Frank Zappa died 30 years ago.
Zappa, one of music’s grandest iconoclasts, lost his multi-year battle with prostate cancer on December 4, 1993. Had he lived, the leader of The Mothers of Invention, who sang “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” made cult-classic film 200 Motels, and released over 60 albums would turn 83 this December.
Considering his myriad accomplishments, it’s easy to wonder what more Zappa would have done. How would he approach the streaming era? Would he work with a new generation of experimental artists? And would Zappa return to rock after hanging up his guitar in the ’88?
Or one could ask what Zappa posed at the climax of his album, Joe’s Garage: “Ultimately, who gives a fuck anyway?”
An outsider among outsiders, Zappa was a self-taught rocker with a classically focused mind, a freak at odds with the freak scene, and an iconoclast who clashed with music labels and senators. He made music both inexplicably weird and indescribably beautiful, often within the same song. He was irreverent and sanctimonious, and one hell of a guitar player.
“Brimming with sophisticated motifs and convoluted rhythms, Zappa’s extended excursions are more akin to symphonies than they are to guitar solos,” wrote Tom Kolb for Guitar World in 2007. Frank’s eldest son, Dweezil Zappa, described his father’s technique to Guitar Player in 2021 as creating “air sculptures” and that Frank “didn’t subscribe to the pre-composed solo approach. He preferred playing live in the studio, and when playing live, he loved to be inspired in the moment to spontaneously compose onstage.”
Zappa didn’t seek to become a guitar god. “I am not a virtuoso guitar player,” he wrote in 1989 memoir The Real Frank Zappa Book. “A virtuoso can play anything, and I can’t. I can play only what I know, to the extent that I’ve developed enough manual dexterity to get the point across.”
Zappa was more than just six strings and a smirk. Because most of his multifaceted work is guitar-driven, his music gets filed as “rock.” Yet, those who dive in will find a rich sound inspired by classic rhythm and blues, avant-garde sonic compositions, and classical music.
The two “greatest hits” collections released since his passing (Strictly Commercial and Zappatite) provide a good sampling of his work. “Peaches En Regalia” and “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” showcase Zappa’s remarkable skills with a guitar. “You Are What You Is,” “Cocaine Decisions,” and “Trouble Every Day” demonstrate his political mindset, while “Dancin’ Fool,” “Cosmik Debris,” and “Dirty Love” are good examples of his sense of humor.
There are also captivating moments within these sample sets. The vocal arrangement of Tina Turner and The Ikettes on “Montana” shows what a powerhouse vocalist she was, able to do Zappa’s vocal arrangement justice. “Zoot Allures” is one of Zappa’s signature instrumental tracks, conveying a somber, introspective tone. And the orchestral “Strictly Genteel” hints at the composer’s mind hiding behind one of rock’s best mustaches.
For newcomers, these are arguably the best way to begin exploring Zappa’s work. His discography is so expansive that The Onion’s 2004 article “Frank Zappa Fan Thinks You Just Haven’t Heard The Right Album” still stings (mocking both his absurdly large catalog, as well as his fanbase’s obnoxiousness). It’s even more relevant in 2023 since Zappa’s posthumous releases now outnumber the albums he put out during his lifetime.
Zappa’s work is a tapestry with threads that can be followed from his initial work to his final recordings. These recurring themes throughout his oeuvre are what Zappa called his “conceptual continuity” and show another reason why he matters: from the get-go, he had a firm hand in shaping his creative work, and he never lost focus on his distinct voice. That thread runs from the Dadaism-infused rock of The Mothers of Invention’s first album Freak Out!, the orchestral to musique concrète soundscape of Zappa’s debut solo record Lumpy Gravy, in the jazz-fusion works of Hot Rats and The Grand Wazoo, and the electronic symphony of Jazz From Hell and The Perfect Stranger. Even Zappa’s visual works—Uncle Meat and 200 Motels —are wrapped up in his signature artistic approach. It’s why Zappa-devotee “Weird” Al Yankovic was able to successfully parody Frank’s style on “Genius In France” (featuring a guitar solo from Dweezil Zappa).
The actual argument for why Frank Zappa deserves consideration 30 years after his passing is what he made while he was alive and how he made it. Zappa developed his creative approach early in his life. His childhood obsessions were explosions and editing, turning drugstore popgun caps into pyrotechnics, and splicing scenes of sci-fi films into his parents’ home movies.
