My wife and I, on our first date, went to a Frank Zappa concert (April 1973 — we’ve been married since 1975). That qualifies me as one of the few people who has romantic thoughts associated with Frank Zappa’s music. His music can be challenging. If you are looking for simple and straightforward you won’t find it here.
The man was a musical genius, whose interests included many things outside the borders of rock and roll. That included avant-garde composers, Edgard Varèse in particular, and 50’s do-wop music. He also had a delightfully twisted sense of humor. He made a lot of music that was not rock and roll and, as a result, he developed a reputation among many mainstream music fans as a maker of weird music.
For those of you who only know him by reputation, the first thing we need to do is establish that he was an amazing guitar player. Listen to his playing on Willie the Pimp, which also features his high school friend Captain Beefheart on vocals and what can only be described as blues violin:
Willie the Pimp is the second track on the Hot Rats album; the first track is Peaches en Regalia. I found the following video, which uses Peaches en Regalia as the soundtrack for an old Mickey Mouse cartoon, to be tremendously entertaining. It shows the sense of fun that is present in a lot of his music. Note the spoof of the Hot Rats album cover (the image in the Willie the Pimp video) at the very beginning:
Frank Zappa first gained notice as the leader of The Mothers of Invention. The following video is from Paris in October 1968. I think you could call it avant-garde bluesy jazz with some absurd humor thrown in, but that would probably be over-simplifying.
In 1969, Zappa disbanded the original Mothers of Invention (primarily for financial reasons), and released Hot Rats as a Frank Zappa album in October. I graduated from high school and started college in 1969, and didn’t start expanding my musical horizons until I got to college. Hot Rats was the first of his albums that I heard. I didn’t find out about the original Mothers until they were already over.
In 1970 he formed a new version of the Mothers to tour with. This version included three former members of the pop band The Turtles. (Here’s a link to the band’s website and a link to a video of their biggest hit Happy Together). Due to contract problems, the former Turtles couldn’t record using their real names, so Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman called themselves the Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, which was later shortened to Flo and Eddie. Here’s a video of this band doing Call Any Vegetable from November 13, 1970 (a good example of their weirdness).
This was the version of the band my wife and I saw on our first date — April 27, 1973 at Dillon Gym, Princeton University. Flo and Eddie were there, as was French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. We arrived at our seats about 7:20 for an 8:00 show and Zappa was on stage because apparently they had a new guy on the sound board that night. He was out there for about another 20 minutes before going backstage to get ready — it was an interesting behind-the-scenes look. If anyone has a set list from this show or knows where to find one, please let me know.
One other touring event from this period deserves mention — they were playing at the casino in Montreux, Switzerland, when an audience member set off a flare, starting a fire that burned down the casino and destroyed the band’s equipment. This event was immortalized in Deep Purple‘s song Smoke on the Water (didn’t know that until I was researching this post).
The albums Over-Nite Sensation (1973) and Apostrophe (‘) (1974) led to his most commercially successful period. (Watch out where the huskies go, don’t you eat that yellow snow.) Here’s a video from Saturday Night Live in December 1976 doing I’m the Slime:
Frank Zappa released over 75 albums (according to a 12/1/2010 interview with his son Dweezil) before he died of prostate cancer in 1993. Other great albums that I haven’t mentioned yet include 6 volumes of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, and Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar.
For even more information, visit the Frank Zappa website. Also, his son Dweezil has put together a band to play his father’s music. Visit the Zappa plays Zappa site to check on their touring schedule.