Friday, 1 May 2015

Z is for Zappa

The final installment in the A to Z Challenge will be the musician Frank Zappa.  He was born in 1940 in Baltimore and raised in an Italian-American household.  For a time his father worked at a nearby chemical warfare facility and the family kept gas masks in their home; this as well as his many childhood illnesses were referred to in his works.  For health reasons, the family relocated to California in 1952.  During his youth Zappa was made to attend a Catholic school, which he hated, because he believed that religion only promoted ignorance.

He joined his first band as a drummer while in high school; at the same time building a large Rhythm and Blues record collection and becoming interested in Classical music also.  His later style would be influenced by avant-garde composers such as Varese, Stravinsky, and Webern.  In 1957 he was gifted his first guitar and he developed a close friendship with fellow musician Don Van Vliet; by his senior year he was composing and arranging music for the school orchestra.  He dropped out of college after only one semester, and thereafter had a disdain for higher education.

His early attempts at earning a living as a musician were fraught with difficulties, although he had more commercial success at recording soundtracks for several low-budget films.  An infamous television appearance on Steve's Allen's late night show in 1963 had him using drumsticks and a bass bow to create sounds on a bicycle.  Following the breakup of his marriage in 1964, Zappa committed himself full time to recording and formed his own studio.  Unfortunately a turn of phrase in a newspaper article led to Zappa being set up and arrested for conspiracy to produce pornography, and the incident was the basis of his anti-authoritarian attitude.

He was persuaded by Ray Collins of the band Soul Giants to join them in 1965, and upon gaining attention in the Los Angeles underground music scene, they secured a recording contract and renamed themselves Mothers of Invention.  Their groundbreaking debut album "Freak Out!" established Zappa as a "radical new voice in rock music".  1967 saw the band's second album "Absolutely Free" and Zappa's second marriage, as well as a successful contract at the Garrick Theatre in New York.  The next few albums varied widely in style and concepts, but were enough to cement the group's success.  However in 1969 their fortunes declined, and Zappa was fed up with creative interference by both the musicians and the record company, leading him to dissolve the band and go solo for a year.  After this he reformed the band with new members to accompany his work.

Zappa suffered some serious setbacks in the 1970s.  While performing in Switzerland, the band's equipment was destroyed when a flare set off by a fan set the stage on fire.  At a London show a week later, Zappa was attacked by an audience member and fell off the stage onto the concrete floor.  The injuries he sustained forced him to convalesce for over half a year, and afterwards he was plagued by chronic pain and was unable to stand for long.  He toured with smaller groups and managed to continue a high rate of production, until in 1976 he discovered his manager had been skimming profits, which led to costly lawsuits and prompted Zappa to switch record labels.

Once his finances were settled, Zappa released his most successful album to date, "Sheik Yerbouti" in 1979; the single "Dancin' Fool" was nominated for a Grammy Award.  Throughout the 1980s he remained as productive as ever and constantly experimented with new composition tools, despite the occasional hiccup when some labels and radio stations refused to play certain songs because of questionable lyrics.  He would dismiss such events as evidence of the authorities being too stereotypical.  His music was often described as "challenging" and "satirical".  In 1986 he embarked on an ambitious project to re-master and re-release his vinyl recordings for the CD medium.  His final tour in in 1988 had a repertoire of over 100 songs, but his accompanying group split up before the tour was completed.

In 1990, Zappa was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.  He devoted his remaining years to completing modern orchestral and synclavier works, and managed to perform at several concerts in Europe despite his illness.  He died in Los Angeles in 1993, having earned widespread acclaim that would continue after his death.  He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, granted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

Here is a clip from the Steve Allen show where Zappa plays the bicycle.
Steve Allen Show March 4th 1963

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