Despite existing in the same sphere as rock musicians, playing many of the same clubs, theatres, and festivals that rock bands played in, and having a fair amount of crossover with the traditional rock audience, Frank Zappa did not play rock music. A jazz and classical devotee who found a calling within experimental music, Zappa would sooner cite Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse as influences over Chuck Berry of Elvis Presley.
To those who love him, Zappa is an entirely alternate universe to the banalities of traditional music. Nowhere else will you find the unique blend of manic guitar solos, full orchestration, zany humour, and eclectic instrumentation. To his detractors, he remains at best an enigma and at worst a figure for critical scorn. Even today, in an age where misunderstood artists and alternative figures from the mainstream are able to become recognised and appreciated by the intelligentsia, Frank Zappa remains cultish and divisive.
Despite his reputation, Zappa didn’t hold open disdain as frequently as his mercurial persona might have indicated. It’s just that when he gave praise, it wasn’t exactly what people might have expected. Take, for instance, his opinion on The Beatles: “Everybody else thought they were God!” Zappa said. “I think that was not correct. They were just a good commercial group.” Zappa would later parody the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the inner gatefold for We’re Only In It For The Money.
Zappa was admired by prominent figures in the ’60s rock scene, but he held ambivalence to his growing status as a counterculture figure. When Jimi Hendrix joined The Mothers on stage, Zappa left and sat with the audience, not out of reverence for Hendrix but for lack of connection. As he later told Eric Clapton when Clapton had asked to jam with him, Zappa said: “He wasn’t the jamming type”. Whether he was a genuine grouch, a staunchly anti-establishment free thinker, or both, Zappa was always meant to forge his own path outside of the mainstream.