Whether you know him as the novelty songwriter of ditties like “Yellow Snow” and “Valley Girl”, the crazy innovative musician that first showed up on the Steve Allen show playing a bicycle, the tireless free speech advocate the fought Tipper Gore and the PMRC in the 1980s, or just an all out guitar god, Frank Zappa really has something for everybody. Born on December 21st, 1940, the musical genius first started out in his band Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, with the album Freak Out, which turns fifty years old this June.
Freak Out was far from a commercial success, but it was popular with the rock and roll counter-culture. Containing amazing yet strange tracks like “Who Are the Brain Police” and “Help I’m a Rock”, he distinguished himself as having quite a different sound.
His next two albums with the Mothers, Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It For The Money, had a wide variation of sounds. Some of them, literally just tracks of sounds. Some people may find this off-putting, but it kind of adds to his mystique. Absolutely Free contains the track “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”, which is almost a mini rock opera in and of itself. A disturbing one of a guy who works at city hall fantasizing of having sex with a 13-year-old, mind you, but a fascinating one. We’re Only In It For The Money has tracks that seem almost prophetic. “Concentration Moon” and “Mom and Dad” sing of the cops killing creeps in the park, and Mom and Dad not caring. This was released in 1967, while Kent State happened in 1970. He has songs that play to both sides of the aisle on that album, while seemingly moving back to supporting the “creeps” and “freaks” at the end.
Zappa’s life was changed after two setbacks. First, at a concert in 1971, a flare was set off by an audience member and the casino where he was playing was burned down, causing him to lose tens of thousands of dollars in equipment. This event you may know from the song “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. The second happened at another concert, where an audience member pushed him off of the stage into the orchestra pit, and he suffered several fractures and a crushed larynx. His voice dropped a third because of these injuries. You may notice that after this, he produced a lot of jazz and instrumental tracks, and used other singers. He ended up having chronic back pain after this, as well as one leg that was shorter than the other, something he poked fun of in “Zomby Woof” and “Dancin’ Fool”.
Zappa put out a number of albums in the 1970s, and in this decade released what many consider to be his magnum opus: Joe’s Garage. It’s a concept album/rock opera that is about the suppression of freedom of speech and dangerous demagogic political systems, and was actually inspired in part by the Iranian revolution. The album even poked fun at Scientology. Its songs included “Catholic Girls”, “Lucille” and “Outside Now”, and was regarded by some to be his most cohesive output since he had worked with The Mothers of Invention.
Throughout the 80s, his music varied from classical works to novelty songs like “Valley Girl”, which he recorded with his daughter Moon Unit. It was in 1985 that Frank Zappa went to war with the PMRC, and he testified in front of the Senate in order to protect the free speech rights of musicians. The PMRC wanted to label albums with profane, violent, sexual, satanic or druggy lyrics, something that Frank Zappa referred to as “extortion”. He even set the audio of the testimony to the music of a Synclavier at the end of everything and released it as the album Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Prevention. After the PMRC won their battle, Zappa released an instrumental album that had a “Parental Advisory” label slapped on it, despite the fact that it had no vocals. Why, you ask? Because it had a track titled “G-Spot Tornado.”
Zappa was diagnosed with inoperable terminal prostate cancer In 1990. It had gone unnoticed for ten years, and he died in 1993 at the age of 52, a couple weeks shy of his 53rd birthday. In the years since, his family has released dozens of albums of never-before-heard Zappa material. In December 2016, right before his wife Gail died, his 100th album was put out. That kind of creative output is absolutely mind-boggling. So let’s raise a glass to Frank Zappa, American music legend, brilliant mind, and hero for free speech.