Frank Zappa: Biography, Songs & Death

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will cover the life, career, and legacy of Frank Zappa. We will consider his experimentalism, influences, and passion for fighting censorship.

Frank Zappa: Visionary Eccentric

Few rock musicians have challenged popular tastes and expanded the vocabulary of rock music more than Frank Zappa. Throughout his career Zappa composed virtuosic, deeply bizarre music that delighted his fans and confused most everyone else. The majority of Zappa's music was too long (and much too strange) for top 40 radio; nonetheless, he earned a reputation during his relatively short life as one of the most complex and iconoclastic rock musicians of the 20th century.

Frank Zappa, 1977

Early Life and Career

Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1940. Zappa's family moved around a good deal during his childhood, eventually settling in Southern California. Doo-wop, a mainly vocal form of pop music that emphasized muti-part vocal harmonies set to a simple melody, was prevalent in Southern California during the 1950s. This fairly simple form of music would be a major influence on Zappa, one that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

By his late teens Zappa had become proficient in numerous instruments and internalized influences from classical, jazz, and avant-garde music. These influences would meld together in unusual ways in Zappa's later music. By the early 1960s, Zappa was attempting to implement his musical ideas in cocktail lounges throughout greater Los Angeles. Zappa even appeared on the Steve Allen Show, a hugely popular variety show, making music with a bicycle. This appearance would give Zappa much needed publicity.

After composing the scores for several movies, Zappa took the money he earned from these ventures and built his own studio. Zappa now had the freedom to experiment with recording techniques, something he continued to do throughout his career. During this period, Zappa was approached by an undercover vice squad officer and asked to record a racy soundtrack for a private stag party. Zappa did so, and was charged with conspiracy to commit pornography, which was illegal at the time. Zappa spent ten days in jail, but the memory of being subject to anti-obscenity laws stuck with him for many years to come.

The Mothers of Invention

Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa

In 1965, Frank Zappa joined the Soul Giants, who soon changed their name to the Mothers of Invention. The 1960s in Los Angeles was a time of social, cultural, and musical upheaval. The old record company establishment was inundated with wild-eyed hippies whose music and fashion the major labels were keen to exploit, but whose music they only vaguely understood. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were both part of the non-conformist counterculture and very much outside of it: although a part of the counterculture, Zappa was also critical of the drug use and lack of critical thinking that he saw in much of the hippie movement.

Zappa was also outside of the hippie mainstream in terms of his musical seriousness. Whereas many aspiring rock bands of the era did not adhere to anything more challenging than the Beatles, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention took their inspiration from modern jazz, avant-garde music, and contemporary classical music.

Throughout the 1960s Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention released deeply strange, complex, and playful albums like Absolutely Free, Lumpy Gravy, and Hot Rats. These albums featured tracks like 'Who Are the Brain Police?,' 'Plastic People,' and 'Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask,' that spoke to Zappa's social criticism and surreal sense of humor. None of these records enjoyed much commercial success, but they would win Zappa a cult following that would linger on long after his death. During the second half of the 1960s, Zappa would become the undisputed leader of the Mothers of Invention. The numerous musicians who played under his leadership described him as a relentless taskmaster and obsessive perfectionist. During this period Zappa also collaborated with his friend Captain Beefheart on several notable projects.

The Mothers of Invention, 1971
The Mothers of Invention

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