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Topie: Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned on Freak Out! Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
November 15th, 2010 12:08 PM
the captain The definitive Zappa thread ... or at least the current Zappa thread. Go for it, all. I'm in.
November 15th, 2010 01:21 PM
S Giacomelli

Zappa first made the papers in April of 1955 when, as a ninth grader, he won the county's Fire Prevention Week poster contest.
November 15th, 2010 01:24 PM
the captain A Lesson in Context to a Wannabe Shredder and/or Classic Rawker
aka, Tinseltown Rebellion

I can’t attack Zappa chronologically.

Well, I can, but I won’t, because it feels improper for me to do it. The context isn’t there for me to do it, since it’s more than just talking about the albums in the order in which they were released, but the circumstances of the worlds into which they were released. The former, I can do pretty easily. The latter, not even close. Sure, I can talk about other albums that were out around then or major public policies and world events of the time. But in that I was somewhere in the range of -10 years old upon the release of Freak Out!, you’ll probably see through anything I say as being stolen from some other books on the subject (or some earlier post of someone on this board).

Where I can attack Zappa—not literally: I’m not trying to smack around a corpse—with appropriate context is my experience with his music. And as the title of this no-doubt-about-to-be-long-ass post says, context is a key part of my experience with Zappa, not just in my retelling of learning his music, but in what I learned from his music: that context is, if not everything, an awfully big thing. Melody, harmony, and rhythm, sure. But also context.

In the 1994-95 school year*, I was a freshman in college. And since I’ve started about a fuck-ton of stories this way, may well know that I was somewhere between a wannabe shredder and a classic rawker in terms of music appreciation. I had some jazz in there (and was going to school for it), but really my appreciation was focused on Queen, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and the just-then-recently-killed-off guitar bands like Van Halen.

The last of those is what brings us to Steve Vai, whom the cleverest among you probably identified by now as the key to this whole damn thing. Because I discovered Steve Vai through my Van Halen love of the mid- and late-80s, him a part of David Lee Roth’s post-VH bands. In the late ‘80s, iterview after interview (which I was reading in the likes of Circus, Metal Edge, Metallix, and Guitar For the Practicing Musician) featured mention of Vai’s influences and previous employers. A name that popped up in almost every one was unfamiliar to me: OK, he liked Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page; and he worked for Whitesnake and with Alcatrazz … but who is Frank Zappa?

I didn’t care enough to look into it.

In the early ‘90s I read yet another Vai interview in which he talked about reharmonization, the application of a different chord progression over the same melody. (A C# isn’t just the major third of an A major chord, but the root of any number of C# chords, the ninth of a B chord, the raised fourth of a G chord, and so on.) It’s common to jazz musicians, he said, and its application can give an otherwise boring chord progression a little spice. He learned it, he said, from some genius by name of Tommy Mars while playing with this Frank Zappa in the early ‘80s. By this time I’m interested in music theory, and my jaw dropped. This little tidbit (along with Vernon Reid describing tritone substitution in a similar little article) was among the most exciting musical ideas I had ever heard.

Shortly thereafter I saw a Zappa CD: Tinseltown Rebellion. In fact, I saw a bazillion of them. Zappa’s catalogue, previously either nonexistent in my local stores or at least unnoticed by me, was rereleased on CD. But here is disc after disc. I have no idea what any of them sound like, having to my knowledge never heard the guy. But I did know when Steve Vai was a part of the band, so I dug for an early ‘80s album. And thus, Tinseltown Rebellion it is.

Finally, Something About Zappa
Upon first impressions, this album sucked. It did not sound especially like any of my aforementioned favorite bands except in a few brief passages, and in those I had the distinct impression that these aforementioned favorite bands were being mocked. Frank, you smug little bastard!

Seriously, “Fine Girl” sounded like nothing in my music collection. And what the fuck, the liner notes show this to be a live album … yet it’s cobbled together (sometimes different performances in the same song), and there aren’t a whole lot of “Rock And Roll All Nite” style anthems, here. What a weird album. But as it went on, and then as it was played again and again over the next few weeks, there were so many things to which I couldn’t help but pay attention. Thank goodness there was enough of a familiar context therein—“Easy Meat” and “Tell Me You Love Me” musically, and the funny spoken bits and title track, and the did he say that? bits of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”—to make me come back to it.

(Mostly, Frank’s dialogue, actually. I loved, and still love, his mannerisms. Like Tom Waits, I would listen to an album of just speaking—and less for the content than the delivery.)

More importantly, there was enough for me to try another Zappa album. Then two more. Then, thanks to used record stores and credit cards so freely given to college students, all of them. It was amazing, because I think the second one I got was Frank’s debut, Freak Out!, which also had “I Ain’t Got No Heart.” And now “I Ain’t Got No Heart” sounds nothing like “I Ain’t Got No Heart.” Weird. Other pairs of albums produce this same phenomenon: repeated songs sounding at least superficially and sometimes substantively unlike their other iterations.

The Zappa catalogue, I learned, is a brilliant example of context, of framing things. It puts the familiar in unfamiliar context, or vice versa, or two disparate familiarities beside one another. The love-dovey major seventh chord or bouncey major-key melody is juxtaposed with a scary lyric condemning some American institution. The same phrase isn’t repeated throughout a song or even a suite / album, but across albums, over a decades-long career. And because of that, it means something. “Louie Louie” has never been the same.

Then we return to the aforementioned, more technical idea of context: how does a melody sound when it’s reharmonized, for example? Frank is more than happy to find out. What if your orchestral song is done by a rock band, your rock song by a jazz band, your jazz song by an orchestra? What’s the difference?

The easy lesson may be that there is no difference between them all: that it’s all music.

That lesson, if learned, is learned wrongly. That’s not the lesson at all. Sure, it is all music. But it is different music, and to our ears, it means different things. The real lesson is that you can learn and master those different things and use them. The real lesson of Frank Zappa is context, that context means something, that context is powerful. I find new ways to think about and understand context all the time. (Most recently I have begun to truly and unashamedly love certain types of pop music which I would have until then (and Frank did to his dying day) mocked, believing that they are only inferior to other musics if they are supposed to be those musics. KISS might make for terrible jazz, but it’s great KISS … and Bill Evans simply does not rawk.)

That’s already a lot of babbling. I won’t babble more without at least babbling a little more directly on-topic. But that’s how I approached (and approach) Frank’s music. And the title of the thread still holds true for me, more or less.

*I promise not to start every Zappa post with a long and probably interminably boring story about my teenage years. Indulge me.
November 16th, 2010 09:59 AM
Jon CONTEXT, yes. My early memories of Zappa are of my friend Neil, who taught me how to play guitar, taught me that humor indeed belonged in Rock Music and loaned me a copy of, oddly, "Them or Us" and told me to learn everything off it. I came into Zappa, then, by the wrong end, so it's either to my credit or detriment that I got it anyway, and somehow that album spoke to me even though it's hardly seen as a high point in Zappa's catalog. I remember doing what I always do when I discover a new band, which is to voraciously read everything I possibly can about an artist, and then discovering that lo and behold, the guy had a long and storied career. So the SECOND thing I bought was the godawful REMIX version of "We're Only In It For The Money," and you know, it's the REMIX version so I should hate it but *that too* spoke to me hugely and I ended up digging in to such a degree that I listened to nothing else for like a month.

The Zappa catalogue, I learned, is a brilliant example of context, of framing things. It puts the familiar in unfamiliar context, or vice versa, or two disparate familiarities beside one another.

Yeah, I like this. What I did immediately upon hearing Zappa for the first time was to record my own concept album in my basement with my friend Neil. I wanted to record an album that contained so many different styles of music that it would be dizzying -- a lesson I learned from Zappa and "Sgt. Peppers" which was the OTHER album that didn't leave my turntable (yes, I was listening to Sgt. Pepper AND We're Only In It simultaneously, discovering both at virtually the same time. I realize my music listening is rather bass-ackward. What can I do? Prior to that it was all Duran Duran and Human League.) This all despite the fact that I'd only been playing guitar for like a month. I knew piano, of course, but who can record a rock album on piano (a: everybody. Anybody. I didn't know that.)??

So we recorded thusly: I had two tape recorders. I'd record a drum part in one. I'd set the other one next to it, play the recorded drums, and record a bass with my guitar tuned down an octave. I'd then play that tape in the one and record guitar in the other. I basically invented ping-ponging and multitracking in my basement without realizing I was doing that. We recorded an album called "The Montana Inn Lounge Band" about a magical lounge band in a Holiday Inn that appeared to a guy who was a traveling salesman and took him to nirvana through their lounge music. I kid you not. All the songs were angry parodies of styles of music I'd only just learned -- I wanted so badly to capture that Zappa cynicism in tenth grade. I considered this music "punk music," not knowing what proper punk music was. I figured we were so fucking DIY that it couldn't NOT be punk in some way, shape or form. It probably was.

