Today is the birthday of one of music’s more original voices, the one and only late great Frank Zappa, a musical maverick who spanned 3 decades, who created a sonic jambalaya of genres, which he drew and quartered, sifted through a meat grinder, reconstructed, deconstructed it, and threw it up in the air and let the musical notes fall where they may; a producer, record company mogul, and progenitor who gave genesis to ions upon ions of musicians who followed in his footsteps directly or indirectly; and on top of all this, the cherry on his layer cake was enhanced by the fact that he was one downright kick ass guitar player, arguably one of the finest of all time and of all genres, the incomparable crazy, mad genius about town, about globe, and about universe.
The catalog and work of Frank Zappa is impossible to break down here in a short tribute such as this; there really isn’t, save for an immensely scant couple of singles and radio songs, much accessible or friendly to the casual listener or layman. For the most part, to them, Frank Zappa remains a total and unequivocal enigma, misunderstood with the music he parlayed, leaving listeners completely perplexed and turned off, quickly dismissing his work as noisy, jumbled arrangements which have no rhyme or reason to them, sung in a droning, bored vocal style via Zappa himself. In short, it was primarily a black eye on more “high brow” classical music, which they firmly believe that Zappa was simply parodying with dripping contempt and sarcasm. These examples couldn’t be further from the truth.
The truth and fact remains that the extremely lengthy output of Zappa’s music (about 60 records released during his lifetime and scores more released in the wake of his death in 1993 of cancer, and a volume level of work akin to classical or jazz artists) is some of the most adventurous, challenging and exhilarating music ever committed to wax, 8-track, reel-to-reel, cassette, CD, Mini Disc, MP3, or whatever the form of medium is or was. There are Zappa fans who have always remain rabid, who own all the albums, and even though it’s Mount Everest voluminous, still hunger for more, grabbing every shred of recording Frank ever did released and unreleased. To them, Zappa remains almost a figure of mythological proportions, a harbinger of a parody style, sarcastic (but not in the aforementioned cynical sense), extremely bright, sharp, and funny lyrical tunes, mixed with almost every conceivable genre known to man and woman, rock, doo-wop, rockabilly, sublime, jazz, fusion, R&B, electronic, cabaret, surf, Broadway style, horn laden, simplistic, monumentally complex – it’s endless the type of reservoir of Zappa’s highly original and highly influential cachet of music.
Genres either remain splintered or built upon, always backed by musicians of the highest caliber for the most part, the timeline of the musicians who have played with Zappa from beginnings in The Mothers Of Invention to his swinging juggernaut ensembles of the 1980s and then on his relegated to studio work of the early 90s due to his burgeoning illness, is staggering and mindblowing: Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, Sal Marquez, Ian Underwood, Ruth Underwood, Chester Thompson, the incomparable Captain Beefheart, George Duke, Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Tom Fowler, Terry Bozzio, Jean-Luc Ponty, Sugar Cane Harris, Dale Bozzio, The Brecker Brothers, guitar extraordinaire (who was listed in Zappa records as the man who played the “impossible guitar parts”) Steve Vai, Chad Wackerman, Scott Thunes, and even guests like Tina Turner and Jack Bruce. Some of these names may be obscure, but not to the Zappaphiles, who have followed these musicians, and have followed the many side bands that most of these aforementioned names put together from the influence of being with Zappa. Frank Zappa was like a Walt Disney in a way, manifesting a sonic factory in which product was created with the utmost precision, yet remaining with liberal dashes of groove and complexity.
It’s also impossible to name some of his great albums in a short list, but I’ll take a stab in the dark here and list what I believe are some of Frank’s best: Hot Rats, We’re Only In It For The Money, The Grand Wazoo, Absolutely Free, Roxy and Elsewhere, Zoot Allures, Guitar, Apostrophe, Overnight Sensation, Them Or Us, The You Can’t Do That On Stage series, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, You Are What You Is, Sheik Yerbuti, and Joe’s Garage. Of course I’ve left out some favorites. Every Zappa fan has their own favorites, some only like certain eras of Frank, while others love them all. He created a cornucopia of music for everyone, but even though it was never implied, it had a certain secret club quality to it, and thus ironically it isn’t for everyone.
So let’s tip the birthday hat to Frank Zappa today, master and one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-lifetime musical non-conformist, who never pandered to what might have been hip at the time he made what he did. He was like a painter who broke every convention and then broke what was already broken. To paraphrase the great Wile E. Coyote, Frank Zappa was and remains till the end of time and beyond the end of time, a “Super Genius.”