I would have been about seven or eight years old when I heard my first Frank Zappa record. In order to get some context, one should bear in mind that this means it was in the mid-1980s, and it was what would turn out to be the first of several rereleases of the recording on the humble compact disc format.
The compact disc in question was a mesh-together of two Zappa albums there were released in sequence: Apostrophe (‘) and Overnite Sensation. It took me a long time after this first hearing to learn that these were, in fact, two separate albums. For reasons I cannot begin to grasp, the record company decided that it would be a good idea to combine these two albums onto one disc. The total running time of both albums is somewhere in the neighbourhood of seventy-minutes. Apostrophe (‘) is a rather short (32 minutes and change) album, but a damned good one. Overnite Sensation… not so much.
Nonetheless, I listened, and I listened intently. Part of the reason for this is that I found the story told in the first few songs, a story of an Eskimo going on an adventure in which he blinds a fur trapper with yellow snow (no, not making that up) before said trapper crosses the tundra and pays a visit to one Saint Alfonzo. The album abandons this narrative about halfway through the running length and follows a more standard song structure, but it also concludes with a song I could never forget even if I wanted to (which, I must emphasise, I do not). That song, Stink-Foot, is a difficult one to discern the exact meaning of, but the literal structure involves an outcast being taken to a “place where they keep the imaginary diseases” and sold what the song describes as a very serious case of foot odour. This song also illustrates a number of musical principles that just about every musician or pseudo-musician is told about but very few actually put into practice. The most important of which is the importance of the element of surprise.
Frank Zappa was a guitarist, and did not mind showing off his skill with the instrument whenever he could. But unlike certain “hey look how good I can play my guitar” types I will not glorify by mentioning here, Frank Zappa also had a great awareness of what the most important element in a song was: its overall structure. So instead of littering his songs with meaningless solos that go nowhere, he not only kept his guitar bursts at points where they would mean something, he also structured them in ways that allowed them to convey something synchronous with the song’s meaning. When Zappa plays the lengthiest solo part of Stink-Foot, it is not a case of “hey girls look how big my weenie is!”, it actually conveys something about the way it would feel to be afflicted with an embarrassing affliction that nobody wants to even acknowledge, leave alone help resolve. The value in that is something that thousands of guitarists would have done well to learn. I still get shivers up and down my spine when listening to this solo, and coming from someone who constantly tunes out the vocals and guitars on a lot of songs, that is saying a lot.
What makes Zappa‘s impact upon guitar-oriented music all the more ironic is that, in his own words, he never had any intention of creating rock music when he started out. I forget exactly how he tells it, but the version I heard from one guitar teacher is that when Zappa created his own compositions and brought them to classical musicians, they simply refused to even look at said compositions. Rock musicians, on the other hand, keen to experiment and try new things, began playing these compositions with a certain enthusiasm.
Another Zappa album that deserves looking at is Sheik Yerbooti. Right off the bat, Zappa announces his intentions to shock the listener’s boots right off with I Have Been In You, a song about the subject matter any grown-up can discern from the title, only set to gentle ballroom-like music (at least during the verses). Ever heard music that makes you picture your grandparents dancing slowly around, holding onto one another like they are about to fall down, whilst a man with a really deep voice and weird enunciation technique sings things like “I’m going in you again… baby”? It is quite a hilarious juxtaposition, even if it does get slightly uncomfortable in a way. But then the song segues into Flakes, a song about the repairman industry that has one of the best wordless chant sections I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. (I am not even going to mention Bobby Brown Goes Down. Everyone else has, and I do not feel a need.)
Frank Zappa was a prolific recorder. Unlike many other musicians, who would go into a studio for a certain period of time, record songs, stitch them together into an album, and then go on tour playing these songs, Zappa recorded everything. He would play shows anywhere that would book him, taking along recording equipment that he captured every second of his performances on. One story that seems to have vanished from the Internet is that a guest who visited his house found a whole room where the walls were lined with tapes of performances that could somehow be stitched together into future releases. But Zappa has now had a total of ninety-one albums released under his name, sixty-two of which were during his lifetime. So it probably helps a great deal to divide his catalogue into eras, genres, or sometimes even both.