My next Zappa album, btw, was "Jazz From Hell." So my first three Zappa albums were TOTALLY ATYPICAL and yet I was completely obsessed and absorbed by the fact that this guy seemed to be like TWENTY-FOUR DIFFERENT BANDS IN ONE. Like you said, context. Taking different styles, fucking with the context, making you think about what "styles" are and what "context" is and what "types" of bands there are and how none of that shit really matters but it all does? Or something?
November 16th, 2010 01:14 PM
seymour I've got Lather on my ipod. Don't know if I should rinse it off.
November 16th, 2010 01:19 PM
Jon I love me some Lather.
November 16th, 2010 01:51 PM
S Giacomelli I've got Läther on my leather.
November 16th, 2010 02:11 PM
the captain Freak Out, an All-Out Effort to Undermine Oneself
From Day One, Frank Zappa had answered for himself his later-posited question “Does humor belong in music?” But was it—in some ways the most successful aspect of his career—the thing that held him back from greater rock ‘n’ roll success?

I would argue that it was, even more than the dissonance, the cacophony, the seriousness, the difficulty of his music that leaked in from his art-music influences. It’s in a discussion of his great debut, Freak Out!, where I’ll (as I read what I just finished writing, half-assedly at best, all really just a series of barely worthwhile, loosely connected ideas in the larger review) make the point. Where I may well fall short (okay, as my last parenthetical says, where I eventually fell short was that my hypothesis is weak) is my lack of understanding of context. I wasn’t a teenage music consumer at the time, so my environment is purely reconstructed and obviously after-the-fact. It’s all with a wink, knowing what came next. But what am I supposed to do, not post? Then Ian gets mad that nobody posts enough around here. See, nobody wins.

Despite its reputation as difficult—both historically and looking at contemporaneous reviews—most of Freak Out! is relatively accessible from a musical perspective, especially if one were to put “Trouble Every Day” as the closer of the first disc and throw the remainder of disc two away. (No, that isn’t fair. Yes, that is taking away a big part of what the album is. Bear with me.)

For about 40 minutes, which is the length of a typical album of the time, Freak Out! is a mostly ear-pleasing, mostly consonant, intellectually and sensually exciting album … and it would have been to the listeners of the time. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” has a great riff. A classic riff. It would have done Jimmy Page proud. It’s not alone on the album in that regard. (“Any Way the Wind Blows,” anyone?)

“I Ain’t Got No Heart” keeps the momentum going entirely, and its addition of horns to this gigantic, reverb-drenched sound that Frank really didn’t use much in the future, even expands upon it. My earlier plan to abandon the “difficult” part of the album isn’t to dumb things down. After all, we reach cacophony as early as the near-end of this song, just before we return with the triumphant return of the ritardando-ing horns. We’re advanced in terms of arrangements here, with not just the aforementioned horns but vibraphone a very prominent instrument in both of these first tunes.

Then there are the lyrics. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” criticizes both American civic institutions (schools and government) and social ones (hardware store, liquor store). “I Ain’t Got No Heart” goes further, striking at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll music, more or less denying romantic love. What, my fellow teenagers, is left?

“Who Are the Brain Police?” goes further lyrically and musically. Two relatively straightforward (if quirky) tunes are followed by this crazy waltz that asks us what will we do when our world as we know it falls apart? Note, it doesn’t ever ask what would we do if this happened, but what will we do. And worse, the title, repeated after each of the three verse-phrase-questions, implies we’re not alone either in our current position in the world or maybe in our choice of what we’ll do what that situation is changed (by melting FZ-standards of plastic and chrome, of course). Who, my dears, are the brain police?

If our lovely little teenage queen (not yet rocking or rolling or acting obscene), Suzy Creamcheese, were rattled by the first three songs, Frank envisioned as much and created a safe haven to tease her back into things. “At least let Side One play out, Suzy … listen, it’s a lost-love song!”

“Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder” retreats entirely from the terror, pessimism, neuroses of the preceding track … all the way back to the 1950s. Could anything be more comforting? The song is wonderful, and almost entirely convincing. Frank’s comedy intro/outro voice and bass, and Roy Estrada’s over-the-top falsetto, take what could well have otherwise worked perfectly in the original context, the original era. Sure, it’s a bit cynical: “I’m somewhat wiser now, and one whole year older” … or the comedic spoken interlude. But the song is gorgeous, and lovingly performed. Regardless of how Frank brings comedy in, it does succeed in the obvious goal: rein it in.

The next couple of songs keep things in much the same vein: the music is digestible, if otherwise undermined by itself. “Motherly Love” is a joke, if well within the sexual bravado realm of the blues. But this couldn’t have been taken as actually sexy by, well, anyone. Could it have? As Frank said to the pretty people, “there’s a lot more of us ugly motherfuckers.”

“How Could I Be Such a Fool?” the end of the original Side One follows five songs. They have questioned authority, love, your very control of yourself. They mocked your teenage romance to your face, then taunted you with their cocks in their hands. That may be why “How Could I…” is such a surprise: FZ & Co. more or less play it straight, and the result is possibly the most successful song on the album. It’s wonderful. An absolute gem, gorgeous, first restrained, then a building arrangement. In his liner notes, FZ wrote of this song “I always wondered if I could write a love song,” then highlights the changing accents across the steady waltz time. This is an example of one or two flat-out axioms: a) don’t ever assume that a song undertaken as an exercise is any less “real” than one written out of passion; and b) don’t ever take anything FZ says at face value. If this is a put-on, it’s a fucking good one.

There is no more entirely serious material until the end of our modified album, “Trouble Every Day.” “Wowie Zowie” is a lot of fun musically, with the xylophone and great, rhythmic guitar, not to mention that great B section (“Dream of you each morning…”). And the drums, especially near the end, sound fantastic. But again, we’re pissing on teenagers.

Three consecutive songs are almost straight-faced, and one can’t help but wonder whether FZ is undermining the seriousness of the material intentionally … because it’s fuckin’ dark, man. “You Didn’t Try to Call Me” might seem like another send-up, but it isn’t quite the same as the others. This song doesn’t dismiss love, it bemoans its absence. “I can’t say what’s right or what’s wrong, but I love you.” The singer wants to know “who’s loving you now.” This is a jealous, lonely, abandoned man. The music does not contradict the lyrics in FZ’s typical comedy manner. This is dead serious … until he whips out the comedy-narrator voice at the end.

“Any Way the Wind Blows” features a fantastic riff on 12-string, then a great instrumental part (again including vibes) below the verses—verses that almost demonstrate a narrator at peace with romantic disappointment, though the peace isn’t quite believable. For one, he’s still singing to his would-be love, comparing his new “love” to her. The instrumental break is absolutely brilliant. I’d buy the album for it.

“I’m Not Satisfied” is the darkest, possibly most sincere song on the album (and maybe in the catalogue). It is, as one might expect, undermined by FZ doing comedy, in this case a Mike Love-esque bass “yeaaaaaahhhhhh.” After that rock-n-yeah intro, the tune begins with a surprising verse, harmony line to single voice call-and-response.

“Got no place to go, I’m tired of walking up and down this street all by myself. No love left for me to give. I try and try, but no one wants me the way I am. Why should I pretend I like to roam from door to door? Maybe I’ll just kill myself. I just don’t care no more. Because I’m not satisfied everything I’ve tried, I don’t like the way life has been abusing me.”

The liner notes say this song is okay and safe. As FZ-as-Mike Love says, “yeeeeeeeeeahhhhhh.” As you would expect, the mood lightens immediately. “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” is tricky but silly music, complete with kazoo melody. What’s interesting is how directly the lyrics question you. Not the government, not romance. You. The listener. You’re stupid. I am mocking you. But what do I know, I’m just the (court jester) band…and for that matter, why am I telling you this? Sure, I think you’re lame. You probably think I’m lame. Why do I bother engaging?

To me, the widely praised classic (and maybe key to them being signed in the first place) “Trouble Every Day” is one of the least successful songs on the album. Context comes into play. This kind of open, frankly (no pun intended) pessimistic discussion of racial tension and violence might have been rare, brave, exciting. To me, it’s just something obvious: there were race riots, there were years of serious civil unrest, violence, protests. The music is cool in its dirty R&B vein, but not especially exciting over five minutes. Where it succeeds is by putting the ideas that have previously been hinted at or joked about front and center into real-life context. This is happening. Now.

An album that ends here shows that this wasn’t some kind of unrelatable freak-out, no matter what the title tells you. This is an entirely listenable album to teenage ears in 1966. What’s more, it’s a smart album, a satirical album, a cynical album. What it might lack is the perception of seriousness or heart … both of which are there in spades, but undermined by FZ’s comedy voice. The Mike Love “yeah,” the intro/outro nasal narrator voice, and kazoos invade otherwise believable songs and undermine them. What’s a listener to do? I’m not sure listeners knew the answer to that question. But I’ll bet that had those otherwise straight tunes been left that way, the remaining comedy, cynicism, complexity, and weirdness would have been better received, more fully absorbed. Frank did a great job of managing the musical complexity and difficulty, dancing, probing, jabbing, retreating throughout the flow of these first 40 minutes, 12 songs. Just when you’re worried it’s getting too far out, he brings it back to familiar territory. But with the subject matter and delivery, he barely gives you three full songs: “I Ain’t Got No Heart,” “How Could I…” and “Trouble Every Day.”

FZ could still be funny and insubordinate without having pissed on his own shoes on a full four or five other songs here.

(The real album isn’t over yet. So:)

“Help I’m a Rock”
Originally one of my favorite songs on the album—in fact, the beginning of the section I first loved, continuing through the end. Not anymore. The music is more interesting than enjoyable (as is a recurring complaint with me for Zappa). It could be Velvet Underground. The words are funny.

