You’ve heard of Zappa, but have you heard of his influences?
If you have heard Frank Zappa (1940-1993) and his music, it is likely that on your first listen you thought it was weird. That’s because it is. Zappa’s music is about as far from normal as you can get. Shocking lyrics and melodies are not everyone’s cup of tea. That said, he rode the top of the charts on occasion as he appealed to rock, jazz, funk, and classical crowds. He tore down the barriers dividing genres and designed his own custom sound. There is at least one song of his for everyone, if not dozens.
With his career in The Mothers of Invention and solo work, he succeeded with a prolific 62 albums during his lifetime and 50 more released after. Zappa won several awards during his lifetime for these works, while he posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
His influences play a large role on his sound, stage theatrics, production value, and success. One of the biggest takeaways is Zappa’s perpetual connection of components between all his work. He used the interchangeable phrasing, “Conceptual Continuity” and “Project/Object,” to represent musical phrases and characters reappearing on multiple albums. He left obvious and discrete clues throughout his works.
There is a massive list inside of his first record, Freak Out, that listed all his influences at the time. Some of these that stood as greater positive influences than others are: Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Verese, Pierre, Boulez, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and Guitar Slim.
“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” – FZ
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Russian composer, Stravinsky, stood out to Frank Zappa due to his innovative use of frantic time changes and unconventional melodies. Although his compositions ranged from solo instrument to full orchestra, some of his pieces required some of the largest orchestras ever employed – specifically Rite of Spring. Stravinsky also won several Grammys including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. Zappa developed a fondness for Stravinsky’s music early on and you can find evidence of his influence all over his catalog. There are even musical quotes, tributes, and piece title quotes throughout.
Edgard Varese (1883-1965)
Edgard Varese, a French composer, emphasized timbre, rhythm, and personal aesthetic. These ideas spoke to Zappa and you can often pick up these influences in his music. Rhythm is a very important element to the FZ formula. Zappa was never able to meet Varese, but they did speak on the phone and send letters. Zappa has a framed letter from him that hung in his studio for the rest of his life. His final work was a tribute to Varese entitled, The Rage and the Fury.
“What is music but organized noises?” – E. Varese
Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)
Boulez, another french composer, was born fifteen years before Zappa but outlived him by twenty-three years. In his ninety years of life he composed for many instruments and received an astonishing amount of awards for his work, including 26 Grammys. Another success with one of his influences occurred when Boulez conducted Zappa’s music in The Perfect Stranger with The London Symphony Orchestra.
“Zappa was an exceptional figure because he was part of the worlds of rock and classical music and that both types of his work would survive.” – P. Boulez
Johnny “Guitar” Watson (1935-1996)
Watson was a Texan guitarist that wrote “Three Hours Past Midnight,” the song that inspired Zappa to become a guitarist. They became friends and he went on to play on several of Zappa’s albums. A big part of his style of playing comes from Watson’s aggressive, picky, heavy playing. Watson’s method and approach to guitar can be compared to that of T-Bone Walker; a pioneer of “jump blues,” a predecessor to R&B.
Guitar Slim (1926-1959)
Eddie Jones, or Guitar Slim, was a New Orleans blues guitarist who was one of the first to experiment with distortion. Although they are neighboring states, the Louisiana/New Orleans sound was far different than Texas blues. New Orleans incorporates slow-tempo swamp blues with zydeco and Cajun music, while Texas blues features prominently swing and (later on) rock influences.
“”And I especially like Guitar Slim. His solo on “The Story Of My Life” is one of the best early distorted guitar solos; it really sounds like he’s mad at somebody.” – FZ
The Mothers of Invention – King Kong (live) – 1968 at BBC
You should be able to notice the strangeness right off the bat. Try to challenge yourself and be aware of when they go from improvisation, into the melody, and back into improvisation. Some large influences of avant-garde classical music mixed with jazz and blues here.
The Mothers of Invention – “Directly From My Heart to You”
You can really draw comparisons and hear similarities between this FZ tune (from Weasels Ripped My Flesh) and “Three Hours Passed Midnight.” Despite some unorthodoxy, as most of the soloing we hear is done by Don “SugarCane” Harris on electric violin, the song stays true to a relatively standard blues form.
The Mothers of Invention – “The Air”
Finally, we see the melodic side of Zappa and difficult harmonies to create the doo-wop sound of the 50’s with some tape and pitch manipulation for originality. Additionally you can hear the experimental side of Zappa in full effect on this record, Uncle Meat.
“Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.” – FZ
Frank Zappa – “Camarillo Brillo”
Lastly, here is an example, from Overnite Sensation, of what attracted more common listener and rock fans. The lyrics are still rather unusual but this is such a catchy and melodic song. This record is a great place to start for new listeners, certainly not the weirdest of choices available.