The following video interview is particularly telling of his sharp intellect and acerbic wit but also disdain for the music industry, formula thinking and what he considered to be stupidity.
He stated, "Since I didn't have any kind of formal training, it didn't make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin' Slim, or a vocal group called the Jewels ... , or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music."
By his late teens he was involved in a school band 'The Blackouts" at Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster CA and had become friends with Don Vliet aka "Captain Beefheart" who attended the same school. They were to remain in contact and work with each other on and off until the day Zappa died. Frank's musical influences ranged widely from Modern Symphonic through to Modern Jazz, R&B, Doo Wop and Rock incorporating such artists as Edgar Varese, Igor Stravinsky, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, 'Howlin' Wolf and Clarence 'Gatemouth" Brown amongst many others. Zappa went his own way following the sounds he heard inside, determined to realize his own vision in music.
Time and time again when interviewed, Zappa would reiterate his personal philosophy about American life and society and how he thought it should be. He remained an outspoken rebel and a "thorn" in the side of the establishment and in particular the marriage of big business, religion and government. He saw this mix as being the enemy and a danger to free thinking society. Frank really was a kind of "voice in the wilderness" warning against what he saw as increasing government control by the military industrial establishment and the development of what he called a "fascist theocracy." When corporations like MGM, Warner, CBS and Mercury or individuals attempted to usurp control over his music, he would fight back in court or seek out alternative routes around the obstacles in his path. He was a role model, leader and trend setter who although well known, remained on the fringes of the mainstream music establishment. This doesn't mean he wasn't recognized, on the contrary, he was held in high regard by professionals in many different music genres during his life.
The three albums in the gallery below are considered by many to be significant achievements in his career but with so many records to choose from it becomes a personal choice based on taste. Listen to a few and find your own favorites!
David Walley his biographer wrote, "The whole structure of his music is unified, not neatly divided by dates or time sequences and it is all building into a composite".
Nicolas Slonimsky the composer and musicologist after working with Frank stated, "I admire everything Frank does, because he practically created the new musical millennium. He does beautiful, beautiful work ... It has been my luck to have lived to see the emergence of this totally new type of music."
Zappa was constantly attempting to push the boundaries of music just to see where the limit was. Many musicians who couldn't meet Zappa's exacting requirements came and went during the auditions. He always ensured he was playing and performing with the most skilled and innovative instrumentalists.
In his attempt to reach and define musical limits Zappa wrote a notorious piece of music called "Black Page" which contained short dense passages and complex rhythmic structures challenging what was humanly possible to play. This search for the limits was typical of a man who never tired of inventing and exploring. He often said that he never repeated any of his performances and that they were all different, "unique" and this was why people came to see him play; the material was never the same. For Zappa, the whole purpose of playing "live" was to see what he could invent spontaneously in a given space of time. He couldn't fathom the boredom of doing the same thing over and over like most professional musicians did.
Zappa also produced a film called "Baby Snakes," was an actor or voice artist on various TV shows and was even asked by the Czech government to serve as consultant for trade, cultural matters and tourism in 1990 at the end of the Cold War. During 1976 and 78 he was guest, host and musical act on Saturday Night Live on NBC. He also appeared in the US senate to give testimony against the PMRC who were attempting to bring in new censorship laws. The science establishment have honored him naming 8 newly discovered organisms after him.
Like him or leave him, Frank Zappa was an innovative "genius" in his field who is still impacting contemporary culture, decades after his passing. I believe he and his music will be re-discovered by a younger generation and experience a resurgence in popularity. Whether or not you agree with his personal views on social behavior, politics, education or religion there is no denying his accomplishments in music!
There is a lot of Frank Zappa's material on the web to peruse free so please take the time to learn about his significant contributions to art and culture!