Friday Night Jazz: Frank Zappa

Apostrophe Hale Stewart blogs as The Bonddad Blog, as well as at the Huffington Post. He is our guest author tonite for a rather unusual Friday Night Jazz on Frank Zappa:


"Frank Zappa was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. He was a brilliant composer, an incredibly unique guitarist (with one of the best tones ever) and one of the funniest people the world has ever seen. His music combined elements of jazz, rock, classical and vaudeville.

His various bands read like a who’s who of music. They include (home site, followed by BR’s favorite disc):

Steve Vai (favorite disc: Passion and Warfare)

Adrian Belew (favorite colloboration: King Crimson Discipline) 

George Duke (favorite disc: Reach for It)   

Michael Brecker
(favorite disc: Pilgrimage)

Terry Bozzio (favorite DVD: Solo Drums)

Jeff Berlin (favorite disc: Crossroads)

and many others.

Zappa’s bands were basically a training ground for some great musicians. In this regard, Zappa played a role in the rock world that was similar to Art Blakey in the jazz world. In short, he was one-of-a-kind.

I think there are two reasons why Zappa is a bit difficult to get into. The first is his music is dense and very multi-dimensional. While he would adhere to standard musical formulas (like a basic I – IV – V blues progression) he would add odd-metered rhythmic runs right in the middle of a piece.

Hot_ratsBasically, Zappa’s music throws the listener tons of curve balls; you literally do not know what will happen next. In addition, Zappa was one of the first progenitors of serious and effective cross-pollination of musical forms. This is a really fancy way of saying he used ideas from a ton of musical forms in a very unique way. As an example, the album Hot Rats (more on this below) is one of the first really successful jazz-rock albums, meaning the musical ideas were a combination of rock concepts (usually meaning a more aggressive musical attitude and distorted guitar tone) and jazz ideas (usually meaning a more advanced harmonic or chord background). In short, Zappa’s musical ideas come from a variety of places making his overall style very hard to pigeon hole.

The second reason why Zappa is not the household word he should be is, well, humor. While some find his lyrics offensive, others (such as myself) find them to be incredibly funny. Hell – his song titles are funny. Who else could write “The Illinois Enema Bandit” (which is based on a true story) and then have Don Pardo add a voice over on a live album? Or how about “Titties and Beer”, “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”,  "Bamboozled by Love”, "Don’t Eat That Yellow Snow” or perhaps his most famous song, “Valley Girl”?

The bottom line is Zappa’s music is really funny. If you like to laugh at the absurdities of life (or are a die-hard Monty Python fan), then this is music right up your alley.

Zappa’s recorded history is daunting, especially for someone who is looking for a good introduction into Zappa’s music. For those of you who are looking for a general overview, I would highly recommend six albums, titled:

You_cant_do_that_on_stage_anymoreYou Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Volumes 1 through 6. Each album is a two CD collection of various Zappa performances from his almost 30 year career. This gives you 12 CDs of great Zappa music. You’ll hear most of his more popular songs. You’ll also hear several version of the same song arranged in drastically different ways (Zappa was constantly rewriting his tunes for each of his bands. In fact, he would often rewrite songs while he was on tour).

There are two other live Zappa albums that deserve serious mention. The first is Zappa in New York. This is one of the best live albums ever recorded. His band is in fine
form and Zappa even enlists Don Pardo to perform some of the funniest
voice-overs in the history of music. Pardo is especially brilliant on
“I Am the Slime”. There is also a great version of “The Torture Never
Stops” where Zappa does some of his best guitar playing ever (his use
of feedback rivals Hendrix on machine Gun. No, really – it does).

Finally there is "At the Roxy and Elsewhere”. This has some great versions of Cheapness (which is about really old
and poorly made horror movies) and “Penguin in Bondage” (which is
about, well, just listen to the opening monologue). These is also a
fine version of “Trouble Everyday” which again has some of the best
guitar playing on record.

Joes_garageI should add that I am personally a much bigger fan of Zappa’s live work. Zappa would take big chances on stage. Some would work, some wouldn’t. But the fact that he would take chances in the hopes of creating something truly remarkable makes his live work stand-out that much more. In addition, his bands were always top-notch.

There are three studio albums that I will mention, all personal favorites. Remember, Zappa put out tons of studio albums, so picking and choosing can be very difficult.

I mentioned Hot Rats above. This album has some incredibly written tunes like Peaches in Regalia and Son of Mr. Green Genes. Peaches is a jazz-rock tour de force.

Joe’s Garage is a biting satirical look at the rock and roll business that also pokes fun at the religious right. I listened to this album in its entirely on a road trip a long time ago and I have never been the same since.

