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Frank Zappa

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 About Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa was a professional provocateur, a gifted musician with a great love for doo-wop and R&B, an ambivalent attitude toward rock and a natural affinity for avant garde orchestral music. He worked all these forms into his own gumbo, sometime in an odd juxtaposition, leaving behind a huge and rowdy oeuvre. Zappa was also a rather mean satirist, often hitting the mark but just as often subverting his own aim. It's difficult to pin down the real Zappa as he moved between being the musician who created a genuine third stream music of rock and mod classical elements and the guy who contemptuously pandered to his audience with a bunch of dumb-ass doo-doo jokes.

Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1940. His early musical influences included '50s R&B and the post-classical avant garde, with a special fondness for the composer Edgard Varese, who was creating visionary soundscapes as early as the '20s (and into the '50s). In '64, Zappa, now in California, joined a band called the Soul Giants which he rechristened the Mothers.
They made their first recording for Verve in '66, the label adding Of Invention to their name. TMOI's first album, Freak Out! (all of Zappa's releases are available on Rykodisc) was also one of their best, with huge helpings of R&B, antic rock, social commentary and sound collages. It was a great record to get stoned to, which wasn't Zappa's fault--never a druggie, his commitment to experimentation was that of a dedicated musician, not someone interested in getting whacked and digging the weird sounds.

To make his disdain for the whole hippie thing as clear as possible, he made the trenchant We're Only In It For The Money ('68) which cleverly trashed the trendies of the day. He also released his first extended collage that year, Lumpy Gravy. The following year the Mothers made two more great albums--the alternately hilarious and instrumentally bold Uncle Meat, and the mostly instrumental Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Zappa also made the first of his many guitar-featured records that year, Hot Rats.

Post-1970 Zappa is problematic. There's still brilliant releases--Apostrophe ('74) was a high point--but the humor, which once seemed bracing and needed, is now threaded through with jokes reflecting his personal hang-ups with gays, women, confused teens (the latter being a large part of his audience after his big hit Over-Nite Sensation ('73) and just about anybody who wasn't Frank Zappa. But he also made some of his best instrumental music, both grandly orchestral and with smaller avant-garde oriented ensembles.

Plus there were the many releases centered around his guitar playing. Zappa the guitar player was the most likable of his several personae. Axe in hand the mad musicologist disappeared, replaced by a swaggering Romanticist, howling at the clouds and heaving a throbbing sensitivity. Part of this was in the tradition--most classic guitar heroes' best solos sound like a martyr's last speeches--but of all the music he made, it's here that the emotional core is least obscured by subterfuge. Working till the end, Frank Zappa died of cancer on December 4, 1993.
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