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Frank Zappa


Frank Zappa Biography
Frank Zappa


Born Frank Vincent Zappa, 21 December 1940, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 4 December 1993, Los Angeles, California, USA. Zappa's parents were second-generation Sicilian Greeks; his father played "strolling crooner' guitar. At the age of 12 Frank, who had relocated to California with his family, became interested in drums, learning orchestral percussion at summer school in Monterey. He played drums in a local R&B band called the Ramblers, and after moving to Lancaster formed the racially-integrated Black-Outs. Early exposure to a record of Ionisation by avant garde classical composer Edgard VarŠse instilled an interest in advanced rhythmic experimentation that never left him. The electric guitar also became a fascination, and he began collecting R&B records that featured guitar solos: Howlin" Wolf with Hubert Sumlin, Muddy Waters, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown were special favourites. A school friend, Don Vliet (later to become Captain Beefheart), shared his interest.

In 1964 Zappa, who had been working in a local studio, recording spoof doo-wop singles and composing scores for b-movies, joined a local R&B outfit called the Soul Giants, whose line-up included vocalist Ray Collins (Born 19 November 1937, USA), bass player Roy Estrada (Born 17 April 1943, USA), and drummer Jimmy Carl Black (Born 1 February 1938, El Paso, Texas, USA). Zappa changed their name to the Mothers, but "Of Invention" was later added at the insistence of their label, Verve Records. A string of guitarists came and went, including Alice Stuart and Henry Vestine, before Elliott Ingber was added to the line-up. Produced by Tom Wilson in 1966, the late black producer whose credits included Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Bob Dylan, the Mothers Of Invention's Freak Out! was a stunning debut, a two-record set complete with a whole side of wild percussion, a vitriolic protest song, "Trouble Every Day", and the kind of minute detail (sleeve-notes, in-jokes, parodies) that generate instant cult appeal. They made great play of their hair and ugliness, becoming the perfect counter-cultural icons. Unlike the east coast band the Fugs, the Mothers were also musically skilled, a refined instrument for Zappa's eclectic and imaginative ideas. Ingber left to form the Fraternity Of Man before the recording of the band's second album, Absolutely Free. He was replaced for a short period by Jim Fielder, before Zappa chose to expand the Mothers Of Invention with the addition of second drummer Billy Mundi, keyboardist Don Preston (Born 21 September 1932, USA), and horn players Bunk Gardner and Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood.

Tours and releases followed, including Absolutely Free, the solo Lumpy Gravy and We're Only In It For The Money, (with its brilliant parody of the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band record cover) a scathing satire on hippiedom and the reactions to it in the USA, and a notable appearance at the Royal Albert Hall in London (documented on the compulsive Uncle Meat). In stark contrast, Cruising With Ruben & The Jets paid excellent homage to the doo-wop era. British fans were particularly impressed with Hot Rats, a solo Zappa record that ditched the sociological commentary for barnstorming jazz-rock, blistering guitar solos, the extravagant "Peaches En Regalia" and a cameo appearance by Captain Beefheart on "Willie The Pimp".

Collins had quit in April 1968, and the Mothers Of Invention would eventually disintegrate the following August. Both Uncle Meat and Hot Rats appeared on Zappa's own Bizarre Records label which, together with his other outlet Straight Records, released a number of highly regarded albums that were nevertheless commercial flops. Artists to benefit from Zappa's patronage included the GTOs, Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley. Captain Beefheart's indispensable Zappa-produced classic, Trout Mask Replica, was also released on Straight. Eager to gain a "heavier" image than the band that had brought them fame, the Turtles' singers Mark Volman (Born 19 April 1947, Los Angeles, California, USA) and Howard Kaylan (Born Howard Kaplan, 22 June 1947, the Bronx, New York City, New York, USA), aka Flo And Eddie, joined up with Zappa for the movie 200 Motels and three further albums. The newly re-christened Mothers now included George Duke (Born 12 January 1946, San Rafael, California, USA; keyboards, trombone), Ian Underwood (keyboards, saxophone), Aynsley Dunbar (Born 10 January 1946, Liverpool, England; drums), and Jeff Simmons (bass, vocals), although the latter was quickly replaced by Jim Pons (Born 14 March 1943, Santa Monica, California, USA). Live At The Fillmore East, June 1971 included some intentionally outrageous subject matter prompting inevitable criticism from conservative observers.