That love of editing carried on through his career. Early on, Zappa would drop elements of Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” into Mothers of Invention performances. He recorded his concerts, and later on would splice pieces of different performances into new compositions. Zappa later edited together songs with different elements (e.g. lacing a Patrick O’Hearn bass solo in one time signature over a Terry Bozzio drum track in a different signature for the song “Rubber Shirt” off Sheik Yerbouti.)
Zappa’s humor, curiosity, and scientific interests would have resulted in him growing up to become the best substitute science teacher ever—except he never developed a taste for the American educational system. “By the time I was six years old, I knew how to make gunpowder,” he wrote in the memoir, detailing how he, the son of a chemist/mathematician working in the U.S. Defense industry, had no patience for institutional learning. “I grew up with poison gas and explosives—with the children of people who built these things for a living,” he wrote. “Did I give a fuck about algebra?”
Zappa had one transformative moment in high school, though. He discovered how music worked after bringing a copy of The Jewels’ “Angel In My Life” to his Mission Bay High band instructor.
“‘Listen to this,’ I said,” wrote Zappa, “‘and tell me why I like it so much.’ ‘Parallel fourths,’ [the teacher] concluded.”
Here, he learned how music was constructed, composed. He could learn how to make music, and like the explosive caps and home movies he played with as a youth, he could deconstruct it and reassemble it to how he liked it.
Zappa taught himself the norms so he could deviate from them and had some guides in his journey. Some of his earliest influences were Stravinsky, Anton Webern, and Edgard Varèse, the latter of which had a profound effect on Zappa by challenging him to think about what music could be with his “Ionisation” piece. Zappa’s 1963 appearance on The Steve Allen Show—where he played a bicycle along with the house band (after instructing them to “make any noise possible on your instrument [and] try to refrain from musical tone”)—is an early example of him utilizing the lessons he gleaned from the experimental French composer.
With the original Mothers of Invention, Zappa first shared his compositional ear, creating such early pieces like the sweeping regality of “The Duke of Prunes,” the intricate waves of the captivating “Aybe Sea,” and “King Kong,” a swinging instrumental that would be a staple of Zappa’s live performances throughout his career.
Rhythm and blues captivated a young Zappa the same way Stravinsky and Varèse did, and was much easier for a young Zappa to play with a rock band than a full orchestra. So he founded The Blackouts, a multiracial group that didn’t always go over well with conservative Lancaster, California. At first, Zappa took up the drums before switching over to guitar. As Zappa lore states, a failed attempt to run a recording studio (and film a movie with his high school friend, Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart) and a successful entrapment sting by the Cucamonga police had Zappa in dire straits. Had things gone differently, he might not have accepted the offer from his friend, Ray Collins, who said his band, The Soul Giants, was looking for a new guitar player.
“Frank came down and tried out with the band, and he liked what we did, and we liked what he did, so he joined,” said Jimmy Carl Black, drummer and original member of The Mothers of Invention, in Necessity Is, author Billy James’ book about the early years of the band. “A month later,” adds Black, “the saxophone player, Davey Coronado, left the band, leaving the position of leadership wide open. Frank took over as leader, and his very words were, ‘If you play my music, I will make you rich and famous.’”
Zappa took lead of the Soul Giants and renamed the group The Mothers in 1964. The Mothers of Invention—renamed, cleverly, out of necessity—released several albums. The landmark debut, Freak Out!, challenged what “hippie” music could be with its rhythm and blues-inspired rock, otherworldly sound compositions, and biting social commentary. Those early albums—Absolutely Free, We’re Only In It For The Money, and Uncle Meat—laid the foundation for Zappa’s career.
However, the foundation wasn’t strong enough for the rest of the Mothers of Invention. Zappa disbanded the group in 1969 over money and creative issues.
“I think he was just tired of the band,” said woodwinds/sax player Bunk Gardner in Necessity Is. “Certainly, we were criticized many, many times about how badly we played with his music … He probably thought it would be less of a drain financially as well because, at the point, we were making a salary of $250 a week, and I think it was too much of a drain on him.”
Zappa reformed The Mothers shortly afterward, featuring Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan of The Turtles. This period, albeit short-lived, leaned into the rock and the theatrical element of Zappa’s music. During this time, Zappa would begin to build up a reputation as a remarkable guitar player, which he cemented with second solo album, Hot Rats.
The second Mothers dissolved as band members sought work while Zappa recuperated from a violent attack in December 1971. A deranged fan pushed him off the stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre. The attack left Zappa with a crushed larynx, head trauma, and numerous fractures to where he was reliant on a wheelchair for months.
