Frank Zappa – The Mother of Invention

What’s the ugliest
Part of your body?
Some say your nose
Some say your toes
But I think it’s

Frank Zappa died on this day in 1993. To which one can only say, “Great Googly Moogly.” At 53, he was way too young. But if you ever see videos of him he seemed to be pretty much of a chain smoker.

There has never before been and likely will never be again another artist such as Zappa. His influences were as much Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky as they were ’50’s doo-wop or blues. He was not only a virtuoso guitarist (#22 on Rolling Stone guitar list), but he was also a self-taught composer. His compositions were complex and required the highest level of musicianship, sometimes being performed by orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta.

And yet at the same time, his sense of humor was rather puerile and his worldview was, in a word, bizarre. (For such an odd duck countercultural guy in the ’60’s one would expect major drug use. The truth is he was very anti-drug for himself and his band.) While Zappa was active in the ’60’s, my own personal exposure to him came more in the early ’70’s, an era I would argue was probably the height of his popularity.

A good  example of overall Zappa weirdness and perfect execution would be in the song “Montana,” wherein with perfect Zappa logic he says:

I might be movin’ to Montana soon
Just to raise me up a crop of
Dental Floss
Raisin’ it up
Waxin’ it down
In a little white box
That I can sell uptown

Those background female singers? Unbelievably, Tina Turner and the Ikettes, Ike Turner’s backup singers.

Zappa became an adherent, even a pioneer of, the nascent jazz-rock movement. A nice manifestation of this is an album he did called “Hot Rats.” One of my favorite songs from that album is the lead-off track, “Peaches en Regalia.” I recall that the American show Saturday Night Live used to sometimes use it either as background or transition music.

Doubtless the hip, countercultural sketch players on SNL thought that Zappa would be the perfect companion for their own brand of weirdness when they invited him to host the show in 1978. However, things didn’t go quite as planned and Zappa was subsequently banned from SNL. According to Wikipedia:

“Zappa was unpopular with the cast and crew through both rehearsals and taping of the episode, possibly in part because their lax views on drug and alcohol consumption did not mesh with his anti-drug stance …Throughout the episode, he regularly mugs for the camera and frequently notes to the audience that he is reading from cue cards.” And for no particular reason, you can find 13 minutes of his SNL appearance here.

Zappa didn’t always screw around. Sometimes he was just a straight-up player. In fact he has a whole series of albums called “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar.” Here’s a nice jam called “Apostrophe” from the album of the same name that features Jack Bruce on bass and Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominoes) on drums:

In the ’80’s, Zappa testified before the US Congress against the use of “Explicit Lyrics” labels on albums. His nemesis in this was Tipper Gore, then-Senator Al Gore’s wife. Zappa testified, in part, thusly:

“The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow “J” on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?

Oddly, the Gores and Zappa became friends. Frank’s wife Gail just passed away in October of this year. She was 70.

During his lifetime, FZ released 62 albums. His estate has released 38 posthumously for a grand total of 100.

I saw Dweezil Zappa playing his fathers’ material (“Zappa plays Zappa”) at the House of Blues not too long ago. Good show if a little overlong I thought. A little bit of Zappa goes a long way. Still, entertaining as anything and worth seeing,

Lastly, someone in Fresno, California is actually holding a Zappa Week celebration.  To which I’m sure Frank would say, “The crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe.”


Next post – The British Invasion

3 thoughts on “Frank Zappa – The Mother of Invention

  1. CB is a big fan of FZ’s music. I could fill up this comment space on how much i dig his stuff. He was right in the middle of all the Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson ….. music we discussed earlier. The ‘Apstrophe’ tune above is a killer. I wanted more of that from him. Also liked his collaborations with Captain Beefheart. His sense of humor was a bonus but his guitar playing always does it for me. All the great characters and players that cycled through his band. Another good piece Jim.


  2. Agree with all of that. Did you by any chance see the documentary ‘Eat That Question?’ It was out a short while ago. You would totally love it. Available on YouTube, iTunes, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey , we’re on the same page on a lot of music. Why I drop in. Good to hear takes on music that don’t get a lot of ink. Good reminders, new leads and missed music along the way. I know what my ear likes but always open to good new sounds. Yeah the Zappa doc is another one on the list. I’ll eventually get around to it. That’s two now counting the Brando doc. They’re like treats I’m saving.


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