Frank Zappa: 10 facts that you may not know about the musician and composer of 200 motels
An eclectic composer to say the least and a musician always searching for independence, Frank Zappa remains to this day a major figure of 20th century, all genres included. Here are 10 facts that you may not know about this one-of-a-kind musician.
Not belonging to the hippies, the rockers, or the composers of serious American music, it is difficult to categorise the music of Frank Zappa (1940-1993). Always looking ahead, he who "makes all research in contemporary music pointless" (according to French television personality Antoine de Caunes) remains intangible by those that wish to study him more closely. Zappa himself stated that his varied musical works and styles are "all one album" (Rolling Stone, 1968). Where does one begin, therefore, in order to better understand this musical "freak"? Here are 10 things that you may not know about Frank Zappa...
He studied music by copying the scores of his idols
In the early 1950s, Frank Zappa began expressing a burning passion for music and percussion in particular. Having mastered the basic principles of drumming after several lessons, he joined various rhythm'n'blues bands. Though still a fan of percussion, he was gradually seduced by the guitar and its melodic capabilities, finally buying his own at the age of 18. Incapable of playing chords, he explored instead the melodic aspects of the instrument, which would later become a key element of his music: Zappa's harmony is always subservient to the melody.
"Want to be a composer? You don't even have to be able to write it down [...] If you can think design, you can execute design". Zappa believed that traditional music lessons were "an affront" to his creativity, and chose instead to study and copy by hand the orchestral scores of Stravinsky, Varèse, Webern, and Schoenberg, and compose his own chamber music. To the members of the ASUC (American Society of University Composers) he declared in 1984: "I do not belong to your organization. I know nothing about it. I'm not even interested in it".
Without Varèse, there would be no Zappa
In 1954, Zappa bought his first LP, the Complete works of Edgard Varèse Vol.1, and discovered the work for 13 percussionists Ionisation, a work whose influence would stay with him for the rest of his life. As a present for his 15th birthday, the young Frank wished for only one thing: to make a long-distance call to New York to speak to his idol Varèse (alas, the composer was on tour in Europe). Though Zappa managed eventually to reach the composer several weeks later, he would never meet the one at the heart of his musical passion.
Much like Varèse, Zappa avoided all compositional schools and ideologies. In 1971, as a tribute to the French composer, Zappa wrote an article for the publication Stereo Review, entitled "Edgard Varèse idol of my youth":
"I have been asked to write about Edgard Varèse. I am in no way qualified to. I can't even pronounce his name right. The only reason I have agreed to is because I love his music very much, and if by some chance this article can influence more people to hear his works, it will have been worthwhile."
Zappa, a fan of Dada
Suzy Creamcheese, Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, Ruben Sano, Obdewlla'X, Rondo Hatton... Frank Zappa surrounded himself with countless fictitious acolytes. Born with an extremely rich imagination, the music and in particular the lyrics of Frank Zappa describe worlds undoubtedly Dada in character, filled with strange objects and characters. However, behind these absurd titles and objects were often hidden meanings and a refined social commentary...
In 1963, a young Frank Zappa, sharply dressed (and with an even sharper mind) was invited onto the Steve Allen Show, a variety television show with regular guests including comedians, actors, and musicians such as Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Louis Jordan... What a surprise it must have been to see Frank Zappa arrive with two bicycles and drumsticks!
- "How long you been playing bike, Frank?", asks Steve Allen.
- "About two weeks", answers Zappa, without skipping a beat.
Frank Zappa, have you met Francesco Zappa?
In November 1984 appeared the album Francesco Zappa. Recorded entirely on Synclavier (a new synthesiser keyboard), the album is a collection of the chamber music works of Francesco Zappa, an unknown Italian composer from the 18th century. Zappa claimed to have come across the composer in the libraries of Congress and Berkeley, and even claimed he was related to the mysterious composer... Trickery? Francesco Zappa (1717-1803) well and truly existed, but was quickly forgotten after his death. Real, yes, but a long lost relative of Frank? Alas, no.
Criticised by some for having simply digitally transcribed the works of a classical composer, Frank Zappa was in fact drawing yet again from his idol Varèse and his words, published in 1915 in the Dada pamphlet 391: "Music, which should pulsate with life, needs new means of expression [...] I dream of instruments obedient to my thought". Bringing the music of his forgotten homonym back to life!
Zappa's voice changed
10 December 1971, an important day for Frank Zappa and a cursed year for his band the Mothers of Invention. Their tour was almost cancelled following a fire during their concert on 4 December 1971 at the Casino de Montreux in Switzerland (the song "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple is a reference to this unfortunate event). Barely one week later, tragedy struck yet again! At the Rainbow Theatre in London, a spectator under the influence climbed on stage and tackled Zappa mid-concert, pushing him into the orchestral pit several metres below.
Zappa awoke with a number of serious injuries, notably a crushed larynx. Even after a year of convalescence, Frank's voice was irreparably changed forever, lowered by a third. "It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I would have preferred a different method", Zappa claimed jokingly. "I can sing only about an octave, with seventy-five to eighty-percent pitch accuracy. Let's be honest about it, friends'n'neighbours: with specs like that, I couldn't even pass an audition to get into my own band."
Zappa the bacteria, Zappa the mollusc, Zappa the star!
Before his life-changing discovery of the music of Edgard Varèse, the young Frank Zappa was fascinated by chemistry, and more precisely explosives! Though he never contributed directly to the world of science, his name can nonetheless be found here and there in the fields of biology (the bacteria P. Zappae) and marine biology (the fish Zappa confluentus and the jellyfish Phialella Zappai), arachnology (Pachygnatha Zappa), and even astronomy (the asteroid 3834 Zappafrank)!
But why do scientists think of Zappa when it comes to naming their discoveries? For some, the erratic behaviour of a bacteria brings to mind the unpredictability of the legendary musician. For others, the distinctive black stain on a spider reminds them of the iconic facial hair. For yet others, the name Zappa has a scientific "ring" to it. And the asteroid? In 1994, 14 years after its discovery, an international petition was shared across the internet (the first ever online petition), and sent to the International Astronomy Union: on 22 July 1994, asteroid 3834 was baptised Zappafrank.
No, Zappa did not take drugs
Upon discovering Zappa's countless and zany characters and hearing his fantastical lyrics, one would be forgiven for thinking that Zappa often found inspiration through the use of various illicit substances... And yet, he was strictly opposed to the consumption of any mind-altering drug. Disgusted by his experience with cannabis, he waged war against hallucinogens, and threatened to fire any and all of his musicians found to be using drugs during a concert. During the 1960s, he even recorded a series of radio announcements warning against the use of mind-altering drugs:
Contradictory as ever, Zappa the avid smoker of tobacco (his "favourite vegetable") was also an outspoken critic of America's War on Drugs, which he likened to prohibition. Convinced that the government itself was implicated in the dissemination of drugs, he included various references in his lyrics: "Leave my nose alone please", in the song Drafted Again, a direct reference to the cocaine supplied to American soldiers sent to Vietnam.
His music was considered dangerous and harmful
"My lyrics are dumb, so what? [...] My texts are meant to distract, not to be analysed", declared Frank Zappa in his autobiography. Dumb for some, outright dangerous for others : the album Jazz from Hell (1986), strictly instrumental, was only sold in certain American stores under the condition that a parental advisory sticker be made visible on the cover, warning buyers of the shocking content within!
On 14 February 1986, at the Maryland Senate, Frank Zappa faced the Parents Music Resource Center, a watchdog committee seeking to increase the quality control of American popular music, to discuss the labelling of records deemed harmful to society. These events recorded, Zappa utilised the tapes ironically in his next album Frank Zappa meets the Mothers of Prevention. Mocking the PMRC in his own way, Zappa designed his own warning label on the cover of the album: "This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress".
Zappa, symbol of freedom in...Czechoslovakia?
Formed during the Prague Spring (1968), the avant-garde rock band The Plastic People of the Universe became the voice of Czech resistance against "Normalisation". Deeply influenced by Frank Zappa and his music, notably the song "The Plastic People", Zappa became a symbol of counter-culture in Prague. The repressive attitude of Gustáv Husák's Communist government sparked a greater fire that led to an official petition in 1976, known as "Charter 77", launched amongst others by playwright and future Czech president Vaclav Havel.
It was only in 1990 that Zappa, invited to Prague by Havel, first realised the extent of his influence upon Czech counter-culture and their admiration. Havel even offered to name the American musician as his new culture minister, an offer which the American government was quick to block. In 1991, Zappa granted the Czech capital a great and final honour: he performed one of his final live concerts ever.
Frank Zappa's adventures with the American Congress and in Czechoslovakia led to various political aspirations, though the nature of these aspirations were surprising to say the least: after turning down an offer by the Libertarian Party to become their next presidential candidate, Zappa announced in 1989: "Politically, I consider myself to be a (don't laugh) Practical Conservative. I want a smaller, less intrusive government, and lower taxes".
On 15 April 1991, Zappa officially announced his candidacy on a Berkeley radio station. True to himself, Zappa's campaign was unique and far from the beaten track: he only spoke to the people via television, and didn't organise any public marches or rallies. Unfortunately for those who wished to see Zappa in the White House, he pulled out of the presidential race following the announcement by his daughter of his prostate cancer. In November 1991, barely 8 months after his announcement, Frank Zappa put an end to his political ambitions.