“It Can’t Happen Here”
Another of my original favorites, and not just because they mention Minnesota. “I checked it out a couple o’ times” is one of the funniest things I have ever heard in my entire life. The point itself is more serious than the song would have you believe. I flat-out love the instrumental piano-and-drums part.

“The Return of the Son of the Monster Magnet”
Never really liked it. Still don’t. I love a lot of FZ’s serious music, difficult music, orchestral music, aleatory music. Not this.
November 16th, 2010 04:00 PM
Chris D. Amazing posts! They've given me a lot to think about, and I have to work soon, but I'll have a reply tomorrow. Context and the layers of humor are key. I think his music is so misunderstood it kind of goes beyond that cliche. You can love it and realize after years of listening that you didn't really get it.
November 16th, 2010 05:49 PM
S Giacomelli Nice. Racing to finish A/B Road to jump into this baby.
November 17th, 2010 02:07 PM
Chris D.
the captain wrote:
A Lesson in Context to a Wannabe Shredder and/or Classic Rawker
aka, Tinseltown Rebellion

I can’t attack Zappa chronologically.

Well, I can, but I won’t, because it feels improper for me to do it. The context isn’t there for me to do it, since it’s more than just talking about the albums in the order in which they were released, but the circumstances of the worlds into which they were released. The former, I can do pretty easily. The latter, not even close. Sure, I can talk about other albums that were out around then or major public policies and world events of the time. But in that I was somewhere in the range of -10 years old upon the release of Freak Out!, you’ll probably see through anything I say as being stolen from some other books on the subject (or some earlier post of someone on this board).

Where I can attack Zappa—not literally: I’m not trying to smack around a corpse—with appropriate context is my experience with his music. And as the title of this no-doubt-about-to-be-long-ass post says, context is a key part of my experience with Zappa, not just in my retelling of learning his music, but in what I learned from his music: that context is, if not everything, an awfully big thing. Melody, harmony, and rhythm, sure. But also context.

I suppose this is what he was going for, right? Longevity through personal experience of the music. For example, I actually like some of those 80s partial rerecordings for what they are. I wouldn't want them as replacements, but the point is he made them, and I think they're cool alternatives. They at least give me an uncensored Money, though I think the 80s Lumpy Gravy is cool too. He reworked melodies and albums throughout his career, but because he kept certain lyrical and melodic themes going throughout his career it works, unlike say the new Star Wars edits. The idea is that his work will always seem fresh because there are so many variations and you can attach so much of your personal experience to each of them. The music was always changing. With other bands, they try to maintain longevity through half-assed repackaging. Not that the Zappa Family Trust is perfect (Mothermania as download-only, not at least bonus tracks on the box sets??).

One thing I do like is that, despite the topicality, his music never feels like it's only enjoyable in the time it was made. Freak Out especially says so much about the social aspects of music listening, making you think he's saying one thing about himself when in fact he's tricking you. Like "Motherly Love," pretending to go for Stones-type sleaze on an album telling you to challenge yourself when it comes to what you consume. It's like the artist-fan equivalent of looking for a soulmate. That album in particular is so listenable, as someone else said, but shows you every point of view the fan can have, from being a superficial listener to fully understanding the band.

I think a lot of that has to do with his use of sound to relay his message. It's not about style or instruments, it's about taking what you have and making a song out of it so you can communicate. That's why I love that track on Uncle Meat that's just 40 minutes of film dialogue. It's edited to sound musical because of all the repetition in the language they're using. As he said on Crossfire, "It's just words." That's what makes Money so much more rewarding than Pepper. The final chord on Pepper is cool, but kind of a cute trick, as if to say, "Yeah, we know this will stick out. And that's all we aim to accomplish." The final track on Money is all electronic noise made to sound like music. It's everyday white noise as jazz. He's just pissing all over the Beatles for only looking ambitious, but not really trying.

November 17th, 2010 02:35 PM

Please listen!