Finally comes Zoot Allures, which has a studio version of “The Torture Never Stops” and some great guitar work on “Black Napkins”.

Shut_up_n_play_yer_guitarFinally, Zappa was one of the best guitarists around. He had an amazing tone and his phrasing was simply incredible. There are two albums of note in this area: Shut Up and Play Your Guitar, and Guitar. Both have nothing but Frank Zappa guitar solos. Together these collections have five albums worth of material for the Zappa Guitar fan. I highly recommend both.

I am really only touching the surface of Zappa’s recorded legacy. There are tons of great albums out there. As I mentioned above, I personally prefer his live recordings because his bands were just incredible. But his studio work is also awesome.

So – quit reading my swill and go buy some Zappa albums!"


Great stuff, thanks Hale!

This is now Barry writing, and I would add a few discs to consider. Over-Nite Sensation — a tale of sexual depravity and bovine perspiration — was originally panned by Zappaphiles as too commercial. It is a tight satirical masterpiece. And, after Joe’s Garage, it is amongst the most accessible of his albums. This is the album to begin
your Zappa experience with.

Strictly_commercialApostrophe (‘) is another brilliant set of highly polished jazz-rock. It too, achieves a degree of greatness — and actual radio airplay — with songs such as "Don’t Eat that Yellow Snow," "Cosmik Debris" and "Stink-Foot."   

Lastly, for those of you who only want or need a passing glimpse of greatness, there is Strictly Commercial — its Zappa’s "Best of."

Where ever you start with FZ’s work, prepare to experience music unlike anything else you have ever heard  before . . .


Frank Zappa on Crossfire

Titties & Beer


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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. JJL commented on Oct 12

    I love Friday rock blogging!

  2. asb commented on Oct 12

    how do you not include vinnie caliouta in that list? he is the who’s who in drumming.

  3. Marcus Aurelius commented on Oct 12

    Dynamo Hum.

    Moving to Montana soon. Gonna’ be a dennil floss tycoon (yes, I am!).

  4. John Thompson commented on Oct 12

    Can’t forget “Weasles Ripped My Flesh”

  5. inquiringmind commented on Oct 12

    re: comical lyrics

    …once you hear the joke, isn’t it annoying to listen again?

    I think that’s why Zappa is not a household name for music, but he is a household name for saddling his kids with goofy names.

  6. ross commented on Oct 12

    love all these albums. i second the call for people to go back and listen to “weasels” and all the old mothers of invention stuff as well as zappa’s instrumental compositions. and also unmentioned here is “broadway the hard way” which is live and i feel the need to mention as it always seems to be left out. “broadway” may seem a bit dated by the political lyrics (circa 1988) of the album but the themes ring all too true today.

  7. David commented on Oct 12

    Frank Zappa one of the best guitar player of all time, Al Gore should be proud.

    “By Janus, I think no.” Shakespeare

  8. David Graves commented on Oct 12

    I was very fortunate that my freshman year college roommate had excellent taste in music–and among other things, introduced me to Frank Zappa’s music Thanks, Linas! And thanks, Hale and Barry. Weasels ripped my flesh….

  9. P. K. commented on Oct 12

    Great choice, Barry. Ya know, a whole lot could be written just on his days with the Mothers of Invention in the 1960’s, where he took on:
    The Beatles, with the album cover of “We’re Only In It For The Money” a brilliant parody of the Sgt. Pepper cover.
    Society in general, where he often refers to “plastic” things or people, meaning phony.
    Hippies/acid-heads, with any number of derisive and mocking lyrics.
    Race relations, with the following lyrics about the Watts riots where, in the middle of the song, he throws in a personal statement—
    “Hey, you know something people?
    I’m not black
    But there’s a whole lots a times
    I wish I could say I’m not white”

    then continues with the rest of the song….

    Well, I seen the fires burnin’
    And the local people turnin’
    On the merchants and the shops
    Who used to sell their brooms and mops
    And every other household item
    Watched the mob just turn and bite ’em
    And they say it served ’em right
    Because a few of them are white,
    And it’s the same across the nation
    Black and white discrimination
    Yellin’ “You can’t understand me!”
    ‘N all that other jazz they hand me
    In the papers and TV and
    All that mass stupidity
    That seems to grow more every day
    Each time you hear some nitwit say
    He wants to go and do you in
    Because the color of your skin
    Just don’t appeal to him
    (No matter if it’s black or white)
    Because he’s out for blood tonight

    The guy was flat-out brilliant.

  10. Aaron commented on Oct 12

    Its like grody…
    Grody to the max
    Im sure
    Its like really nauseating
    Like barf out
    Gag me with a spoon
    I am sure

  11. David commented on Oct 12

    I think Frank Zappa one of the best guitar player of all time. The way he put tunes together was a great art.

