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21 December 1940
Baltimore, Maryland, United States
4 December 1993 (aged 52)
Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was an American composer, guitarist, singer-songwriter, film director, and satirist. In his 33-year musical career, Zappa proved to be one of the most prolific musician-composers of his era, releasing over 60 albums during his lifetime, almost all of which consisted of original compositions. He was also a renowned electric guitarist and a gifted producer-engineer who self-produced almost every recording he made after his 1966 debut.
His work spanned virtually every contemporary musical genre (including avant-garde, big band, blues, contemporary classical, doo-wop, electronic, funk, hard rock, jazz, jazz fusion, musique concrète, pop, progressive rock, proto-rap, reggae, rock, ska, and world music), and was often noted for its blend of high art, rock opera, absurdity, scatological humor, and for its caustic satire. Zappa was also noted as a spotter of talent and conductor of extremely stringent auditions, his various groups including such musical luminaries as Adrian Belew, Terry Bozzio, Aynsley Dunbar, Lowell George, Jean-Luc Ponty, Ruth Underwood, George Duke, Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Keneally and Steve Vai.
Zappa had a large and fiercely dedicated worldwide following throughout his varied career, particularly in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and Scandinavian countries. His early albums were a strong influence on other groups, and his critically acclaimed work garnered brief mainstream success in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the hit singles: "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow", "Dancin' Fool" and "Valley Girl". Zappa, as demonstrated by his disparaging comments about the music business, never cared much for mainstream acclaim.
Early life and influences
Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland on December 21, 1940 to Francis Zappa (born in Partinico, Sicily, of Greek and Lebanese descent) and Rose Marie Colimore (who was of 3 quarters Italian including Sicilian and 1/4 French descent). He was the oldest of four children (two brothers and a sister). In January of 1951, his family relocated to the West Coast because of Frank's asthma. They settled in Monterey, California, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Pomona, then to El Cajon before moving a short distance, once again, to San Diego in the early 1950s.
During Zappa's earliest childhood, his father, a chemist and mathematician, worked at the Edgewood Arsenal chemical warfare facility at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground. Due to the home's proximity to the Arsenal, Zappa's father kept gas masks on hand in case of an accident. Evidently, this had a profound effect on the young Zappa; references to germs, germ warfare and other aspects of the "secret" defense industry occur throughout his work.
By 1955 the Zappa family had relocated to Lancaster. Lancaster was a small aerospace and farming town in Antelope Valley of the Mojave Desert, close to Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains. By age 15, Zappa had attended six different high schools.
Lancaster's location gave the young Zappa access to the exciting sounds coming from radio stations in Los Angeles and KSPC 88.7 FM in Claremont, where Zappa had his own Saturday night show. In addition, his parents were affluent enough to afford a record player, records, a television, and musical instruments. Television also exerted a strong influence, as demonstrated by quotations from show themes and advertising jingles found in some of his work.
Zappa developed a sinus problem during his early teens. To Frank's lasting horror, his doctor treated the stubborn ailment by inserting a pellet of radium on a probe into each of his nostrils. Nasal imagery and references to the nose recur, both in his writing and in the classic collage album covers created by his longtime visual collaborator, Cal Schenkel.
As a student, Zappa was bored and given to distracting the rest of the class with juvenile antics. He left community college after one semester to make low-budget films. Frank maintained his disdain for formal education throughout his life, taking his children out of school at age 15 and refusing to pay for their college. However, he was highly intelligent, ambitious and articulate. Zappa possessed a voracious drive, singular concentration, enormous creativity and a huge capacity for work and organization. His superior ability, passionate interest in music, and highly idiosyncratic musical taste were demonstrated at an early age. Zappa grew up influenced in equal measures by avant-garde composers such as Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, local rhythm and blues and doo-wop groups (particularly local pachuco groups), and modern jazz (including bebop and free jazz).
Zappa was, from the beginning, interested in sounds for their own sake. This led to his interest in modern composers. His introduction to Stravinsky seems to have been a pivotal musical discovery but he was soon ranging further afield musically. After reading a LOOK magazine story on the Sam Goody record store chain that lauded its ability to sell an LP as obscure as The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One and described Varèse's dissonant drum composition "Ionisation" as "a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds", the teenage Zappa became convinced that he should seek out Varèse's music. When he spotted a copy of The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One in a local record store after a year of searching (he noticed the LP for the "mad scientist" looking photo of Varèse on the cover, and was surprised it was the Varèse LP he'd long been searching for), Zappa convinced the salesman to sell him the store's hi-fi equipment demonstration copy for $3.80, due to his inability to pay the $5.95 full price. Thus began a lifelong passion for Varèse and his music. Zappa's mother gave him considerable encouragement. Though she greatly disliked Varèse's music, she was indulgent enough to award Zappa the gift of a long distance call to the composer as a fifteenth birthday present. Unfortunately, Varèse was in Europe at the time, so Frank spoke to the composer's wife. Zappa later received a letter from Varèse thanking Zappa for his interest, telling him about a composition he was working on called "Deserts" (Zappa, living in the California desert town of Lancaster, found this very exciting), and inviting Zappa to look him up if he was ever in New York. The meeting never took place, and Varèse died a few years later, but Zappa kept the framed letter proudly displayed for the rest of his life.
