This December it’ll be 20 years since Frank Zappa died. He was a truly great American composer. You can still get his albums – and a lot of stuff released since from his legendary ‘Vault’.
Popularly, Zappa was the potty-mouth wild man of rock whose songs provoked offence – especially ‘Catholic Girls’ and ‘Jewish Princess’. He always considered himself more an anthropologist, exposing the sordid heart of the music business in the sixties and seventies. Much of it was driven by his finely honed sense of the absurd; he was a satirist. He lampooned politicians, groupies, minorities and majorities alike. He ragged the music business and went to war with televangelists. He skewered rock stars, especially Peter Frampton whose subtle ‘I’m in you’ was thoroughly done over by Zappa’s ‘I have been in you’.
He also wrote songs about the importance of eating vegetables (‘Mr Green Genes’), dental hygiene (‘Montana’), B-movies (‘Cheepnis’), life on the road (‘Babette’, ‘Road Ladies’), and the dangers of living with huskies (‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow’).
Less well known was the fact that he was also one of the best producers of his day. His repute within the music industry was second to none. His compositions were pure genius, spanning the gamut from musiqe concrete to doowop, big-band jazz to rock, funk to orchestral. He wrote rock operas and musicals. He mixed and matched time signatures in ways that nobody before – or since – has matched. He invented xenochrony – one piece of music juxtaposed against another. He even released an album of synth baroque music, Wendy Carlos style. In Zappa’s case, it was his eighteenth century namesake Francesco Zappa.
By the time of his death he was recognised in Europe as a leading modern orchestral composer.
The musicians Zappa hired were the top of their profession. If you got a job with Zappa, you were guaranteed a job with anyone. Because you were one of the best around.
His secret? I think Zappa was dada-esque; his music flowed from collisions – collisions of rhythm, collisions of tone, and collisions of ideas. He transcended genre and medium to create an emotional experience for listeners. He showed us a way of approaching things that was not only different, but it provoked – provoked us to think, provoked emotion, provoked a response.
It is these collisions that artists strive for – to give life and meaning to their work, to give their work a dynamic, to lead people into it. Zappa was an absolute master.
That’s something all artists – as in, anybody who works in the arts – can learn from.
Matt Groening once referred to Zappa as his ‘Elvis’. He’s mine too.
Who’s your Elvis?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013