Chronology 1958-1963

Frank Vincent Zappa, December 21, 1940, Mercy Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland, born limp, skin black, umbilical cord wrapped around the neck. Maybe the world tried to keep him from being born. But he recovered, and the world would suffer the consequences.
Little Frank, a fairly normal, though sickly, child growing up in a religious Italian-American family, with a mathematics teacher for a father, spent his first years tootling around Baltimore streets in a sailor suit with a whistle around his neck. He wouldn't stay in the city long, but Baltimore's legacy of pop-culture perversity snatched from boredom would nevertheless greatly inform his future work.
World War II improved the fortunes and societal stock of those Italian-Americans willing to invest in the war effort. Frank's father, Francis, decided to move the family to Opa-Locka, Florida, joining the defense industry. But this would not last long. An illness suffered by Frank's mother, Rosie, forced the family back to Maryland, to the suburb Edgewood.
Francis was involved with gas and chemical warfare research. The Zappa home was thus festooned with gas masks, one for each family member, the beginning of a lifetime obsession for little Frank. When Francis brought home laboratory equipment and chemicals, Frank showed an interest and conducted his own, minorly explosive, experiments. He was expected to follow in his father's career
Living in cold, shabby Army housing, and subjected to many toxins in the air, Frank spent this era in Edgewood as a very sickly child. But he managed to make his first close friendships, was popular at school and was fairly normal. He
began to put on small dramatic presentations in his class. When he was bullied by a classmate, his father advised him to be a bigger bully right back.
Indoctrinated into the heavy rituals of Catholicism, he was simultaneously attracted and repelled.
On Frank's seventh birthday, he received his first 78 RPM phonograph record. This was All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Jones was a musical genius, who decided to pursue a vision of wicked humour instead of "serious", highbrow composition, a brutal taskmaster leading his crack band through head-spinningly complex arrangements, equal
parts comedy and creative invention. Sound familiar?
Just as Frank was settled into the normal processes of childhood and social interaction, the family was again uprooted, this time to Monterey, California.
This move to the West Coast would be the worst and best thing to happen to Frank. It splintered his social and emotional well-being at a crucial point, which would have devastating consequences upon his life in the future. But it also provided him with the social playground upon which his life's work would be created.
In Monterey, Frank again managed to fit into a new school, resuming a class clown role. Also during this time, although his explosive chemical experiments continued, his musical interests began, as he joined a school crew of children beating on wooden planks with drumsticks. But shortly, the family moved another time, to Pacific Grove. Then, Claremont. Then, El Cajon.
His mother finally bought Frank his very own snare drum, and when he was 12, his first composition (naturally, a solo for snare drum) was created for a school event, entitled Mice.
By age 13, Frank was taller than all his classmates, and already sported a mustache. Taking an interest in design, he created a Fire Prevention Week poster and won a prize for his effort.
After the Spike Jones record, the second of Frank's three major musical epiphanies occurred in 1954, when sitting in the backseat of his parents' car.
Two songs came over the radio in succession, Gee by The Crows, followed by The Velvets' I. Noting his parents' disapproval, and his own excitement, a true lifetime love affair was begun. The rock and roll revolution among white
teenagers was about to occur, but for Frank, no white derivative would suffice.
Only a direct injection of the most primitive and heartfelt black R&B sounds would do. And this would never change, throughout Frank's life.
His first record purchase was The Robins' epochal Riot In Cell Block #9, a combination comedy skit and raw, blasting R&B wailer (interestingly, both Gee and Riot would be seminal influences upon another vaunted West Coast musical genius, Brian Wilson). Riot clicked with Frank's sensibilities to such a degree that it inspired him to make his first public appearance, as the LA County Fair. He convinced his younger brother Carl to play the role of a ventriloquist's dummy, mouthing the words while sitting on brother Frank's knee.
Next on Frank's purchase list was the sexually charged, often-banned Work With Me Annie, by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. The theatricality of Riot and the grinding shock value of Annie were, needless to say, an influence upon the Zappa canon that could not be overstated.
Frank's creativity expanded into even greater, stranger realms during this time, even stretching to the field of puppetry. He would create bizarrely dressed marionettes to dance and mouth along to the records of another formative influence (and another master of musical talent and deeply cynical wit), Stan Freberg.
Around this time, Frank read an article on famed record seller Sam Goody, which mentioned that Sam was so persuasive he could even sell what the magazine deemed the worst record of all time, a work by avant-provocateur
composer Edgard Varese entitled Ionisation. Frank knew from the description of the music and an accompanying picture of mad-scientist looking Varese, that it would most likely be right up his street. But locating an actual copy of
Ionisation was another matter, and Frank merely filed away the info in his head for the future, should he come across one.
The next Zappa family destination was San Diego. This was in the first major wave of juvenile-delinquent rock-and-roll fever, and Frank's first exposure to the type of brain-dead hooliganism that would so fascinate him throughout his
life. He met the first of the characters that would be chronicled in his future artwork, in San Diego. Car culture was a staple of teenage life there, adding another element of iconography to the Zappa world.
A major element of the teen constituency, and among the heaviest of the troublemakers, were the Latino "Pachuco" gangs, with their chopped and streamlined cars riding so low they nearly scraped the street as they cruised down the main strip of highway. The festooned interiors of these cars wod be another frequently appearing subject in Zappa's lyric iconography.
The JD's roaming the SD highschools were so tough that their musical tastes extended to the blues, which soon became another Zappa love. These molten sounds camouflaged the deep loneliness and isolation that the continually uprooted Frank felt. It became part of the unbreakable emotional armour he would wear, that would eventually comprise his very being.
He was able to keep in touch with a couple of his El Cajon friends, and on a visit to one of them, he stopped into a local record store to score some cheap R&B singles. Looking through the LP rack, he came across the motherlode: a boxed set entitled The Complete Works Of Edgard Varese Vol. One. This was it! Finally the Grail had been sighted! One problem remained, however. The set cost six dollars, and Frank only had four. Luckily, the man behind the counter was so relieved to have the set off his hands that he let Frank give what he had, and escape with the treasure.
Arriving home and dropping the needle, the ecstasy experienced by the teenage Frank Zappa cannot be overestimated. Sheets of colliding and corrosive sound,
stark intentional ugliness hiding sections of clearly ordered strange beauty, this music took FZ's mind and soul apart and reconstructed them in its own image, for all time.
The combination of Spike Jones and Stan Freberg's humourous though rude sophistication, the raw R&B sexual power of The Midnighters and The Robins, and the splintered avant-serious world of Varese would provide Zappa the path he would tread until his passing. Luckily, the brew was so potent and original, that the variations upon it were virtually limitless.
For the moment, this mixture was limited to DJ sessions in his bedroom, tending to alienate all potential friends, especially of the female sex.
He began to want to understand the mechanics of music itself, taking one of his favourite records into his high school band instructor and asking what it might be in the music that so appealed to him. The instructor explained some basic
musical theory and showed Frank some score notation. The look of the notation itself appealed to Frank's design interests, and soon he was drawing musical notes. He had no idea yet of the sound these notes would produce, and no one to play them. For the time being, serious composition would remain a hobby.
Still with only a snare drum to his name, he joined his first group, the R&B combo The Ramblers, a true garage band. He was then able to convince his parents to purchase him a full drum kit.
The group were booked by a local girl gang to play a dance at a rented hall. Among their repertoire was a Little Richard ballad, Directly From My Heart To You, which would later memorably show up on the Wesels Ripped My Flesh album.
But Frank was musically primitive even by raw San Diego standards, and was soon ejected from The Ramblers. He began to frequent local R&B shows as a spectator, and gained valuable experience in that way.
Frank's chemistry career came to a memorable close when he concocted a mixture of rocket fuel and stink-bomb powder, which he then distributed among the miscreant population of his high school. Soon, the school was rife with small, smelly fires, and Zappa returned the next day to a suspension and an assignment to write a 2000-word essay on the evils of his deed. But when the two weeks ended and he returned to school, he merely handed in a detailed list of his R&B 45 collection, including catalogue numbers. Predictably, his teachers were unamused.
But, he'd be gone soon anyway, to the heart of the California desert, the town of Lancaster.
1956 saw desert communities in the midst of a military-industrial boom. But they were still far from anything resembling modern civilised comfort. All there was in these towns were small strips of street that one could walk in less than a minute, with vast, flat space beyond, stretching to infinity. If Zappa had felt isolated in lonely in the comparative metropolis of San Diego, Lancaster may as well have been a remote outpost on the Moon.
His social life was by now irreparably damaged, and his interest in high school practically nil. All told, it may have been the nadir of his existence. He despised the school cliques and traditions, the straight clothing style, and attempted to disrupt them by all means possible. He adopted the Pachuco image, and was a deliberate outcast. There were no bands to join, no bands to even go to see.
He finally rejected Catholicism and all organised religion. Common to those artists who were brought up in a restrictive religious faith and then reject it, his fascination, nee obsession, with prurient subject matter and behaviours came from this reactionary fount.
His musical aspirations temporaily suspended, he appropriated the family 8mm home-movie camera and began making his own avant-garde short films. Some of
these were shown by Frank in school, to a soundtrack of his avant classical records. His 16th birthday gift was the opportunity to make a long-distance call to Edgard Varese himself, who was listed in the New York phone book.
Varese's wife answered the phone and said her husband was away and to call again a few weeks hence. Frank duly called again and reached the composer. He gushed about how much he loved Edgard's music and the composer told him he was in the midst of writing a piece entitled Deserts, which astounded the young desert-stuck Frank. He told Varese he planned to visit the East Coast soon, and the composer told Frank to look him up when he got there. Sadly, a meeting between the two men would never occur.
Frustrated at the total lack of availability of R&B singles in Lancaster, Frank would have to travel back to San Diego to score large quantities of budget-priced 45's a few times a year.
He decided to break his town's unspoken ban on teenage musical entertainment (occasioned by a previous occurrence when a package R&B show had "inspired" a
near-riot) by forming his own band. If forming an R&B band in the straight desert town of Lancaster wasn't outrageous enough, this new ensemble, dubbed The Black-Outs due to the drinking proclivities of a few of the members, was
racially mixed, with more black than white in the lineup.
Besides Directly From My Heart To You, other songs in the group's setlist would later show up in Zappa's musical future, including The Rockin' Brothers' Behind The Sun and Andre Williams' Bacon Fat.
Predictably, The Black-Outs were not exactly welcomed by Lancaster's powers-that-be, and were not allowed to play any high school functions, having to rely upon rented hall dances to gain any experience. One nearby community they
were welcomed by was the primarily black-populated Sun Village, later to be memorialised by Zappa in the brilliant composition Village Of The Sun.
Frank's first job was, naturally, in a record store, and he was able to convince the owner to rent a hall to hold a teen dance for his group to play. The police busted him on a bogus vagrancy charge to sabotage the dance, but this didn't
work, and the show was held anyway.
During the show, a friend of the band, Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood, jumped on stage to enact the dance The Bug. This consisted of the dancer rapidly twitching due to the insect presence, then "passing" it to another dancer. This
