Sjef Oellers 19-March-2001 overview


Frank Zappa seems to be a controversial personality in every branch of music, even in progressive rock. What possibly disappoints some progressive rock listeners is the lack of stylistic continuity in his career and even on individual albums, where he may use almost any musical style he sees fit. He considered almost any musical style fodder for integration in the greater scheme of his compositional interests: pop, soul, doo-wop, funk, blues, rock & roll, and surf music, are all integrated or juxtaposed with electronic music, free jazz, and modern classical music (composers like Varese, Stockhausen, and Stravinsky are clear influences).

Obviously Zappa is not striving for stylistic continuity on his albums, but a phrase that pops up regularly when discussing his output is "conceptual continuity". To get a grip on this term, it might be necessary to listen to at least 10 albums of his work. Conceptual continuity occurs in both lyrical and musical contexts. For example, two of his main lyrical topics are the unpleasant facets of the music industry and the mind-narrowing conditions set by our bourgeois society in general. On most of his albums you hear both themes discussed in endless variations, often with a large dose of sarcasm. The musical continuity is a very interesting feature as well: basically, Zappa recaptures and reinvents his own music continually. Themes, riffs, melodies, etc., evolve during the course of his work. A melody might pop up 10 albums later, but the phrasing is completely different or the musical context has changed: a riff for electric guitar may be transformed into a theme for orchestra for example. Sometimes musical themes are changed beyond recognition and it requires careful listening to retrace the origins. Despite his unrelenting creativity and his urge to forge new musical pathways, his conceptual continuity and unique style of arranging make the work immediately recognizable as Zappa-esque.

Note that in the discussion below, no distinction is made between titles released as Frank Zappa "solo" albums, or albums released under the banner of his band, the Mothers of Invention.

The debut by the Mothers of Invention, Freak Out, is a landmark album. Several features set it apart from most everything else released at the time: musically it is an original mixture of pop/rock music forms and weird experimental music, the vicious liner notes are full of sarcastic humor including a funny band biography, vile track descriptions, and two sets of hilarious "relevant notes". Additionally, Freak Out was one of the earliest double LP's put on the market, underscoring the ambitious nature of the album. It starts with "Hungry Freaks Daddy", psychedelic rock with biting commentary on American society and politics. The first disc contains fairly straight tunes of 50s bubble gum pop, psychedelic rock, tear-jerkers with hilarious lyrics, etc. Nevertheless, disorienting bridges and strange interludes hint at what's yet to come. Also of interest is the use of orchestration on some tracks. The scorching "Trouble Every Day" with a raunchy guitar riff and lyrics about racial segregation in the USA is of such directness that it must have been shocking at the time. Then things get really weird. Two long experimental tracks of electronic manipulation, dissonance, strange interruptions and disturbing vocal sections must have left most listeners disgusted and puzzled, while doubtlessly delighting a few "oddballs" along the way. Though his music had yet to fully crystallize, Freak Out remains a major achievement and one of the defining works in avant-garde rock music.

The follow-up, Absolutely Free, is a more coherent album, unfolding like a long suite divided in numerous segments. Its avant-garde elements are integrated throughout, blurring the line between avant-garde and 50s pop, psychedelic rock, blues, etc. The classic "Plastic People", opens the album like a perfected version of "Hungary Freaks Daddy", where avant-garde and pop/rock are combined wonderfully with even more biting lyrics than before. After that, Zappa takes us on a rollercoaster of styles and musical experiments, with lyrics both cynical and funny. The album reaches a climax at the end with "Brown Shoes Don't Make It", a miniature avant-garde rock opera that has to be heard to be believed. Absolutely Free is the highlight of the early "vocal-oriented" Mothers of Invention albums, and as such is a supreme classic. The following albums, We're Only In It For The Money and Lumpy Gravy, more or less continue in the style of Absolutely Free, although the use of orchestration becomes more prominent.

The end of this first stage in the Mothers of Invention's development is Uncle Meat, another double LP. Uncle Meat sums up the achievements of this period while at the same showcasing the new direction Zappa would take on subsequent albums, signified by the sidelong free jazz rock freak out "King Kong". Significantly, around this time most of the musicians that played on the previous albums were replaced by new musicians, and vocals have been reduced while jazz influences became more obvious. Some of Zappa's signature tunes can be found here in its nucleus: "A Pound For The Brown On The Bus", "Cruising For Burgers", "Sleeping In A Jar". During live concerts from 1968-1970, these short tracks were often extended to fantastic 10 to 30 minute jams, best heard on bootlegs re-released on CD by Zappa himself. Some of the interesting bootlegs include Disconnected Synapses, Our Man In Nirvana, The Ark and Electric Aunt Jemina (sound quality is generally mediocre but bearable ).

