Frank Zappa was one of the most accomplished composers of the rock era.
His music had an understanding of and appreciation for such figures as Stravinsky, Stockhausen and Varese with an affection for late 50s Doo Wop rock & roll, and a facility for the guitar-heavy rock that dominated US music in the 70s.
But Zappa was also a satirist whose reserves of scorn seemed bottomless, and whose wicked sense of humour and absurdity have delighted his fans, even when his lyrics crossed over the broadest bounds of good taste.
Finally, Zappa was perhaps the most prolific record-maker of his time, turning out massive amounts of music on his own Barking Pumpkin label after long, unhappy associations with industry giants like Warner Brothers and the MGM.
Frank Vincent Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland on 21 December 1940. His father, Francis Vincent Zappa Snr. – a Sicilian-born immigrant of Greek-Arab descent – was a scientist and had to move the family regularly depending on where his work took him – to Monterey, Pomona, then San Diego and Lancaster.
Zappa became interested in music at school – he started playing the drums when he was 12 and by his mid-teens was pursuing parallel interests in orchestral music and rhythm & blues – and continued his studies up through Chaffey College in California. He scored a couple of low-budget films and used the money to buy a low-budget recording studio.
In 1964 he joined a Los Angeles area bar band called The Soul Giants, which over the next two years evolved into the Mothers Of Invention who played songs written by Zappa.
The band was signed to MGM and recorded its first album, a two-LP set called Freak Out! (1966), which introduced Zappa’s interests in both serious music and pop as well as his scathing wit.
Subsequent albums extended the musical and lyrical themes of the debut – and the albums came frequently. Three LPs hit the charts in 1968; We’re Only In It For The Money, Sgt Pepper Lumpy Gravy (dosed with improvised dialogue recorded inside a piano!) and Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (on which the Mothers play neo-Doo Wop).
Zappa disbanded the Mothers Of Invention in 1969 because he was tired of playing for “people who clap for all the wrong reasons” (?).
By 1971, Zappa was back on the road with a new version of The Mothers, featuring former Turtles lead singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo and Eddie) as frontmen.
The lineup moved the group more in the direction of X Rated comedy, notably on the album Fillmore East June 1971.
Zappa’s film “mockumentary” about rock & roll life on the road, 200 Motels, was released in 1971.
Also in 1971, during Zappa’s set at the Montreux Casino on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland on 3 December, an audience member seeking to enhance the band’s special effects, fired a flare gun into the wings and started a fire that destroyed the building.
While Zappa played a major part in shepherding the crowd to safety, The Mothers had $50,000 of equipment destroyed.
Members of Deep Purple (who were at the gig as they were waiting to begin recording an album in the venue the next day) retired to the terrace of their hotel to watch the blaze. Downdrafts from the mountains pushed the fire out over the lake, inspiring Deep Purple to pen Smoke On The Water – one of hard rock’s most enduring anthems.
Zappa’s problems were only beginning. A week later (during a performance at the Rainbow Theatre in London) the jealous boyfriend of an ardent female fan jumped on stage and shoved Zappa off the stage and into the orchestra pit.
He fractured his skull, broke his leg in several places and had to spend nine months in a wheelchair.
While he recovered, Zappa released several albums, then he re-formed The Mothers with himself as lead singer and made pop/rock albums such as Overnite Sensation, which were among his best-selling records ever.
By the end of the 70s, Zappa was recording on his own labels and had attracted a considerable cult following for both his humour and his complex music – Zappa’s band became a training ground for high quality rock musicians.
In the 80s, Zappa gained the rights to his old albums and began to re-issue them, at first on his own and then through the pioneering Rykodisc CD label.
He wrote his autobiography and embarked on a world tour in 1988, which was to be the end of his live performing, except for such isolated appearances as one in Czechoslovakia at the invitation of its post-Communist president, Vaclav Havel.
In 1991, it was confirmed that Zappa had prostate cancer. The disease had been developing unnoticed for years and was considered inoperable by the time it was finally detected.
He succumbed to the disease on 4 December 1993, dying at his Los Angeles home, 17 days before his 53rd birthday.