Make a Prog Noise Here

Jon Anderson, Adrian Belew, Mike Keneally and former Mother Don Preston recall the musical method behind Frank Zappa's perceived madness.
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Zappa in 1981

Zappa in 1981

On the Mothers of Invention’s 1969 Uncle Meat, you can hear Frank Zappa exhort keyboardist Don Preston to climb up to the Royal Albert Hall’s majestic pipe organ and belt out the riff to “Louie Louie.” Now 86, Preston was until this year part of the all-star tribute band the Grandmothers of Invention, a touring group of alumni from various eras of the Mothers’ life. “Musicians, guitarists mostly, often come up to me and ask, ‘How do I play like Zappa?’” Preston explains. “I say, ‘It’s simple — just listen to all the music Zappa listened to!’”

Like most teenagers growing up in California in the ’50s, Zappa loved doo-wop, R&B, blues and early rock and roll. But his adolescent musical imagination was truly set alight by Ionisations, a piece of percussive avant-garde music by French-born composer Edgard Varèse. This gave him a taste for 20th-century modernist composers, from Charles Ives to Igor Stravinsky. “He’d listen to that stuff like other kids were listening to the latest rhythm and blues song,” Preston remembers. “That music, the complexity of it, matched the complexity of his own mind. In the opening phrase of [Stravinsky’s] Petrushka, the flute is in 5/8 and the orchestra is in 2/4. On ‘Little House I Used To Live In’ on our Burnt Weeny Sandwich album [1970], the bass and drums are playing in 11/8 and the melody is in 12/8. One of the things that made him a genius was that he could play experimental music and get it over to the audience by throwing in doo-wop or pop music. He’d use real popular music to play real unpopular music.”

Photographed in Hollywood, California, 1976 (here and opposite)

Photographed in Hollywood, California, 1976 (here and opposite)

If there’s one thing that unifies the extraordinarily pluralist catalog Zappa created over his lifetime, it is this combination of “popular” and “unpopular” music. From the Mothers of Invention’s 1966 debut, Freak Out!, to landmark titles like Hot Rats, Apostrophe (’) and Zappa’s best seller, Sheik Yerbouti, he would create a progressive musical universe where every style — from rock to reggae, from surf-rock to Schoenbergian serialism, from free jazz to musique concrète — was up for grabs. “When you’re adopting or adapting a style in order to tell a story,” the late composer once said, “everything’s fair game. You have to have the right setting to the lyric. The important thing at that point is to tell the story.”

His lyrics also reflected his complexity. Drawing on sex, deviance, politics and social concerns, Zappa would satirize, parody and mock pretty much everyone. His absurdist universe was populated by fake hippies, charlatan gurus, corrupt politicians, dental-floss farmers, dumb groupies and dumber rock stars. If his overarching quest was a search for truth, he did it by exposing and taking the piss out of its opposite.


Jon Anderson contends that progressive music began with Zappa. “It was a combination of things,” the founding vocalist for the prog-rock group Yes contends. “If you listen to Zappa, the Beatles, Vanilla Fudge, Buffalo Springfield, and Charles Mingus and Roland Kirk, there was such a plethora of interesting music around the mid ’60s, and that all inspired me when Yes started to do long-form music. His music was really meticulously put together, and he was a comedian at the same time.”

Freak Out!’s blend of chart-friendly tunes (“You Didn’t Try to Call Me”), outré psych-rock (“Who Are the Brain Police?”), experimental jazz (“The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”) and social commentary (“Trouble Every Day”) pointed the way. Keyboardist/guitarist Mike Keneally played in Zappa’s band for his last-ever tour, in 1988, but was still a child when he first heard Freak Out! “Half of it is easy to get hold of, the other is absurdism,” Keneally says. “Frank was combining things in different ways. He was reading the zeitgeist nicely and expressing attitudes that a lot of people felt. It was surprising to see an artist who was of the scene but also apart from it, and commenting on it so acidly.”

