Michael Gray traces Zappa’s career from his early childhood up to his most recent orchestral experiments and establishes many reasons to like him. History will vindicate him as a composer of serious music and rock, as a guitarist, producer, editor and pioneer. Perhaps more than any other artist, Zappa began to exercise more complete control, sense of purpose, and sophisticated musical resource
both in and out of the studio than anyone in rock had done before. Very few people have matched his ability to bring together disparate elements, musical and non-musical, and, using every possibility that advanced recording techniques has to offer, forge them into a consistent and provocative whole.
Zappa’s career falls in two parts – his time with the original Mothers of Invention and its various expansions and contractions, and everything that’s happened since that’s group’s demise. Musically the two periods couldn’t be more different. The main characteristics of Zappa’s early work from “Freak Out” to “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” is the way the material is totally arranged and organised. Not only individual pieces are ‘composed’, but the whole structure of each album is directed, aimed, worked through. Although Sergeant Pepper is generally hailed as the first rock record to successfully link numbers into a single creative entity, Absolutely Free had already achieved this, in its own particular terms, some time before. “Hot Rats”,
on the other hand, follows a straighter path. The main development here is that for the first time the rhythmic section is given its head – piano, bass and drums are not tied to fixed ideas, but play loosely along with the arrangements. He disguised his musical iconoclasm with the frequent and satirical use of the most plastic of pop styles.
The seminal use of repetition in modern music has had many outlets in rock. The mantric idea – ‘repeat something often enough and it becomes interesting’ – almost has the status of cliché. Zappa shows himself to be one of the first to use one note, one rhythm to underpin other musical events. Stravinsky is probably the most obvious classical influence on Frank’s work. Zappa’s work combines the present-time organisation of time (overlapping time signatures, dynamic flow of colour or texture) with pastime organisation of time (nostalgia, references to the early days of rock’n’roll, manipulation of periods, dates, years). It fuses musical ideas and themes with a type of music-verité of real life recordings. Non-vocal & non-musical elements are used
as music in much the same way that Eric Satie used the aircraft engine, the dynamo, typewriter and rattles in Parade before the First World War. The musical value is located as one of dynamics… The literary content of the inserted monologues and conversational clips is treated as if they were words to a song, songs without music, with a consequential contribution to the overall social statement of the albums. Zappa is like the alchemists. They would repeat the same process or experiment, month in, month out, often for many years, until the materials they were working with became so unstable that they developed new properties. Frank is working with a set of themes, the same old ones he always uses.
He’s still working on them, gives them new names, sneaking up on them from new angles, surprising them with strange orchestration and weird time signatures…