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Frank Zappa
Zappa 16011977 01 300
Background information
Birth name Frank Vincent Zappa
Born December 21, 1940(1940-12-21) Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Died December 4, 1993 (aged 52) Los Angeles, California, USA
Genre Rock, jazz, classical, avant-garde, experimental
Instruments Guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards, drums, Synclavier
Years active 1950s-1993
Associated acts The Mothers of Invention

Captain Beefheart


Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was an American composer, electric guitarist, record producer and film director.


With more than 80 albums to his credit, Frank Zappa demonstrated a mastery of pop idioms ranging from jazz to rock of every conceivable variety, penned electronic and orchestral works, parlayed controversial satire, and testified in Congress against censorship. As astute an entrepreneur as he was a musician, he was impatient with any division between popular and high art; he combined scatological humor with political wit, required of his players (Little Feat founder Lowell George, guitarists Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, Warren Cuccurullo, and drummer Terry Bozzio, among them) an intimidating skill, and displayed consistent innovation in instrumental and studio technology.


The eldest of four children of a guitar-playing government scientist, Frank Zappa moved with his family at age 10 to California, eventually settling in Lancaster. Playing in school orchestras and bands, he taught himself a variety of instruments, concentrating on guitar. A collector of ’50s rock & roll and R&B singles, he also listened to modern classical composers like Stravinsky and his avowed favorite, Edgard Varèse. In high school he formed the Black-Outs and added country blues to his record collection. He met future collaborator and underground legend Don Van Vliet and allegedly christened him Captain Beefheart. In 1959 he studied music theory at Chaffey College in Alta Loma, California, dropping out after six months.


In 1960 Zappa played cocktail World’s Greatest Sinner. He also appeared on Steve Allen’s TV show, performing a “bicycle concerto” (plucking the spokes, blowing through the handlebars). In 1963 Zappa wrote a score for a Western called Run Home Slow, and with the money built a studio in Cucamonga, California. He befriended future Mothers Ray Collins and Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, and formed a band with Beefheart called the Soots.

Zappa was charged with conspiracy to commit pornography by the San Bernardino Vice Squad after an undercover policeman requested some sex “party” tapes: Zappa delivered tapes of faked grunting, and served 10 days of a six-month jail sentence. The woman involved was bailed out of jail with royalties from “Memories of El Monte,” which Zappa and Collins had written for the doo-wop group the Penguins. In 1964 Zappa joined the Soul Giants, with Collins (vocals), Dave Coronada (sax), Roy Estrada (bass), and Jimmy Carl Black (drums). Renaming them the Muthers, then the Mothers, he moved the band onto L.A.’s proto-hippie “freak” circuit (Coronada quit, replaced by guitarist Elliot Ingber). The band played clubs for two years, mixing covers with social-protest tunes like “Who Are the Brain Police?” In early 1966 producer Tom Wils

on signed them to MGM/Verve and recorded Freak Out! MGM, wary of the band’s outrageous reputation, forced Zappa to add “of Invention” to the Mothers. Though Zappa advertised the album in underground papers and comics and earned critical respect for the album’s obvious musical and lyrical distinction, it ended up losing money.

In 1966, with Ingber departing, eventually to join Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, the Mothers lineup expanded to include saxophonists Bunk Gardner and Motorhead Sherwood, keyboardist Don Preston, and drummer Billy Mundi. Released in 1967, Absolutely Free further satirized “straight” America with pointed tunes like “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” and “Plastic People.” We’re Only in It for the Money, a parody of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, found Zappa savaging hippie pretensions. His montage production techniques - mingling tape edits, noise, recitative, free-form outbursts, and Varèse-like modern classical music with rock - were coming into their own. In 1967 Zappa and the Mothers also recorded Lumpy Gravy, with a 50-piece orchestra, including many Mothers, and Cruising With Ruben & the Jets, an homage to ’50s doo-wop.

Billy Mundi left after Lumpy Gravy; by now it was apparent that the Mothers were less a band than a shifting vehicle for Zappa’s art. While recording Money, Zappa and the group had moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where they began a six-month residency at the Garrick Theatre. There they pioneered rock theater with a series of often-spontaneous audience-participation skits. While recording Ruben & the Jets, the Mothers also began recording Uncle Meat, a double album for a never-completed movie. It is the first example of Zappa’s trademark complex-meter jrock fusion.