Directly after Uncle Meat, Zappa released the solo album Hot Rats. Especially at the beginning of his career, it seems that solo albums were used as proving grounds for new musicians and musical directions; hence, the only regular Mothers member playing here is Ian Underwood. The album is almost completely instrumental except for an impressive, short vocal appearance by Captain Beefheart. Zappa surprises with more accessible, yet equally fabulous, instrumental rock music with strong jazz influences. "Peaches En Regalia" and "Son of Mr. Green Genes" are two superb examples of melodic instrumental rock. The former basically puts a circus-like melody in a progressive rock context without sounding cheesy or over-ambitious. "Willie The Pimp" starts with the thundering voice of Captain Beefheart over heavy guitar rock, but the track is basically a vehicle for some fantastic extended guitar soloing by Zappa. Another superb album and arguably one of the best places to start for progressive rock listeners.

Zappa released several other albums in the 1968-1970 period, often including shortened excerpts from their concert recordings. Weasels Ripped My Flesh contains several experimental compositions with distinct free jazz elements, as well as a straight blues song, a shortened version of the great instrumental jazz rocker, "Orange County Lumber Truck", and the excellent rock song "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mamma" (note the superb bridge in the middle). The album Chunga's Revenge is equally diverse, with experimental jazz rock, a blues rock song, and even Zappa pop on "Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink", but its general emphasis is on rockier songs. Both albums are good, but they pale next to another album from that period called Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Here you will find a holy grail of experimental rock: Stravinsky-influenced chamber music slips into a circus-like melody, followed by a wah wah guitar solo, all enlivened by some dissonance and interesting use of percussion. The beautiful "Holiday In Berlin-Full Blown" is a typical Zappa song where the unlikely combination of classical style piano playing, jazzy saxophone, varied use of percussion, circus melodies, and rock guitar soloing, fits together seamlessly. Side one ends with an inventive and beautiful piano piece. The other album side is dominated by the 19 minute "Little House I Used To Live In", which has all the elements of "Holiday In Berlin-Full Blown", but in an extended, much heavier jamming mode. It opens with a beautiful section for solo piano and slips into a great prog rock theme (as a rough comparison think of the Italian art rock bands of the 70s). The main theme is repeated with several variations before a great violin solo sets in. Several other instruments get solo space before another variation of the main theme returns before closing with an organ freak out. The excellent instrumental music on Burnt Weeny Sandwich is sandwiched between a Zappa-ish doo wop pop song "WPLJ", and a tear-jerker "Valarie". These diversions into straight pop and rock seem to put off a lot of progressive rock listeners, but I think Zappa used these songs as levity to strike a balance with the ambitious nature of the rest of the music. Additionally, Zappa genuinely liked doo wop, blues, R&B, etc. Overall, a fabulous album.

The following stage in Zappa's career was 200 Motels, the soundtrack of the mediocre movie directed by Zappa himself. 200 Motels is a double album where Zappa presents himself more than ever as a composer of contemporary classical music. Although the album contains some excellent music, I find it too uneven over the course of 4 LP sides. Around the same time, two live albums were released: the excellent Live at the Fillmore, June 1971, with a good mix of vocal and instrumental tracks, and Just Another Band From LA, which is just OK and a bit spoiled by the much too long "Billy The Mountain". Vocal sections dominate on this album.

After the two live albums, Zappa made two excellent studio albums of orchestrated, mostly instrumental jazz rock, with a new Mothers line up. Both albums, Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, are often compared to Hot Rats, but the more elaborate use of orchestration sets them apart. Both are recommended although I slightly prefer Waka Jawaka.

Again, Zappa gathered a new band line-up around him, and subsequent albums showed a change towards a more accessible and funky style of playing, but the music was still outstanding. Apostrophe, Overnight Sensation, Roxy And Elsewhere, Live in New York, and One Size Fits All, all show superb musicianship with both excellent interplay and soloing, a good balance between instrumental and vocal sections and the typical funny lyrics. All albums mentioned are recommended.

Around 1975 - 1976, Zappa recorded two mediocre albums. Bongo Fury is a failed cooperation between Zappa and Captain Beefheart. While not completely without merits, it is substandard for both artists, with very few hints of the magnificence found on their earlier output. Zappa also released Zoot Allures, a solo album with a new band of very young, talented musicians. Here Zappa presents accessible rock music with an emphasis on his guitar playing. Despite a few good compositions the album as a whole is rather inconsistent in quality and seems rather uninspired.