Zappa began his musical career (at the age of 13) on drums, taking his first lessons at school in the summer of 1953. He played drums with local teenage combos, but was told he played the cymbals too much. He later switched to guitar, which he quickly mastered. Although he performed as a singer-guitarist for most of his career, Zappa always retained a strong interest in rhythm and percussion. His bands have been noted for the excellence of their drummers. Works such as The Black Page are notorious for virtuosity and complexity in rhythmic structure and arrangement, featuring radical changes of tempo and metre as well as short, densely arranged passages contrasted by free-form breaks and extended improvisations. Classically trained percussionist and drummer Terry Bozzio, who played for Zappa in the late 1970s (along with many recordings of well-known classical and avant-garde works), is on record as saying that Zappa's writing for percussion is as difficult and complex as anything else he has played.
In 1956 Zappa met Don Van Vliet (best known by his stage name "Captain Beefheart") while taking classes at Antelope Valley High School and playing drums in a local band, The Blackouts. The Blackouts, a racially-mixed outfit, included Euclid James "Motorhead" Sherwood (who later lived with Zappa at 'Studio Z' and was a member of the Mothers of Invention, playing on many of their most famous recordings). Zappa and Vliet became close friends, influencing each other musically, and collaborating in the late 60s and mid-70s (on the album Bongo Fury, released 1975). They later became estranged for a period of years. Van Vliet's own feelings about Frank Zappa were perhaps best summarized in a quote published in a March 1994 issue of Musician magazine: "I knew him for thirty-seven years, and in the end, the relationship was private."
In 1957 Zappa was given his first guitar and quickly developed into a highly accomplished and inventive player. He considered his solos "air sculptures", and developed an eclectic, fluent and individual style. Zappa eventually became one of the most highly regarded electric guitarists of his time. While it is possible that Zappa might have become a professional jazz musician, he was soon drawn into rock music. Throughout, he retained a lifelong attachment to jazz forms, voicing and structures and often drew his band members from the jazz world (if only because of the high degree of competence his music demanded).
Zappa's interest in composing and arranging burgeoned in his later high school years and he dreamed of being a composer. By his final year he was writing prolifically and had not only composed, arranged and conducted an avant-garde performance piece for the school orchestra, but had also contrived to have the event both broadcast on local radio and recorded. A portion of this historic recording is included on the CD The Lost Episodes. Zappa did see his childhood dream realized, as the London Symphony Orchestra played a program of his music, and the Ensemble Modern in 1992 received a 20-minute ovation after performing a program of his work at the Frankfurt Opera House.
After graduating in June 1958 Zappa worked for a time in advertising. His sojourn in the commercial world was another important influence on his work, and within a few years Zappa was co-opting the techniques he learned as a commercial artist. Zappa used them to deconstruct music, the music business, the media and society at large by combining them with the ideas he had gleaned from his studies of dada, situationism, and surrealism. Zappa frequently referenced his advertising industry experiences in his lyrics.
Frank Zappa always took a keen interest in the visual presentation of his work, designing some of his album covers (e.g. Absolutely Free) and directing his own films and videos. Zappa's album covers are highly distinctive; frequently bizarre and surreal. His two most important visual collaborators were Cal Schenkel in the Sixties and early Seventies, and Donald Roller Wilson in the Eighties and Nineties.
Zappa moved to Los Angeles in 1959 and spent most of the rest of his life there. Among his earliest professional recordings are two adventurous and remarkably accomplished scores for the low-budget films Run Home Slow and The World's Greatest Sinner.
He married his first wife, Kay Sherman, in the same year but the relationship soon deteriorated and they divorced two years later. In 1963, he began playing professionally around Los Angeles and bought the small Pal Recording Studio in Rancho Cucamonga, California (formerly called Cucamonga), which he renamed "Studio Z".
Zappa had been recording at Pal since the early 1960s and after receiving a payment for one of his film scores he was able to buy the studio, including a unique 5-track tape recorder. Soon after, his marriage ended and he moved out of his apartment and into the studio, where he began routinely working 12 hours or more per day. This set a pattern that would endure for almost all of his life. At this time, only a handful of the most expensive commercial studios had multitrack facilities, the industry standard for smaller studios was still mono or two-track. By the time he recorded his first LP with The Mothers in 1966 he was already an accomplished recording and mastering engineer and from his third LP on and for the rest of his career, he produced all his own work.
After being approached by a customer who offered him $100 to produce a suggestive tape for a stag party, Zappa and a female friend jokingly faked the "erotic" recording, which purported to contain the sounds of people having sex. Unfortunately the customer was an undercover member of the Vice Squad and Zappa was jailed for ten days on charges of supplying pornography. His entrapment and brief imprisonment left a permanent mark, and was a key event in the formation of his anti-authoritarian stance.