rapidly spread to the audience, who wildly reacted.
After the show, a contingent of local straight white males showed up to let The Black-Outs know, violently, that they were not welcome in their town. Luckily, the group's black Sun Village fanbase were also present, and scared off the whites. If Zappa's life is made into a motion picture in future, this occurrence would be a natural inclusion. The legendary, tumulutuous stage career of Frank Zappa was now
Frank was finally able to score a girlfriend, and his home life began to be contentious, with the predictable paternal disappoval of Frank's lifestyle choices.
One of Lancaster's few virtues for Frank was the school library, which contained a healthy record collection. Through this, he was able to educate himself on the worlds of classical, world, folk and jazz musics.
His days as a member of the school's marching band were mercifully brief. But the support of his music teacher at the time, William Ballard, would prove invaluable. Ballard commissioned a piece from Zappa for the school orchestra to play, and from this came the longform piece The String Quartet. Those who heard it at the school were bewildered, but Frank knew he liked how it sounded, giving him a large dose of artistic confidence. This piece would later be
performed on stage by The Mothers Of Invention and would evolve into the shorter pieces Sleeping In A Jar and A Pound For A Brown On The Bus.
Zappa's work was complicated and dissonant, as the more accessible form of classical music did not appeal to him.
The drums were also beginning to lose their appeal to Frank, and he appropriated the family's acoustic guitar, learning lead first, then chords, from an instruction book. With the help of an electric pick-up and a lot of classic R&B
records (partially gathered from a local dimestore that he had discovered), he learned well, and quickly. The legend Johnny "Guitar" Watson would be his greatest guitar influence.
In many ways, Zappa was like a lot of other American teeangers of that era, with healthy interests in sex, loud music and monster movies. Though he was on good terms with a couple of his broader-minded teachers, his interest in school diminished by the day.
In 1958, Zappa hitched a lift from a passing fellow teenager. This would be one of the most fortuitous and important meetings in Zappa history, and in musical history in general. The vaunted Lennon-McCartney meeting is certainly no more significant.
The young man who gave Zappa a ride had bizarrely customised the interior of his car, removing things he considered superfluous (such as a speedometer) and
replacing them with his own drawings and clay creations, including a homemade, mounted werewolf head. His car radio was glued to the closest R&B station.
Clearly this was a man after Frank's own heart. His name was Don Van Vliet, later to transform himself into Captain Beefheart.
Zappa may have been seen as eccentric, but he was positively straight compared to Vliet. His home life was unparalleled, as he was home-schooled and allowed to
rule the house, according to his every whim, frequently demanding that his mother bring him a Pepsi.. His girlfriend even lived with Don and his parents.
Zappa and Beefheart became inseparable, holding endless R&B listening sessions, crusing for girls (unsuccessfully) and stealing money from Vliet's father's bread truck to fund their pursuits.
The peak of The Black-Outs' career also happened early in 1958, as they garnered opening slots on shows featuring The Velvetones, Louis Armstrong and others in locations ranging to San Diego and as far afield as LA's Shrine
The very first piece of Zappa audio we have dates from just after that Shrine appearance, and although it is brief and non-musical, just a verite document of speech, its very nature points toward key elements of Zappa's art.
He would become known for incorporating non-musical material into his compositions and recordings, throughout his career. These snippets would become known in Zappa lore as "field recordings". Somehow it is fitting that the very first Zappa audio would be one of these type of recordings, where colloquial speech, isolated for its own sake, becomes a form of music unto itself.
Already, Frank had decided to chronicle the times and scenes of his life in a permanent fashion, turning life into art.
In this 22-second snatch of sound, released on the posthumous CD The Lost Episodes, its technical details unknown, a few members of The Black-Outs rap about the Shrine concert, concluding that "The Velvetones think they're
Lawrence Welk!". And that's it. How or why this was recorded is unclear, but it is the only surviving audio remnant of the group's existence. It manages to convey a lost moment in time, with amusing poignance.
The early audio history of Zappa is very spotty. He was able to capture a wealth of material over the next half decade, but much of it was confiscated by the Cucamonga police department and never returned, during a caper soon to be
Despite the higher-profile shows, Zappa lost interest in The Black-Outs, knowing their potential had been reached. He seemed to be leaning toward the visual arts, continuing to win minor prizes for his work, including a scholarship to an art college. His musical aspirations returned to the "serious" realm. He barely graduated high school, and decided to enroll in a local college, mainly for access to females.
Near the end of the year, the second bit of surviving Zappa audio was captured, and it was even more significant than the first. Lost In A Whirlpool is not only the first surviving musical Zappa recording, but also the debut of none other
than Don Van Vliet.
Zappa had noted Vliet's singing along to the radio when his blues favourites would come on the radio, and greatly encouraged him to become a singer. But when the radio was off, Vliet's timing and pitch were extremely erratic.
Neverthless, he was able to convince Vliet (and brother Bobby, on rhythm guitar) to visit his college's conference room during the wee hours of the night to make a recording, utilising the college's tape recorder, microphone and instruments. The song recorded, entitled Lost In A Whirlpool, stemmed from even older Zappa lore, a bizarre tale concocted by Frank and friends in San Diego, of skindivers in the sewer system encountering large, brown, blind fish.
With a standard blues-guitar backup, Vliet expanded on this theme with the trademark imaginative facility he would become known for in later years.
Singing in a strange high-pitched voice (with a bit of the Howlin' Wolf-inspired growl that would become his later stock-in-trade), he turns the scatalogical tale into an outrageous blues parody that also manages to be a fairly fine example of the musical genre. In Vliet's version of the story, he has been flushed down the toilet by his girlfriend, and ends up in the sewer. He also manages to hilariously
call the brown fish of the tale a "motherfucker" along the way.
The blues grounding, the profanity, and offensive, scatalogical subject matter that would provide Zappa so much fame are already in full form on this earliest musical recording, though it is more stylistically reminiscent of Vliet's later work than Frank's.
Although Whirlpool, also later issued on The Lost Episodes, would seem to herald many early Zappa/Vliet collaborations, Vliet would shortly disappear from the Zappa story for several years when Frank moved from Lancaster. He
would briefly join the post-Zappa formation of The Black-Outs, named The Omens, along with Motorhead Sherwood and future Magic Band member Alex Snouffer.
Supposedly, another recording, this time a folk parody entitled The Search For Tom Dooley, was recorded at the same time as Whirlpool, but apparently has not survived. During this era, a solo composition for guitar, Waltz #1, was composed by Frank, but would go unrecorded.
After one semester, Frank lost interest in formal education entirely and moved with his family to another suburban community, Claremont, at the dawn of 1959.
Like Lancaster, Claremont was not exactly excitement central, but it was only an hour's drive from Los Angeles, a major step up for Frank.
But disagreements with his father, who expected his son to now choose a sensible career path, precipitated Frank's escape from the family nest, to an apartment in Echo Park, right next to downtown LA.
He finally had a serious musical assignment, gained through one of his high school teachers. This teacher had been employed to write the screenplay for a low-budget Western entitled Run Home Slow, and the job of score composer
would soon be Zappa's. Unfortunately the financing for the film fell through, and was delayed for four years. Also in this era, Frank formed a short-lived collaboration with musician Terry Kirkman, later to find fame as a member of The Association.
Frank quickly began to starve due to lack of money, and had to return to his parents when he collapsed due to an ulcer. This continued through the rest of 1959.
In 1960, Frank enrolled at an Alta Loma junior college, taking a course in harmony and musical theory, and staying for little more than one semester. Though he undoubtedly gained some important knowledge and experience in the bargain, this era was most important in that one of his classmates, Kay Sherman, would become his first wife.
They were married in the last few days of 1960, and moved into their own place in Ontario, CA, another LA-outlying suburb (the rest of the Zappa family, save brother Bobby, would shortly move back to Florida).
For a short time, with a new, young wife, Frank seemed destined for a place in the straight world. He tamed down his wardrobe and image, taking a job at a greeting-card firm, designing cards and advertisements, as well as his own,
"experimental" line of cards. He also worked as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, a window dresser, a jewellery salesman and at an ad agency. This hustling aesthetic would also play a major part in his future history in the music
If this weren't enough, he was also taking small-paying musical dance-band work with his recently-payment-purchased Telecaster. With Terry Kirkman, he tried to fit into the current folk-music boom, playing "Hoot" (open-mike) nights in Claremont. During this era, he sat in on composition classes at Pomona college, and formed a short-lived R&B garage band, The Boogie Men. But not able to
keep up the payments, Frank had to return the Telecaster, and The Boogie Men were over.
In Ontario, Frank made friends with a neighbor musician, Ronnie Williams. He was also a guitarist, and also a former San Diego resident. Coincidentally, his San Diego band had featured a sax player, Dwight Bement, who had moved to
Lancaster and been a member of The Black-Outs. Bement, Ronnie and his reform-schooled brother Kenny would regale Zappa with tales of their teenage years, and this would soon bear remarkable fruit.
Zappa and Williams would naturally form a new group, but Frank also sought a more reliable musical job, attempting to form a lounge band. In the process of auditioning players, he met jazz musician Don Preston. Though Preston would not
become a part of any Zappa ensemble at this time, they would stay in touch. The music for the future Mothers standard Oh No was composed around this time.
Zappa and Williams' new R&B group was dubbed The Blackouts, as the original group was now The Omens. Dwight Bement also joined up.
During June, on a trip to Hollywood legendary record store Wallichs Music City, Zappa had a chance meeting with the infamous character actor Timothy Carey.
Frank complimented Carey on his acting, and introduced himself as a composer. This was fortuitous, as Carey was just finishing his astounding directorial debut feature, The World's Greatest Sinner, and had no musical score. If Frank could bring in an orchestra and some venue to record it, he had the job. Not exactly a cash windfall, but crucial experience for the composer. But a few months would
elapse before the score would be recorded.
In the interim, after Frank bought a Fender Jazzmaster guitar, another lineup of The Blackouts was formed, still with Zappa, Williams and Bement but now including former Omens members Motorhead Sherwood and Alex Snouffer
(a bit of silent footage of the group from this era, featuring Sherwood doing The Bug, though Zappa himself cannot be seen, exists). Before the year was out, there would be yet a third lineup.
Through Williams, another extremely crucial contact was made in the person of Paul Buff, who owned his own recording studio in nearby Cucamonga, by the name of Pal Studios. Zappa and Buff became fast friends and Frank jumped at the chance to get some engineering experience at the studio, and also utilise Buff's unique, customised five-track tape machine during off-hours.
The first example we have of Zappa's work at Pal is a long and languidly jazzy instrumental take on the music that would eventually become the We're Only In It For The Money track Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance. One can
immediately hear the fruits of Zappa's compositional studies. While the arrangement itself is comparatively undeveloped, the melody is lovely, one of his finest.
Very interesting is that instead of using any of his then-bandmembers, he decided to utilise local session players only, a foreshadowing of the later Hot Rats era. This recording, also issued on The Lost Episodes, is a rare and crucial piece of the maturing-Zappa puzzle.
Also hailing from this era is the 20 seconds of sped-up Dixieland horns that Zappa would incorporate into his patchwork masterpiece Lumpy Gravy, directly after the words "It's from Kansas".