In the late 70s Zappa regained his inspiration. He was working on a large three to four album project that did not materialize because of conflicts between him and the record company. The material of this period was released in the late 70s by the record company as three single albums without Zappa's permission. Nevertheless, one of the albums, the mostly instrumental Sleep Dirt, is another fine album. Thankfully, the original concept was released in 1996 as a triple CD under the name Lšther. Lšther is another good introduction to his work encompassing the usual variety of styles and arrangements going from neo-classical music, to intricate instrumental jazz-influenced music, to straight rock songs, plus a wealth of lyrical comedy and/or criticism. [Note that the Lšther CD box-set includes almost all the material of those three unauthorized albums from the 70s, though most tracks have different arrangements].

In 1979 Zappa released the trilogy Joe's Garage, a concept album focusing on the nasty sides of the music business. One of the central features on the album is the cybervoice of the "Central Scrutinizer", who is something like the head of the censorship department in an imaginary parable on what could happen to you if you are involved in state-threatening activities such as making music (Zappa points out in the liner notes that this was actually "real life" in Iran at that time). Joe's Garage discusses censorship, the Orwellian society, groupies, "life on the road" and a wealth of other topics with the usual cynical humor and spot-on observations. The music is of deceptive accessibility, but is much more inspired and refined than on an album like Zoot Allures. At the end of the trilogy, Zappa's guitar playing comes in the spotlight once more. The next album, Sheik Yerbouti, is rather similar in style to Joe's Garage, but overall less engaging. The music remains fairly accessible, but as always, Zappa's band shows outstanding musicianship. Another recommended album from this period is You Are What You Is.

From 1981 onwards, his music seems to suffer from a chronic lack of inspiration, which would make the 80s his least valuable musical decade. It is probably fair to say that his most experimental phase of recording lies in the 60s and very early 70s; indeed, one could even argue that Zappa did not do anything new after 200 Motels. However, most of Zappa's 70s albums are mature works where all the facets of his 60s efforts are integrated and refined successfully by several excellent renditions of the Mothers of Invention. Most of his 70s output shows a characteristic elemental combination of jazz, rock, modern classical, and comedy, to produce a unique form of progressive rock and yielding a consistently high quality body of work. In contrast, I find a lot of his 80s output highly formalized and standardized, lacking the inventiveness, variety, and complexity of his previous output, though most of these albums were still well-crafted. He also retained his philosophy of using his band as a springboard for talented, young musicians. Several of them have pursued fairly successful artistic -- and even commercial -- solo careers, most notably guitarist Steve Vai. Within this group of non-essential efforts lies one remarkable album called Jazz from Hell. Here, Zappa plays complex solo compositions on a synclavier, and though I personally don't like this rather chilly, austere album, it has to be admitted that it shows him once again exploring new paths in music.

In the late 80s, Frank was diagnosed with cancer. The discovery of this illness seems to coincide with him starting to re-evaluate his complete career. During the late 80s and early 90s, he released an incredible amount of unreleased studio and live material, most of it interesting and some of it excellent. Among the best are Ahead Of Their Time, a recording of a Mothers concert from 1968 with a fantastic full version of "Orange County Lumber Truck". Make A Jazz Noise Here is an excellent live album that compiles a return to more complex and/or jazzy material from the late 80s/early 90s. Also released was a six-volume series called You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, consisting largely of excepts from live concerts with a couple of unreleased or rare tracks added. All volumes are worth hearing, but volume 2 and 5 are the most interesting.

From 1992 on, Frank Zappa's health seriously deteriorated. Nevertheless, he managed to find the energy to start one more large project, titled The Yellow Shark. With this he revealed once more his interest in composing contemporary classical music, and it may actually be the best neo-classical work of his career. In my opinion, it easily surpasses 200 Motels and the two mediocre 80s albums with the London Symphony Orchestra. A large ensemble performed the piece in modern classical style, yet it is easily recognizable as the work of Frank Zappa. An excellent album that could possibly even attract listeners of Art Zoyd or Univers Zero. Sadly, his medical treatment was not working and he died in late 1993.

After his death, more releases of obscure studio and live material were issued through the coordination of his wife and some close friends. Although these posthumous releases contain interesting material for Zappa completists, they are not the best place to start for the beginner.

If you want a fair impression of Frank Zappa's output, try at least several albums from different periods, as the style and accessibility of his output vary tremendously. For an introductory impression of Zappa's work, I would recommend listening to all of the following albums : Absolutely Free (early phase of The Mothers of Invention), Uncle Meat, Hot Rats and/or Burnt Weeny Sandwich (generally instrumental period from 1968-1970), Roxy And Elsewhere (excellent double live from the mid 70s), Joe's Garage trilogy and You Are What You Is (from his "accessible" period), and The Yellow Shark for Zappa as a modern classical composer. This set of albums will give a good taste of the various phases he went through. If you like what you hear, dive deeper into his 60s and 70s output.

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