Frank Zappa

A musician who fought against censorship and conventions.

Guitarist, singer and composer, Zappa greatly exceeded the boundaries of rock to create a monumental body of work, with more than a hundred albums and compositions, which do not resemble anything or anyone other than his own, unmistakable Zappa sound.

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In the impressive Musée de la Musique, Paris, which brings together more than 9,000 original instruments of all times, there are in the sector dedicated to the TWENTIETH century, one particularly striking, a huge synth E-mu, full of buttons and consoles.

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The copy of the Museum was designed especially for Frank Zappa in 1976 and is one of the devices most elaborate and complex ever manufactured by E-mu. It was donated in 1992 by the musician a few months before his early death from cancer (the December 4, 1993 , at 52 years), and the text that accompanies the instrument informs that Zappa used especially in his song “Frogs with Dirty Little Lips” from the album Them or Us , released in 1984.

The presence of this instrument in a prominent place, a collection so vast and prestigious is representative of the importance of the music of Frank Zappa, a guitarist, singer and songwriter who exceeded the long borders of the rock to form a body of work is monumental , with more than a hundred albums and compositions, which do not resemble anything or anyone that wasn’t his own, unmistakable sound Zappa.

In any case, the fact that the synthesizer E-mu at the Musée de la Musique is accompanied by sirens and percussion instruments, also of Zappa, can give you an idea of the first influences in his compositions, mainly for the French Edgar Varèse , a music that came to their ears, almost by chance, in his early teens.

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But that was just the starting point for a musician is unique and unclassifiable, who always challenged all sorts of boundaries. The musical itself, crossing styles and genres, but also the market in the face of the record companies (until they created their own music labels), and the censorship of the media, radio stations, and TV in particular, which resulted with lyrics that went beyond sex, and eschatology to venture into the field of the more acidic than social criticism.

There was an author more satirical Zappa on the “American way of life” and “mass media”, which included of course the rock culture, their estrellatos and his “groupies”. It could be said that Zappa was in the TWENTIETH century that Jonathan Swift in the EIGHTEENTH century: a pen that was also a dagger.

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Already in their first album, the legendary Freak Out! (1966) -considered the first double album’s conceptual rock – the initial theme, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”, said: “Mr. America, it passes by your schools that do not teach / Mr. America, walk on by the minds that won’t be reached / Mr. America tries to hide the emptiness inside you / But once you discover the way that you told a lie / And all the tricks cheesy one you tried / do Not avoid the rising tide of freaks hungry!”

The paradox of that first album, performed together with the band The Mothers of Invention -a set that already existed with a different name, but to which he gave back as a half and what made its own – is that the music had all the seasonings basics of rhythm and blues, doo-wop and the blues rockers of the era, to which Zappa to get them added to complex orchestral arrangements and collages from the so-called “concrete music” , where they are used sounds pre-recorded and then manipulated. Amen to that of the musical events, which were then a constant in his work, such as for example “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, the Stones into the opening chords of the very “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”.

The scene was then the Los Angeles of the mid – ’60s, when it was blowing strong winds of the counter-culture, yet are made to feel the influence of the poetry beatnik and on the West coast were expanding psychedelia and the racing pacifist, of which Zappa would be one of the first to scoff, because everything, absolutely everything that happened in the popular culture of his country was examined under the magnifying glass of his humor vitriolic . In this context, Zappa released once and for all with a sham scathing about the rock and the united States at the time.

“All the songs from Freak Out! they referred to something in particular,” he wrote years later in The Real Frank Zappa Book . “It was not as if we have a simple and successful we needed to build some filler around it. Each subject had a function within a concept satirical general”.

But California –where he had come to be imprisoned for six months (“My best education policy was in jail,” he said, ” any time)- not enjoyed nor understood his music and his humor corrosive. He then decided to move his band to New York and made of the Garrick Theater as their base of operations, with shows almost every night, where experienced live everything that would then have to bring to the vinyl. “Sometimes we rehearsed and played for 10 or 12 hours straight, because the compositions of Frank were very complex, and he was a perfectionist,” says in the documentary Zappa (2020) the sax Bunk Gardner, who was part of the initial stage of The Mothers of Invention.

