‘Unconventional’ is a word that is often used to describe the life of Frank Zappa. He had a fascinating career; his musical prowess was so magnificent that his works were almost impossible to classify into distinct genres. He was more than just a brilliant composer; he was also a radical film-maker, a skilled musical producer, and an expert record-engineer. His quirky attitude was strongly reflected in his music, where he often spoke about experiences from his rather bizarre childhood.
Frank Vincent Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland on December 21st 1940. His father’s profession as a chemical weapons specialist meant that he had to take strange medical precautions as a child, such as wearing gas masks. His parents were from different cultures and ancestries, and because his family had to move houses so much, he attended six different high schools. Such a diverse and extraordinary upbringing influenced Zappa’s highly critical views on mainstream politics, art, and media. He was famous for his critique of the Garden of Eden story, and for being a strong advocate towards freedom of speech and even self-education. His testimony before the United States Senate in 1985 is a true example of his dedication against censorship.
Zappa had extremely diverse musical influences, including avant-garde composers such as Varese, Halim-al-Dabh, and Igor Stravinsky. During his time in high school, he had obtained an impressive collection of R&B records, which, coupled with his avant-garde musical collection, allowed him to study orchestral music independently. His parents would let him practice with a snare drum while he was only a child, and by age 16, he was a drummer for a local band known as The Blackouts. Soon, Zappa would start playing the guitar, his influences mainly being American blues, soul, and funk music. After composing several orchestral and solo works, Zappa finally found his way into his first professional band ‘the Soul Giants’. He soon worked his way up to bandleader, after which he renamed the band to ‘The Mothers of Invention’. He worked with legendary producer Tom Wilson to release the band’s first album ‘Freak Out!’ in 1966. The band released its second album, ‘Absolutely Free’, in 1967. Zappa had also released an orchestral album independently (Lumpy Gravy) in 1968. Almost all of his pieces were characterized by his atypical musical style, use of orchestral instruments, and wide use of blues, funk, and jazz music. His band released two more albums in 1968, and two more in 1970. However, after a number of setbacks, notably the event that was immortalized on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, when one of Zappa’s event venues burned down, Zappa moved on towards personal records and jazz oriented bands. During this time, he also created several record labels such as Bizarre and DiscReet, which proved crucial in funding his projects. The 1970’s was a highly prolific decade for Zappa, in which he wrote two of his most successful albums, Joe’s Garage and Apostrophe, alongside his most successful single “Don’t eat the yellow snow”. In the early 1980’s, Zappa released five guitar-only albums that distinguished him as a revolutionary guitar soloist. His biggest selling single, ‘Valley Girl’, was released right after this period. His final record was ‘Civilization, Phase III’ which was a major orchestral work of his.
Frank Zappa died in 1993 from prostate cancer. He had released more than sixty albums. After his death, he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 alongside Led Zeppelin and Neil Young. He was also awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. His wide array of musical knowledge and daring attempts at orchestral experimentation earned him an astounding legacy, one that is comparable to the greatest musical legends of all time.