Would you potentially believe in aliens, if there was the possibility that one had descended upon earth and had sufficiently adapted to our customs — despite knowing deep down that it will never fit in — while simultaneously outperforming us and revealing how silly the human race really is? If the answer is no, then perhaps you should consider Frank Zappa as a likely candidate. He was many things, including complex, elusive and perhaps extra-terrestrial; if one had the impossible task of defining him with one word, it would be iconoclastic.
Frank Zappa was to music, what William Burrough was to literature. Listening to his records can be a very jarring and sometimes uncomfortable experience. This is precisely what he partly intended with some of his art: Zappa attempted to shake the docile human race from stagnation, who have for far too long, festered in the old dirty waters of society’s hypocrisies. Some of these include the hippie counterculture, including his 1968 album We’re Only In It for the Money of which the artwork of the record’s inner sleeve reveals an obvious satirised version of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band album artwork. In contrast, others saw Zappa push art to the brink.
Zappa continuously challenged the boundaries of music, successfully combining rock, jazz, jazz fusion and orchestral music (he is one of the very few if not only, composers to conduct musicians for rock compositions). In addition to deconstructing and collaging these genres of music, he has also utilised this Burroughs-esque technique with Musique Concrete, which is the term used for sampling recorded sounds as raw material. More often than not, these sounds are then manipulated enough to the point, where the source of the sound becomes unclear.
His albums are also very thematic and are a series of smaller concept pieces that add up to a greater picture. In his official biography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa speaks on this in further detail: “Project/Object is a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’ Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: A novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel. Or: Rembrandt got his ‘look’ by mixing just a little brown into every other colour — he didn’t do ‘red’ unless it had brown in it. The brown itself wasn’t especially fascinating, but the result of its obsessive inclusion was that ‘look’.”
In the case of the Project/Object, you may find a little poodle over here, a little blow job over there, etc., etc. I am not obsessed by poodles or blow jobs, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, videos (and this book) for no other reason than to unify the ‘collection’.
Below, we’re looking back at ten of the great man’s albums and the best signifiers of that vision. Though Zappa’s work stretched out far beyond the years outlined, it’s hard not to see the period between 1968 and 1981 as his most fruitful. Within little over a decade, Zappa created a signature sound and influenced all of rock ‘n’ roll forevermore.
Frank Zappa’s 10 best albums:
We’re Only In It for the Money (1968) – Mothers of Invention
If there is anything Frank Zappa had disdain for, it was definitely the hippie counterculture of the 1960s. From mocking The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album artwork implementing elements of Musique Critique to his general distaste for the commercialisation of the culture — Zappa was not a fan. He satirised the peace and love right out of what he saw as these “shallow hippies” following hollow trends, in his mind, they were no different from the repressed conservatives of the ’50s.
Across We’re Only In It For The Money Zappa and the Mothers of Invention make clear their feelings. While also coming across with a strong point of view, the sounds that swirled out of the speakers were damn near revolutionary back in 1968. Listening in 2020, it’s hard not to recognise Zappa as a genius.
Cruising with Ruben and The Jets (1968)
There are many sides to Frank Zappa. As well as being a spiralling muso capable of subverting the purest sounds, surprisingly, there is a doo-wop side to him too, which he approaches in a slight tongue in cheek and sarcastic way, but still executes with honest sincerity.
Of course, typical Zappa quirkiness is still evident. The album artwork features cartoonish figures — which while listening to the album, you can’t help but wonder, could this ever be a whimsical satire show one would catch on Broadway? When listening, it is hard not to be transported into such a venue, watching such an act but in perhaps the most ludicrous way.
You Are What You Is (1981)
This is Zappa at his satirical best, and one of his more accessible albums musically, but lyrically, very profane, and ruthlessly takes aim at the Republican Party. The music video for the title track was banned from MTV, as it portrayed Ronald Reagan in an electric chair.