After the recovery, Zappa resumed performing under his own name. Backing him was a band with a roster of musicians that included the late George Duke, Napolean Murphy Brock, Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, Patrick O’Hearn, Adrian Belew, Ruth Underwood, Warren Cuccurullo, and Ike Willis.
Zappa’s touring and public performing days ended in 1988 when he cut the tour short after his band revolted against the inclusion of bassist Scott Thunes, who was known to be brutally honest and blunt when running the rehearsals ahead of the tour. “I don’t like having a whole band ganging on me, forcing me to get rid of a bass player I liked,” Zappa told Musician magazine, per Barry Miles’s Zappa biography.
Instead, Zappa cut the tour short. His final performance in the U.S. was on March 25, 1988, at New York’s Nassau Coliseum. (The recording of the show has since been released as the 119th entry in his discography.)
Three years before Zappa quelled the band rebellion by pulling the plug on the whole outfit, members of the original Mothers—Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner, Ray Collins, Art Tripp, and “Motorhead” Sherwood—sued Zappa for $16.4 million for unpaid royalties, claiming they hadn’t received a payment since 1969. The trial was settled out of court, and the members have not spoken about the settlement, according to Miles’ Zappa biography.
“Music comes from composers—not musicians,” wrote Zappa in The Real Frank Zappa Book. “Composers think it up; musicians perform it.”
These aspects of Zappa’s legacy deserve as much consideration as his music on the 30th anniversary of his death. The last thing he would want is a sheen of nostalgia glossing over the cracks.
Zappa found himself at odds with musicians and musicians’ unions; the latter gave Frank a headache (and cost him a lot of money) during his attempts to get his orchestral work performed. These attitudes would carry over to unions in general: “Flakes,” from Sheik Yerbouti, states that unions are there to protect mediocre work, and he would revisit them on songs like “We Got To Stick Together” and “Rudy Wantz To Buy Yez A Drink.” These comments (along with the “Fuck the union” he says at the start of 2016’s Eat That Question: Zappa In His Own Words documentary) would be out of place during this past Solidarity Summer.
In 1989, Zappa worked with the Synclavier synthesizer to create orchestral works, most notably the Grammy-winning Jazz From Hell. At the time, he was excited that he didn’t have to deal with human musicians and justified using technology instead.
“Listen to the radio—a lot of what you think is being played by Beautiful Rock Stars is actually being played by machines like the Synclavier,” he wrote while relaying a story about how a producer brought in a group, sampled their instruments and had the machine play their instruments for them.
Zappa’s enthusiasm for new technology suggests he may have been a proponent of modern A.I. He’d be fascinated using these programs to create music. But, Zappa acknowledged in his memoir that machines can’t improvise and that spontaneity is more valuable than being able to play the music with precision. Even he was reluctant to admit that if he had to choose between the machine and the musician, “from time to time, I’m almost tempted to opt for the ‘human element.’”
This isn’t to say Zappa completely disliked his former band members. Had his cancer diagnosis not coincided shortly after the destruction of the ’88 band, he may have tried it once again. And in his final days, he reached out to those he worked with to reconnect before it was too late.
Though Frank shared the stage with a litany of incredible talents, the number of female members of his band is drastically few. “I just don’t think it’s practical,” Zappa said to Howard Smith in 1971, per blank on blank. “I don‘t think that there‘s a girl around that would fit in with what we do.” At this time, the Mothers’ music focused on hormonal/sophomoric themes like the urban legend of a groupie having sex with a fish (“The Mud Shark”), picking up women in clubs, and the struggles of being a touring rock band.
Yet Zappa also oversaw the creation of The GTO’s, the all-girl ‘60s group featuring Pamela Des Barres (I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie). He also produced their only album, Permanent Damage, which he released on his Straight Records label.
Following the dissolution of the reassembled The Mothers, Zappa’s next group would feature percussionist Ruth Underwood. He would also produce work featuring vocalists Kris Peterson, Thana Harris, and Dale Bozzio (while performing live with singer Lisa Popeil in 1981).
Zappa’s lyrical content may also be a turnoff to those first hearing “Easy Meat,” “He’s So Gay,” and “Jewish Princess” for the first time—the latter of which drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League. “As if to say there is no such thing as a ‘Jewish Princess.’ Like I invented this?” Zappa told Spin in 1991, per Miles’ biography.
