Your favorite artist’s favorite artist – The story of Frank Zappa


Roman Harrison, Columnist

Possibly one of the most underappreciated artists and composers of the 20th century, Frank Zappa was a true musical genius. With a music career that spanned three decades, Zappa and his band, the Mothers of Invention, created lasting tunes such as “Willie the Pimp,” “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” and “Valley Girls.” Often shunned for suggestive and sexually-fueled lyrics, Zappa fought musical censorship attempts from organizations like, the PMRC (Parents Musical Resource Center) and others. Truly, Frank Zappa was also one of the most respected artists of the late ‘60’s- early ‘70’s, among others, due to his musical genius and his lack of fear for higher-ups in the government.

 Invited by friend Ray Collins, Frank Zappa joined a band called the Soul Giants. Soon after joining, Zappa assumed a leadership and co-lead singer role alongside Collins. The band was then renamed ‘The Mothers.” In 1966, they were spotted by producer Tom Wilson while playing “Trouble Every Day.” This song, from their soon-to-be released debut album Freak Out!, is my favorite on the album. It really shows Zappa’s songwriting prowess, as well as his social and political awareness.  Developed around the 1965 Watts riots, it presents a unique view of the situation. With lyrics off of “Trouble Every Day,” such as, ‘Well, I seen the fires burnin’/ And the local people turnin’/ On the merchants and the shops/…./ Watched the mob just turn and bite ‘em/ and they say it serves ‘em right/ Because a few of them are white/ And it’s the same across the nation/ Black and white discrimination/ They’re yellin’ ‘You can’t understand me!’’ This song, and the whole Freak Out! album, really put Zappa on the map as the face of the newly emerging “freak” subculture in Los Angeles, a movement epitomized by pacifists and progressive rock. Freak is often said to be a post-hippie movement.  

While Zappa was still living in L.A., many musicians who were on tour in the area would go out of their way to meet him. Artists such as Eric Clapton, who is one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Alice Cooper, who Zappa discovered, Joni Mitchell, a legendary singer-songwriter, and Duane Allman, viewed as one of the greatest musicians ever, all wanted to meet Frank Zappa. The Beatles, who are widely recognized as the best band of all time, once stated that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was their attempt at making a Mother’s album. Their version of Freak Out!. Frank Zappa was more beloved by his fellow musicians than the public at times. 

One of Frank Zappa’s best albums, and also highest charting, arrived in the spring 1974 in the form of Apostrophe (‘). Recorded in the same sessions as his previous album, Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe (‘) is a musical masterpiece. Opening with a series of story songs, “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”, “Nanook Rubs It”, “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast’ and “Father O’Blivion,” They each convey the story of an Eskimo boy named Nanook and some of his exploits including a run in with yellow snow. Side A of the album closes out with “Cosmik Debris,” a comedic song about a guru offering to help the narrator reach “Nervanna.” “Cosmik Debris” then breaks into a destructive Frank Zappa guitar solo. This song clearly demonstrates Zappa’s being influenced by the blues. Side B consists of four songs, “Excentrifugal Forz”, “Apostrophe”, “Uncle Remus”, and “Stink-Foot,” the latter track being the crowning jewel of the album, a sort of exclamation point, per-se, a comedic song that really epitomizes Frank Zappa’s music at this time. Apostrophe (‘)  is certainly one of Frank Zappa’s best albums, and it is the album that introduced me, personally, to Frank Zappa. 

Zappa has indulged in many projects throughout the years. One of the exploits that comes to mind is his legal battle against the PMRC. In 1985, the U.S. Senate agreed to hold a hearing on so-called “porn rock.” Music from artists including Prince, Van Halen, Twisted Sister, Sheena Easton and Black Sabbath all came under increased scrutiny. Frank Zappa, alongside country-folk musician John Denver, and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, testified at Senate hearings in opposition to censorship of any kind. After the hearings, they won to an extent, as many more liberal advancements were dropped, but also inevitably lost, because there are still “Parental Advisory” stickers on the covers of albums with explicit lyrics. If you ever get a chance to watch Frank Zappa’s testimony, I highly recommend giving it a watch … it is very entertaining.  Another creative exploit that comes to mind is when, in 1987, Frank composed music that was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.  This music was released on two albums, London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I & II.   Not exactly what comes to mind when thinking of the London Symphony Orchestra, this is very good orchestra music, with its unique tempo changes and a rock/pop sound.  Both albums really show Frank Zappa’s range as a composer. The musical scores also show, as Kent Nagano, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the Zappa albums stated, Frank’s genius.

Frank Zappa is certainly one of the great unrecognized musical and political minds of the 20th century. His career spanned three decades and set the tone for politically-charged music from there on out. He influenced countless artists, and his role in music is truly one of the most unrecognized in history. I would highly recommend giving Frank Zappa’s music a listen, more specifically his Apostrophe (‘), and Freak Out! albums.