Z is for Zappa

Frank_Zappa_-_Jazz_From_HellHe was an iconoclastic fellow, that Frank Zappa was. The Wikipedia described him as “an American musician, bandleader, songwriter, composer, recording engineer, record producer, and film director.”

Here’s a 16-minute segment from 1963 with Steve Allen, a talk show host formerly on the Tonight Show, featuring a then-unknown musician playing a most unusual instrument. The sounds are early indicators of Frank’s musical direction.

I learned about Frank Zappa originally because he was usually represented on those early Warner Brothers Loss Leader compilation albums (two LPs for two bucks) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, often on the fourth side, where his unconventional music wouldn’t turn off the less adventuresome listener. There was even a special Loss Leader, ZAPPÉD, “a single disc featuring acts on Frank Zappa’s Bizarre/Straight labels.” Many of his songs in that first period were as part of the group The Mothers of Invention. One of his best known songs, from one of those albums, is the instrumental Peaches en Regalia [LISTEN].

He was not at all a chart topper, but his influence led to his selection to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, posthumously, for he died in 1993 of prostate cancer just before his 53rd birthday, the same disease that killed my father.

His two top 50 hits in the United States [LISTEN] were:
Dancin’ Fool (#45 in 1979)
Valley Girl (#32 in 1982); this featured Frank’s daughter Moon Unit Zappa on vocals.

I won’t share with you his other Top 100 song, or indeed some of his other non-charting singles. I WILL say that the line “Now is that a real poncho or is that a Sears poncho?” in context, in Cosmik Debris, is one of my favorite lines in pop music.

It was rumored that his instrumental album Jazz from Hell had a parental advisory warning. That’s not true, although some of his other albums DID have the sticker for explicit lyrics. What IS true is that some local retailer tagged it. It went on to win a Grammy. LISTEN to Night School, the first song off the album.

In recent years, Zappa Plays Zappa, an American tribute act led by Dweezil Zappa, Frank’s eldest son, has been touring. For the curious, LISTEN to about an hour of Zappa Plays Zappa.


ABC Wednesday – Round 14

18 thoughts on “Z is for Zappa”

  1. I love Frank Zappa. My wife hates his music. Ah, well. She’s not home all the time. “Peaches en Regalia” is one of my favorite compositions by anyone.


  2. The Steve Alan Show clip is a gem. They had a bicycle orchestra made up of redundant parts at the opening of the Tour de France this year. Must be the Zappa influence.


  3. This is a post with many new-to-me bits of info about Frank Zappa! I was touched by the link between his death and that of your father. I didn’t watch the video nor did I listen to Zappa Plays Zappa, but hope to return to those.


  4. In fact, that was FZ’s second attempt at that poncho line, the first being in “Camarillo Brillo” on Over-Nite Sensation, rendered thusly: “Is that a real poncho … I mean, is that a Mexican poncho or is that a Sears poncho?” Still, the shortened version in Cosmik Debris is better.

    And then there’s “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Genius in France,” the most Zappa-esque number FZ never did. (Dweezil Zappa actually plays guitar on it.)


  5. Although not being into Zappa type music (rock)?
    he did have a raw talent, I think I remember Stairway to Heaven which was quite good, So sad to die at such an early age..


  6. Who could imagine
    That they would freak out
    Somewhere near Kansas
    (Kansas, Kansas)

    Movin’ to Montana soon… (Dental Floss)

    Died of lung cancer after years of telling druggies how stupid they looked when they consumed. Brilliant man, shitty namer of kids. Ma


  7. Died of prostate cancer, Yo-Ma-Ma, though I’m sure his chain smoking contributed to his demise. But in one of his last interviews he revealed that he complained to his old family doctor about his symptoms, and over the course of a year the doctor kept telling him not to worry. When the symptoms got so bad that Mr. Zappa finally went to see a specialist, the new doctor told him he was as good as dead but if he had gotten treatment a year earlier he would almost certainly have survived. How ironic that someone so anti-authoritarian would die because he trusted an authority.


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