Frank Zappa tribute set for 2013 Edinburgh International Festival
Paul Morley wades through the history of a true sonic visionary and wonders just where on earth he fits in
This article is from 2013.
Frank Zappa was eccentric, defiant and complex. As the EIF prepares its tribute to this musical pioneer, Paul Morley wades through the history of a true sonic visionary and wonders just where on earth he fits in
And then, finally, Z for Zappa. I sometimes think that Frank Zappa only existed in all his hyper Zappa-ness as musician, cultural critic, technician, self-publicist, libertarian social commentator, arranger, satirist, stunt guitarist whose solos were spontaneous compositions, paranoid historian, educator, genre mutilator, inventor of the pop album that wasn’t just a collection of singles, because he becomes the best possible Z there can be in any definitive A to Z of pop and rock.
Sure, there is The Zombies, and there is the label I created in the early 80s that nodded to Zappa (as well as the ZE label) by being Zang Tuum Tumb. But Zappa takes care of whatever there hasn’t been in the A to Y that precedes him, and sets up a whole new universe to come, that goes beyond Z, and beyond the alphabet of reason.
Zappa was always the fire-in-his-eyes leader of a cult-inspiring proto-geek loyalty, but at the turn of the 70s, when American rock went mad with influences, the cult was more on the inside of (counter) culture than it is now. His name alone was glamorous, something to be instantly curious about, and when I first started paying attention to Zappa with the zany hair and the zanier facial hair in the early 70s, the albums you immediately wanted to buy had gonzo excitement and ambition written all over their covers and in their titles.
Musically, from big-headed, big-minded Freak Out! in 1966, and then Absolutely Free, We’re Only In It for the Money, Uncle Meat, Hot Rats (a top ten UK album) and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, the records seemed as packed with pun, texture, self-reference, connective tissue and buried, seething meaning as a Joyce novel. The song titles and an overall spirit had a literary dimension, as well as far-out, far-fetched suggestions that here was a logic-challenging surrealist as much as a composer; an offensive, deeply black comedian as much as a very white, guitar-neurotic rock star.
Some of this music sounded more or less exactly like you would imagine from someone inspired by Varèse, Webern, serialism and Stravinsky from a 20th-century classical world as well as breezy, smooth-tipped doo-wop, freedom-seeking free jazz and (as a guitarist teaching himself) the haywire blues. Zappa was drawn to avant-garde classical music through a review he read of Varèse’s percussion-propelled ‘Ionisation’ that promised a ‘weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds’.
He never lost that love of the weird and aggravating, whatever music he invented, insulted, honoured, parodied, regenerated, seriously composed through the 50, 60 albums he made before his death in 1993 at the age of 53. And in the same way Varèse was not so much influenced by other composers as he was by natural objects and physical phenomenon, Zappa’s music was influenced by the random noise and oddball energy of American television, the complexity of thought, a loathing of bigotry, and the filthy, emancipating might of smut.
Where do you begin making some kind of way through the knotty, never ending music of Zappa? What albums should you try? Well, sometimes I think it’s best to take them one by one as they came, as if they were in order, progressing as they go along, which they sort of do, if sometimes sideways with flashbacks, like the episodes in some epic Wire-like television series.
Ignore compilations and swim through the mass, mania and mire from the conceptually demented Mothers of Invention (1965–1970); the weirdo jazz-rock Hot Rats hinge in 1970; to the Flo and Eddie post-Turtles period where the catalogue gets scatological on Fillmore East: June 1971. And then with 200 Motels, where psychedelic ambition imploded and/or exploded into deranged mock opera because as Frank says, ‘touring makes you crazy’; leading to the stewed, drop-out big band of 1972 including The Grand Wazoo; the most mainstream he more or less got, with Apostrophe (‘) and Over-Nite Sensation between 1973 and 1975.