1971 was not a happy year for Zappa: on 4 December fire destroyed the band's equipment while they were playing at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland (an event commemorated in Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water") and six days later Zappa was pushed off-stage at London's Rainbow theatre, crushing his larynx (lowering his voice a third), damaging his spine and keeping him wheelchair-bound for the best part of a year. He spent 1972 developing an extraordinary new species of big band fusion (Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo), working with top west coast session musicians. However, he found these excellent players dull touring companions, and decided to dump the "jazztette" for an electric band. Over-Nite Sensation announced fusion-chops, salacious lyrics and driving rhythms. The live band featured an extraordinary combination of jazz-based swing and a rich, sonorous rock that probably only Zappa (with his interest in modern classical music) could achieve. Percussion virtuoso Ruth Underwood, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, featured in the King Kong project, and keyboard player Duke shone in this context. Apostrophe (") showcased Zappa's talents as a story-teller in the Lord Buckley tradition, and also (in the title-track) featured a jam with bass player Jack Bruce: it reached number 10 in the Billboard chart in June 1974. Roxy & Elsewhere caught the band live, negotiating diabolically hard musical notation - "Echidna's Arf (Of You)" and "Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen's Church)" - with infectious good humour. One Size Fits All, an under-acknowledged masterpiece, built up extraordinary multi-tracked textures. "Andy" was a song about b-movie cowboys, while "Florentine Pogen" and "Inca Roads" were complex extended pieces.

In 1975, Captain Beefheart joined Zappa for a tour and despite an earlier rift, sang on Bongo Fury, both reuniting in disgust over the USA's bicentennial complacency. Zoot Allures in 1976 was principally a collaboration between Zappa and drummer Terry Bozzio, with Zappa overdubbing most of the instruments himself. He was experimenting with what he termed "xenochronicity" (combining unrelated tracks to create a piece of non-synchronous music) and produced intriguing results on "Friendly Little Finger". The title track took the concept of sleaze guitar onto a new level (as did the orgasmic moaning of "The Torture Never Stops"), while "Black Napkins" was an incomparable vehicle for Zappa's guitar work. If Zoot Allures now reads like a response to punk, Zappa was not to forsake large-scale rock showbiz. A series of concerts in New York in late 1976 had a wildly excited crowd applauding tales of singles bars, devil encounters and stunning Brecker Brothers virtuosity (recorded as Live In New York). This album was part of the fall-out from Zappa's break-up with Warner Brothers Records, who put out three excellent instrumental albums with "non-authorized covers" (adopted, strangely enough, by Zappa for his CD re-releases): Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favourites. The punk-obsessed rock press did not know what to make of music that parodied Miklos Rozsa, crossed jazz with cartoon scores, guyed rock 'n' roll hysteria and stretched fusion into the twenty-first century. Undaunted by still being perceived as a hippie, which he clearly was not (We're Only In It For The Money had said the last word on the Summer Of Love while it was happening!), Zappa continued to tour.

His guitar-playing seemed to expand into a new dimension: "Yo' Mama' on 1979"s Sheik Yerbouti was a taste of the extravaganzas to come. In Ike Willis, Zappa found a vocalist who understood his required combination of emotional detachment and intimacy, and featured him extensively on the three volumes of Joe's Garage. After the mid-70s interest in philosophical concepts and band in-jokes, the music became more political. Tinseltown Rebellion and You Are What You Is commented on the growth of the fundamentalist Right. Zappa had a hit in 1982 with "Valley Girl", which featured his daughter Moon Unit satirizing the accents of young moneyed Hollywood people. That same year saw him produce and introduce a New York concert of music by VarŠse. The title track of Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch indicated that Zappa's interest in extended composition was not waning; this was confirmed by the release of a serious orchestral album recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1983. Zappa was quite outrageously prolific in 1984: renowned French composer Pierre Boulez conducted Zappa's work on The Perfect Stranger; he released a rock album Them Or Us, which widened still further the impact of his scurrilously inventive guitar; Thing-Fish was a "Broadway musical" about AIDS, homophobia and racism; and he unearthed an eighteenth-century composer named Francesco Zappa and recorded his work on a synclavier. The following year's Does Humor Belong In Music? and Meets The Mothers Of Prevention were effective responses to the rise of powerful censor groups in America. Jazz From Hell presented wordless compositions for synclavier that drew inspiration from the expatriate American experimentalist composer Conlon Nancarrow.

Zappa's next big project materialized in 1988: a 12-piece band playing covers, instrumentals and a brace of new political songs (collected respectively as Broadway The Hard Way, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, and Make A Jazz Noise Here). After rehearsing for three months the power and precision of the band were breathtaking, but they broke up during their first tour. As well as the retrospective series You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Zappa released his most popular bootlegs in two instalments as part of his "Beat The Boots" campaign. In Czechoslovakia, where he had long been a hero of the cultural underground, he was appointed as the country's Cultural Liaison Officer with the West. In 1991 he announced he would be standing as an independent candidate in the 1992 US presidential election (almost immediately he received several death threats!), but in November his daughter confirmed reports that he was suffering from cancer of the prostate. In May 1993 Zappa, clearly weak from intensive chemotherapy, announced that he was fast losing the battle as it had spread into his bones. He succumbed to the disease seven months later.

