December 4th will see the 20th anniversary of Frank Zappa’s death. Inevitably between now and then, we can expect a dramatic increase in discussion about the man, his legacy and his broad ranging musical output. So in order to stay ahead of the game, it’s time for a refresher. Refresher that is, for those of you in the know. For all the chancers out there it’s more like a crash course allowing you to pretend to be less of an ignoramus online or in the pub or wherever you try to inject your tuppeneth, welcome or otherwise. The Chancer’s Guide judgeth not. It simply provides the info you need and some choice phrases you might casually (but carefully) use in your pretence. As always TCG recommends further investigation to learn-yourself-proper-like. Get listening!
There is little doubt that to the uninitiated Zappa is a formidable prospect. For sheer volume, the Zappa discography has few competitors. During his working lifetime 1966-93 he released in the region of 60 studio and live albums (many of which were doubles or more). Add to that half as much again in posthumous releases and you are faced with an intimidating body of work. Not only is the vastness a challenge, but pick randomly and the variety of what you may be faced with is equally as baffling. You may experience something that sounds like a comedy record or a classical suite, a bizarre Broadway style musical or heavy jazz fusion, pseudo-psychedelic rock or two hours of guitar solos, a political satire or a sound collage that barely qualifies as music at all.
As a result of all this each record works best within the context of all the rest of them. This is summed up by a theory Zappa called Conceptual Continuity, which is best explained by the man himself:
“Well, the conceptual continuity is this: everything, even this interview, is part of what I do for, let’s call it, my entertainment work. And there’s a big difference between sitting here and talking about this kind of stuff, and writing a song like ‘Titties and Beer’. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s all part of the same continuity. It’s all one piece. It all relates in some weird way back to the focal point of what’s going on.”
So apparently a full understanding Zappa’s oeuvre requires absorbing everything he ever did! But you have to start somewhere so a tour guide is invaluable. Luckily, TCG has listened to it ALL for you and plucked some amazing wheat from the weird and (almost exclusively) wonderful chaff.
Frank Satire: Freak Out (1966), We’re Only in It for the Money (1968)
Most people who find their way to Zappa are rock fans. They may end up getting seduced by other musics they discover when they get there, but it was the rock world Zappa chose to infiltrate, manipulate and corrupt. These albums released with The Mothers of Invention combine rock, pop, 50s doo-wop and 60s beat music. They lovingly yet scathingly parody the music of the time and with even a small understanding of what is meant by “The Summer of Love” they are still hilarious 45 years on. At the time of release however, they were clever enough to appeal broadly to the people they satirised (which was almost everyone).
What to say: As albums, as sit-down-listen-to-music albums, they are far from Zappa’s strongest, but as pieces of art of their time (including their sleeve designs) they are close to perfection.
Frank the Proper Musician: Hot Rats (1969) Waka/Jawaka (1972)
If your thing is Prog or Jazz Rock then your curiosity instead will be piqued by this pair. Comprised, in the main, of meticulously arranged lengthy instrumental pieces they demonstrate explicitly the musical abilities previously disguised amongst pastiche. Although a casual rock-centric listener might tend to compare the complex time signatures and virtuoso musicianship to the Prog Rock of say King Crimson or early Genesis, a more apt correlation would be with the Jazz Fusion of Miles Davis, Soft Machine or The Mahavishnu Orchestra all of which, amazingly, Hot Rats predates.
What to say: Although already successful as a quirky lampoonist, it was Hot Rats that gained Zappa the recognition he deserved as a serious composer and musician.
Frank Live: Zappa in New York (1978), Fillmore East June 1971 (1971), Tinseltown Rebellion (1981)
The Zappa release schedule often made room for live albums. The abundance of additional live recordings released posthumously (and their liner notes) suggest a healthy obsession with recording live shows. As soon as technology allowed it The Mothers and Zappa concerts were being recorded. From the simplest two track tapes in the early days up to large scale 24 track productions, it was a worthy endeavour. The live shows were entertaining as much for, onstage antics, topical jokes, audience participation and filth as for the music itself which was intensively rehearsed but far from stiff. Often tracks from live recordings would be used as part of a regular studio album and equally some songs might make their only recorded appearance on a live album. Most feature a broad range of the styles already mentioned and as a result can make a good starting point.
What to say: Even though the studio albums are immaculately recorded and conceptually rounded, the spontaneity of the live albums make them many fans’ favourites.
Frank the Storyteller: Joe’s Garage (1979) Thing Fish (1984)
These two triple albums (the first a debauched rock opera, the second a politically satirical musical) take Zappa’s occasional penchant for the extended “story song” to it’s natural conclusion. Each present a feature-length, absurdist tale with grotesque imagery, sexual and scatological humour and yet are deftly underlaid with perceptive commentary on Governmental control, racism, religion, AIDS, censorship and sexual attitudes. Just the usual controversial faire from an intelligent artist who knew just the right buttons to press to rile up the American right. As usual the soundtrack to the silliness spans about 7 genres of craziness.
What to say: Although at times the music can suffer over such a long stretch, these ludicrous adventures are clever and genuinely funny.
Frank’s vision: Läther (recorded 1972-77, released 1996)
Zappa’s creativity, prolificacy and energy showed no bounds and concurrent with his regular output in the mid 70s, he was planning a quadruple album that would encompass the full extent of his talents. The record company baulked at these outrageous plans for a four album box set and instead the material gradually slipped out on separate releases. Eventually reassembled and released as a triple CD, Läther is widely considered to be the most accurate singular representation of his work. In both live and studio recordings it features the rock songs, some of his beautifully arranged complex instrumentals, some orchestral material (yes he was a classical composer too!), and some extended guitar solos.
What to say: It might be a lot to take in at once, but if you are up for the challenge, Zappa’s essence is fully represented.
Clearly there is a wealth of material to get your teeth into. It’s not all for everyone but if you find yourself put off by something, push on try something more. There’s always something new on the next record. Rarely in music is the word genius truly apt but… Jonathan Wallace