Both as a composer and guitarist, Zappa was a self-taught and grew up listening to Webern, Stravinsky and Varèse (“Never interested me Beethoven or Mozart”) and to the bluseros black Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Guitar Slim, Elmore James, Lowell Fulson, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. A taste he shared with his childhood friend Don Van Vliet, who then became known as the mysterious singer and harmonica player, Captain Beefheart, who years later would make a powerful live album titled Bongo Fury (1975), in addition to collaborations occasional Hot Rats (1969) and Zoot Allures (1976).

The list of great albums of Zappa is almost countless , because the man was growing and changing constantly, as if it were a plant that is triggered of ideas, that I would be adding instrumentalists virtuous and textures and colors unpublished in the field of rock music.

In the case of the xilofonista Ruth Underwood, who joined the band Zappa for more than a decade, between 1967 and 1977, with high points on the album Over-Nite Sensation (1973), Apostrophe (‘) (1974), Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), One Size Fits All (1975) and the extraordinary live album (and retouching in the studio) Zappa in New York (1978), where she is listed as a percussionist and “in charge of several overdubs humanly impossible”.

It can also be seen in the experimental film 200 Motels (1971), produced and directed by Zappa, the first feature film american made on videotape, which allowed him to “intervene,” the images in the same way that forever altered the sounds, making the endless possibilities of a recording studio, an instrument more.

The clashes with the press and censorship were a constant in the life of Zappa , which irked some, and to others. The first spent a lapidary phrase, that he never was spared: “The greater part of the journalism rock consists of people who do not know how to write, that does interviews with people who do not know how to talk, for people who do not know how to read”.

And the record companies that were reluctant to promote their albums, their songs with allusions to sexual topics, I gave the following reflection: “What can you think of a society that is so primitive that it clings to the belief that certain words in language are so powerful that they could corrupt you the moment you hear them?”

In fact, Zappa embarked on a personal crusade against censorship in the united States. The September 19, 1985, he testified before a Committee of the Senate of the united States, attacking the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), an ultraconservative organization co-founded by Tipper Gore, wife of then-senator Al Gore. The PMRC consisted of many wives of politicians, including the women of the five members of the committee, founded to censor the lyrics of songs with course content with sexual or satanic.

In its public statement in the Congress, Zappa stated: “the proposal of The PMRC is a stupidity ill-conceived that it doesn’t offer 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 problems of interpretation and application (…) the demands of The PMRC is equivalent to solve the problem of dandruff with a beheading.

A rating system, voluntary or not, opens the door to a parade of endless control programs. What would happen if the next group of wives of Washington require a large ‘J’ yellow on all material written or performed by jews, in order to save the defenceless children of the exposure to a doctrine of zionist hidden?”

To prove that there was in words, Zappa conceived a devastating triple album, Joe’s Garage (1987), no doubt one of the high points of his work, a caustic rock opera narrated by a sort of Big Brother orwellian named “Central Scrutinizer” (the Zappa) who knows the most intimate secrets of a boy from the suburbs of Los Angeles, which has so many problems with their garage band as with women, and that ends up being destroyed psychologically by a society is dystopian, authoritarian and punitive.

There is No institution –family, religion, State – save the acid humor that Zappa distributed along an album in which he shines not only as a guitarist (he was without a doubt one of the most virtuoso on his instrument, to which “sampleaba” in all possible ways), but also as a composer, making the whole rock history, always with a festive spirit critical (for case, the prosaic topic “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”has the treatment of the most solemn symphonic rock).

While continuing to publish a disk behind the other, through their own record company, his work was also recognized in the concert halls, and by the directors of the orchestra, more demanding, as the indian Zubin Mehta and the French composer Pierre Boulez , who with his Ensemble InterContemporain, interpreted music of Zappa in the famous IRCAM in Paris.

In 1992, Zappa was one of four composers (the other three were John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Alexander Knaifel) celebrated by the festival of contemporary music in Frankfurt. And in 1993, just a month before his death, he published his last album in life (until the day of today, will continue to appear new registrations and recordings): The Yellow Shark , a disc full of orchestral music with Zappa conducting his own music at the front of the Ensemble Modern.

“The set is amazing,” he enthused in his time Tom Waits, by way of epitaph. “Is there clarity, madness, and mastery. It is as if Frank had to Elmore James in her left hemisphere, and Stravinsky on his right side: dominates the music with the tools that are strange”.

Frank Zappa One of the Last Performances (Prague 1991)

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