Zappa for Beginners

Article © 2020 by Emiel F.A.J. Stöpler

By Helge Øverås – Own work, CC BY 2.5

The American composer and rock musician Frank Zappa lived from 1940 to 1993. In his day he was considered controversial because of his satirical songs, which many people considered risqué or offensive, others thought of him as a musical genius. I first heard about Zappa in 1987 in my social studies class in high school, where my teacher discussed the 1985 PMRC Senate hearings, where Zappa and a few other rock musicians testified before a senate committee to hear their opinions on labeling rock albums to warn consumers of so-called explicit lyrical content. My teacher explained that everyone thought Frank Zappa was this crazy dopehead lunatic, but instead he surprised the officials when he showed up for the hearings with a short haircut and wearing a suit and a tie. Zappa turned out to be a good debater in defending his viewpoint that rock music albums should not be labelled.

From about 1990 onward, I became quite a fan of Zappa’s music. I have not really made an in-depth, formal analysis of his work, but I collected many of his albums and hunted for every interview and article I could find; first in print, later on the internet. I myself was not offended by Zappa’s songs; like so many Europeans I liked the music itself and I did not really understand a lot of the lyrics back then.

So after all this reading and countless hours of listening, I felt I might very briefly share what I found about the man and his music.

Very loosely, Zappa’s music may generally be classified as “Jazz Rock,” but it really draws from many sources like folk, jazz, rock, pop, psychedelic, modern classical and experimental avant-garde. Even though he is mostly self-taught as a musician, there is no doubt that he was very knowledgeable about many musical styles and idioms—which came in very handy for making parodies of other artists. He was also very knowledgeable in terms of orchestration and music theory. He was capable of inspiring and coaching the musicians he worked with to get them to play his often complex music, and to play it with accuracy, attitude, emotion and conviction. Many musicians who worked with Zappa say in interviews that it was a very enriching experience for them.

For example: https://youtu.be/YSavN19ZJ4g

In interviews and on stage, Frank Zappa comes across as very confident, though I get the impression that in spite of his obvious sense of humor, he sometimes got stuck in feelings of resentment, cynicism or anger. He was not shy to voice his controversial opinions, and found a way to express them in his satirical songs. In an interview, Zappa once explained that when saying things that are difficult or awkward for another person to hear, using humor is a good way to do that. His musical ideas are very creative, often unusual and off-the-wall, but very original and effective. I must confess, that in spite of being a dedicated fan, some of his music is too nervous and too jittery for my taste.

I found it interesting to read that as a teenager, Zappa showed some real, unadulterated courage by challenging his high school teachers and by not giving in to peer pressure—he basically flunked all the classes he wasn’t interested in, but excelled in the few classes that had his attention, like music and civics. In his autobiography “The Real Frank Zappa Book,” he describes an incident that during a pep-rally in his high school gym in the 1950s, the cheerleaders wanted all students to sing the Irish lullaby “Too La Roo La” with newly made lyrics cheering on the football team. The eighteen year old Zappa found this whole idea nauseating, and one of the cheerleaders suspected as much, saying into the microphone when she asked all the students to stand up and sing: “And that includes you, Frank Zappa!” He obviously already had something of a reputation by then, and he describes how a silent hush fell over the students as he shouted back something containing the F-word, along with a suggestion for something the cheerleader could do instead of singing. Consequently, the cheerleader in question began to sob and needed to be escorted out of the gym. I do feel for the cheerleader (in his autobiography, Zappa refers to het as “Mrs. Name Omitted Because I’m a Nice Guy”), but to me this story raises interesting questions about the social pressure we all have to deal with in our lives and how we maintain our authenticity. I believe that was also the intention of Zappa with his music: to get people to think and to raise questions.

Besides feeling for the cheerleader, I also feel for Zappa, having to sing Too La Roo La: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12TeDZqb6mk

Zappa was rebellious in high school, because he believed the educational system ruined people’s natural intelligence and creativity by forcing children to conform to sometimes absurd standards. Years later, I see Zappa’s view being backed up by what is now the most popular TED talk called Do Schools Kill Creativity? by Ken Robinson. https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity

Zappa’s main instrument was electric guitar. Many of his rock albums feature his long improvised solos, that he himself referred to as “air sculptures.” Whether he played guitar or wrote music for orchestras or rock band, Zappa’s melodies are instantly recognizable and have a signature of their own. It may be interesting to note that when he began to write music at the age of fourteen, he was inspired by the dissonant, modern, classical avant-garde music of a composer called Edgard Varèse (1883 – 1965). Zappa says he began to write so-called modern classical music first, and did not write popular music until he was in his twenties.

During his lifetime, Zappa made sixty-two albums and posthumously many more have been released  drawing from a large body of unpublished work. With so much music, it may be difficult to find something you like, so I made a playlist with twelve Zappa tunes called “Zappa for Beginners” to try to give a cross section of his body of work. This playlist is sort of “family friendly” and I didn’t put in any of the controversial songs—those can be found with any quick search on YouTube—I just wanted to put in a few of the tunes that really inspired me. I realize it is impossible to make an exhaustive list and different people may have different opinions about what should be in it, but it may serve as an introduction for those who don’t know the music of this colorful composer and rock musician:

Spotify (all songs are in chronological order, except Peaches En Regalia, which is a signature Zappa tune and I felt it should start off the list 🙂 ):

YouTube Music Playlist: