Monday, January 14, 2013

The Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide: Prelude

I have never heard another musician like Frank Zappa, and I don’t expect I ever will.

Frank’s catalog is one of the most extensive in popular music – 94 “official releases,” as counted by the Zappa Family Trust, which has carried on his legacy since his death in 1993. Sixty-two of those releases came out while Frank was alive, and you pretty much need all of them to understand the myriad sides of his musical personality. The man was revealing new facets of his work right up until his final days.

To start with, Frank Zappa was a musical genius. I don’t mean that in the same way I’d say someone like John Lennon was a genius. Zappa was working on musical levels far beyond anyone else releasing mass-market material during his life. He was a composer, someone equally at home with a five-piece rock band and an 80-piece orchestra. The number one rule for anyone wishing to play with Zappa: you had to keep up with him. Anyone who tried will tell you it was a herculean task.

But Zappa was also a mass of complimentary contradictions, if that makes sense. He was equally obsessed with precision and improvisation – players in his band had to be able to read and play maddeningly complex music with exactitude, but they also had to know how to jam with ferocity. A song like “King Kong” on stage would begin with an intensive, impressive recitation of its complicated melody, and then would unfold into a 30-minute free-form explosion.

Frank always took his music seriously, but his lyrics and persona were another story, and that’s the reason his work is so controversial and underappreciated. Zappa was perhaps the most musically talented peddler of dick jokes who ever lived. His lyrics consistently pushed the boundaries of good taste, as if he were a merry prankster, waiting to see if anyone would hear the sheer volume of his musical skill underneath all the smuttiness. Zappa was a sneering, sarcastic, scatological jackass, and his personality is sometimes difficult to take.

Zappa would always say that his lyrics were satirical and observational, and that works up to a point. For my money, he only crossed the line a few times. (“Magdalena” and “Jumbo Go Away,” for example, are pretty much indefensible.) But even when storming the gates of civility, his musical genius shone through. Albums like Joe’s Garage and Zappa in New York and Thing-Fish are filled with sexually obsessed lyrics and rampant perversity, but are brilliant pieces of work. 

When Zappa did take his output seriously (or as seriously as he ever did), he created some of the most stunning pieces I’ve ever encountered. “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” for example, or “N-Lite,” or “Bogus Pomp” are unfiltered tours of a mind racing at the speed of light.

And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he was a guitar player almost without peer. Zappa released entire albums devoted to his guitar solos, and they’re works of art in and of themselves.

Zappa’s catalog is beyond immense, and thanks to his phenomenal work ethic, it continues to grow, as new works are uncovered from his vault. It’s also incredibly confusing and daunting for newbies. To Frank, there was no distinction between live albums, studio concoctions and rearrangements of existing material. He often talked of his body of work as a single entity, and musical themes crop up again and again, in different forms. Solos from live performances of one song would be grafted onto studio versions of other songs, and a piece played on guitar, bass and drums on one album would appear on another played by horns and strings.

My first trip through the Zappa catalog was a difficult one. Zappa’s work takes on new dimensions with perspective, and it takes some time to see the road map. I’ve been a fan for more than 15 years now, and I’m still working through my impressions of his work. This guide will be a good chance for me to get those thoughts out and organize them. I’m especially excited about the chance to revisit the newly remastered versions of the early albums, released last year on the Zappa family’s own label.

So here’s the (one-shot) deal. Once a week, I’ll update this guide with a review of one of Zappa’s albums, starting with Freak Out next week. That means it’ll probably take nearly two years to get through it all, but in the end, it’ll be worth it. I’ll talk about the significance of each album to the overall oeuvre, the evolution of Zappa’s styles and lyrical concerns, and just how damn difficult this stuff is to play. I’ll also let you know if an album is essential or merely a curiosity, and which version you should buy.

Along the way, I hope to explore my own complex feelings about Zappa as an evolving artist. But mainly, I want to provide a resource for those hoping to explore Zappa’s music, because above all, it should be explored, and studied, and revered. As Gail Zappa is fond of saying, I feel it is my duty. I hope it helps.

Next week, the first Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic. Looking forward to reading your thoughts. I've loved Frank for years but I have my favourite albums and there are others that I never really go near. I'm looking forward to hearing your take on some of my least favourites and seeing if it gives me a way in to albums that I haven't been able to access.