After making Uncle Meat, Zappa moved the band back to L.A. and married his second wife, Gail; their four children include daughters Moon Unit and Diva and sons Dweezil and Ahmet Rodan. (Dweezil would become a solo artist in the ’80s, then form Shampoohorn with his brother in the ’90s; both also became television personalities, as did their sister Moon Unit). In L.A. Zappa moved into movie cowboy Tom Mix’s Log Cabin Ranch, where he assembled the increasingly complex Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. By this time, the band had come to include second guitarist Lowell George and drummer Art Tripp III.

In late 1968 Zappa and manager Herb Cohen had moved to Warner/Reprise, where they formed their own Straight and Bizarre labels. Zappa recorded such acts as groupie collective the GTO’s (Girls Together Outrageously), onetime street-singer Wild Man Fischer, Alice Cooper, and Captain Beefheart (whose Trout Mask Replica was one of Zappa’s most memorable productions). By the time Weasels was released in 1970, Zappa had temporarily disbanded the Mothers because of overwhelming expenses and public apathy. Lowell George and Roy Estrada then founded Little Feat; Art Trip III joined Beefheart (Estrada later joined Beefheart as well); Gardner and Black formed Geronimo Black.


Zappa began composing the soundtrack for 200 Motels. He also recorded his first solo album, Hot Rats, a jazz-rock guitar showcase featuring Beefheart and jazz violinists Jean-Luc Ponty and Don “Sugarcane” Harris. Hot Rats was released to great critical acclaim in 1970, as was Ponty’s King Kong, an album of Zappa compositions (for legal reasons, Zappa’s name couldn’t be listed as producer and guitarist). In 1970 Zappa also performed the 200 Motels score with Zubin Mehta and the L.A. Philharmonic at a sold-out L.A. concert. That summer, Zappa re-formed the Mothers, retaining keyboardist/reedman Ian Underwood and adding ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman (singers then known as the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie), and bassist Jim Pons, along with jazz keyboardist George Duke and British rock drummer Aynsley Dunbar. With this lineup and other session players, Zappa recorded Waka/Jawaka and Chunga’s Revenge as solo albums and the Mothers’ Fillmore East - June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A.

At this point, critics began accusing the Mothers of becoming a cynical, scatological joke, but Zappa displayed no discomfort in portraying two apparently contradictory personae: the raunchy inciter and the serious composer (whose stature in fact would increase over the years, and whose cult always remained intense). In 1971 the 200 Motels film, featuring Theodore Bikel and Ringo Starr as surrogate Zappas, as well as the Mothers, was released to mixed response. In May 1971 Zappa appeared at one of the last Fillmore East concerts with John Lennon and Yoko Ono; the performance appears on Lennon/Ono’s Some Time in New York City. As the Mothers personnel began to change more frequently, they embarked on a 1971 tour in which their equipment was destroyed in a fire at Switzerland’s Montreux Casino (immortalized in opening act Deep Purple’s hit “Smoke on the Water”), and Zappa was injured when a fan pushed him from the stage of London’s Rainbow Theatre. A year later the Mothers were banned from Royal Albert Hall for “obscenity.”

The Grand Wazoo, with numerous auxiliary players, was a big-band fusion album. And in 1973 Zappa and the Mothers also recorded Over-Nite Sensation, on which Zappa simplified his music and kept his lyrics in a scatological-humorous vein, as in “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (#86, 1974). Album sales picked up. Apostrophe (’) - Zappa’s highest charting album, at #10 - featured an extended jam with ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce, as well as by-now-typical dirty jokes and satires. The 1975 Bongo Fury album reunited Zappa with Beefheart. The latter had fallen out with Zappa after Trout Mask, accusing Zappa of marketing him as “a freak.”

After producing Grand Funk Railroad’s Good Singin’, Good Playin’ in 1976, Zappa filed a lawsuit against Herb Cohen in 1977 and severed ties with Warner Bros., moving to Mercury two years later. There he set up Zappa Records and retired the Mothers name, calling all later groups Zappa. On the new label he released Sheik Yerbouti (a pun on KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty”), including the song “Jewish Princess,” over which the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League filed a complaint with the FCC against Zappa. That album also yielded a surprise hit single, “Dancin’ Fool” (#45, 1979), which lampooned the disco crowd. (Sheik peaked at #21 on the albums chart.) Joe’s Garage, Act I, the first installment of a three-act rock opera, included “Catholic Girls,” and Zappa’s penchant for barbed attacks continued to infuriate his critics while strengthening his own following.