The Mothers of Invention
After a short career as a professional songwriter — his elegiac "Memories of El Monte" was recorded by The Penguins — in 1964 Zappa joined a local R&B band, The Soul Giants, as a guitarist. Soon he assumed leadership, renaming the band "The Mothers."
The Mothers gradually began to gain attention on the burgeoning Los Angeles underground 'freak scene' and in 1965 they were spotted by leading record producer Tom Wilson, who had earned acclaim as the producer of the seminal Bob Dylan album Bringing It All Back Home and the single, Like a Rolling Stone, as well as the breakthrough 'electric' version of Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence. Wilson was also notable as one of the only African-Americans working as a major label pop producer at this time. Wilson signed The Mothers to the Verve label, which had built up a strong reputation for its fine modern jazz recordings in the 1940s and 1950s, but was then attempting to diversify into pop and rock, with an "artistic" or "experimental" bent. Around this time, Zappa also met and signed with longtime manager Herb Cohen.
The Mothers signed with Verve Records, which insisted that they officially re-title themselves "The Mothers of Invention" out of a concern (likely justified) that the band's original moniker had obscene undertones. With Wilson credited as producer, The Mothers recorded their groundbreaking double album debut Freak Out! (1966), a mixture of often topical R&B and experimental sound collage that attempted to capture the 'freak' subculture of Los Angeles at that time. One of the first record albums united by an underlying theme, it was also only the second double LP of rock music ever released, and firmly established Zappa as a major new voice in rock music. Wilson is also credited with producing the even more accomplished follow-up Absolutely Free; but for the third LP, Wilson was listed as 'Executive producer', and Zappa took over as producer for all the Mothers and solo Zappa recordings issued from that time on. It is clear that even on the two first albums, Zappa was already responsible for virtually all of the musical decisions, with Wilson providing the industry clout, credibility, and connections to get the unknown group the financial resources they needed to produce a double album with use of an orchestra; by the third album, Zappa had already enough of a proven track record to allow for a more accurate description in the album's credits of their respective roles. During this period, Wilson also had Zappa collaborate with The Animals on the song "All Night Long" on their album Animalism.
Zappa's second and third studio albums were landmarks of record production highlighted by liberal use of his famous 'cut-up' editing techniques. Absolutely Free (1967) continued Zappa's lyrical preoccupations with the hypocrisy and conformity of American society, with the alleged suppression of underground and alternative culture. It was followed by the album widely regarded as the peak of the group's late Sixties work, We're Only In It For The Money (1968) which featured some of the most radical audio editing and production yet heard in pop music, and ruthlessly satirized the hippie and flower power phenomena. The cover photo (which included Jimi Hendrix) famously parodied that of the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. To avoid a lawsuit, however, the album was released with the cover and back on the inside of the gatefold, while the actual cover and back were a picture of the group in a pose parodying the inside of the Beatles album.
This was book-ended by two closely linked companion pieces. The dazzling audio collage Lumpy Gravy (1967) took Zappa's production techniques to a new peak and, according to Zappa himself, took nine months to edit. After We're Only In It For The Money, next was his Doo-Wop satire Cruising with Ruben & the Jets. Other important Mothers recordings from this period (including the pivotal song Oh No) were collected in the 1970 album Weasels Ripped My Flesh.
During the late Sixties Zappa continued his rapid artistic development, emerging as a superb lead guitarist, a skilled producer and engineer, and a composer and arranger of extraordinary range and facility. He increasingly used tape editing as a compositional tool; his editing skills are apparent on the work he produced in the late Sixties with The Mothers. Allegedly, a theremin was used at some live performance making use of the unique sound characteristic.
Zappa evolved a unique compositional approach — which he dubbed 'conceptual continuity' — that ranged across virtually every genre of music. His work combines satirical lyrics and pop melodies with virtuoso instrumental prowess, where long, jazz-inflected improvisational passages are counterbalanced with densely edited and seemingly chaotic collage sequences that mix music, sound effects and snatches of conversation. Conceptual continuity clues are to be found throughout Zappa's entire oeuvre.
He also became famous for regularly quoting musical phrases that influenced or amused him — one of his most famous and regular quotes was the riff from the perennial Sixties rock hit 'Louie Louie', which appears in various forms in more than twenty separate recordings over the whole span of his career. He also frequently quoted from or referred to TV show themes and advertising jingles, from famous rock & pop songs such as My Sharona, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?, Let's Dance, Whip It, and Stairway To Heaven, and from classical works such as Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring" and Ravel's "Boléro."
Zappa earned a fearsome reputation as a ruthless taskmaster who possessed a seemingly limitless capacity for work (he regularly worked as much as twenty hours a day in the studio until very late in his career) who also possessed immense technical knowledge and a photographic memory of the contents of his vast archive.