    Also, I think Al Gore was wrong to try and censorship his music.

  12. The Dirty Mac commented on Oct 12

    I generally listen to Bloomberg, but sometimes I listen to classic rock radio. I consider the playlists as consisting of one song performers, two song performers, etc. Sadly, Frank Zappa merits only one infrequently played song on the typical playlist (“Joe’s Garage”). That’s symptomatic of why I normally listen to Bloomberg.

    Musically, I think the only comp for Frank Zappa is Benny Goodman.

  13. JIm commented on Oct 12

    Many of Zappa’s albums can be found on

  14. Joe Klein’s conscience commented on Oct 12

    Two things. Who can forget another song title of his and a catchy song it was too: “Pablo Picasso was an Asshole”. I am pretty sure that was the correct title, but I know it had Pablo Picasso and asshole in the title together. The other was his appearance on Crossfire:

    He made Novakula look like a fool.

  15. Tom B commented on Oct 12

    “You Can’t Do that on Stage Anymore” Ironic title.

    Frank, like Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut understood how fu**ed up the world was becoming. I saw a story the other day about a radio station that was afraid to play Alan Ginsburg’s poem “Howl” on its 50th birthday for fear of invoking insane $500,000 fines from the Department of Pea-Brainedness– I mean the FCC.

    Lenny Bruce would have a thing or two to say, as well. And It couldn’t be broadcast, either.

  16. teraflop commented on Oct 13

    Saw my first & last FZ concert in 1978, after nurturing on 2 years of FZ in school. I loved Zoot Allures for Black Napkins alone plus any francophile would get a hoot from the album title alone (a slur on Zute Alors! – I still don’t know whether that was intentional or what). But I am sad not have had the chance to enjoy his compositions, as he grew older and as MIDI-based composition became possible, his work became richer. But, according to his book, his contracts made it virtually impossible to publish.

    Frank Zappa, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimmie Hendrix are all great in their own way. Frank’s intelligence, experience, and showmanship make him shine in my book.

  17. Jim Bergsten commented on Oct 13

    By some odd circumstance or sychronicity, I have quite recently dug out all of my Frank Zappa CD’s and started listening again (this is by itself a daunting task — there are at least fifty different, readily available CD’s).

    I highly recommend doing this, especially if you are “a bit older,” and/or haven’t heard this stuff in awhile.

    Words fail me — when I was younger, I liked the irreverent, funny stuff and kind of scratched my head at the rest.

    Now, I am simply amazed at the composition, arrangements, mixing, musicianship, and musicality of it all.

    Frank did everything, and in many cases, did it first (or better). Every style can be found from classical to country. There is just so much you can learn from his works.

    By the by, Mix magazine just came out with their 30th anniversary edition and listed the 30 most influential people in recording, etc. Frank was left out. A real tragedy.

    (sorry for the typos, typing in a hotel rookm w/o my reading glasses — that’s how stronglhy I feel about this).

    Have a nice weekend, all…

  18. Justin commented on Oct 13

    Zappa makes me wonder if anyone has ever put a stock chart to music. I imagine that a chart like Bidu, Google, and Apple’s, would be audible to only dogs by now.

  19. RW commented on Oct 13

    Thanks for your blog, I enjoy reading your views. I love Zappa and enjoyed seeing Dweezil and company recently playing his dad’s music.

    If you haven’t read it, you should get your hands on The Real Frank Zappa Book, by FZ. It will make you howl with laughter and love FZ even more.

  20. Ralph Witherell commented on Oct 13

    “Bongo Fury” is an out of this world Zappa live disc that shouldn’t be left off of anybody’s list. The ensemble for the performance was awesome and includes Beefheart on a few cuts and unbelievable slide guitar playing by Denny Walley on a few and scorching solos by FZ.

  21. Barry Clark commented on Oct 13

    Zappa had a great career as an artist. Have to say, though, I play guitar, and Zappa to me is technical and cold. I don’t care for his playing, and I don’t think many guitar players place him anywhere near the most influential or important players (Django, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Hendrix, Chet Atkins, Jeff Beck etc.)

    I also find his humor juvenile.

    Sorry, it’s just that when fans proclaim their favorite to be one of the greats, it kinda gets under my skin.

  22. Gloomyinvestor commented on Oct 15

    Zappa’s writing and interviews were always my favorite. I think I liked reading his stuff more than I liked listening to his music. His 1989 book – The Real Frank Zappa Book – is very funny in spots. I still pick it up occasionally to read the Section: “All About Music” Also, I think “You Are What You Is” is an underrated album. It lashes out at the Religious Right and is still (unfortunately) relevant today.

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