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Where does one start when trying to sum up the life of Frank Vincent Zappa in under 800 words? Frankly it’s an impossibility as the workaholic released well in excess of 60 albums in his lifetime and ensured that 30 plus more would be available after his untimely death in December 1993. He was a songwriter, composer, guitarist, film director, producer (famously overseeing the seminal Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart), he was also a label owner (launching both Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer onto an unsuspecting world) and he even became the American cultural attaché to Czechoslovakia at the request of President Václav Havel as well as being a passionate and very vocal advocate for freedom of speech and the abolition of censorship. His music encompassed everything from old school jazz, doo-wop and rhythm and blues to the more challenging atonal 20th-century classical composers like Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, his songs lyrically see-sawing from poking fun at organised religion and mainstream education to deliberately provocative sexual and scatological references. To Zappa everything involved a performance of some kind or another, hell he even named his children Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva.

This writer first encountered Zappa’s music via his guitar teacher’s well worn copy of Apostrophe ('), being introduced to the joys of why it was not sensible to eat yellow snow, and the debilitating problems of bromhidrosis (look it up) however whilst the lyrics certainly chimed with a working class adolescent white rock fan the music was utterly unlike anything I had ever heard. Overnite Sensation, One Size Fits All and Roxy & Elsewhere were soon devoured (what the great googly moogly was a Penguin in Bondage? Why exactly was Evelyn, a Modified Dog and where the hell did you meet ladies like Dinah-Moe Humm?) and after adding the truly tremendous live album Bongo Fury (featuring Captain Beefheart) to my collection the back catalogue began to be trawled, only to find even more astonishing material like the beyond-psychedelic debut album Freak Out or the doo wop nuttery of Cruising with Ruben & the Jets and possibly the greatest album cover of all time gracing the live collection Weasels Ripped My Flesh. Each album introducing yet another side of Zappa’s extensive musical vocabulary and yet more laugh out loud lyrical insanity (as well as plenty of button-pushing gleeful nastiness).

Later albums would veer wildly between populist (or as populist as FZ ever gets), efforts like Sheik Yerbouti featuring classic liberal baiting tracks like ‘Jewish Princess’, ‘Bobby Brown’ and ‘Broken Hearts Are For Assholes’ (and is almost worth having for the Bob Dylan parody on ‘Flakes’ alone) and the far more convoluted instrumental albums Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites released in the same year (1979) - the latter two originally supposed to be part of the Läther box set that Warner Bros. refused to release - and if there were several missteps (The Man From Utopia, Them Or Us and Francesco Zappa are all very hit and miss affairs), there were also plenty more highlights including dramatic u-turns like the orchestral album The Yellow Shark and the largely solo Synclavier Digital Music System driven Jazz from Hell, plus his final live hard hitting satirical song cycle Broadway the Hard Way and yet another live gem uncovered due to his contract with Ryko, (wherein he had to put together 12 CDs worth of live material for the series You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore) with Vol. 2 given over to a Helsinki concert from 1974 featuring the band that first got this particular FZ fan over-excited in the first place (let’s raise a glass to Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, Ruth Underwood, Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson) which finds Zappa and band in particularly fine form - when a member of the audience requests the Allman Brothers song ‘Whipping Post’, a track Zappa regularly covered, he spontaneously rewrites the lyrics to ‘Montana’.

In a world where ever more desperate people are wheeled onto the television so that a panel with no discernible musical talent can decide whether or not they will be allocated their brief fling with fame artists like Frank Zappa are even more sorely missed, a true one off (and there are precious few of those around), who believed that musical boundaries were there to be pushed against and prejudices there to confronted and shot down. Life simply was not nearly long enough to encompass all that he wanted to achieve and when his live work-rate ground to a halt in the early ‘90s when he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer he retreated to the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (his home studio) to catalogue his burgeoning musical archive and complete his final studio album the difficult, but ultimately very rewarding, Civilization, Phaze III. He died on Saturday, December 4, 1993 and was interred in an unmarked grave at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles the following day.
Andy Basire

The Frank Zappa family finally regained all rights to FZ’s music in 2012 and a distribution deal with Universal will see all of the official Frank Zappa cataloge re-released and also released digitally for the first time, more info can be found at www.zappa.com

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Class Act Archive

A monthly retrospective look at the most Influential acts of the last fifty years.

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