The Mothers' anarchic stage shows were legendary — during one famous 1967 performance at the Garrick Theatre in New York, Zappa managed to entice some soldiers from the audience onto the stage, where they proceeded to dismember a collection of baby dolls, having been told by Zappa to imagine that they were "gook" children.
Around 1968 Zappa also began regularly recording his concerts, beginning with a simple two-track portable recorder and eventually progressing to a portable 48-track digital system. In the process he built up a vast archive of live recordings. In the late 1980s some of the best of these recordings were collected for the 12-CD set You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. Because of his insistence on precise tuning and timing in concert, from the 1970s on Zappa was able to augment his studio productions with excerpts from live shows, and he is known to have inserted 'live' guitar solos into the final studio recordings of some compositions, a process he dubbed "xenochrony".
Although they were lauded by critics and their peers and had a rabid cult following, mainstream audiences often found much of the Mothers' music, appearance and attitude impossible to comprehend, and the band was often greeted with derision. More importantly, the financial strain and interpersonal tensions involved in keeping a large jazz-rock ensemble on the road eventually led to the group's demise in 1969, although numerous members would remain with or return to Zappa in years to come.
During this period Zappa also produced the extraordinary double album Trout Mask Replica for his old friend Captain Beefheart as well as releases by Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, Wild Man Fischer and The GTOs.
After he disbanded the original Mothers, Zappa released the acclaimed solo instrumental album Hot Rats, featuring his jazz-inflected guitar playing backed by jazz, blues and R&B session players including violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris, drummer John Guerin, multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, and bassist Shuggie Otis. It remains one of his most popular and accessible recordings and unarguably had a major influence on the development of the jazz-rock fusion genre.
Around 1970, Zappa put together a new version of The Mothers that included British drummer Aynsley Dunbar, jazz keyboardist George Duke, previous Mothers member Ian Underwood, and no fewer than three members of The Turtles: bass player Jim Pons, who before joining The Turtles had been the lead singer of The Leaves (of "Hey Joe" fame); and singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who due to persisting legal/contractual problems adopted the stage-monikers "The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie," or "Flo & Eddie" for short.
The new lineup debuted on Zappa's next solo LP Chunga's Revenge, which was followed by the sprawling soundtrack to the movie project 200 Motels, featuring both The Mothers and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. At the time George Duke was in the band and appears both in the film and on the soundtrack as a musician. He left the band to play with Cannonball Adderly and was replaced by Don Preston from the original Mothers, who acted in the film, but is not playing on the soundtrack. This double disc album was followed by two live sets, Fillmore East - June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A., which included the 20-minute track Billy The Mountain, Zappa's satire on rock opera, set in Southern California. The former features hilariously low-concept cover art (similar to the bootleg albums that had recently become popular) just at the apex of the era of great rock "album cover artwork".
In 1971 there were two serious setbacks. While performing in Montreux, Switzerland, the Mothers' equipment was destroyed when a flare set off by an audience member started a disastrous fire that burned down the casino where they were playing —an event immortalised in Deep Purple's classic song Smoke On The Water. The actual event and immediate aftermath can be heard on the bootleg album Swiss Cheese / Fire, released legally as part of Zappa's Beat the Boots compilation.
Then in December 1971, Zappa was attacked on stage at the Rainbow Theatre, London. A jealous boyfriend of a female fan pushed Frank off the stage and into the orchestra pit. Zappa suffered serious fractures, head trauma and injuries to his back, leg, and neck, as well as a crushed larynx (which caused his voice to drop a third after it healed). This left him wheelchair bound for a time, forcing him off the road for over a year. (He was wearing a leg brace for a period thereafter, had a noticeable limp and couldn't stand for very long while onstage.) He said one leg healed "shorter than the other" (a reference found years later in the lyrics of Dancin' Fool). He employed tour bodyguard John Smothers, who was an accomplished martial artist, former military chauffeur and bodyguard for several big-name celebrities. Meanwhile, the Mothers were left in limbo, and eventually formed the core of Flo and Eddie's band as they set out on their own.
In 1971-72 Zappa released two strongly jazz-oriented solo LPs, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, which were recorded during the layoff from live concert touring, using floating lineups of session players and Mothers alumni. He began touring again in late 1972, first with a scaled-down version of the big band appearing on Grand Wazoo - appropriately known as 'Petit Wazoo'. Official recordings of this band would not emerge until more than 30 years later on Imaginary Diseases (2006). Then he formed groups that variously included Ian Underwood (reeds, keyboards), Ruth Underwood (vibes, marimba), Sal Marquez (trumpet, vocals), Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, flute and vocals), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), Ralph Humphrey (drums), George Duke (keyboards, vocals) and Jean-Luc Ponty (violin).