Still needing a steady source of income, Zappa finally got together his lounge band at the end of the year, dubbed Joe Perrino and the Mellow Tones, after the piano player, a friend of Frank's. This ensemble would play at parties and
other functions, for audiences of loud drunks. A nightmare for an artist such as Frank, but at least the classic composition America Drinks would be inspired by the experience. The gigs with The Mellow Tones would continue well into 1962.
In November, the Sinner score was finally finished, and Zappa was able to convince someone in the hierarchy at his old Alta Loma college to allow him to record there. Three different ensembles took part in the sessions, a rock group
featuring Dwight Bement and Frank on lead guitar, a 20-piece chamber group, and finally on December 17th, a 55-piece orchestra, a major step forward for Zappa's career.
The score was recorded in a very primitive fashion, by two microphones leading out to a recording truck, but the resulting music was yet another of the crucial early-career Zappa stepping stones. Unfortunately, the original master tapes of the score do not exist, so all bootleg releases are dubbed directly from the film. Two different edits, both featuring unique material are featured here, from the bootlegs Apocrypha and The Soundtracks.
The score ranges from wild rock-R&B featuring stinging Zappa lead guitar, to beautiful orchestral passages of shocking authority for a composer so inexperienced to that point. Musical themes familiar from later Zappa recordings pop up, Holiday In Berlin at several points, but also including Lumpy Gravy, Oh No and Dog Breath.
The movie itself would become a cult classic, but Zappa would call it "the worst movie ever made", and Carey would be very resentful of this, considering the chance he had taken on such an untried composer.
In this era, Zappa began to rent a Wollensak tape recorder for home usage, presumably to record some new compositional work, but also to capture some "field recordings" as well. The bizarre circles Zappa was running in would simply have to be captured for posterity, he decided.
The natural choices among Zappa's friends to be immortalised were the miscreant Williams brothers. Frank recorded a bit of Ronnie's very distinctive wordless vocal "prowess", backing him on guitar. A bit of this would be used later on both Lumpy Gravy and We're Only In It For The Money. On the former, this would be at the very beginning of Side 2, on the latter it was placed backwards, between the two songs about the brothers, Let's Make The Water Turn Black and The Idiot Bastard Son.
But what Frank really wanted was a permanent record of the brothers' hilarious tales of their disgusting personal habits, involving boogers and piss, while living with Dwight Bement and Motorhead Sherwood. For the full story, listen to the
recordings, released (along with Ronnie Sings) on The Lost Episodes.
Taken on their own terms, these fragments may seem to be just another example of Zappa's fascination with scatalogical humour, but the songs he would write about the pair half a decade hence would evince a deeper emotion, a profound
empathy with society's rejects.
In early 1962, Zappa's collaboration with Paul Buff at Pal Studios picked up speed. Buff had recently recorded a cover of Tennessee Ernie Ford's 50's hit Sixteen Tons and needed a quickie instrumental B-side for the single. The
resulting recording, which featured Zappa, Ronnie Williams and Buff overdubbing himself on the remainder was credited to all three men and dubbed Breaktime. The track isn't a masterpiece, but is a good, fast bit of pre-surf instrumental rock, featuring some nice early Zappa lead guitar work.
Buff couldn't sell the single, credited to The Masters, to any labels, so he released it on his own custom imprint, Emmy. It fell to immediate commercial obscurity, but as the first released work of Frank Zappa, it holds an important
historical position.
Don Preston invited Zappa over to his place to take part in impromptu jam sessions, played in front of experimental films projected in the garage, some of them Zappa's own works. Also present at these gatherings were fellow future
Mothers Bunk and Buzz Gardner. In June, The World's Greatest Sinner was released, an important item for Zappa's still-small career resume.
Sometime around August, Paul Buff decided to capitalise on the nascent surf-music boom, forming another studio ensemble, this time dubbed The Rotations.
Buff was again multi-overdubbed on most of the instruments, joined by friend Dave Aerni. Zappa was featured on the flip of the resulting single on a track entitled The Cruncher, playing a percussive comb. This side sounded little like
actual surf music, being another wailing R&B instro featuring Buff's talents on organ and sax. Though the A-side, Heavies, did not feature Zappa, it would becom the more famous of the two sides when Frank used a section of it as part of the We're Only In It For The Money collage track Nasal Retentive Calliope Music (it would also feature on two later CD collections of early Zappa work in Cucamonga). Heavies was much more surf-oriented than The Cruncher, and both
sides began with ocean sound effects. Strangely, the single wouldn't be issued until the following summer.
Around September, the loose Zappa-Preston ensemble auditioned for a TV spot, but were turned down.
Another important 1962 event was Zappa's meeting with singer Ray Collins, a friendship that would eventually lead to the forming of The Mothers Of Invention a few years later. Collins saw a Blackouts show at a Pomona bar, was
impressed with their R&B repertoire, and jumped on stage to sing a couple numbers. Zappa was mightily impressed, and the two became friends and musical collaborators.
At the end of the year, Pal became a hotbed of recording activity for local surf groups. One of these was The Surfaris, who recorded Wipe Out at Pal in one quick take, providing Buff with the greatest credit of his career. The other was
The Tornadoes, who recorded nearly a full album at the studio, produced by Dave Aerni and engineered by Zappa (these recordings are not included here, the connection just a bit too musically tenuous).
Hailing from 1962 is another example of Zappa's early "field recordings" captured on the hired Wollensak at home. Three long excerpts of this tape were later released on the archival disc Joe's XMASage.
On the first, Zappa, Ray Collins, Boogie Men-Blackouts drummer Al Surratt and another unknown participant chat in a jive-talk manner, mentioning a purse that has been left at the house, as well as Zappa's Christmas tree.
Following this is a very long section where Surratt examines the contents of the purse, reading a letter found inside while Zappa laughs in response.
Finally, there is an extremely funny vignette where Zappa plays an interviewer chatting with Ray Collins, portraying a rock star named "Suckit Rockit". During this, a hilarious doowop parody named Shut-In is performed. Clearly, as with
Don Vliet, Zappa had found in Collins another man after his own heart in terms both musical and comedic.
Also from this time, and also later released on Joe's XMASage, is a very interesting spoken item featuring the voice of none other than Frank's then-wife Kay, the only time her voice shows up on any surviving recording. She asks
her husband about a Mormon Christmas dance he had just played. This is one of the most interesting spoken-word items in the Zappa canon, revealing an otherwise unexplored corner of his life.
As 1963 began, Zappa was able to incorporate Ray Collins into the Pal Studios recording and composing scene. This was an extremely important development for Zappa's music. Up to this point, Frank hadn't even thought of utilising his
own limited voice on his music. Therefore, despite the brief collaboration with Don Vliet, the Zappa recordings before 1963 had been instrumental.
But now, with a very talented singer possessing a smooth and pleasing voice, Frank was able to make music resembling the R&B vocal-group sounds he so loved.
The first of the Collins sessions at Pal featured the usual multi-overdubbed Zappa-Buff ensemble, as well as a female friend on backing vocals. Two slow R&B ballads were recorded. The first of these was Tell Me, a nice song written
by none other than Kenny Williams. The other was far more important.
Love Of My Life was Zappa's first composition to feature self-penned lyrics. Although he was very quick to establish that these type of songs related solely to his love of 50's doo-wop ballads, the truly heartfelt nature and beauty of Love Of My Life would seem to suggest there was more to it than pastiche, and that Frank Zappa may just have had a very big heart, after all.
This first take on the song, eventually issued in its original vocal form on the Greasy Love Songs archival release, is one of the best and most important early Zappa recordings. It is already clear that Collins would be an excellent
collaborator for Frank, giving voice to his more melodic compositional work
Love Of My Life would remain a favourite of Zappa's among his own composition, not only appearing on the Cruising With Ruben And The Jets album, but again in the 1980's live sets, even featuring in his very last concert.
The next Collins session featuring Frank back at the drums, ceding the guitar spot to Ronnie Williams, and Buff multitracked again. Interestingly, not only Frank and Ray had formed a creative union, but Ray and Paul Buff as well. The
track cut at this session was an excellent Collins/Buff cocredit, the breezy and splendid uptempo pop-R&B song Deseri. As with LOML, one would be hard-pressed to detect any truly humourous intent in the recording.
The early Deseri is another excellent early Zappa/Collins work that would be rerecorded for Cruising With Ruben And The Jets, but the original recording would go unreleased, until it was included on the 1982 Mothers spinoff LP on Rhino credited to The Grandmothers, entitled Looking Up Granny's Dress.
Around this time, Pal producer Dave Aerni took it upon himself, without Zappa's consent, to dub local singer Ron Roman's voice onto the Tell Me and Love Of My Life masters, replacing that of Ray Collins. Zappa would not become aware of this until after the resulting single's issuance on Aerni's Daani imprint.
Roman's voice is merely pleasant, not coming near the personality and tone of Collins, but the single is a worthwhile listen regardless, especially as it is the only form in which one can hear the song Tell Me. In 2010, Aerni would include
the tracks on his own self-released compilation of singles released on his various labels.
The most famous of all Zappa's pre-Mothers recordings was next. Through Paul Buff, Zappa had entered the master-hustling scene, taking tapes to LA record companies, hoping to score licensing deals with the latest Pal creations. The two record label mini-moguls with which the Zappa-Buff-collaborations would garner the most success were Del-Fi head Bob Keane and Original Sound head Art Laboe.
Laboe was very much a local legend, one of the earliest R&B DJ's on the West Coast who catered to a multiracial audience. Besides his radio show, he also worked as a concert promoter and MC, holding legendary multi-act shows at the El Monte Legion Stadium. Showing a great level of vision, when Laboe began his own record label, he put together an LP version of his radio show, perhaps the
very first rock-and-roll oldies compilation. This was entitled Memories Of El Monte.
The album had a deep effect upon Frank Zappa, who quickly began assembling his own dream compilation track lineups from his own 45 collection. He had the idea to write a song based around the concept of Laboe's concept. Ray Collins
was a natural choice for a collaborator on this project, as he had been a part of the El Monte 50's scene, as both a spectator and performer.
Collins was the one to take the musical initiative, playing standard Earth Angel ballad chord changes at the piano. Quickly, Zappa and Collins had the framework for their song, and they excitedly took it to Art Laboe. The recordman was so enthused that he promised the two composers that he would get the Earth Angel group themselves, The Penguins, to record it.
Of course, the original Penguins lineup had scattered, so this meant that two of the Earth Angel era members, Walter Saulsberry and lead singer Cleve Duncan would be
backed by local session group The Viceroys. Laboe brought this crew to Pal Studios, producing the session himself, and adding the crucial finale, where the vocalists quote from various doo-wop classics, including Earth Angel itself.
Zappa played vibes on the session, one of his favourite instruments.
Memories Of El Monte would be Zappa's most direct link with the doo-wop tradition beloved to him, even if at this point it was destined for a retro-novelty status, only garnering attention in local markets. When it was released that spring, it would even be bootlegged (under varying group names), by local shyster knock-off labels. In the 1990's, it would finally see official reissues, on a Laboe compilation disc, two of the Cugamonga years Zappa compilations, as well as Rhino's second Doo Wop Box.
Considering the level of obscurity Zappa had been working in to this stage, even the limited success of Memories must have felt like the big time. He was now the writer of a single by a legendary doo-wop vocal group, as well as the
composer of a film score. An even bigger break, with much higher visibility, would soon follow.
November 17th, 2010 02:38 PM
halleluwah Really, really good stuff, Luther and Chris. Zappa intrigues the hell out of me, but he also intimidates me in equal measure. I think I've only really heard (counts on fingers) 12 of his albums all the way through; that's still more than a lot of the greats made over the course of their entire careers, but it's really just scratching the surface with Frank.