In December of 1978 Warren Cuccurullo was invited to audition as a guitarist for Zappa's new road band. Several shows on the Spring 1979 "Human Jukebox" European/Asian tour were recorded for Zappa's live albums. After the tour, Warren returned to the studio with Zappa to work on the Joe's Garage album which included "Watermelon In Easter Hay", for which he provided rhythm guitar and several vocal parts. Terry Bozzio's wife Dale also contributed vocal parts to the album.

In 1979 Zappa also released the film Baby Snakes, a mélange of concert footage, dressing room slapstick, and clay-figure animation. The late-’70s Zappa bands included guitarist Adrian Belew (who later played with Talking Heads, King Crimson, and David Bowie) and drummer Terry Bozzio (who later with his wife Dale founded Missing Persons). In 1980 Zappa recorded a single, “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted,” which Mercury refused to release, prompting him to leave the label and eventually establish his own Barking Pumpkin label.


In 1981 Zappa released his first Barking Pumpkin album; and that year, some ex-Mothers, including Jimmy Carl Black, Don Preston, and Bunk Gardner, united to form the Grandmothers. They toured and recorded, playing all-Zappa material from the Mothers’ vintage late-’60s period. That April Zappa produced and hosted a New York City concert of music by Edgard Varèse. He also released a limited edition mail-order-only, three-album series, Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar.

Zappa parlayed stereotype satire into success once more with “Valley Girl” (#32, 1982) from the Drowning Witch album. The song parodied the spoiled daughters of entertainment-industry folk, specifically those in the San Bernardino Valley city of Encino, and featured inspired mimicry by then-14-year-old Moon Unit Zappa. In 1983 Zappa conducted works by Varèse and Anton Webern at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.

The ’80s saw Zappa consolidating his business affairs; with Gail Zappa in charge, his companies included not only Barking Pumpkin (a mail-order label, distributed by Capitol) but Honker Home Video, Barfko-Swill (for Zappa merchandise), and World’s Finest Optional Entertainment Co. (to produce live shows); he also arranged with Rykodisc to rerelease his catalogue on CD. A lifelong free-speech advocate, he testified before a Senate subcommittee in 1985 and assailed the Parents’ Music Resource Center (excerpts from the hearings appeared on Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention); throughout the decade, he also championed voter registration drives. In 1990, at the invitation of Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel, a longtime fan, Zappa served for several months as that country’s trade, tourism, and cultural liaison to the West. The following year, he considered a run for the U.S. presidency.

Artistically, the ’80s were also fertile years for Zappa. Early in the decade, the Berkeley Symphony performed his work; in 1984 conductor/composer Pierre Boulez released Boulez Conducts Zappa/The Perfect Stranger (#7, 1984 on the classical chart). In 1988 Zappa undertook a world tour (documented on Broadway the Hard Way) and won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental for Jazz From Hell, an album composed on Synclavier, a highly sophisticated synthesizer that in Zappa found one of its chief devotees. Among his other late-’80s projects were remastering his ’60s work for CD and assembling six double-CD sets of live work entitled You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore. In 1989 Poseidon Press published his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book.


In 1991, in New York City on the eve of a tribute concert entitled “Zappa’s Universe,” Moon Unit and Dweezil Zappa announced that their father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A lifelong teetotaler and abstainer from drugs (Zappa, however, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee incessantly), the composer continued a rigorous work schedule. In 1992 he completed a two-CD sequel to Lumpy Gravy, Civilization Phaze III and in 1993 recorded both The Yellow Shark, an album of his compositions by the classical group Ensemble Modern, and, also with the Ensemble, an album of Varèse works tentatively entitled The Rage and the Fury: The Music of Edgard Varèse. Frank Zappa died on the evening of December 4, 1993, at his L.A. home; he was 52 years old.

He had over the years remixed or remastered all of his recorded output for CD releases; nearly everything has since been rereleased on Rykodisc. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That year also saw the publication, from St. Martin’s Press, of Ben Watson’s Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, an exhaustive postmodernist deconstruction/appreciation of the man’s music. Four years later, he was remembered, perhaps more fittingly, by an all-Zappa program performed by the Florida Orchestra.

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