He continued a high rate of production through the early 1970s, including the excellent and accessible albums One Size Fits All and Apostrophe, Over-Nite Sensation and Roxy & Elsewhere featuring ever-changing versions of a band though still called the Mothers. These albums were notable for the highly technical jazz-fusion the band was renowned for, demonstrated on such pieces as Don't You Ever Wash That Thing or the Be-Bop Tango.
In the mid 70's Zappa began recording material for Läther (pronounced "leather"), an ambitious four-LP studio project extravaganza. Läther featured all aspects of Zappa's musical styles —rock tunes, theatrical works, complex instrumental compositions, and Zappa's own trademark tube distortion-drenched guitar solos were all recorded for the release. What happened next is subject to debate.
According to popular theory (and the liner notes of the posthumous release of Läther itself in 1996), he had completed the recording for the album when Warner Brothers Records executives, wary of a quadruple-LP, decided not to support the project. Zappa soon appeared on the (at the time) influential Los Angeles radio station KPFK, allowing them to broadcast the whole album and instructing listeners to make their own tape recordings. Soon after, some of the material from Läther was officially released on Zappa in New York. After a legal battle with Warner, in order to satisfy his contract, Zappa allowed the label to release most of the remaining music on three separate LPs, but he had little input beyond that. The records Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites were dumped on the market with no promotion and only cheaply produced (but exquisite) cover art by Gary Panter. These albums nevertheless include some classic Zappa tunes like "RDNZL", "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary", "Sleep Dirt" and "The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution."
An alternative theory of the Läther debacle was that upon completing the four aforementioned albums (Zappa in New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites), Zappa turned the albums in at once, to complete his contract. Warner Brothers balked at releasing five new LPs (Zappa in New York being a double album) of a single artist at once, fearing that the LPs would cut into each other's sales. Perturbed at what he felt was record label ineptitude, Zappa shipped the albums to other competing record labels. Somewhere along the line it was decided that one triple album would be more appealing than four standalone albums, and with some editing and tape splices, Läther was born. This theory is supported by the fact that each of the "Läther babies" is a fully realized concept of its own (the live album Zappa in New York, Sleep Dirt, which was later overdubbed with lyrics and turned into an operetta, the "mini-sampler" feel of Studio Tan, and the orchestral works on the aptly named Orchestral Favorites), and, with the exception of Studio Tan, each features songs unreleased on Läther. If the former theory is true, one would have to wonder how Warner Brothers (a label Zappa publicly disliked) managed to secure unreleased material from Zappa. Läther was finally re-constructed and released in its original form in 1996.
In 1976 the cessation of cordial relations with Zappa's long-time manager Herb Cohen also occurred. The breakup was an acrimonious affair; exacerbated by Zappa's ongoing feud with Warner Brothers staff. Cohen had created DiscReet Records with Zappa as a label of Warner Brothers, in order to be used as a business venture to aid funding of Zappa albums. Zappa however discovered that Cohen had been skimming more than he was allocated from the label, and he also alleged that Cohen had used some of Frank's money to fund recordings for other artists such as Captain Beefheart. Cohen filed a lawsuit against Zappa in return, due to Zappa taking the master copies of Zoot Allures directly to Warner, thus bypassing DiscReet completely. While it is unknown what became of the lawsuits, with both parties remaining tight-lipped about the affair, Zappa and Cohen would never work together again.
It was during the Läther period that Zappa recruited Ike Willis as a lead singer and backup guitarist. Zappa's 1970s period ended with the releases of the highly regarded Joe's Garage, which heavily featured Willis as voice of "Joe", and Sheik Yerbouti (a satirical word play on the KC & The Sunshine Band song Shake Your Booty) (1979), which contained Zappa classics such as Dancin' Fool, Bobby Brown (Goes Down), Flakes, Broken Hearts are for Assholes, as well as Jewish Princess, which received some controversial attention. Joe's Garage is considered to be one of Zappa's definitive achievements of the period. It features a coherent story line about the supression of freedom of speech (and music), and mixes catchy songs like "Catholic Girls," "Lucille" (an old Jeff Simmons song), and the title track, with long guitar solos taken from live concerts and mixed with studio material (cf. the aforementioned process "xenochrony"). Finally, the album contains what would become one of Zappa's most famous signature guitar pieces, "Watermelon in Easter Hay." Sheik Yerbouti was a commercial success, though many tracks were composed or largely recorded live during the Läther period of 1977. In fact, almost every track on Sheik Yerbouti uses live backing tracks recorded during the 1977–1978 tour, with varying amounts of studio overdubs added. Also, the "xenochrony" process is featured, in particularly on the final song "Yo' Mama."
According to Zappa's record company Rykodisc: "Bobby Brown Goes Down" is perhaps the oddest of Zappa's successes. This colorful tale of a young man's encounter with a dyke named "Freddie" would never get airplay in the US, but it reached the top of the charts in Sweden, Norway and Austria, was Top Ten in Germany and remains a favorite in territories where English is not the primary language. Said Zappa to Matt Groening in a 1992 Guitar World interview, "I don't think anything has outsold Sheik Yerbouti, partly because "Bobby Brown" keeps becoming a hit every ten years… I think it was back on the charts again in Norway. For no apparent reason, it was back."