Uncle Meat and Sheik Yerbouti loom large in Zappa’s progressive musical universe.

Uncle Meat and Sheik Yerbouti loom large in Zappa’s progressive musical universe.

The Mothers borrowed from the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s cover for 1968’s We’re Only In It for the Money, ridiculing the prevailing hippie scene on the hilarious “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” “That album is Frank’s greatest and most sustained piece of social commentary, and a startling musical and technical achievement,” Keneally says “But he was using naughty words too, and there were sped-up voices!”

With its advanced multitracking and production techniques, 1969’s Hot Rats became a jazz-fusion landmark and contained one of the composer’s best-known works, the opening track, “Peaches En Regalia.” Zappa disbanded the first Mothers lineup that year, and over the next decade his sound benefited from his evolving production smarts and growing reputation as a grandstanding, idiosyncratic guitar hero. Over-Nite Sensation, Zappa and the Mothers’ 1973 release, features some of his best-known songs — “Camarillo Brillo,” “I’m the Slime” and the absurdist masterpiece “Montana.” Zappa’s own Apostrophe (’) from the following year proffered “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Cosmik Debris.” Both albums featured progressive orchestrations and virtuoso playing from drummer Aynsley Dunbar, keyboardist George Duke and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, but they also showed Zappa’s increasing, censor-baiting fondness for bawdy, scatological lyrics.

Frank on GP’s January 1977 cover

Frank on GP’s January 1977 cover

“Oh, he’d go for the jugular,” Anderson says. “A lot of time as a writer it’s difficult to say exactly what you’re thinking. I would use metaphors all the time, but Zappa didn’t give a damn. He just said what he thought.”

Zappa recruited newcomer guitarist Adrian Belew for the concerts that produced 1979’s Sheik Yerbouti. Belew recalls that the band had a show in Cincinnati, where his mother, a Sunday school teacher, was living. “She was so pleased for me, but I told her I didn’t want her to come to the show because of the things I’d be singing. She said something that shook me to the ground. She said, ‘Is it really true he’s got a song called ‘I Promise Not to Come In Your Mouth?’ I said, ‘Yes, Mom, that’s true.’ She didn’t go to the show.”

While accessible, Sheik Yerbouti tracks like “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes,” “Bobby Brown” and the disco-pastiche “Dancin’ Fool” feature knotty musical ideas. Yet the seemingly cold misanthropy of the lyrics might deter the fainthearted. “I asked him about it once,” Belew says. “He said he just reflects the craziness around him. He’d see other people go nuts and then write about that. There’s a part of the audience for whom that is the appeal — that he’s really putting it out there with radical tunes like that.” Zappa encouraged Belew to play in unusual time signatures. “Without that I don’t know how I’d have made it into King Crimson,” he says. “A lot of our stuff is based on polyrhythms and odd time signatures, me singing in one and playing in another. He taught me how to be a professional musician and drew out of me that I could play more complicated material. He challenged me.”


As for Zappa’s proggiest moments, Mike Keneally goes back to 1973’s One Size Fits All. “‘Inca Roads’ is the quintessential Zappa tune,” he offers. “The subject matter [aliens landing in Inca times] is cosmic, but it’s not social commentary, it’s not cynical or sexual, and the music’s a multipart suite that goes through endless time and key changes. The sound of George Duke’s keyboards is very prog, and the playing on there is virtuosic and exciting. For people into Henry Cow or Canterbury, Uncle Meat is ground zero. I think it was a huge influence on Fred Frith and Chris Cutler. Burnt Weeny Sandwich too. For Frank, that’s almost pastoral. I can see Genesis fans getting into that.”

In a 1992 interview, The Simpsons creator and lifelong Zappa fan Matt Groening asked the composer if he thought music should make progress, if a composer should do things that hadn’t been done before. Zappa argued that, rather than be progressive, it was more important that music should be personalized. Music, he said, “should be relevant to the person who writes the music. It has more to do with the composer than with the style of the times or the school that might have generated the composer.”