Calling the albums he made during the 1960s weird-ass is probably a bit of an understatement. No better example exists than the 1968 studio album We’re Only In It For The Money. Essentially, We’re Only In It For The Money is one of four albums that were recorded in New York during a prolonged recording and editing session. During the recording sessions, The Beatles released an album called Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Zappa reacted in a few ways to this release. One, he felt that The Beatles and psychedelic rock were corporatising youth culture. Two, he therefore felt that The Beatles were insincere and “only in it for the money”, hence the album title. And so, he changed the concept of the album art to satirise the cover of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. And the album itself, whilst often coming across as a random collage of sounds, features one of Zappa‘s best musical statements: What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?. (“Some say your nose… some say your toes… but I think it’s your mind…”)
There is a saying I like to repeat about films. Although the way I phrase it might vary, the essential essence of the saying is “you can make a good film, you can make a bad film, but heaven help you if you make a boring film”. Frank Zappa has made more songs than some people have eaten hot meals, but I cannot recall ever being bored by one of his songs. Annoyed, sure, but never bored. Part of the secret to this is his peculiar way of enunciating what he is singing. There must be millions of vocalists in the world and in history combined. Being good enough to stand out of from the pack is rare. But Zappa acknowledged that he was not that great in terms of voice, and instead spaced and emphasised his words in ways that made him quite different from the competition. The only vocalist I can think of who comes close to this peculiar style would be William Shatner, who does not so much sing songs as he narrates them.
(I think they included this photo in The Grand Wazoo‘s liner notes in order to say, “Would you let this man conduct your orchestra?”.)
Muffin Man is the last song on Bongo Fury, one of the handful of albums Zappa made with Don Van Vliet, or Captain Beefheart as he generally called himself. It begins with a narrative about the titular Muffin Man, during which Zappa pauses and changes emphasis enough times to make one wonder if he was not ingesting some very strange drugs at the time of recording (to hear it from him, apart from a few abortive experiments in his youth, he never went near them). In case you have not read this before, I hate most vocalists with a passion. To look at the way they perform, and to hear it from some pop trash, voices are the only component of music. Wrong. And Frank Zappa knew that better than even some of the bands that I regularly spin up on compact disc.
As I said, figuring out exactly which Frank Zappa album is the best one for your tastes, or even which style or era, is a bit of a challenge. There are compilations around, however, that give a bit of a sampler of each era and style. The one that is still in my collection in spite of my having purchased every album represented on it that I enjoyed the representation of, is titled Strictly Commercial. Although it is impossible to condense the material from ninety or more albums into a playlist of nineteen songs, the makers of Strictly Commercial manage to give a good cross-section of all of Zappa‘s work.
There has also been some belief that Zappa‘s work in the 1980s was substandard, not up to par. I am not going to argue with that, except to say that even Frank Zappa‘s worst albums have gems on them that put them above the like of Justin Baby et al in a similar sense to how Odin is above us all. (In fact, the mere fact that Justin Baby is allowed to do anything in any industry that does not involve frequent queries as to “you” wants fries with that probably has Frank rolling in his grave.) Come to think of it, Odin is probably conferring with Frank as we speak, asking all about how the hell he came up with such awesome music. As I write this, I am listening to a song called No Not Now, which opens Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch. Ship… is not even the best album Zappa released during the 1980s, but No Not Now, Valley Girl, and Teenage Prostitute are among the best songs of his entire career. Which, given that he composed song at a rate that would make Takashi Miike‘s film career seem sedate by comparison, is saying a lot.
Sadly, Frank Zappa died of complications from prostate cancer in 1993. He was only 52 years old. From what I have heard, prostate cancer is one of the biggest killers of men above the age of 40. Frank made a number of references to prostate problems in his songs, including one song titled Why Does It Hurt When I Pee? (from Joe’s Garage). Apparently, the disease had been developing unnoticed for ten years, and by the time it was diagnosed, the doctors used the word no Human being wants to hear: inoperable. Scary to think that a disease that kills men in droves can go unnoticed until it is too advanced for anyone to do anything about. As of this writing, if he still lived, he would be seventy-one. But I also have no trouble believing that if he had lived to see the state of the music industry as it exists today, he would react in one way.
That is, he would see the total absence of innovation or experimentation anywhere but the most underground parts of the industry, and sigh in disgust. Many others I can think of would do the same. Remember, boys and girls: the proper expression is not “I hope I die before I get old”. It is “I hope I die before I begin to resemble the people who disgust me”.