Thursday, 6 January 2011

Heroes - Frank Zappa

Continuing with my Heroes series of blogs, I'd now like to focus the latest in the series on one of my musical heroes - Frank Zappa. I have long been a fan of Frank Zappa's music. If you happen to play a musical instrument, then you simply have to check out some of his back catalogue. It is often quite eclectic, as his music spans many different musical styles and time signatures.

Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 РDecember 4, 1993) was an American composer, singer-songwriter, electric guitarist, record producer, and film director. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa wrote rock, jazz, electronic, orchestral, and musique concr̬te works. He also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers. Zappa produced almost all of the more than 60 albums he released with the band Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist (Wikipedia).

His music was notoriously difficult to play. When auditioning musicians for his band, he would ask them to sight read difficult pieces of music, to be able to play in odd time signatures and to be able to play in many different styles (rock, jazz, latin, reggae).

His music would require extremely high levels of memorisation, as few of the songs followed the typical verse-verse-chorus-verse-verse standard of most typical songs or compositions. The compositions themselves would often be written in multiple time signatures, often in odd time, and in many different styles and tempos.

During concerts, the band would rehearse many hours of music. The actual set list for any particular concert would be handed out to the other musicians about half an hour before hand. Even while the band would be playing a song during a concert, Frank would change the style or tempo by using pre-determined hand movements and gestures. For example, he would pull his hair to indicate dreadlocks, indicating to the rest of the band that he wanted them to switch to playing in a reggae style.

So not only would the musicians have to have extremely high levels of technique to play the often extremely difficult musical pieces, but they would have to be able to play under high levels of pressure too.

Zappa was a highly productive and prolific artist and he gained widespread critical acclaim. Many of his albums are considered essential in rock and jazz history. He is regarded as one of the most original guitarists and composers of his time. He also remains a major influence on musicians and composers. He had some commercial success, particularly in Europe, and for most of his career was able to work as an independent artist. Zappa was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 (Wikipedia)

The album that got me into Frank Zappa was called One Size Fits All. I hadn't heard any of his music prior to listening to this album, but was blown away by the sheer level of musicianship, and the complexity of the music. The track 'Inca Roads' is a particularly difficult piece. It was also a very accessible album. Rather than sounding like a self indulgent album, where the songs were complex for the sake of it, the songs were very musical where complexity was simply a by-product.

My favourite Zappa album is Joe's Garage. If you're serious about your music, then you quite simply have to own this album! The album is a rock opera and concept album. If you want to hear a group of musicians playing some highly complex, but stunning compositions, then you need to listen to this album. It also contains one of my favourite ever pieces of music in the form of 'Watermelon In Easter Hay'. There are few albums I would consider perfect, but I think Joe's Garage is as near to sheer perfection as I have ever come across!

The albums feature Ike Willis as the voice of "Joe", a stereotypical garage band youth who unwittingly journeys through the miasma of the music business. As well as various other characters, Zappa provides the voice of the "Central Scrutinizer" character—a mechanical voice that narrates the story and haunts Joe's psyche with McCarthyistic 50s-era discouragement and "scrutiny." In his liner notes Zappa also states that the story was inspired by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which outlawed public musical expression. The story parodies various topics such as groupie migration, sexual repression of the Catholic Church, Scientology, fetishism, struggling musicians and the censorship of music (Wikepedia).

I was lucky enough to see Zappa live in concert on his last ever tour of the UK before he sadly passed away. It was an experience I will never forget. To hear and see so many of my favourite Zappa tracks being played live by an ensemble of the world's best musicians was amazing! They also played Revel's Bolero, Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven and The Beatles's I Am The Walrus. What a show!

Zappa's music will undoubtedly live on forever. He was one of the most highly respected musical composers of his generation, and has inspired and influenced many more musicians and composers, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

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