There was the Bongo Fury reunion with sidekick Beefheart, six years after they mapped out the skin of the universe with Trout Mask Replica, both playing straight man and funny man; the fertile solo work to the end of the 70s including Sheik Yerbouti and the naturally cryptic and complex triple album psycho-rock opera Joe’s Garage, peaking with one of his greatest guitar performances, ‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’.
The 80s were as tricky for Zappa as they were for Dylan, starting with the pure exploratory guitar of Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar, leading to the Synclavier synthesiser that brought out the uncontrollable control freak in Zappa, fiddling while America dumbs down. And then I just haven’t got the time and space to explain how by his death he was closer musically to Pierre Boulez than The Fugs, to composing music for chamber ensemble and orchestra rather than rock band.
You want ten Zappa songs to sample from the murky, moving mountain? That’s as tough as learning Latin in a day, but for the sake of this list, I’m choosing ones where the titles open doors to Zappa’s mentality: ‘Stinkfoot’, ‘Who Are the Brain Police?’, ‘Duke of Prunes’, ‘Eat That Question’, ‘The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution’, ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’, ‘Call Any Vegetable’, ‘The Torture Never Stops’, ‘You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here’ and ‘Cosmik Debris’ (‘what kind of a guru are you anyway?’)
(See our Spotify playlist below to listen to these 10 tracks)
But as the whole point of Zappa’s music was how the mind changes, and to change minds, in a minute I’ll change my mind. Actually, don’t listen to Zappa at all, if you are not in the mood for the apparently unlistenable: it will only lead to confusion. Just track down his writing/interviews/political rants that inspired playwright, dissident and eventual last president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, and place Zappa as philosopher-performer between Antonin Artaud and Slavoj Žižek.
He lived in his own world, and followed his own agenda, and was uncomfortable outside it. In that sense he is the missing link between Ornette Coleman and who cares? It’s why whenever a Zappa festival is mooted or achieved, and it comes to imagining bands directly or indirectly influenced by Zappa, it’s very difficult to think of any: Phish, perhaps, as a sort-of tribute act; The Mars Volta maybe and contemporary composers like Philip Cashian who orchestrates his guitar solos as though they were blueprints for radiant concertos.
You can list musicians and groups who admire or even adore his attitude, his subversive smartness, his playing and savage playfulness, his sarcasm, how prolific he was (from the recently late Kevin Ayers, Hawkwind and Faust to Panda Bear, John Zorn and Tenacious D), but you will not come up with anyone making sound as ecstatically eccentric, defiantly difficult and structurally adventurous that links dead-on with Zappa’s. Unless you could reform the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band with Harrison Birtwistle, Henry Cowell, David Foster Wallace, Yoko Ono, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Louis CK.
I once asked Brian Eno about Zappa, who seemed to share some craving to create an experimental collage of influences from pop culture and the avant-garde, and he said, well, he was a big influence, but in reverse: ‘he’d showed me exactly what I should not be doing. He fused together all the wrong things.’
In the wide-open early 1970s, Zappa the extremist was a perfect fit – whilst having sonic, (a)moral and narcissistic blips – amongst all of the crazy, cavorting, counter-culture greats (Hendrix, the Velvets, Lennon and co). But perhaps in some eventual history of 20th-century culture, he will fit into a story that also includes the Italian futurists, Cage, Stockhausen, Duchamp and Joseph Beuys more than the Grateful Dead or Bob Dylan. Or perhaps he’ll be squeezed in, a little lonely, between Groucho, Lenny Bruce and Olivier Messiaen where the A is for aware, ardent, absurd, astonishing, analytical, alarming, atonal, apeshit, and the Z is still (but never still) for Zappa.
Ensemble musikFabrik: A Tribute to Frank Zappa, Usher Hall, Lothian Road, 0131 473 2000, 28 Aug, 8pm, £12–£34
Paul Morley’s The North (And Almost Everything In It) is published by Bloomsbury on 5 Sep.