In 1995, a remarkable reissue programme was undertaken by Rykodisc Records in conjunction with Gail Zappa. The entire catalogue of over 50 albums was remastered and re-packaged with loving care. Rykodisc deserve the highest praise for this bold move. In 2003 Dweezil Zappa promised more unreleased material from the vaults of his father as he took over as the family archivist. Viewed in perspective, Zappa's career reveals a perfectionist using only the highest standards of musicianship and the finest recording methods. The reissued CDs highlight the extraordinary quality of the original master tapes and Zappa's idealism. Additionally, he is now rightly seen as one of the great guitar players of our time. Although much of his oeuvre can easily be dismissed as flippant, history will certainly recognize Zappa as a sophisticated, serious composer and a highly accomplished master of music. This musical genius never ceased to astonish, both as a musician and composer: on the way, he produced a towering body of work that is probably rock music's closest equivalent to the legacy of Duke Ellington. The additional fact that he did it all with an amazing sense of humour should be regarded as a positive bonus.


with The Mothers Of Invention Freak Out! (Verve 1966)****, with The Mothers Of Invention Absolutely Free (Verve 1967)****, with The Mothers Of Invention We're Only In It For The Money (Verve 1968)****, Lumpy Gravy (Verve 1968)****, with The Mothers Of Invention Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (Verve 1968)***, with The Mothers Of Invention Uncle Meat (Bizarre 1969)****, Hot Rats (Bizarre 1969)****, with The Mothers Of Invention Burnt Weeny Sandwich (Bizarre 1970)***, with The Mothers Of Invention Weasels Ripped My Flesh (Bizarre 1970)****, Chunga's Revenge (Bizarre 1970)****, with The Mothers Fillmore East, June 1971 (Bizarre 1971)***, Frank Zappa's 200 Motels (United Artists 1971)**, with The Mothers Just Another Band From L.A. (Bizarre 1972)***, Waka/Jawaka (Bizarre 1972)***, with The Mothers The Grand Wazoo (Bizarre 1972)***, with The Mothers Over-Nite Sensation (DiscReet 1973)***, Apostrophe (") (DiscReet 1974)****, with The Mothers Roxy & Elsewhere (DiscReet 1974)***, with The Mothers Of Invention One Size Fits All (DiscReet 1975)****, with Captain Beefheart Bongo Fury (DiscReet 1975)***, Zoot Allures (Warners 1976)****, Zappa In New York (DiscReet 1978)***, Studio Tan (DiscReet 1978)***, Sleep Dirt (DiscReet 1979)**, Sheik Yerbouti (Zappa 1979)****, Orchestral Favorites (DiscReet 1979)***, Joe's Garage Act I (Zappa 1979)****, Joe's Garage Acts II & III (Zappa 1979)****, Tinseltown Rebellion (Barking Pumpkin 1981)****, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (Zappa 1981)***, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More (Zappa 1981)***, Return Of The Son Of Shut Up "N Play Yer Guitar (Zappa 1981)***, You Are What You Is (Barking Pumpkin 1981)***, Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (Barking Pumpkin 1982)***, Baby Snakes (Barking Pumpkin 1982)***, The Man From Utopia (Barking Pumpkin 1983)***, Baby Snakes film soundtrack (Barking Pumpkin 1983)**, The London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I (Barking Pumpkin 1983)****, Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (Angel 1984)***, Them Or Us (Barking Pumpkin 1984)***, Thing-Fish (Barking Pumpkin 1984)****, Francesco Zappa (Barking Pumpkin 1984)***, Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (Barking Pumpkin/EMI 1985)***, Does Humor Belong In Music? (EMI 1986)***, Jazz From Hell (Barking Pumpkin 1986)***, London Symphony Orchestra Vol. II (Barking Pumpkin 1987)***, Guitar (Barking Pumpkin 1988)***, Broadway The Hard Way (Barking Pumpkin 1988)***, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (Barking Pumpkin 1991)****, Make A Jazz Noise Here (Barking Pumpkin 1991)***, with The Mothers Of Invention Ahead Of Their Time 1968 live recording (Barking Pumpkin 1993)***, with Ensemble Modern The Yellow Shark (Barking Pumpkin 1993)***, Civilization Phaze III (Barking Pumpkin 1994)***, Everything Is Healing Nicely 1991 recording (Barking Pumpkin 1999)***, Fz Oz: Frank Zappa Live In Australia 1976 recording (Ranch Life 2002)**, Halloween 1978 recording (DTS 2003)***.

