Today would have been Frank Zappa’s 75th birthday.
I’ve been wondering how Zappa, one of the more astute social, political and cultural critics of our time, would’ve reacted to events in our country and the world ever since he left this mortal coil, way too soon, on Dec. 4, 1993.
What would Frank have made of the first Iraq War? What might he have done with Bill Clinton’s “Sexgate” scandal, or more tellingly, the way the nation obsessed over Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes?
Can you imagine Zappa – a man who spoke often of what he saw as a fast-developing “fascist theocracy,” in which a right wing ruling elite employed rule-by-religion - interpreting the presidency of George Bush?
The country needs to hear Zappa’s take on our devolution into a nation of cell phone-monitoring automatons, too. Sadly, we never will.
There are many layers in the stylistic onion that is the music of Frank Zappa. Beneath the text of the more rock-oriented material – much of which was intended to shock, to attack complacency and also, to merely document the strange doing s of human beings in an almost anthropological sense – there is a world of sophisticated, iconoclastic and ground-breaking work that defies easy categorization, and demands to be taken seriously as brilliant late 20th century art.
“There’s such a stylistic diversity there,” Zappa’s son Dweezil told me in 2013, referring to “Roxy & Elsewhere,” an album many fans feel to be the late Zappa’s masterpiece, though he could have been referring to the entire body of work. “The music is sophisticated and modern, but there are also elements of the avant-garde, and at the heart of it all is this rich, funky, bluesy sort of basis.”
Zappa tended to be misunderstood during his lifetime. His long locks, trademark facial hair, and stoic, penetrating gaze led many to assume he was a decadent, drugged-out rock star type, but Zappa was appalled by drugs and alcohol, believing they made people dumber, something the driven, workaholic composer and performer could not abide. (He got by on coffee and cigarettes, so it’s not like he was a health nut, either.) He used language many found offensive, but he saw himself as a reporter, in a sense, a songwriter who held a mirror up to society and laughed at the distorted image reflected there.
He played unhinged, searing, searching and lengthy guitar solos; he improvised at will; he put his bands through the paces playing incredibly detailed, technically daunting pieces he’d written out note for note; he didn’t make a single concession to the mainstream; and he could be scathing in the one-on-one interview setting.
So Zappa made it easy for the lazy to misunderstand him, but for those who took the time to dig, there were untold musical riches spanning the terrain between psychedelia and modern classical music, jazz fusion and the avant garde, hard rock hijinks and orchestral subtlety.
Here are 10 Zappa gems – some individual songs, some full albums - that help to define one of the richest musical catalogs of the 20th century.
"Inca Roads" (from “One Size Fits All,” 1975)
This is Zappa marrying jazz to percussion-based 20th century classical music, with the help of then-bandmate George Duke. It features one of his most iconic guitar solos, too.
"I’m the Slime" (from “Over-Nite Sensation,” 1973) Zappa thought television was a mostly sinister force celebrating stupidity, venerating mediocrity, and making the minds of the populous into a grey, nebulous mush. And this was in the 70s. What would he think now?
"Roxy & Elsewhere" (1974, 2015 reissue) This entire album – now with a full DVD/Blu Ray component – condenses most of what Zappa did better than anyone else into one seamless whole.
"Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar" (1981) Some of the most radically inventive electric guitar playing ever laid to tape, lovingly edited into song form from various improvisations recorded live during concert tours throughout the '70s.
"Hot Rats" (1969) From the sublime – the timeless, elegant “Peaches En Regalia” – to the sleazy – “Willie the Pimp,” a collaboration with Captain Beefheart – this album crafted the blueprint for much of Zappa’s great 70s work.
"Boulez Conducts Zappa" (1984) Renowned French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez did what the London Symphony Orchestra couldn’t – treated Zappa’s classical compositions seriously, and conducted them like he meant it. The versions of “The Perfect Stranger” and “Naval Aviation in Art” are particularly great.
"G-Spot Tornado" (from “Jazz from Hell,” 1986) My personal favorite of the many tracks Zappa wrote on the Synclavier – an early digital synthesizer and polyphonic sampling system that allowed Zappa to operate, in effect, as a one-man band . “G-Spot Tornado” is a dizzying and dazzling affair.
"Make A Jazz Noise Here" (1991) Zappa’s 1988 touring band was one of his finest, and this collection, culled from that tour, boasts some of the finest guitar playing of the Maestro’s career.
"Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III" (1979) A point-of-entry into Zappa’s world for many, and with good reason – it’s tuneful, it’s hilarious, it’s stuffed with scathing social commentary, and it has aged incredibly well.
"The Grand Wazoo" (1972) A stellar example of Zappa’s writing-for-horns, also notable for the high level of interplay between Duke and Zappa during “Eat That Question.”
Zappa released 62 albums during his lifetime, and was at work on several more at the time of his death. He also recorded everything – and I mean everything – leaving behind hours and hours of tape to be edited by his family members. They – the Zappa Family Trust – did exactly that, and today, the number of Zappa albums available has broken the 100 mark.
“The music just continues to amaze me as we learn and perform it,” Zappa told me earlier this year, referring to his Zappa Plays Zappa repertory ensemble, a group dedicated to performing his father’s vast catalog.
“In everything we learn, I really don’t ever find Frank repeating his compositional devices over and over. Think about that. The depth and variety over the course of 80 albums – it’s amazing.
There really is no other artist like him.”