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A Beginner’s Guide to Frank Zappa

on August 03, 2012, 12:01am
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 A Beginners Guide to Frank Zappa

You’re a Serious Music Fan. You like artists who have a “Genius With a Capital G” tag affixed to them. You’re looking to immerse yourself in the world of a composer who will always keep you guessing, a musician who gave great interviews, broke new ground every time his or her feet touched the floor, and has a catalog so densely packed that it would make even Robert Pollard blush. In such a case, it’s clear that you can no longer avoid it: You need Frank Zappa in your life.

But with roughly a hundred catalog albums credited to his name, where on Earth do you start? You’ve heard that Freak Out is amazing, you know that “Valley Girl” song that he did with his daughter, but you also know that there’s some crazy instrumental work mixed in with soundtracks to unfinished theater shows about genetic experimentation, and you’re terrified that you’ll jump into the wrong end of the pool.

Frank Zappa can be a bizarre and challenging artist for newcomers, but we can help. We humbly submit to you a playlist of ten Zappa songs that won’t immediately alienate a beginner. This YouTube-fueled list o’ tunes is geared to show you some of his material that wouldn’t have been terribly out of place on any radio playlist of its time. Before you can say “secret word,” you’ll be tracking down original mono versions of We’re Only in It for the Money, just like those other Zappateers.

-Marc With a C
Contributing Writer

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February 26, 2014 at 4:52 pm

In the first Mothers´ albums, Zappa´s style is very near to his blues influences; and his solos were, essentially, pentatonic. The guitar is not the main “piece” yet, and his sound is more or less standard. His work as a guitarist and his composer side were walking in different roads. In the next years, Zappa started aplying his musical language in his guitar work. Finally, Zappa´s solos were defined by himself as “aerian sculptures”.

Shawn E. Williams
August 5, 2012 at 12:59 pm

“Not a speck ‘o cereal!”

Barry Soetoro
August 4, 2012 at 10:17 am

“You like artists who have a “Genius With a Capital G” tag affixed to them”

You mean like GZA? Like Childish Gambino is a child?

August 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm

I like Zapp not Zappa, so please quit your jibba jabba

Eric Peterson
August 3, 2012 at 11:45 am

I skimmed this. As a tribute it’s nice but I think you’re missing the real essence of Frank and that is, he was, from the age of 14, a serious composer of orchestral music. I would take out some of the studio-experimental music of his early catalog, lump Apostrophe with Over-nite Sensation (like it was meant to be) and add Civilization (some Synclavier certainly) and The Yellow Shark. The Yellow Shark being the pinnacle effort in Frank’s career as an American Composer. As a final comment, Ruben and The Jets, while being a nice little concept album of whipped out tongue-in-cheek 50’s-style love songs, it was indeed a cheesy effort to get some songs on the radio. It certainly doesn’t make the “essential” list.

Marc With a C
August 3, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Hi, Eric!

It’s not an “essential” list, just some material for beginners to try out.

August 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Great point Eric, but also, this is intended to be a “beginner’s guide.” I think that once you can get some of the more progressive FZ rock music into your ears, then you might be ready to get into the orchestral stuff. One of my favorites in this regard is to listen to the orchestral version of the Dog Breath Variations after hearing the rock song version (I especially like the one with Flo and Eddie on Just Another Band from L.A.).

To say that FZ’s “real essence” is as a serious composer of orchestral music is a bit hyperbolic. I’d say his real essence (if such a thing can be identified) was as an experimenter, whether in rock or orchestral composition. To say that his orchestral music is essential is to downplay his considerable talent as a guitarist, which after all, is how he spent the majority of his recording and performing career.

Eric Peterson
August 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I’m only pointing to a part of FZ’s music that he himself said defines his objectives. You know, “conceptual continuity?” He was a composer first and a rock musician basically because it was an avenue to have his music heard. It was both practicable and affordable. Being “ready” for the “orchestral stuff” assumes the listener has no predisposition toward “serious music.” That’s a disservice to the listener. Why anyone would be more predisposed to understanding and appreciating It Can’t Happen Here as opposed to say, Times Beach II is a little beyond me.

I come from a childhood background as a closet listener of Neoclassicism moving forward to Expressionism–or somewhere thereabouts. As a guitarist I began fundamental training in “classical guitar” at the age of 11. Maturing and moving forward I found my niche in jazz fusion and progressive rock. I’m looking at this as best I can from the perspective of a “beginner” listener but I’m adding the perspective of… a beginner coming from where?

On a final note, I added Apostrophe and left Joe’s Garage completely alone. I was only pointing out the serious lack of diversity by excluding both Synclavier and orchestral works. I certainly would never discredit Frank’s work as a guitarist. I was always in awe of Frank’s guitar work and certainly have been a huge fan of every band from 1971-1988.

20 Something Awesome
August 3, 2012 at 9:50 am

You should have a way to view on one page…


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