In 1980, Zappa helped former band members Warren Cuccurullo, Terry Bozzio and Patrick O'Hearn launch their new band, Missing Persons, by letting them record their 4-song demo EP in his brand new UMRK (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) studios. In 1981, the double album You Are What You Is was released, featuring 19 songs, which included such complex instrumentals as "Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear", but mainly focused on rock songs with Zappa's sardonic social commentary. "Dumb All Over", is an example of this, being a devastating tirade on religion, as is "Heavenly Bank Account", wherein Zappa rails against people such as Jerry Falwell for relying upon the US administration to finance the religious organization, the 'Moral Majority', whilst simultaneously embezzling the funds. The album is also notable for the presence of guitar virtuoso Steve Vai who joined Zappa's touring band in the Fall of 1980.
In the same year, Tinsel Town Rebellion was released, a mixture of songs taken from a 1979 tour, one studio track and the rest were taken from the last tour of 1980. The album is a mixture of complicated instrumentals, of which "The Blue Light" is a salient example, demonstrating Vinnie Colaiuta's dexterity around a drum kit, and Zappa's use of sprechstimme (speaking voice), a compositional technique utilized by such composers as Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg.
1981 also saw the release of three instrumental albums Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar Some More, and The Return of the Son of Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar. As the titles reveal, these albums focus exclusively on Frank Zappa as a guitar soloist. Frank Zappa's guitar solos had been a trademark during his career, and now he decided to satisfy those who could not get enough. The tracks on the albums are predominantly from 1979-80, and highlights Zappa's exceptional improvisational skills and unique sound. The albums were subsequently released as a 3-album box set, and were in 1988 followed by the album Guitar focusing on recordings from 1981-82 and 1984. A third guitar-only album, Trance-Fusion, was completed by Zappa shortly before his death, but an official release is still pending.
In May of 1982, Zappa released Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, which featured his biggest selling single, Valley Girl (topping out at #32 on the Billboard charts). In her improvised "lyrics" to the song, Zappa's daughter Moon Unit satirized the vapid speech of teenage girls from the San Fernando Valley. Naturally, this led to the meme-like propagation of "Valspeak" such as gag me with a spoon and barf out.
1983 saw the release of two different projects, The Man From Utopia a rock-oriented work, striking for its album cover, portraying Zappa as a muscle-bound, demonic guitarist (playing for a disorganized crowd, which symbolizes the riots occuring during Zappa's last concert of 1982 in Sicily). The album itself is eclectic, featuring the vocal-led 'Dangerous Kitchen' & 'The Jazz Discharge Party Hats', both continuations of the sprechstimme excursions shown on "Tinseltown Rebellion". "Tink Walks Amok" is a piece to exhibit Arthur Barrow's capabilities on the bass guitar, and doo-wop songs such as the title track and "Mary Lou". The second album was the first fully orchestral recording of Zappa pieces, something he had been waiting to accomplish for some time. Conducted by Kent Nagano and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, it featured the compositions "Sad Jane," "Pedro's Dowry," and "Mo 'n Herb's Vacation." A second record of these sessions saw release in 1987, containing "Bogus Pomp." Both albums are available currently as a double compact disc set.
After a break Zappa returned, and much of his later work was influenced by his use of the synclavier as a compositional and performance tool and his mastery of studio techniques for producing specific instrumental effects. His work was also more explicitly political satirising the rise of television evangelists and the Republican party.
On September 19, 1985, Zappa testified before the US Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation committee, attacking the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC, a music censorship (though others would say watchdog) organization founded by then-Senator Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore and including many other political wives, including the wives of five members of the committee. He said;
"The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design.
"It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation."
Zappa put some excerpts from the PMRC hearings to music in his composition Porn Wars. Zappa is heard interacting with Senators Fritz Hollings, Slade Gorton, Al Gore (who admitted to being a Zappa fan), and, most notably, a funny exchange with Florida Senator Paula Hawkins over what toys the Zappa children played with. Zappa would also go on to argue with PMRC representatives on the CNN's Crossfire in 1986 and 1987.
The album Jazz From Hell, released in 1986, brought Zappa his first Grammy Award in 1988 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Except for one live guitar solo, the album exclusively featured compositions brought to life by the synclavier.
His last tour in a "rock band format" took place in 1988 with a 12-piece group which was reported to have a repertoire of over 200 (mostly Zappa) compositions, but which split in acrimonious circumstances before the tour was completed. The tour was documented on the albums The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life (Zappa "standards" and obscure cover tunes), Make a Jazz Noise here (mostly instrumental and experimental music), and Broadway The Hard Way (new material featuring songs with strong political emphasis). Bits are also found on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 6.
