There are no casual Frank Zappa fans. You don’t merely like his music; it becomes a focal point of your existence. This is due partially to the fact that he worked on developing a cult among his fanbase almost from the beginning of his career, and also because the sheer volume of stuff he put out is so staggering. It’s a devotion tailor-made for obsessives, like myself.
In high school, I had dual musical allegiances. On the one hand, straight up punk rock. On the other, modern classical stuff like Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives and jazz like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. I’m not sure how this happened, exactly, but here we are. Frank Zappa satisfied both sides of my musical brain at once. It had rock elements, but also had the complicated instrumentation and chops I liked from classical and jazz. It also had plenty of satirical and transgressive elements to it (sex, poop) that were exciting to High School Me.
The problem with liking Zappa is that he pushes all your other likes out to the margins. He had a concept called Conceptual Continuity, which said that everything he ever did was interrelated. The only way to truly understand it all was to listen to everything–including every live show you could get your hands on. That’s why I have not only 40-something legitimately released albums of his, but twice as many boots I downloaded in the early, bountiful days of torrenting. The time and scrutiny required to listen to all of this stuff leaves you no inclination to consume anything else.
I’d consider myself a lapsed Zappa fan at this point in my life, because I feel like I’ve pulled out as much as I can from his oeuvre. There’s also elements to some songs that are way too close to misogyny for me to excuse or dismiss. However, I still listen to the occasional track or old show. I also stand by certain incarnations of his bands, like the Roxy and Elsewhere lineup, which was pretty funky and fun (plus it had lots of marimba, which always pleases me). But my favorite remains the original Mothers, who were unlike anything assembled before or since.
Zappa basically took this band that used to play R & B and blues and got them to play rockified versions of Edgar Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen compositions. And when they felt like it, they could also rock the fuck out. You’ll see examples of both in this video from a performance on the BBC from 1968.
The song in that video, “King Kong,” was a heavy duty workout that took up all of side 4 of Uncle Meat, the final proper album by the original Mothers lineup. (There were a few others featuring material they’d recorded, of course, since Zappa released virtually everything he ever did. This was the last one recorded as a for-real album.) I’m not the full time Zappa fan I once was, but I still stand by this as a masterpiece. There’s virtually no vocals on the entire album, and it has this strange, stilted baroque quality to it. Much of it was assembled using insane amounts of overdubbing all done on four tracks (the only kind of recorder then available) and edited with razor blades, a small engineering miracle.
The Uncle Meat liner notes came with sheet music for both “King Kong” and the title track, which I was obsessed with for a while. The notation informed me that the song’s chord structure was composed almost entirely of suspended 4ths. If that means nothing to you, just know that in traditional Western music, a fourth interval (i.e., a difference between a root and a harmonic of four full notes) sounds kind of “Eastern” or “Chinese.” This budget music theory lesson has been brought to you by a class I took junior year of high school.
Using the tiny transcription in the CD booklet, I tried to play “Uncle Meat” on the beatup piano in our basement (acquired for the cost of renting a truck when family friends gave it away), but I couldn’t play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with two hands, let alone Frank Zappa. Oh well.
While this is completely inappropriate for use as walk up music, any player who dared do so would earn my eternal love. Yes, even if it was a Marlin.