Zappa’s lyrical approach, for better or for worse, has always been from his firsthand sociological viewpoint. “My lyrics are there for entertainment purposes only – not to be taken internally,” Zappa wrote in his 1989 memoir, The Real Frank Zappa Book. “Some of them are truly stupid, some are slightly less stupid, and few of them are sort of funny.” Whether or not he would still perform “Bobby Brown Goes Down” (arguably one of his most controversial works) had he lived into his 60s and 70s remains unanswered.
There is some poignancy in these “truly stupid” words. “I’m the Slime,” from 1973’s Over-Nite Sensation, denounced the media as “the tool of the government / and industry too / for I am destined to rule / and regulate you.” Had he lived long enough to see the rise of “fake news,” influencers, and reality television, Zappa could have easily re-issued the song with a minor lyric update and still cut close to the bone.
This distrust of authoritarianism was spun into Joe’s Garage, a rock opera depicting a world where music was illegal (a reality he witnessed with the Iranian revolution of 1979.) As books are pulled from the shelves of American public libraries and public schools struggle under tightening restrictions over what parts of history they can and cannot mention, it seems that the Central Scrutinizer, Joe’s Garage narrator/antagonist who “enforces all the laws that haven’t been passed yet,” is alive and well—and likely running the Moms For Liberty Discord.
Zappa’s Thing-Fish, a failed attempt at a Broadway production, also weaved in elements of government malfeasance by incorporating themes like AIDS, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the “Women’s Lib” movement, and “beige” supremacy.
Though Zappa was a critic of the U.S. government, he was a staunch believer in the rights granted under the country’s Constitution. His dedication to unfettered creative expression led him to testify in 1985 in front of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in a hearing over “the subject of the content of certain sound recordings and suggestions that recording packages be labeled to provide a warning to prospective purchasers of sexually explicit or other potentially offensive content.”
The hearing was a result of efforts by the Parents Music Resource Center to get music labeled the same way films are rated and have albums with explicit covers wrapped similar to porn magazines or kept under the counter at stores. Zappa, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and John Denver spoke out against what they saw as censorship. Ultimately, the Recording Industry Association of America opted for self-regulation by using the “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” sticker. (Audio from the Senate hearing would be remixed into “Porn Wars,” on his 1985 release, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention.)
Throughout the 1980s, Zappa railed against the Religious Right, from Pat Robinson to Ronald Reagan. “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk,” from 1988’s Broadway The Hardway, theorized that “the rights of ‘certain people’ [would] disappear” if those “God-loving” Christians were to be elected to office. As of November 2023, the American Civil Liberties Union lists over 500 anti-LGBTQ bills in the U.S., most being introduced in local legislatures.
Zappa’s politics didn’t lean leftward, necessarily. He described himself as a “practical conservative” in his book, who wanted to do away with income tax, have a sensible defense budget, end prohibition on drugs, legalize suicide, and that “Israel has a right to exist AND the Palestinians are entitled to their own state.”
Zappa’s philosophy is probably best summed up in 1981’s “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing”: “Do what you want / do what you will / just don’t mess up your neighbor’s thrill / And when you pay the bill / kindly leave a little tip / And help the next poor sucker / On his one-way trip.”
Some elements of Zappa’s work and perspective remain current (for better or worse), though rock itself has faded from mainstream relevancy in the past three decades, jazz and classical even more so. With Zappa’s music being built on all three, would that mean he’d fade into obscurity?
Countless artists proudly cite him as an inspiration. John Frusciante, Genesis P-Orridge, Henry Rollins, Devin Townsend, Devo, Can, and others have spoken highly about him or cited him as an influence. The sadly-abandoned Wiki Jawaka likewise mentions Terry Gilliam, Matt Groening, progressive metal legends Dream Theater (and more) as fans. Fiend Without A Face, the surf-inspired project from Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds, included “Zappa” on their 2017 album, a loving pastiche/tribute to his work.
Most recently, Haim celebrated August 18 (or 8.18, the area code for the San Fernando Valley) with a TikTok set to “Valley Girl,” Zappa’s song featuring his then-teenage daughter, Moon Unit Zappa, and his only Top 40 hit in the U.S.
Though Zappa’s instrumental work would be rich fodder for sampling (assuming the rights could be cleared), his appearances in hip-hop have been few. One could point to his somewhat obscure nature preventing his work from being a more attractive sample since recent hip-hop has relied on automatic nostalgia for commercial success.
