Frank Zappa - a very singular artist

johna_online's picture

I have been having a bit of Zapa moment of late - put together a playlist on Spotify (at long last there is an abundance of FZ on the old Spot now). The words genius, unique and influential are all handed out like smarties these days but I can think or precious few artists from the modern music canon who really deserve those epithets. Zappa certainly does on the first two counts but influential ??? Im really struggling to think of anyone who openly wears their FZ influences in their music generally and/or guitar playing specfically (maybe Dweezil - but guess that doesn't count). I guess one reason might be that very few people on the planet could play music as complex as this - some of it makes the Mahavishnus sound like the Bay City Rollers (I can hear Colin H reaching for the keyboard !)

Now to be clear I pretty much dont like about 97% of Frank's work - either because its just too annoying or simply baffling but the remaining bit (which is still a lot of music) is a thing of wonder. The attached may just be the most staggeringly inventive guitar solo on a rock record (albeit some of the song edges into my annoying category !)

So all hail the mightily unique Frank Zappa.

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I'm a BIG fan - all the albums, many of the bootlegs, seen him and his son a fair few times - but the thing I find interesting is that at some point he tends to hit even his big fans in a blindspot: we just don't get all of it. The musos don't get the "Broadway the hard way" show tunes, the older hippies and the received-wisdom rock snobs don't like the smutty 70s fusion (as in the "Zappa went off after 1969" cliches), the smutty rockers don't get the classical work... I thought I liked it all. But I really don't get "Civilization part III". And the snorks annoy me. Often you come around though; I used to find his late 70s/ early 80s guitar solos sometimes tiresome: now i love 'em.

what might be the name of that playlist ?

follow up question -if you don't like 97% of Frankie's music -just how long is this play list.

Quite probably the most complete rock artist of the last 50 years.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: there are often more ideas in a single Zappa song than most artists would use on an entire album.

And there are enough musical ideas on a typical Zappa album to last most other artists an entire career.

but I've no time at all for all the frat boy 'humour' crap that he came out with later.

more middle period ?

I don't have anything beyond Bongo Fury.

were not the best, I admit. But that only lasted 2 or 3 years and he came through it to make some amazing music after the Rainbow incident.

I wrote here earlier about my excitement that Frank's albums were available again. I have a particulair fondness for Apostrophe and downloaded it the day it showed up on itunes.
In December, the Zappa plays Zappa tour is coming to Cincinnati. Has anyone seen this, and if so is it worth the price of admission?

I've seen them twice. They are musically excellent, but when all's said and done they are just a Zappa tribute band, albeit the ultimate Zappa tribute band.

Dweezil has absolutely none of Frank’s charisma and smiles his way through the show like a blissed-out Californian cult member. He's a fine guitarist and the band are all very capable, but unless a real ex-Zappa band member is guesting (which happens from time to time) the shows lack excitement and can get a little bland.

Very long show, great music though, clever integrated video footage of Frank. DZ brought on a couple of second-rate Australian guitar players for some excruciating OTT fret-molesting, but in the second half he brought out Steve Vai and things went into the stratosphere. I'm not generally a guitar hero-worshipper but fuck, these extraordinary sounds were coming out of his guitar and I had no idea how he was doing it. It was just transcendental, the way I wanted Prince to be when I saw him earlier this year when he wasn't.

Fabulous, particularly for the 'Apostrophe' type material (which they did on their last tour in the UK). Not the same personality or madness as a FZ gig, but then, what could be?

Kind of focuses on the more strutured and jazzy side (as opposed the irritating, unfathomable side !!)

For those of a more delicate disposition apologies for one the track titles

even if you came up from the 'Freak Out' era, was - if I'm not mistaken - the classic era for Frank. The trio of albums 'Overnite Sensation', 'Apostrophe'' (did you get that extra apostrophe there?)and 'One Size Fits All' combine the humour with the shit-fucking-hot musicianship in just the right measure.

I love the clip of Ruth Underwood playing 'St. Alphonso's Pancake Breakfast' on the Classic Albums show. Check youtube

"there was always more music.." says Ruth, and he wrote it all down. As a musician, I think you have to appreciate what Frank did by actually listening to the records and hearing the arrangements, the little filligree passages, the tape looping on the early albums. There is so much in there. Here's the clip I referred to above, which gives an idea of how unique Frank's musical vision was.

in the sense that there is only album I am happy with, which is of course Hot Rats. The received-wisdom, rock-snob choice (see above, not sure why rock snob?) perhaps. I've got One Size Fits All and Chunga's Revenge. Both of those irritate me to some degree, with outstanding momemts but too much start/stop, slow down/speed up type carry on, like much prog. The title track of Chunga's Revenge has a great guitar solo though. Hot Rats is much more hummable and less all over the place. Lots of wonderful solos and jazzy in an accessible way. Also no Frank vocals, which helps. Son of Mr Greene Genes may be my favourite. I've listened to other bits and bobs but I have to say it may be brilliantly clever but I don't care - it leaves me cold for the most part.

...I'm with you there, Sven. I'm sure this will distress Moje and all the downunder boys but... well, it just seems like a clever-clever lot of peculiarly American nonsense to me.

I saw a Mozart opera once and in all honesty I came away depressed and with a profound feeling that it was 'a waste of music' - so much cleverness and hey-look-at-this stuff from the maestro thrown in behind a stupid plot and sugary tunes, as if he was showing off and showing contempt (for his peers and audience) at the same time. I feel the same about Frank.

He did come up with some good euphemisms ('writing about music is like blah blah blah' etc) but there's something tiresome about Frank's music and personality, for me.

Other opinions are available of course and I wouldn't dream of offending or insulting the devotion of the Australasian brotherhood.... but it's just not for me.

We Zappa fans have learned to be thick-skinned and have heard every conceivable put-down of the man and his music over the years.

It's hard to sum up what's so great about Frank's music in one easy to digest sound bite. But I'll have a go.

Frank’s music is brilliant, as you say. But it's also really funny. Zappa was possibly the smartest, funniest, most cynical artist ever to work within the confines of rock music. He played Doo Wop, heavy rock, jazz fusion, free form jazz, modern classical, blues, comedy, political satire, performance art, the list goes on. Zappa did it all and he did it brilliantly.

Although his music was deadly serious, Frank took the piss out of everything and everybody, including himself and his band members who often became the subject of long-running musical in-jokes which could span several albums.

His album count is up around the 100 mark now and all human life is there. For me in terms of musical and social importance there's The Beatles, Dylan and Zappa on one side of the divide and there's everything else on the other side. That's how important he is to me and lots of other people.

Frank Zappa. Its a way of life.

Steve Vai.

Especially Flexable and Flexable Leftovers recorded when he first left Zappa's touring band. And they're really interesting albums. Odd, but really great.

Vai has nothing but good words to say about FZ. Apparently, early on with the band he said that he asked Frank what would be good advice for a musician starting out, expecting something profound and artistic, to which FZ replied: "Make sure you own your own publshing". Vai said it's probably the single best piece of advice he was ever given by anyone in the business.

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