The term legendary was made for guitarist, composer, satirist and ultimately politician Frank Zappa. An eclectic performance artist, author, audio-visual producer, cynic, prolific song writer, and brilliant guitarist, Zappa recorded over 60 albums in a career that was tragically cut short by cancer, aged only 54. In short you would have to have invented Zappa the man, and phenomenon, had he not already started to engage in his long term Project/Object musical jigsaw puzzle with The Mothers of Invention debut album Freak Out in 1966.
Freak Out was so startlingly left field, and full of oddball but talented characters like Red Indian drummer/vocalist Jimmy Carl Black, and with such outrageous concepts as Who Are the Brain Police, and the 12 minute suite Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet, that Zappa had already set out his stall forever on the fringes of Rock’s mainstream. With the exception of the 1973/74 slightly more commercial Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe , Zappa was forever fighting a cause, be it straight society in the early 60’s, disco fever and repressed sexuality in the 70’s, Republicans in the 80’s or the Classical music establishment in the 90’s.
Almost in spite of his own idiosyncratic approach, he churned out some magnificent rock music, of which 1969’s Hot Rats was his most consistent, and provided a break through chart album. The mixture of inspired, brilliant virtuoso rock playing and traces of Jazz pushed Zappa into the limelight, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Zappa satirised the jazz world, but frequently utilised major jazz talents such as electric violinist John Luc Ponty, funky keyboard player George Duke, the Fowler brothers Tom and Bruce on bass and trombone respectively and percussionist Ruth Underwood and somehow fitting them into ground breaking Jazz Rock projects. The music was full of crazy vignettes and weird choreography of which Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), One Size Fits All (1975) Live in New York (1978) and The Best Band You Never heard in Your Life (1991) were highlights.
The 1979 double album Sheik Yerbouti and You Are What You Is (1981) were probably his last great albums, before he started work on the huge 1988 You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore live programme – Zappa having taped just about every concert he had ever played.
The 3 album box set Shut Up ‘n’ Play Yer Guitar (1981) fulfilled guitar fans dreams, albeit in an overextended way. However, although FZ remained a huge concert draw Frank only recaptured his early to mid career genius fleetingly, having jettisoned any sign of an outside producer, after setting up his own label, Barking Pumpkin records in 1979.
Like all major talents before him, you had to search for the gold, and sometimes it was to be found in collaboration with people like Captain Beefheart, but overall Zappa’s legacy extends well beyond rock music, making him one of the most significant 20th century musician/composers, but always with a wry smile at hand.
© 2006 Pete Feenstra/GRTR! All rights reserved.