In the early 1990s Zappa devoted almost all of his energy to modern orchestral and synclavier works. In 1991, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Although ill, in 1992 he appeared as a guest conductor with the Ensemble Modern in a series of concerts in Germany devoted to his compositions, recordings from which appeared on The Yellow Shark. It was revealed before he had been diagnosed with the cancerous tumor, that he had planned to run for President of the United States, perceiving what he thought to be a fascist bias in American politics.
During these years, he edited numerous CD collections of concert recordings made throughout his career. In 1993, he completed Civilization, Phaze III, a major synclavier work he had begun in the 1980s. He stated in interviews that he was working on hundreds of synclavier pieces, most of which remained unfinished.
Frank Zappa died on December 4, 1993, age 52 of prostate cancer, and was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. His grave is unmarked, although its location is known among fans and can be found on the Internet.
Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That same year the only known cast of Zappa was installed in the center of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Zappa was immortalized by Konstantinas Bogdanas, the famous Lithuanian sculptor who had previously cast portraits of Vladimir Lenin. In 2002, a bronze bust was installed in a square in Bad Doberan, a small town in the north of Germany, where, since 1990, there has been an international festival celebrating the music of Frank Zappa, the "Zappanale". Zappa received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.
* Zappa was married twice, once to Kay Sherman (1959–1964; no children), and then to Gail (Sloatman) Zappa, with whom he remained until his death. They have four children: Moon Unit, Dweezil (born Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa, for Ian Underwood, and Motorhead Sherwood, because the hospital refused to put Dweezil on the birth certificate; Dweezil later legally changed his name to "Dweezil"), Ahmet Emuukha Rodan (named for Atlantic Records exec Ahmet Ertegun), and Diva Muffin. As a guest on The Tonight Show, chatting with guest-host Jay Leno, Zappa was asked why he had given his children such unusual names. Zappa answered, in a casual tone of voice, "Because I wanted to!" When asked the same question by Joan Rivers, he urged her to "consider for a moment any beauty in the name Ralph." Zappa once said in an interview that if their names ever gave them problems, it would be because of the last name.
* He made an appearance on The Steve Allen Show in 1963. This appearance featured Frank demonstrating the wide scope of percussion by playing the spokes of a spinning bicycle wheel with drum sticks. Steve Allen commented years later, after Frank was well known, that Frank was on his show once and had destroyed an automobile on stage.
* An old rumor states that at some point in the 1960s, Zappa once won a gross-out contest by eating his own excrement on stage. Snopes.com has said the incident never occurred, and Zappa himself refutes the claim, noting, "For the record, folks: I never took a shit on stage, and the closest I ever came to eating shit anywhere was at a Holiday Inn buffet in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1973."
* Zappa made a cameo appearance in the 1968 film starring the Monkees, Head with a talking cow. He also made a cameo appearance on an episode of the Monkees TV series entitled "The Monkees Blow Their Minds" (air date: 3/11/68). Here, he was shown "playing" a car by beating it into submission. This is done in a Monkees-style montage to the Zappa song "Mother People" after being interviewed by Monkee Michael Nesmith. Zappa agreed to appear on the show provided he could be Nesmith. Nesmith liked the idea, so long as he could be Zappa. The two wore cheap, exaggerated disguises and the interview was performed as if Mike was Frank and Frank was Mike.
* In the 70s, Ann Landers listed the ten most obscene rock songs. Three of Franks songs made the list ("Jewish Princess" "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and "Dirty Love.")
* Music from his early albums with The Mothers Of Invention is used in the 1969 film Medium Cool
* He appeared on Dick Cavett's interview show in the early 1970's with the Flo and Eddie version of the band, and other interview shows.
* Zappa retrieved the burnt and broken parts of the Fender Stratocaster guitar that Jimi Hendrix destroyed onstage at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival. After Hendrix's death in 1970, Zappa rebuilt the instrument and played it extensively during the 1970s and 1980s. In 2002, Zappa's son Dweezil put the guitar up for auction in the U.S., hoping it would fetch $1 million, but it failed to sell.
* Zappa was the guest host and musical guest of the October 21, 1978 show of Saturday Night Live. His sense of humor alienated him from the cast and his mugging-to-the-camera performance has led to Lorne Michaels never allowing the show to be shown in repeats or on video. In the same show he portrayed Connie Conehead's date.
* On December 6, 1976, Zappa introduced Black Sabbath at their Madison Square Garden concert. This announcement is featured on a Black Sabbath bootleg album. He once declared Sabbath's "Iron Man" (Paranoid, 1970) the greatest ever rock track, he would later change his choice of track to "Supernaut" from the group's Vol.4 Album (1972) A jam was once organised featuring Sabbath and Zappa, Sabbath however pulled out. Though technical difficulties were cited, it has been rumoured Sabbath lead guitarist Tony Iommi was not comfortable with sharing guitar duties with Zappa.
* He appeared on What's My Line?
* He also appeared on the TV show Crossfire in 1986, and implied that American politics had a fascist theocratic inclination. He used a curse word during the show against John Lofton, after Lofton accused him of producing obscene songs which constituted a real danger for children and society.
