Frank Zappa – Music Biography

Frank Zappa

“I think it’s really tragic when people get serious about stuff. It’s such an absurdity to take anything really seriously … I make an honest attempt not to take anything seriously: I worked that attitude out about the time I was eighteen, I mean, what does it all mean when you get right down to it, what’s the story here? Being alive is so weird.”
– as quoted in No Commercial Potential : The Saga of Frank Zappa (1972) by David Walley

“…It didn’t make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin’ Slim, or a vocal group called the Jewels… or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music.”
– from “The Real Frank Zappa Book” (co-written with Peter Occhiogrosso – 1989)

Frank Zappa was born on December 21, 1940 in Baltimore. His family moved around quite a bit when he was young owing to his father’s work in the defense industry as a mathematician and a chemist. After a stint at a chemical warfare facility in Maryland, the Zappas moved to California, living in Monterey, Claremont and El Cajon before arriving in San Diego.

When he was twelve he got a snare drum and began studies in orchestral percussion. In high school, his parents bought him a record player and he collected albums of all kinds, from R&B to doo-wop to modern jazz as well as the Latino music of San Diego. Reading an article in Look Magazine which mentioned in passing an obscure record called “The Complete Works of Edgar Varèse, Volume 1.” Intrigued by the description of Varèse’s music (one composition being called “a weird jumble of drums and unpleasant sounds”), Zappa searched for the album for more than a year and soon found himself immersed in listening to modern classical pieces as well.

His mother encouraged his musical interests, so much so that for his fifteenth birthday, she gave her son the money for a long distance phone call to his idol, Varèse. Unfortunately he was not at home, but Zappa spoke to the composer’s wife and later received a letter from Varèse, thanking him for the call and going into details of a piece he was currently working on. Zappa had the letter framed and it was one his treasured possessions.

By the time Zappa was sixteen, his family had moved to Lancaster, a small town in the Antelope Valley of the Mojave Desert. In high school, he played drums for the Blackouts, a local band. He also became good friends with Don Vliet, who would later be known to the world as “Captain Beefheart.” And in 1957, Zappa received his very first guitar. By the time of his graduation, he was composing, arranging and even conducting his own original modern classical pieces with the high school orchestra. After school, he moved to Los Angeles’ Echo Park and tried to make a living musically as a composer and arranger.

“The rock and roll business is pretty absurd, but the world of serious music is much worse.”
– from the September 24, 1984 interview on London Plus

During the early 1960s, Zappa managed to make some money through composing film scores, as well as writing and producing various local artists, particularly Ray Collins, a singer/songwriter. He would spend half his day recording and experimenting in the studio and much of the other half performing – usually playing guitar in a power trio called The Muthers in local bars. Through Collins, he accepted the chance to be guitarist of The Soul Giants, a regional R&B group. Zappa eventually became leader of the group and, convincing the other members to start performing his own originals, the band began to get notice in Los Angeles’ underground rock scene.

The Soul Giants rechristened themselves The Mothers. In 1966, they caught the ear of Tom Wilson, who had made a name for himself producing records for Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. Wilson signed the group to Verve Records, who had been big in modern jazz and were seeking to expand into the rock market. Verve insisted that the group change its name and suggested “The Mothers Auxiliary.” Zappa countered with “The Mothers of Invention.”

“On a personal level, Freaking Out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole.”
– Original liner notes for the album Freak Out!

The band’s first effort, Freak Out! was the first rock album ever released as a two-disc set as well as being one of the very first double-disc rock albums (Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde being released the week before!). Musically, the album reflects much of Zappa’s early influences in its melding of raw R&B, blues-rock and doo-wop with both symphonic and avant garde sound collages. Although Freak Out! made a respectable showing, hitting Number 130 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, it really made a big splash in Europe – so much so that its influence could be heard in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released almost exactly a year later.

Oddly enough, while many listeners and critics saw The Mothers of Invention’s music as drug inspired, Zappa himself not only didn’t take drugs, but also had little regard for those who did. His satirical look on life took on corporate America as well as the 60s’ hippie counterculture. The band’s third album, We’re Only in It for the Money, a scathing attack on both right and left-wing politics, peaked at Number 30 on Billboard.

“A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians.”
– from “The Real Frank Zappa Book” (co-written with Peter Occhiogrosso – 1989)

In the studio, the composer and arranger in Zappa was setting the industry bar in terms of audio editing and production. In the 1969 release, Uncle Meat, he patched together songs from different studio takes as well as live concert recordings of The Mothers of Invention. This approach was possible, in part, on his insistence as band leader on strict observation of timing as well as precision tuning for each member of the band. Along with Herb Cohen, Zappa formed Straight Records, where he produced Trout Mask Replica for his good friend Captain Beefheart.

Despite The Mothers of Invention’s popularity overseas, their financial success in the States was close to nonexistent. Essentially, Zappa’s royalties and income from other projects was funding the band whether they gigged or not. He broke up the group in the last half of 1969, and soon after released the solo album, Hot Rats, featuring primarily jazz-influenced instrumental pieces, including the stunning guitar piece “Peaches en Regalia.”

In 1970, Zappa reformed a new Mothers of Invention (usually dropping the “of Invention” whenever possible). They toured and released two albums in 1971 – Fillmore East -June1971 and Just Another Band from L.A. At their December show at Montreux, Switzerland, someone in the audience set off a flare which burned the whole venue down, including the band’s equipment. Then, at a London show a few weeks later (using rented equipment), Zappa was attacked onstage by a member of the audience who pushed the bandleader off the stage and into the orchestra pit. Zappa suffered head trauma, numerous fractures and a crushed larynx.

During his layoff from touring, Zappa recorded and released two jazz albums using various studio musicians as well as former Mothers band members. His 1974 album Apostrophe reached Number 10 on Billboard’s album charts and continued to demand precision playing from his ever-changing band. In 1979 he released his two biggest selling albums – Sheik Yerbouti in March and Joe’s Garage – Act 1 in September.

In 1981 Zappa released three instrumental albums, each highlighting his talent as a guitar soloist. Taken from various live recordings from live shows in 1979 and 1980, the various Shut Up “˜N Play Yer Guitar albums were originally meant to be sold via mail order but they proved so popular that record stores had to make sure they were on hand to sell.

But while his guitar work and live performances were thrilling many, Zappa also did a lot of work during the 1980s working with the Synclavier, a programmable digital synthesizer and sampler. Through the latest technology, it was possible to create any combination of instruments and to work out their assigned notes to the millisecond. His 1986 album, Jazz from Hell, with the exception of one live guitar solo, was entirely done on the Synclavier and it earned Zappa his first Grammy award.

Zappa developed prostate cancer and spent most of his remaining time on Synclavier and modern classical orchestral pieces. He conducted Germany’s Ensemble Modern at a Frankfurt concert featuring a number of his works in September 1992. He received a twenty-minute ovation.

“Everything on this planet has something to do with music.”
– Interview with Oui Magazine (1979)