Frank Zappa (December 7, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was a musician, leader of many bands and The Mothers of Invention. He is one of the most influential musicians to come out of the 20th century. Starting in the 1960s, his debut Freak Out! was called "weird" and satirized the music genre and politics. Continuing into the 1970s, his work was more jazz-oriented until 1973's Over-Nite Sensation and 1974's Apostrophe (') brought his work more fame and success as a rock artist. In the early '80s, Frank experimented with the Synclavier and politics.
As a self-taught composer and performer, Zappa's diverse musical influences led him to create music that was sometimes difficult to categorize. He began writing classical music in high school, while at the same time playing drums in rhythm and blues bands; later switching to electric guitar.
His work was characterized by nonconformity, free-form improvisation, sound experiments, musical virtuosity, and satire of American culture. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestral and musique concrète works, and produced almost all of the 60-plus albums that he released with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist. Zappa also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers. He is considered one of the most innovative and stylistically diverse rock musicians of his generation.
Zappa's output is unified by a conceptual continuity he termed "Project/Object", with numerous musical phrases, ideas, and characters reappearing across his albums. His lyrics reflected his iconoclastic views of established social and political processes, structures and movements, often humorously so. He was a strident critic of mainstream education and organized religion, and a forthright and passionate advocate for freedom of speech, self-education, political participation and the abolition of censorship. Unlike many other rock musicians of his era, he personally disapproved of and seldom used drugs, but supported their decriminalization and regulation.
In 1965, Ray Collins asked Zappa to take over as guitarist in local R&B band the Soul Giants, following a fight between Collins and the group's original guitarist. Zappa accepted, and soon assumed leadership and the role as co-lead singer (even though he never considered himself a singer). He convinced the other members that they should play his music to increase the chances of getting a record contract. The band was renamed the Mothers, coincidentally on Mother's Day. They increased their bookings after beginning an association with manager Herb Cohen, while they gradually gained attention on the burgeoning Los Angeles underground music scene. In early 1966, they were spotted by leading record producer Tom Wilson when playing "Trouble Every Day", a song about the Watts riots. Wilson had earned acclaim as the producer for Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, and was notable as one of the few African-Americans working as a major label pop music producer at this time. Wilson signed the Mothers to the Verve division of MGM, which had built up a strong reputation for its releases of modern jazz recordings in the 1940s and 1950s, but was attempting to diversify into pop and rock audiences. Verve insisted that the band officially rename themselves the Mothers of Invention as Mother was short for motherfucker—a term that, apart from its profane meanings, can denote a skilled musician.
During the recording of Freak Out!, Zappa moved into a house in Laurel Canyon with friend Pamela Zarubica, who appeared on the album. The house became a meeting (and living) place for many LA musicians, hippies and groupies of the time, despite Zappa's disinterest in their illicit drug use.
Synclavier[edit | edit source]
Template:Listen For the remainder of his career, much of Zappa's work was influenced by his use of the Synclavier as a compositional and performance tool. Even considering the complexity of the music he wrote, the Synclavier could realize anything he could dream up. The Synclavier could be programmed to play almost anything conceivable, to perfection: "With the Synclavier, any group of imaginary instruments can be invited to play the most difficult passages ... with one-millisecond accuracy—every time". Even though it essentially did away with the need for musicians, Zappa viewed the Synclavier and real-life musicians as separate.
In 1984, he released four albums. Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger contains orchestral works commissioned and conducted by celebrated conductor, composer and pianist Pierre Boulez (who was listed as an influence on Freak Out!), and performed by his Ensemble InterContemporain. These were juxtaposed with premiere Synclavier pieces. Again, Zappa was not satisfied with the performances of his orchestral works, regarding them as under-rehearsed, but in the album liner notes he respectfully thanks Boulez's demands for precision. The Synclavier pieces stood in contrast to the orchestral works, as the sounds were electronically generated and not, as became possible shortly thereafter, sampled.
Beliefs[edit | edit source]
Zappa stated that he tried smoking cannabis ten times, but without any pleasure or result beyond sleepiness and sore throat, and "never used LSD, never used cocaine, never used heroin or any of that other stuff." Zappa stated, "Drugs do not become a problem until the person who uses the drugs does something to you, or does something that would affect your life that you don't want to have happen to you, like an airline pilot who crashes because he was full of drugs."
While he disapproved of drug use, he criticized the War on Drugs, comparing it to alcohol prohibition, and stated that the United States Treasury would benefit from the decriminalization and regulation of drugs. Describing his philosophical views, Zappa stated, "I believe that people have a right to decide their own destinies; people own themselves. I also believe that, in a democracy, government exists because (and only so long as) individual citizens give it a 'temporary license to exist'—in exchange for a promise that it will behave itself. In a democracy, you own the government—it doesn't own you."
Zappa was often characterized as an atheist. He recalled his parents being "pretty religious" and trying to make him go to Catholic school despite his resentment. He felt disgust towards organized religion (Christianity in particular) because he believed that it promoted ignorance and anti-intellectualism. On Dweezil's birth certificate, Frank wrote "musician" for "father's religion". Some of his songs, concert performances, interviews and public debates in the 1980s criticized and derided Republicans and their policies, President Ronald Reagan, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), televangelism, and the Christian Right, and warned that the United States government was in danger of becoming a "fascist theocracy".
Zappa expressed opinions on censorship when he appeared on CNN's Crossfire TV series and debated issues with Washington Times commentator John Lofton in 1986. On September 19, 1985, Zappa testified before the United States Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation committee, attacking the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC, a music organization co-founded by Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore. The PMRC consisted of many wives of politicians, including the wives of five members of the committee, and was founded to address the issue of song lyrics with sexual or satanic content. Zappa saw their activities as on a path towards censorship, and called their proposal for voluntary labelling of records with explicit content "extortion" of the music industry.
Life[edit | edit source]
Frank, the eldest of four children, was raised in an Italian-American household where Italian was often spoken by his grandparents. The family moved often because his father, a chemist and mathematician, worked in the defense industry. After a time in Florida in the 1940s, the family returned to Maryland, where Zappa's father worked at the Edgewood Arsenal chemical warfare facility of the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Due to their home's proximity to the arsenal, which stored mustard gas, gas masks were kept in the home in case of an accident. This had a profound effect on Zappa, and references to germs, germ warfare and the defense industry occur throughout his work.
Zappa was often sick as a child, suffering from asthma, earaches and sinus problems. A doctor treated his sinusitis by inserting a pellet of radium into each of Zappa's nostrils. At the time, little was known about the potential dangers of even small amounts of therapeutic radiation, and although it has since been claimed that nasal radium treatment has causal connections to cancer, no studies have provided significant enough evidence to confirm this.
Nasal imagery and references appear in his music and lyrics, as well as in the collage album covers created by his long-time collaborator Cal Schenkel. Zappa believed his childhood diseases might have been due to exposure to mustard gas, released by the nearby chemical warfare facility.
He died in 1993 of prostate cancer. The grave is unmarked. On December 6, his family publicly announced that "Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6:00 pm on Saturday".