From what I've heard, though, I agree that the degree to which Zappa was doing what he was predominantly for some kind of ironic smirk is exaggerated, at least up until the mid-70s or so (you can't really listen to something like Sheik Yerbouti and not come away from it feeling like the guy is just being a smartass). All that stuff Luther says about Freak Out is true; no matter how much Frank tended to outwardly discount the concept of emotion in music, it's in there. And no matter if he's using kazoos or deconstructing "Louie Louie" for the tenth time or whatever, the guy totally had something serious to say. I love the story he told that when he initially heard "Like a Rolling Stone," his first thought was, "if this record accomplishes what it's supposed to, it really won't be necessary for me to bother making music anymore"...but he felt that nobody really effectively picked up on what Dylan was trying to accomplish, so he continued on down his path. That was the intent Zappa was trying to get at in his writing of pop music; not just to be some sophomoric jackass giving wedgies to the counterculture and making fart noises. Really, when you read what he had to say at the time about the whole culture, both counter and otherwise, he's one of the only people whose views still totally make sense. He was a hell of a sharp observer. To say nothing of the insane amount of skill he had as a composer and musician.
November 17th, 2010 02:40 PM
halleluwah Whoa. I wrote that while Ian posted his writing. I'm digging into that now.

Seriously, it's good to see a huge mega-post from you again, Ian. It's been too long.
November 17th, 2010 03:10 PM
Jon God dammit, that's brilliant. And I will download and dig.
November 17th, 2010 03:14 PM
Baltimore's legacy of pop-culture perversity snatched from boredom

Hey now, I resemble that remark!
November 17th, 2010 03:21 PM
Andy B Gonna enjoy reading all this.....

Must say though that Zappa despite all his satire and his cleverness and his purposefully awkwardness and so on, gives me some of the most spiritually and emotional rich listening experiences of anybody. Just because of his sheer joy in his creations. It is his music and his alone. He knows that. And he revels in that notion because it is his unique soul that he laying bare. Listening to the chamber pieces on Uncle Meat i just hear total beauty.

November 17th, 2010 03:33 PM
IanWagner wrote:
Thanks, J. Yr Island work inspired it.
Aw shucks.

Having read your post now, that's some great shit there. Beyond a few of the bare details, I had no idea of most of that stuff. It's also really amazing how much of his future Mothers work had its roots in stuff from this early in his life. Given the amount of early tapes that actually found their way into his records, it's intriguing to think of how different, say, Lumpy Gravy might have sounded had he not had so much of his work confiscated in Cucamonga. Who knows, it might have sounded like a totally different piece.
November 17th, 2010 05:32 PM
Matinee Idyll (129) Jeepers - Ian, cap, this stuff is amazing! Will get on. I like Absolutely Free most of all his 60's stuff, and I regret to admit I've not heard a great deal of his music from other decades.

As I type this, I can see him spying on me from the background of the forum!
November 17th, 2010 05:38 PM
S Giacomelli
Andy B wrote:
Gonna enjoy reading all this.....

Must say though that Zappa despite all his satire and his cleverness and his purposefully awkwardness and so on, gives me some of the most spiritually and emotional rich listening experiences of anybody. Just because of his sheer joy in his creations. It is his music and his alone. He knows that. And he revels in that notion because it is his unique soul that he laying bare. Listening to the chamber pieces on Uncle Meat i just hear total beauty.

Agreed. I love to read about but I find it hard to write about Zappa, 'cos is all just there, man, but Blessed Relief from The Grand Wazoo is total beauty as well, but forlorn, as though he took all the bitterness and unacceptedness from those early years and came to terms with it with one of the most beautiful melodies ever thought up.
November 17th, 2010 05:40 PM
the captain
halleluwah wrote:
It's also really amazing how much of his future Mothers work had its roots in stuff from this early in his life.
The beauty is, though, that while he kept using those same early words, sounds, influences, and ideas for the next 25 years or so, he also kept accumulating more "trash" along the way. Everything that Frank Zappa had experienced, be it television, radio, politics, fashion trend, or whatever else, was a part of the repertoire not only when it was of the moment, but from then on. And whether it was an inside joke or a world event, it was there, ready to resurface. It was a gigantic junk drawer that somehow never filled up.
November 17th, 2010 05:57 PM
Chris M. This is a great thread. Fantastic writing throughout.

Freak Out was a pretty big album for me and my musical development. Growing up, I listened to a lot of what I consider "surface" sixties and seventies music. Not surfacey in that it is shallow music but that it's awareness level is high. It's the bread and butter. The big stuff. Beatles. Stones. Hendrix. Who. Clapton/Cream. Zeppelin. Etc. Around 8th grade I started finding my own way and began seeking out some lesser known music that I had begun reading about after I had devoured all I could about all of those other acts. And that first group of albums was Forever Changes, Pet Sounds, Velvet Underground and Nico, #1Record/Radio City and Freak Out. All those albums had a serious impact on not just my musical tastes but my sense of what was....well, lame as it From the fonts on the covers to the sounds and songs themselves. The impact was huge.
November 17th, 2010 06:08 PM
Matinee Idyll (129) I got up to the Black-Outs gig, but now have to go to work! Don't want to! Just want to keep reading!
November 17th, 2010 06:17 PM
IanWagner It'll still be there when ya get back, Joe! Thanks for reading!
November 18th, 2010 09:16 AM
Andy B Just been reading Ian's and Luther's pieces (supposed to be working), and, well am totally blown. Both makes me wanna run all the way home and listen listen listen, to everything Zappa i have.

Will download the upload as well, as there is bound to be tracks from those early years that i haven't got - still haven't got that Greasy Love Songs comp, which i will have to rectify soon.
November 18th, 2010 09:53 AM
Chris D.
IanWagner wrote:
Part 2 of 1963 later tonight. More novelty singles, tape experiments, early versions, the Steve Allen appearance.

I love the Steve Allen appearance. The guy had a mind. Most musicians just have the ego.

Your post, as usual, is an inspiration. I can't wait to read more.
November 18th, 2010 11:11 AM
IanWagner Chronology 1963 Part 2

