical ventures. Through a connection with Andreas Mollich-Zebhauser, Zappa was introduced to a contemporary music group called Ensemble Modern (EM). Zappa had worked with other orchestras such as the London and Los Angeles Philharmonics; however, many of the projects had gone awry due to inadequate rehearsal, restrictive union policies, or politics. But despite his bad experiences in dealing with orchestras, Zappa agreed to work with the EM after hearing a them play pieces by Kurt Weill and Helmut Lechenmann. The project began in July of 1991 when the EM flew to L.A. at it’s own expense to rehearse with Zappa, their composer. Unlike his past experiences with orchestras, Zappa was pleased with the Ensemble member’s attitudes and motivation during rehearsals (The Yellow Shark).

Zappa then sampled each of the eighteen players range of sounds, then programmed them into his Synclavier (an electronic instrument that aides the composition of music) (Synclavier). Using this method, Zappa could compose and hear pieces of music that would be extremely difficult for an actual human musician to play (The Yellow Shark).

Frank Zappa, whether as a rock musician, a political defender of First Amendment Rights, or a classical composer has influenced American culture in innumerable ways. For example, The Mothers of Invention’s first album “Freak Out” was the first double album ever made. To many, Zappa remains an experimenter, a "fringe artist," or worse, "60's drug music” Zappa's mentor, Edgar Varese, summed it up when he broke free of all stereotype and called himself "One-all alone” (Tribute to the Great Wazoo). Zappa was precisely that, an individual; an individual who’s vast knowledge of many different genres of music and unwillingness to allow his (or any other recording artists) work to be mindlessly censored led him to become a true American legend.

If you notice any mistakes, whether they be factual or gramatical, please leave me a write up and I will make then necessary changes.