The eighties were a difficult time for most of the rock royalty of the sixties. They may have carved the path for many of the day’s acts to be performing with such creativity, but that didn’t mean they were necessarily afforded such acknowledgement. For Zappa though, it was just another decade for him to work in and he delivered one of his best records. ‘Gold Mine’ is, without doubt, the standout moment on the album and deserves revisiting at every possible occasion.
Over-Nite Sensation (1973)
This was the predecessor to one of his more commercially successful albums, Apostrophe. The two albums were both recorded with very little time off in between, so they are certainly related in sound. Over-Nite Sensation is a rock classic, combining the elements of early ’70s rock ‘n’ roll with his usual Zappa-esque avant-garde approach.
Brimming with creativity and with the hint of opportunity, there was something encapsulating about Zappa’s approach to music, and it was at this time that the musician arguably hit his peak. ‘Fifty-Fifty’ is one of the brightest moments on the LP, and the other six tracks are equally as startling.
Freak Out! (1966) – Mothers of Invention
A composite of nostalgic doo-wop, and his signature sarcasm, this truly does sound like an alien dropped in and decided that he would write psychedelic inspired garage rock and maybe poke some fun at it and throw a few wrenches into the mix. ‘You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here’ is a good example of this. The album was recorded by his first band Mothers of Invention.
The second album after Bob Dylan’s blockbuster Blonde on Blonde to be released as a double album, the record is positively bursting with potential. The Mothers of Invention were slowly gaining a reputation as the arthouse choice for rock ‘n’ roll, and this LP was proof.
One Size Fits All (1975)
Sometimes, when listening to a previously unheard album, one can be completely and utterly baffled. In fact, when it comes to Frank Zappa, it is almost entirely expected.
An insane amalgamation of different genres of rock fused with jazz, One Size Fits All is quite the trip. The opening track, ‘Inca Roads’, is a space oddity of a song, charting a trip through the murky ink of the universe. Featuring Captain Beefheart and Johnny (Guitar) Watson, it’s a mid-70s rock masterpiece that positively burns with intensity.
Sheik Yerbouti (1979)
Undoubtedly one of the best album titles we’ve ever heard, Sheik Yerbouti is Zappa nearing his artistic peak. Largely because he refused to be confined by the art he had already made and instead rose determined not to be categorised.
The record is also is Frank Zappa at his funniest, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also his most sincere effort to chase commercial success. It is relatively very accessible when looking at the rest of his work. The album spawned somewhat of a hit with ‘Bobby Brown Goes Down’. Be warned, some of these songs, such as ‘I Have Been In You’, will raise your eyebrows.
Apostrophe (‘) (1974)
It was never really a part of the plan for Frank Zappa to become a mega rock star. Of course, the singer was never shy of the spotlight, having been a part of showbusiness from a young age. But his real passion was making music. It makes it all the more interesting then to revisit his most successful album.
Zappa’s first album that went gold, mostly in part to the hit off the album, ‘Don’t Eat Yellow Snow’ and, famously, this album features Jack Bruce of Cream on bass. This record truly showcases Zappa’s guitar work, and he really knows how to rip it. If you were looking for the perfect starter LP for a rock genius, then this is one to show them.
Uncle Meat (1969)
This is probably one of Zappa’s most extreme albums, and there have certainly been a lot of them. The album was supposedly made for a science-fiction film based on the band’s sexual endeavours. The movie, however, was thankfully never created. At least not until 1987 when Zappa released some of the footage from the event.
With this album, Zappa really began to delve into more experiments with overdubs and tampering with tape speed. It is an interesting intersection where avant-garde and free-form jazz meet the hard rock rhythms that were about to make Zappa a household name.
Hot Rats (1969)
This album may be his most honest composition; most of the tracks are instrumental, with the exception of ‘Willie the Pimp’, which yet again features Captain Beefheart, on vocals. This is Zappa’s first solo endeavour after his band Mothers of Invention broke up.
The record marks the beginning of his exploration into jazz, a project that is meditative while also being wild and free. When you couple this with the rock ‘n’ roll ethos that had begun to permeate the country, Zappa was simply expressing the word of the youth culture. Thinks were about to get mixed up, and the kids had the spoon in their hands.