Frank Vincent Zappa, born 1940 in Baltimore USA, died 1993 in Los Angeles, was a composer, guitarist, bandleader, film maker, entrepreneur and satirist who began his recording career in 1966 with the Mothers Of Invention double album Freak Out – an unheard of extravagance for a new band in pop music and a forerunner to the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album, of some twelve months later.
From the word go, Zappa was an edgy, provocative and somewhat exotic figure in the world of rock ‘n roll. His musical influences alone marked him out as a maverick, from the contemporary classical works of Edgard Varese, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern to rhythm and blues artists such as Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Howlin’ Wolf and the esoteric records of vocal groups like The Channels, Don & Dewey, The Penguins and Jackie Dee and the Starlites. His command of these and many other different musical languages make him one of the significant musicians of the 20th century.
I’ve become familiar with a lot of his output over the past thirty years or so, and there is now a vast quantity of his material to evaluate. For this slightly morbid exercise of choosing one’s own funeral soundtrack, I’ve decided to whittle down to four those Frank Zappa songs I love and think best exemplify him. I’d be interested to hear the choices of any other Zappa fans:
*Strictly Genteel – the finale from the film 200 Motels, largely sung by Theodore Bikel. Several, alternate versions of this piece have been released since the original, recorded version in 1971 and one of my favourites is the selection from, appropriately enough, the Orchestral Favourites album. Staggering.
*Inca Roads – from the 1975 album One Size Fits All, this is a masterful mix of jazz, funk, wildly original electric guitar and the feverish interplay between a group of musicians thoroughly versed in Zappa’s compositional style and tightly woven by several months of rehearsal and live performance.
*Watermelon In Easter Hay – from the 1979 album Joe’s Garage Acts II & III; a quite conventional musical backdrop for Frank, even though the time signature of consecutive bars is 4/4 then 5/4. It nonetheless features him as a lead guitarist par excellence, ably abetted by the slide guitar atmospherics of Denny Walley and Vinnie Colaiuta’s sensitive drumming. A monumental achievement.
*The Black Page – from the individual album Zappa In New York, originally intended for the monstrous 4-record set, “Lather” that prompted a huge contractual dispute with the Warner Brothers label. A basic 4/4 time signature underpins the whole composition, but the dense polyrhythms that live within this framework render it savagely complex as a percussion piece, made slightly more accessible with the addition of its basic melody. I still struggle to understand how an ensemble first managed to play this…