“The manner in which people consume music has a lot to do with leaving it on their coffee tables or using it for wallpaper for their lifestyles, like the score of a movie,” visionary composer, bandleader, musician, and social critic Frank Zappa wrote in his 1989 autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book. “It’s consumed that way without any regard to how or why it’s made.”
The “how” and “why” of Zappa’s eccentric, eclectic, at times subversive music could fill volumes of musicological texts and endless pages of online fan forums. His uncompromising and for the most part non-commercial catalog can pose a real challenge for the uninitiated. Yet scouring this treasure trove of experimental music can be richly rewarding.
For three decades, Zappa—who died in 1993 from prostate cancer—worked the fringes of the cultural landscape as a pop-music insurgent, concocting a potent brew of (sometimes incongruously) mixed musical styles, humor, and scorching social commentary that mocked what he saw as the vapid nature of middle-class social values. He was as comfortable quoting passages from Igor Stravinsky, as he did in the masterful soap-opera– inspired suite “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” from 1967’s brilliant Absolutely Free, as he was crafting doo-wop parodies for his 1950s-style rock ’n’ roll revival project Ruben & the Jets, exploring cutting-edge jazz fusion, or tendering the hit-disco- spoof “Dancing Fool.” He embraced absurdity, and displayed a dada artist’s sly wit, once telling the New York Times that he thought people took popular music far too seriously. Yet, Zappa—a contrarian who straddled musical camps and mocked his audience’s supposed mundane sensibilities while catering to their prurient interests—devoted his life to what he preferred to call “serious writing,” a textured blend of rock, blues, psychedelia, R&B, jazz, avant-classical, and even music-hall styles, all tightly arranged or orchestrated, though often incorporating improvisational sections played by an ever-shifting roster of talented virtuoso musicians.
Zappa was an underground artist who enjoyed mainstream success. He reveled in the notion that his recordings had little or no commercial value, though several of his later albums reached Billboard’s Top 40 chart and the 1982 single “Valley Girl” climbed into the Top 20. And he was a committed advocate of freedom of artistic expression. He even testified before Congress in opposition to then– Vice President Al Gore’s wife Tipper and her lobbying group the Parent’s Music Resource Center in their successful bid to put parental warning labels on albums. Zappa dismissed music critics who failed to understand his motives, rock fans who lacked the curiosity to listen to his recordings, and classical audiences that refused to sit through his contemporary classical works.
Now, for the first time in years, his complete musical output is newly available. Last year, the Zappa Family Trust regained control of Zappa’s music (formerly on the Barking Pumpkin label) and inked a deal with Universal Music Enterprises. Since July 31, Zappa’s extensive catalog of 60 recordings, much of it out-of-print since the 2003 acquisition of Rykodisc by Warner Music, has been remastered and reissued on the Zappa/Universal label in batches of 12 albums each month (no vinyl, no plans for unreleased material).
In August, iTunes released the catalog online in MP3 and ALAC formats. Zappa loathed the degradation of digitalized music, but reissuing his work on iTunes will offer generations to come easy access to the music of one of rock’s few true innovators.