Zappa in 1981 (here and below)

Zappa in 1981 (here and below)

By that time, Zappa, in failing health, had come full circle, throwing himself into contemporary orchestral music with Civilization Phaze III, which would be released posthumously in October 1994. An ambitious work composed on the then-cutting-edge digital sampling system, the Synclavier, it was complex, socially charged and, yes, fearlessly personalized. It would be the last artifact from a seemingly inexhaustible imagination that offered up more than 60 albums over nearly three decades.

“He will eventually be remembered as one of the great composers of our time,” Belew contends. “Civilization and The Yellow Shark [Ensemble Modern’s 1993 release of Zappa’s orchestral works] are beyond anything anyone else has done. His use of Synclavier to create a new universe of sounds was incredible. He had so many sides to him, and the orchestral stuff is my favorite part of Frank’s work.”

The Yellow Shark and Civilization Phaze III represent Frank’s orchestral side

The Yellow Shark and Civilization Phaze III represent Frank’s orchestral side

“He’s very well respected,” Anderson agrees. “I did some shows with [youth orchestra project] School of Rock, and they’d just come back from doing a Zappa festival in Germany. These 30 kids could play Zappa music at the drop of a hat. Young people dig what he did.”

As for Preston, he continued to grapple with the Zappa catalog up until this year, when the Grandmothers of Invention performed their farewell tour, 40 years after his Albert Hall moment. “Every night we ask the audience to applaud Frank’s brilliance,” he said. “I’m just grateful to be out there playing this brilliant, challenging music.”

Studio Tan: Five Classics from Zappa’s Daunting Discography

By Gary MacKenzie

Onstage in 1977

Onstage in 1977

With 60 titles released in his lifetime and almost 30 more since his death, Frank Zappa’s catalog is intimidating. Following on from the albums mentioned by Preston, Anderson, Keneally and Belew, we present five friendlier Zappa works.


HOT RATS (1969)
Harmonically pleasing tunes, warm jazz-fusion styling, terrific playing and incredible sound quality create a triumph of an album. “Peaches en Regalia” remains one of Zappa’s most enduring tunes, and Captain Beefheart adds bizarre vocals to “Willie the Pimp.” This is the record that people who don’t like Zappa are most likely to enjoy.


Most artists treat live albums as greatest hits with crowd noise, but Zappa used the format to present new and dramatically reworked material. Twisted jazz meets performance art on “Bebop Tango”, the funky “Village of the Sun” gives way to the monumental jazz-prog-percussion extravaganzas of “Echinda’s Arf (Of You)” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” while the low-budget horror tribute “Cheepnis” and the improvised skit “Dummy Up” provide comic relief.


Joe’s Garage has all the elements any prog fan could wish for. A sprawling concept narrative, it takes in rock musicians’ peccadillos, individual freedoms, invented religions and government censorship, along with epic guitar solos, pop, reggae, rock, spoken word and, er, sex with domestic appliances. What’s not to like? For those who think Zappa’s music was coldhearted, listen to “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” and the sublime “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” and reconsider.


Frustrated that his complex instrumentals couldn’t be played by real musicians, Zappa created digital sounds from scratch and programmed all the music for this album (aside from the live track “St. Etienne”) entirely on Synclavier, a vastly more complicated job in 1986 than with today’s digital options. The result mixes flurries of notes with avant-garde sensibilities, deliberate dissonance with lush melodies, and fiendish rhythms with hummable tunes. It’s a stunning collection from a heavyweight modern composer.


Along with 1988’s Broadway the Hard Way and 1991’s The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life, this album was recorded on Zappa’s final official band tour, in 1988. Many claim this lineup (which features Mike Keneally) was the best he ever took on the road, and these albums bring together threads of Zappa’s entire career. New and old tunes, and some eclectic cover versions, are played with incredible precision and brio. It’s a fitting testament to the range of a singular musical genius.