However, he still has managed to be reworked into some beats. Madlib sampled “Sleeping In A Jar” on “Meat Grinder,” one of the tracks from Madvillian’s Madvillainy (Madlib’s collaborative project with MF Doom). Madlib also wove Zappa samples throughout the remix album Madvilliany 2. He also sampled Zappa on Rock Konducta Pt. 1 and visually cited The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out on the cover of The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, an album by his alter-ego, Quasimoto. Tyler, The Creator used “Sleeping In A Jar” in “Fuck This Election,” while Pharoahe Monch, J Dilla, and Busdriver have also mined Zappa’s work for samples.
As contemporary artists go, Thundercat has arguably been the biggest Zappa flagbearer in recent years. “I remember playing Billy Cobham’s Total Eclipse for Snoop Dogg. I also played him Frank Zappa, Apostrophe,” Thundercat told NPR in 2013. “And I played him ‘Saint Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast.’ Snoop was sitting there with a blunt in his mouth and just listening to Frank Zappa go off. … He loved it. He was like, ‘This is fly. This is some cool stuff.'”
Critics compared Thundercat’s intricate and eclectic sound to Zappa’s, and the bassist has also called Frank “a genuine solar flare” of an influence on his art.
“Zappa was the one,” he said during a 2017 appearance on Q with Tom Power. “Every last part of what [Zappa] did was amazing.” He would echo that praise three years later, telling GQ, “There are these moments that are genuinely golden in Frank Zappa’s music.”
One of the first tributes to Zappa came a month after his death when Comedy Central aired the “Village of the Giants” episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It included the original song, “Let Me Be Frank About Frank,” initially meant as a tribute to the character of TV’s Frank. But, as the music played over the end credits, the episode ended with a memorial to Zappa, just as host Mike Nelson said, “Goodbye Frank. You were enjoyed.”
“He is one of my great heroes of American culture,” wrote MST3k writer and actor Kevin Murphy in The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. “When all his tapes are played, and his music is studied, I’m guessing he’ll go down as one of the finest composers and performers of the century. And God, was he ever funny. Sometimes embarrassingly, preachy, but always calmly polemical, like an advocate for reason in a world gone mad and stupid.”
Did he matter? Zappa himself didn’t think so.
“It’s not important to even be remembered,” he remarked during an interview on the May 1993 episode of the Today Show. It would be one of his last interviews; he wouldn’t survive the year. Zappa seemed to know that while talking with NBC’s Jamie Gangel because he spoke with a calm, reserved tone, seemingly resolved about his fate. When the discussion came to his legacy, he waved off any notion that he should be considered a “rock legend” (“Pathetic,” he spat when Gangel brought up the term.) Eccentric genius? “Eccentric, yes. Genius? Maybe.”
“It’s not important [to be remembered.] The people who worry about being remembered are guys like [Ronald] Reagan and [George H. W.] Bush,” he said. “These people want to be remembered. And they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that remembrance is just terrific. And I don’t care.”
However, Zappa is remembered. His posthumous releases continue to reveal his creative process, and his work earns new fans today. He had flaws, which deserve to be considered when looking back at his legacy. The cringey lyrics, his fraught history with his band members, and his arrangement with his wife Gail Zappa (an “I’m a rockstar on the road with groupies” setup, as explained in the Zappa documentary) were factors in his life and will always be the shadow anchored to his spotlight.
Zappa’s work should not be overburdened by the man behind it. He proved that if you’re one of those people with “a big nose and some weird hair,” you can forge your path. Zappa was never going to be mainstream—his music was too classical to be rock, too rock to be classical. He was a weirdo among the weirdos, opinionated and unrepentant in his viewpoints but one who knew that progress was only possible through deviation.
Zappa warrants consideration after all these years because in spite of everything, he did things his way. It wasn’t always successful, and it was rarely profitable, but he made it happen. If anything, Zappa’s life stands as a testament to that spirit. He maintained a commitment to an uncompromising creative vision until his final days.
Zappa asked, “Ultimately, who gives a fuck, anyway?” before “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” a song on Joe’s Garage that, in the narrative, was the last guitar solo ever played on earth. Joe’s Garage also provided a snippet that remains a more fitting epitaph to his legacy:
“Information is not knowledge / Knowledge is not wisdom / Wisdom is not truth / Truth is not beauty / Beauty is not love / Love is not music / Music is the best!”
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