Frank Zappa may very well be one of the most prolific and influential musicians of the 20th century. Though his style was largely centred around rock and roll beginning in the ‘60s, his greatest contributions to popular and underground music are arguably in the realms of jazz and avant-garde compositions. His signature style was sprawling and challenging, pushing the boundaries of musical expression by combining disparate ideas underneath one overall oeuvre. Freedom of expression of the highest order was Zappa’s defining statement, a practice that led him to testify in front of the Parents Music Resource Centre in Congress in the ‘80s, opposing censorship laws alongside a team of fellow musicians.
Zappa’s catalogue includes a staggering 62 albums released while he was alive, and another 32 released posthumously by the Zappa Family Trust starting in 1994. From the Mothers of Invention to his solo career, Zappa’s body of work is relentless and seemingly interminable.
Starting in 2006, Zappa’s eldest son, Dweezil, took up his mantle and continued the Zappa legacy, touring the tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa, around the world, focusing mainly on more standard rock and roll compositions written in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Below are some of Zappa’s most important tracks, ranging from the palatable to the downright bizarre.
“Sink Trap” (Lumpy Gravy; 1967)
Lumpy Gravy is largely considered the start of Zappa’s “serious” phase. His third album, and first as a solo artist, Lumpy Gravy is often dismissed by fans as a schizoid and incomplete album, too random to be palatable and not cohesive enough to be progressive. The pieces that bookend the album, including “Sink Trap,” the lead track, however, demonstrate Zappa’s willingness to experiment with contemporary classical conventions, cutting them up with anarchic glee and inserting a plethora of seemingly random references in between. Even if the album as a whole is inconsistent, “Sink Trap” is a great starting point to the wild and wacky weirdness that defines Zappa’s discography.
“Dancing Fool” (Sheik Yerbouti; 1979)
Zappa always had a keen eye for satire and parody, drawing from literary influences that placed him alongside Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. When disco broke in the late ‘70s, it proved to be the perfect subject matter for Zappa to twist and distort. “Dancing Fool” begins earnestly enough and, indeed, was Zappa’s largest commercial success until he dismantled West Coast posturing with “Valley Girl” three years later. By the time most dancers were ready for the breakdown, however, Zappa introduces a half dozen odd styles, all but relegating the easy dance beat to the sidelines in favour of free-flowing experimentation.
“Teenage Wind” (You Are What You Is; 1981)
By 1981, Zappa already had a considerable body of work behind him, but he refused to slow down. You Are What You Is was the fourth album he released that year, a sprawling double-album that takes aim at all the trappings of Reagan’s America, from burnt out punks, to religious hypocrisy, rich vices, yuppies, disco, listless teenagers and country music. “Teenage Wind” kicks the effort off and satirizes slacker culture and paper-thin philosophies freedom espoused by stoned Deadheads. Most consider this his most overtly political work in over a decade.
Catch Zappa Plays Zappa at MacEwan Hall (Calgary) on January 25, at the Myer Horowitz (Edmonton) on January 26 and the Commodore Theatre (Vancouver) on January 29.
By Sebastian Buzzalino