Original Creators: Avant-Garde Rocker Frank Zappa
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator,” an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Frank Zappa.
Think of rock music’s great eccentrics and one name that always comes to mind is Frank Zappa. He’s a musician who not only produced subversive music with ramshackle jingles, experimental compositions, and comically cutting lyrics, but he also helped expose new talent with his Straight Records label—like his old school buddy Captain Beefheart, along with Tim Buckley and Alice Cooper.
His own music career spanned over 35 years and took in more than 60 albums, which, in September, were all re-released digitally for the first time ever by the Zappa Family Trust. Zappa’s music was influenced by a wide variety of musical styles from 1950s doo-woop to jazz and composers like Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky. He played in bands, most famously The Mothers of Invention, but also performed as a solo artist. His work has ranged from satirical and absurd rock songs on America and its subcultures, to songs about stained underwear and experimental jazz craziness.
His work could be experimental, mind-bending, avant-garde—and so could his children’s names. But it’s his desire to pursue the lesser trodden musical paths, his outsider status, and iconoclastic music, that have ensured his influence on a variety of music genres like heavy metal, funk, noise music, classical, and the tradition of satirical rock songs. We’ll take take a look at the highlights of his epic career starting with the release of his first album Freak Out!.
The Mothers of Invention debut album Freak Out! was released in 1966. It was 60 minutes of intense blues and psychedelia, interspersed with doo-wop, and lyrics that attacked pop culture and tapped into the social mood of the time—a double concept album that showcased punk and art rock way before anyone actually coined those terms. The first LP took stabs at America and its teeny pop music, playing with musical styles and conventions, while the second LP took a dive into the experimental and journeyed into stranger territory showing Zappa’s love of innovative composers like Varèse.
Another album Zappa released with The Mothers of Invention was 1968’s We’re Only in It for the Money (the title was a swipe at the Beatles). This one lambasted both the hippies and the establishment they rallied against, with sharp and biting satire that was immersed in fragmentary compositions and bizarre, comic voices. The result is a concept album that’s a nightmarish, fun-house-mirror lens into the contemporary society of his day and also a glimpse into the musical styles that Zappa would play with throughout his career.
In the 70s, Zappa found commercial success with his album Over-Nite Sensation, which featured bawdy songs and puerile humor where Zappa indulged his more adolescent side over music that had more mainstream melodies. The follow up album to this Apostrophe (‘) was another commercial success, with great guitar work and his usual humor, it also featured his first single to make the charts with "Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow."
But it was the song Zappa made with his daughter Moon Unit Zappa, “Valley Girl”, which was his only top 40 single in the United States. It was made to mock the grating valley girl way of speaking with its, like, “Oh my god!” and “Totally!” lyrics said with over-the-top enthusiasm, which perfectly lampooned the vacuous lifestyle of the valley girl. The track gained a cult following, which celebrated the song both ironically and otherwise.
The Lost Episodes
The Lost Episodes (1996) was released after Zappa’s death, contains unreleased material, and provides a great introduction to Zappa’s music. Some of the tracks feature the insane chatter of Captain Beefheart like “Lost in a Whirlpool,” a blues track about being flushed down the toilet. But overall the album showcases the vast variety of Zappa’s styles from his early 60s work to orchestral and instrumental pieces, along with rock and roll, blues, jazz, his comic ramblings, and him experimenting in the studio.
Frank Zappa was a great archiver of his own material and this was the last album he worked on before his death in 1993—a kind of autobiographical look back at his career refracted through unreleased oddities and alternate takes.
“Charva” from The Lost Episodes