* He played a drug dealer in the episode "Payback" of Miami Vice.
* Every year since 1989, the Zappanale Festival held in Germany will invite fans to celebrate the music of Frank Zappa. Tribute Bands, often led by ex-members of the different Zappa bands, will perform Zappa's music for three days.
* In 1990, Zappa visited Czechoslovakia at the request of President Václav Havel, one of his lifelong fans, and was asked by Havel to serve as Special Amabassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism. Zappa enthusiastically agreed and began meeting with corporate officials interested in investing in Czechoslovakia. He told The Nation "You don't have to know about international financing. You just have to know about composition." Bush administration officials pressured Havel to withdraw the appointment, but Havel made Zappa an unofficial cultural attaché anyway.
* Zappa was the voice of the Pope in the 1992 Ren and Stimpy episode Powdered Toast Man.
* After his death an internet email campaign to the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center led to an asteroid being named in his honor: 3834 Zappafrank, the asteroid having been discovered by Czech astronomers. Since then other things have been named in his honor including: another asteroid (16745 Zappa), a gene (ZapA gene of Proteus mirabilis, a microbe that causes urinary tract infections), a goby fish (Zappa confluentus), a jellyfish (Phialella zappa), an extinct mollusc (Amauratoma zappa), and a spider with an abdominal mark supposedly resembling Zappa's mustache (Pachygnatha zappa).
* The television cartoon show Duckman featured the voice of Zappa's son Dweezil and Zappa's music.
* Zappa's music and cult status play an important role in Kenneth Lonergan's play, This Is Our Youth.
* In 1995 a series of Intel PC motherboards were named after him.
* His song "Dirty Love" was used in the 1997 film The Ice Storm, and "Watermelon In Easter Hay" was used in the 2001 film Y tu mamá también.
* Zappa is mentioned in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "Manos: The Hands of Fate", and the episode "Village of the Giants" was dedicated in memorium to him. Kevin Murphy, one of the writers and performers on the show, is an admitted lifelong fan.
* In January 2006, the city of Berlin renamed a Street 13 in the Marzahn district the "Frank-Zappa-Straße."
* The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening is a fan.
* Zappa's easy recognisable face and appearance have made him an popular character in several comic strips:
o He was referenced in several comics of French comic artist Gotlib where for instance scouts leader Hamster Jovial listens to 200 Motels. When he hears the track Penis Dimension he decides to measure his own penis.
o The Belgian cartoonist Kamagurka made a comic strip in the seventies starring Zappa. He once met Zappa after a concert and showed him a comic he drew about him, only with empty text balloons. Zappa then filled in a text.
o Zappa also appeared as an evil professor in the album, Het Beest Zonder Naam (The Beast Without A Name)(1985) in the Belgian comic series Nero by Marc Sleen. In another Nero album, De Zwarte Toren (The Black Tower) (1983) he appears as a robber who together with a gang threatens to attack Jan Spier, the strong french fries seller. And in the Nero album "Doe De Petoe" (1994) his face is seen against a wall in a music business center where one also recognises the faces of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and Flemish charm singer Eddy Wally.
* For years the Belgian magazine Humo had a running gag whenever Zappa was interviewed or mentioned in their articles. Due to chief editor Guy Mortier's physical resemblance with the rock artist they were always compared or mistaken for each other.
* The character Zappa in the fighting game Guilty Gear XX is a reference to him.
* He is referenced in the songs:
o "Winds of Change" - The Animals
o "Smoke on the Water" and "MTV" by the legendary British Hard Rock band, Deep Purple.
o "Sucede" by the Spanish Hard Rock band, Extremoduro.
o "Ouija" by the Spanish band, Gigatron.
o "Censorshit" by the Ramones.
o "Blood from a Clone" by George Harrison.
o "Thanks" by Sublime (on the 40 Oz. to Freedom album).
o "Scrapbook" by Chicago
o "Weihnachtskaat Vun Nem Flittche Vum Eijetstein" by The Piano has been Drinking.
o "Genius in France" - Weird Al Yankovic on the Poodle Hat album. The song parodies Jerry Lewis in the Frank Zappa musical style.
o "Art School Canteen" from "L" by Godley & Creme - "Does getting into Zappa / mean getting out of Zen?"
o "Зачем?" ("What for?") by the Russian band Aquarium.
o "Corporation Combo Boys" by the Dutch "Canterbury Scene" group Supersister (on their "Present from Nancy" album).
o "Walropus" by Microwave Mangos
* In Sim City 3000, one of the buildings that appears in industrial zones is called "Utility Muffin Research"
Note on his name
As his autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book notes, his real name was "Frank", never "Francis". Until rediscovering his birth certificate as an adult, Zappa himself believed he had been christened Francis, and he is credited as Francis on some of his early albums. Some encyclopedias still incorrectly claim that his real name was "Francis".
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