Following the deeply heartfelt pastiche of Memories Of El Monte, Zappa's other work recorded at Pal Studios in 1963 was generally of a more mercenary type.
The best of the originally released Zappa-produced singles from this era is undoubtedly the mad, mad single credited to Baby Ray and the Ferns, How's Your Bird?/The World's Greatest Sinner.
Bird was a Ray Collins idea, utilising Steve Allen's then-popular TV catchphrase. Sinner was a late attempt at a title tune for the film Zappa had recently scored, but wasn't used in that cinematic masterpiece.
The usual Collins/Zappa/Paul Buff studio crew created the backing tracks, but Bird contained another important new sonic element that would become a Zappa trademark. This was the "snork", a noise that sounded halfway between a pig grunt and a protracted, nasty burp. Presumably, the snork-er on the track was the very same man who would take care of the job on the We're Only In It For The Money and Lumpy Gravy albums, Zappa friend and Mothers road manager Dick Barber.
Both sides are excellent examples of early-60's mondo trasho rock, with lots of dirty lead guitar, hissy ride cymbal and snotty vocals. Among the best of Zappa's pre-Mothers work, it was released by Bob Keane on his Donna label.
It was also to be among the most reissued of Zappa's early work, released by Keane on his two early-Zappa compilations, Rare Meat and Cucamonga, as well as several other collections of Japanese, French and Italian import.
Zappa took sole production, compositional and musical control of another single leased to the Donna label, Bob Guy's Dear Jeepers/Letter From Jeepers.
Guy was a local horror-movie TV host, presenting his show Jeepers Creepers every late Saturday night, and Zappa was a loyal viewer. East Coast horror host Zacherley had scored a surprise novelty hit with his recitative Dinner With Drac five years previous, and Zappa merely modeled the Bob Guy record on the same template.
Over "creepy" sound effects and a rudimentary rock backing, Guy reads a letter from Dracula. On the flipside, Guy reads the reply. And that's it. Thogh an interesting bit of pop-culture refuse, the record is fairly painful to hear.
It is indicative of the skid-row level of the Zappa/Pal operation that budget knock-offs of old novelty records were being recorded. In one way, the record is an interesting reflection of Zappa's interest in horror-cheese, but this would find a much better artistic reflection in a later composition, the classic Cheepnis.
This single would later be reissued on the same compilations that included the Ferns 45.
An East LA brother duo named The Heartbreakers needed a follow-up to their local hit of the previous year, Corrida Mash, and somehow the Pal gang got the job of creating it.
Everytime I See You is a typically lovely early Zappa/Collins-composed ballad, melodically similar to Fountain Of Love and Love Of My Life.
The Heartbreakers were backed by their own all-Latino backing group, with the addition of Zappa on a stinging, distinctive lead guitar solo.
A fine song and performance, this was also issued on the Donna label later in the year (with a non-Zappa-related flipside), and would be included on the same archival collections as the Ferns and Bob Guy singles. Interestingly, it wold not be resurrected for the Cruising With Ruben And The Jets album, as perhaps it was seen as too melodically similar to other tracks.
One of the strangest of Zappa's early exploitation singles was Brian Lord and the Midnighters' The Big Surfer, a Zappa/Buff collaboration in both production and musical terms. Trading on a current vogue for novelty Kennedy-impersonation comedy records, this one featured local DJ Lord posing as JFK coming out of the surf to judge a dance contest. The usual trashy musical backdrop was included. The "punchline" of the record was the contest winner's prize: a chance to be included among the Peace Corps' first visit to Alabama.
Issued in May on Buff's own Vigah label (with a non-Zappa flipside), the painfully awful record was then quickly licensed by major label Capitol. Just after the Capitol issue was pressed, the Medgar Evers assassination occurred in Alabama. This rendered the punchline of the record even more tasteless than it already was, and the single was shelved.
Probably due to Capitol's ownership of the master, the single has not been legally reissued.
Infinitely more entertaining was the next Zappa/Collins collaboration, a single credited to Ned & Nelda, Hey Nelda/Surf Along.
As might be surmised Hey Nelda was a parody of the contemporary chart-topper Hey Paula, perhaps the most quintessentially "innocent" record of the era.
On Frank and Ray's perversion of the concept, Collins plays both the male and female parts, as badly as possible. It features lyrics about acne and degenerates into an argument between the teenagers. As humour, it is successful and clearly part of Zappa's cynical take on pop culture.
The flipside is equally funny, a take on the surf genre. Zappa's imitation of Dick Dale's guitar style is fairly accurate, as is the saxophone solo, played by an unidentified musician.
Zappa shopped this around to labels, but its nasty tone probably precluded an interest. It was instead issued on Buff's Vigah imprint. As with the Lord single, it has not been officially rereleased.
Zappa and Collins also recorded much more personal work at this time, though it would go unreleased at the time.
Fountain Of Love was another beautiful Zappa/Collins ballad collaboration, which would later be rerecorded for Cruising With Ruben And The Jets. The original 1963 Pal recording rivals the Jets take, due to the striking production and arrangement of the earlier version. Collins delivers an excellent vocal, as well as overdubbed backing vocals, and Zappa provides the full backing track (including some excellent lead guitar work), save for the wild and wonderful fuzz bass, played by Buff.
A new solo Zappa composition, Any Way The Wind Blows, was even better. This song was a very rare stab at verbal emotional expession in Zappa's work, a reflection of problems in his marriage to Kay Sherman. Later backing away from the directness of the song, Frank would call it "trivial nonsense" in the liner notes to Freak Out, for which the song was rerecorded. But clearly this was an example of Frank's reactionary tendencies. The song is one of Frank's finest compositions, and it shows that he could have easily went down the pop-songwriter route if he had choosed. And he could not have disliked the song that much, since it not only reappeared on Freak Out, but also on Ruben And The Jets and in the set lists of the Flo & Eddie era Mothers.
This earliest recording is a true gem, a very sophisticated arrangement and performance with fine, precise instrumental work and some of Ray Collins' best vocals, especially the multi-tracked backing.
These two recordings should have been issued at the time as a single, but they were relegated to the Pal tape vault, and not released until the posthumous The Lost Episodes collection.
One of Paul Buff's projects of the era was a studio concoction he named Tijuana Surf, and credited to The Hollywood Persuaders. For the flipside, he called upon Zappa to fill the gap.
This resulted in Grunion Run, a grinding rock-R&B instro bearing no relation to the surf-music genre, and played nearly entirely by Zappa (except for the multitracked saxes, likely played by Buff). Some of his finest early guitar work (doubled in places) is present on this enjoyable slab of instrumental rock.
This single would be licensed to Laboe's Original Sound and
released in July. It made no commercial impact, but when it was issued in Mexico the following year, Tijuana Surf became a chart-topper and both sides of the single also featured on a Persuaders EP and album issued in that country. The only other official release was on a Japanese collection of Zappa's early work.
The last of Zappa's originally released pre-Mothers work was the single Mr. Clean/Jessie Lee, credited to Mr. Clean.
The A-side was inspired by a famous TV ad character of the 50's and 60's (Zappa was always fascinated by advertising), but though this seemed a jumping-off point for another parody record, instead this was an ultracool, lyrically-boasting R&B protosoul track. The flipside was also good, if musically looser.
Clean is sung by a mysterious performer, of whom nothing is known. It does not sound to be Ray Collins, seeming to be an African-American performer. Whoever he was, he did fine work on the single. The male background vocals on Clean seem to feature Zappa himself performing some of the bass work, which would make this the first appearance on tape of his singing voice. Also heard on backing vocals are local group Dorothy Berry and the Sweethearts, and their work helps the record greatly.
The backing tracks were performed by Zappa, with the exception on Jessie Lee of a wailing harmonica (likely played by Ray Collins), and more outrageous fuzz bass by Paul Buff.
Licensed to Laboe's Original Sound and issued in August alongside the Rotations single recorded a year earlier, the Mr. Clean single would be Zappa's last record release until the Freak Out LP three years later.
Both sides would be reissued on the Del-Fi Cucamonga CD, as well as the Japanese collection of early Zappa sides. An alternate mix of the A-side would feature on the Joe's XMASage archival release from the Zappa camp.
Also during this era, Zappa's interest in avant-garde music continues, now extending to home-recorded prepared experimental tapes inspired by the work of John Cage.
Two surviving examples are The Moon Will Never Be The Same and Mousie's First Xmas. Both around a minute in duration, these creations feature an experiment of Frank's, handing instruments to friends who couldn't play an instrument and letting them "wail". Among them was Kay Zappa, "playing" a clarinet. The other participants are unknown.
Zappa then took those sounds, layered, distended and altered them. The results sound similar to early synthesiser work at points, and at others similar to an ESP free-jazz LP. These spacy pieces are brief, but evince a talent for tape experimentation that would later reach full flower on the Money-Gravy albums. Also, these two snippets would soon feature in two important public appearances by Zappa.
They were released in their original form on the Joe's XMASage collection.
On the night of March 17th, Zappa realised a longstanding ambition. He was featured as a guest on Steve Allen's highly rated talk show.
Frank had tried desperately to get on the show for at least two years, trumpeting his somewhat meager accomplishments to that date. But it wasn't until he came up with a put-on gimmick of demonstrating how to "play a bicycle" that he was finally asked to appear.
The gambit did reflect Zappa's actual musique-concrete and experimental tendencies, but it was also a canny bid for attention to his "real" work.
Allen devoted a surprising amount of time to Zappa's spot, over 15 minutes. Luckily, the appearance survived the decades, the only pre-Mothers sound film of Zappa.
It is genuinely striking and beguiling to see the young FZ looking so comparatively straight and shaven, and even more so to see him so plainly nervous, soft-spoken and wholly deferential to Allen, a man he clearly respected. This Frank Zappa, a man not in absolute control of his environment and with not a trace of mockery, would not be sighted again, at least until his Senate Committee testimony over two decades later.
After telling Allen how many instruments he played, and is asked how long he has played the bicycle, Frank admits that it has been "about two weeks", an admission of the gimmicky nature of the appearance. He then talks in detail about The World's Greatest Sinner, calling it "the world's worst movie".
Then, Frank demonstrates the various sounds the bicycle can make, plucking the spokes and blowing through the handlebars. He employs the help of Allen to perform the impromptu "composition", beforehand playing a snatch of his prepared tape experiments to be played alongside the live accompaniment, speaking of his wife's participation.
The performance itself lasts a little over two minutes, and though just a lark, it is quite entertaining and inspired much hilarity from the studio audience. Allen is respectful of Zappa's effort, however.
Afterward, Zappa talks about the How's Your Bird single, to be released "in a week". When the show comes back after a break, Allen states that Zappa's work is similar to that of another experimental choreographer/composer he is familiar with. Overall, though his wisecrack persona is present throughout the appearance, Allen is remarkably openminded towards Zappa's avant-garde efforts.
Needless to say, appearing on a national and highly-rated TV
show was by far the biggest commercial success of Zappa's career to date. In fact, it would be one of the most high-profile
boob tube appearances of his entire career, as the safe medium would not take to him kindly, in overwhelming measure.
And it would be at least three years before another comparable step forward would be made for his mainstream career.
But artistically, another major milestone soon awaited him, two months later, on May the 19th.
November 18th, 2010 12:14 PM
MoogDroog This is just what i need. Thanks so much - grabbing now, will read and listen later. I've probably only heard about two Zappa albums.
November 18th, 2010 01:48 PM
halleluwah More great stuff. I'd always wondered about how that Steve Allen appearance came about. And I had no idea a version of Any Way the Wind Blows had been recorded this early.
November 18th, 2010 02:10 PM
Leo K Oh my God...what a thread!!!! The perfect intro!

Im actually at the record shop picking up Zappa vinyls, stuff all new to me:

Absolutely Free
Chungas Revenge
Grand Wazoo
Ruben & the Jets
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