Like many artists, Frank Zappa had a juvenile attitude and never really grew up. His anarcho-capitalist politics were puerile. He treated his wife Gail badly. He consumed groupies. His sexual politics sucked. He hated Communism and hippies. He hated a lot of things. He chainsmoked himself, defiantly, to an early grave. He called tobacco his favourite vegetable.
Parts of his early albums like Absolutely Free are almost unlistenable. I still prefer The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s to Frank Zappa’s scathing and justifiable skit on it, We’re Only In It For The Money. His guitar solos can be sterile displays of pyrotechnic virtuosity. Yet there are also passages of astonishing beauty.
So why do I still love you, Frank? Part of it has to do with being banged up in a girl free boys’ boarding school, aged 16 and horny, with no fag inclinations, and listening to Brown Shoes Don’t Make It for the first time. Off the planet weird genius sings about unmentionable sexual acts with 13 year old girls. Excellent. We had to hear more.
We devoured the early Mothers albums. He was the politically incorrect antidote to stuffy English conformism. We the interned and hungry for anything that smacked of life thought it was cool.
He is the greatest satirist in rock music. He can be laugh-out-loud funny. Just listen to Jewish Princess or Bobby Brown Goes Down if you have any doubt. He is the antithesis of Political Correctness, much needed in these PC times.
He produced outstanding concept albums like Joe’s Garage. He is completely unsparing of evangelical religiosity, attacking its exponents with cruelly aimed barbs, often to hilarious effect. He created the greatest satire of mindless American conformism and submission to consumer culture ever written, I’m the Slime, yet he was also an extreme conservative and hated drugs. His targets were pretense, falsity, West Coast hippies and gay men, pseuds, religious evangelists and just about anyone he had in his crosshairs…
He is a great singer with a rich mocking baritone and a highly irritating falsetto. He is one of the world’s greatest rock guitarists, up there with Jimmy Page, Hendrix and the rest. He was disciplined, had a phenomenal work rate and was a perfectionist. He gave his musicians hell. Listen to the production values of the Hot Rats album, or any of the live albums. Who else had such astonishing productivity and variety in 26 years of artistic endeavor?
Finally he had a musical range unmatched by any other rock composer. He tried his hand at most genres within popular music, even country. He crossed over into jazz rock. Along with Chicago he created jazz rock. How many rock composers can you mention in the same breath as Karl Stockhausen and Edgar Varese? I still look forward to my first encounter with his last classical piece, Yellow Shark (1993).
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