Beat The Boots I: with The Mothers Of Invention "Tis The Season To Be Jelly 1967 recording (Foo-Eee 1991)***, with The Mothers Of Invention The Ark 1969 recording (Foo-Eee 1991)***, Freaks And Motherf*#@%! 1970 recordings (Foo-Eee 1991)***, with The Mothers Piquantique 1973/1974 recordings (Foo-Eee 1991)***, Unmitigated Audacity 1974 recording (Foo-Eee 1991)***, Saarbrcken 1978 (Foo-Eee 1991)***, Anyway The Wind Blows 1979 recording (Foo-Eee 1991)***, As An Am 1981/1982 recordings (Foo-Eee 1991)***.

Beat The Boots II: Disconnected Synapses 1970 recording (Foo-Eee 1992)***, Tengo Na Minchia Tanta 1970 recordings (Foo-Eee 1992)***, Electric Aunt Jemima 1968 recordings (Foo-Eee 1992)***, At The Circus 1978 recording (Foo-Eee 1992)***, Swiss Cheese/Fire! 1971 recordings (Foo-Eee 1992)***, Our Man In Nirvana 1968 recording (Foo-Eee 1992)***, Conceptual Continuity 1976 recording (Foo-Eee 1992)***.


with The Mothers Of Invention Mothermania: The Best Of The Mothers (Verve 1969)***, The Old Masters Box One (Barking Pumpkin 1985)***, The Old Masters Box Two (Barking Pumpkin 1986)***, The Old Masters Box Three (Barking Pumpkin 1987)***, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 1 (Rykodisc 1988)****, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2: The Helsinki Concert (Rykodisc 1988)****, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3 (Rykodisc 1989)****, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4 (Rykodisc 1991)****, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5 (Rykodisc 1992)****, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6 (Rykodisc 1992)****, with The Mothers Of Invention Playground Psychotics 1970/1971 recordings (Barking Pumpkin 1992)***, Strictly Commercial: The Best Of Frank Zappa (Rykodisc 1995)***, The Lost Episodes (Rykodisc 1996)***, L„ther (Rykodisc 1996)****, Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute (Barking Pumpkin 1996)***, Have I Offended Someone? (Rykodisc 1997)***, Strictly Genteel: A Classical Introduction To Frank Zappa (Rykodisc 1997)***, Cheap Thrills (Rykodisc 1998)***, Cucamonga (Del-Fi 1998)**, Mystery Disc (Rykodisc 1998)**, Son Of Cheep Thrills (Rykodisc 1999)**, Zappa Picks: By Larry LaLonde Of Primus (Rykodisc 2002)***, Zappa Picks: By Jon Fishman Of Phish (Rykodisc 2002)***, For Collectors Only (Pure Gold 2003)**. The entire reissued official catalogue is currently available on Rykodisc.


The Dub Room Special (Barking Pumpkin 1982), Frank Zappa's 200 Motels (Warner Home Video 1984), Does Humor Belong In Music? (MPI Home Video 1985), The Amazing Mr. Bickford (MPI/Honker Home Video 1987), Video From Hell (Honker Home Video 1987), Uncle Meat: The Mothers Of Invention Movie (Barfko-Swill 1987), Baby Snakes (Honker Home Video 1987), The True Story Of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels (Barfko-Swill 1989).


Frank Zappa: Over Het Begin En Het Einde Van De Progressieve Popmuziek, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser. No Commercial Potential: The Saga Of Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, David Walley. Frank Zappa Et Les Mothers Of Invention, Alain Dister. No Commercial Potential: The Saga Of Frank Zappa Then And Now, David Walley. Zappalog The First Step Of Zappology, Norbert Obermanns. Them Or Us (The Book), Frank Zappa. Mother! The Story Of Frank Zappa, Michael Gray. Viva Zappa, Dominique Chevalier. Zappa: A Biography, Julian Colbeck. The Real Frank Zappa Book, Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso. Frank Zappa: A Visual Documentary, Miles (ed.). Frank Zappa In His Own Words, Miles. Mother! The Frank Zappa Story, Michael Gray. Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play, Ben Watson. Being Frank: My Time With Frank Zappa, Nigey Lennon. Zappa: Electric Don Quixote, Neil Slaven. Frank Zappa: A Strictly Genteel Genius, Ben Cruickshank. Cosmik Debris: The Collected History And Improvisations Of Frank Zappa, Greg Russo. Necessity Is ... The Early Years Of Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, Billy James. Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World Of Zappa, Kevin Courrier. Zappa In France, Christian Rose & Philippe Thieyre. Frank Zappa, Barry Miles.


Head (1968), 200 Motels (1971), Baby Snakes (1979).

Source: Encyclopedia of Popular Music
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