Ideas

'Forever iconoclastic': The notorious genre-bending legacy of Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa redefined what it was to be a composer in our time. But what was his impact on those who worked most closely with him? In this three part-documentary about the musician, hear from family members, musicians and others who worked with him, as well as excerpts from a CBC interview with Zappa recorded the year before his death.

'If you believe there's rules to writing music that can't be broken ... you're going to be a boring composer.'

Frank Zappa in concert, Sept. 15, 1972. There are no boundaries in music, said the musician, and genres mean nothing. Jazz, rock, classical and electronic — it’s all just music. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1992 I went with a CBC crew to Los Angeles to make a radio series with Frank Zappa. He wrote music that had no boundaries — rock, classical, avant-garde, none of the usual descriptors quite fit, so I thought he'd be perfect to talk about "how to listen to music."

The plan was to take a journey with him through the music he loved. Frank preferred to work at night, so for two nights we met in his home studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, up in the Canyons. On one wall there was a rack of guitars. One of them looked like it had been set on fire: it had been — it was Jimi Hendrix' guitar from Woodstock. It was that kind of place.

But Frank wasn't well. He had been ill with prostate cancer for a few years. His answers to our questions were short, and he had to take frequent breaks. He was to die a year later, on December 4th. 

Frank Zappa outside the Albert Hall with his rock band The Mothers Of Invention, Feb. 1, 1971. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

When we came back from L.A. I knew we didn't have a show, and I had no idea what to do with the tapes, how to reshape them into something different. It took me 10 years to come up with Plan B — to return to Los Angeles, interview some of the musicians who had worked with Frank, and create a series about Frank Zappa the composer — how he actually created music.

And so I did, with the help of Frank's wife, Gail Zappa. She introduced me to some wonderful people, among them guitarist Steve Vai, who unpicked a song for me in his home studio; early Mothers of Invention guitarist Elliot Ingber, who was only available at 4:00 a.m. to sit with me in my car for an interview; Warren Cuccurullo, a teenage FZ acolyte who later played with Duran Duran; marimba wonder Ruth Underwood, who jumped from marimba to piano to show how songs were put together.

Guitarist Steve Vai performed at a Hong Kong concert in August, 2004. Vai who was once a member of Frank Zappa's band, also played with 1980's rockers Whitesnake. (Richard A. Brooks/AFP via Getty Images)

Gail Zappa was blunt and clear-eyed about Frank, a man who was difficult at times. But she was his number-one fan and a fierce defender of his legacy as a composer.

Frank had famously kept a huge archive of his own performances, and figured out early on how to keep control of the rights to his music. An early adopter of digital recording techniques, he would spend countless hours assembling performances from a mix of studio recordings and live performances.

Musicians who had recorded for Frank in the studio would hardly recognize themselves when a song was eventually released.

As a result of his studio creativity — and apart from the fact that he wrote constantly — Frank was able to release over 60 albums before his death.

Dweezil Zappa (C), the son of the late Frank Zappa, stand's between Zappa's widow, Gail Zappa (L) and daughter Diva Muffin Zappa (R). (Petra Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

Gail Zappa kept the business going, working from Frank's notes and collections of tapes, and as of now, Wikipedia tells us that there are something like 117 Frank Zappa releases out there.

Frank Zappa was doing all this 40 years ago, at the dawn of the digital era — inventing techniques for music creation that are now commonplace, tools to recreate the sounds he heard in his head.

His music was wild at the time it was made, unrecognized and essentially not accepted as serious music by the 'academy' — marginalized as rock music.

Frank Zappa rehearsing for a concert, June 6, 1969. The first time the musician hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart was in 1974, with a novelty song called Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow. But before this — and a long time after — he was a greatly respected musician composing challenging music. (Ron Case/Keystone/Getty Images)

Mind you, Frank didn't help things, he had a penchant for scatological lyrics, and his band's stage performances could be wild affairs.

I think we're just catching up with Frank Zappa and his music. It's a cliche to say he was an artist before his time, but the music still sounds fresh and...difficult. I say that in the most admiring sense of the word.

Frank Zappa released a series of compilations titled You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore; well, maybe now you can.
 

Guests in this documentary series:

Gail Zappa, Frank's wife, and the longtime trustee of the Zappa Family Trust.

Ruth Underwood played marimba and other percussion instruments with FZ for about five years in the 1970's. Frank called her up for one more recording session shortly before he died.

Warren Cuccurullo as a teenager was a big fan of FZ, and eventually became 'stunt guitarist' in the various bands. He later spent many years with the band Duran Duran.

Arthur Barrow played bass in various FZ bands, and was also rehearsal director. Frank worked his musicians hard before a tour. He plays on around 12 FZ albums.

Steve Vai, virtuoso guitarist, started as a teenager transcribing music for Frank, and eventually playing guitar in his bands.

Bruce Fowler, trombone player who started with Frank and Captain Beefheart in the 1970's and played on many FZ albums for the next twenty years.

Joe Travers, drummer and engineer, the legendary 'vaultmeister' who managed the FZ audio archives and helped produce many of the releases after Frank's death.

Elliot Ingber, guitarist in the original Mothers of Invention, apparently fired because in one performance he was so high on LSD he forgot to turn his amp on.
 

Suggested reading:

The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa with Peter Occiogrosso (Touchstone 1999)

Electric Don Quixote by Neil Slaven (Omnibus 2003)

Dangerous Kitchen by Kevin Courrier (ECW Press 2002)
 


* This three-part documentary about Frank Zappa was produced and narrated by Philip Coulter.

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