Listen to Frank Zappa read a passage from William Burroughs book 'Naked Lunch', 1978
(Credit: Jean-Luc)

Revisiting when Frank Zappa got serenaded by the U.S. Navy Band at the San Francisco Airport, 1980

Frank Zappa was a man of endless mystery. A man who existed in the age before social media, when musicians could manage to be significantly more elusive than they get the opportunity to be in the modern era.

There are very few instances of Zappa’s mask slipping but when he was at San Francisco Airport in 1980 and the U.S. Navy Band serenaded him, it was a pure moment that shows the true Frank Zappa behind the eccentric facade.

The clip in question was released a few years ago as part of a documentary by Alex Winter who raised the funds for the project on Kickstarter. The film was originally planned to be called Who the F*@% Is Frank Zappa but is now simply titled Zappa and was due to be finally premiered at this year’s South By South West, which was of course postponed due to the ongoing pandemic.

When Winter was trying to raise attention to the project and cast as many eyes on to the eclectic world of Zappa as possible, the director tried to make this documentary dream come to life by sharing clips from Frank’s vault. This included the bizarre moment at San Francisco which surprised the artist in the most wholesome way imaginable. It sees the U.S Navy Band greet him with a gorgeous rendition of his song ‘Joe’s Garage’.

Speaking about why he felt the urge to share this clip, in particular, Winter told Rolling Stone in 2016: “I’ve been looking at a lot of previously unknown or little-seen archival of Frank, and this one was particularly powerful to me for two reasons. The first is that Frank was so rarely himself in public. He was a master showman, performer, orator, wit, political pundit, etc. In this clip, Frank is genuinely and profoundly moved by the band’s performance of his music, and so we get to see him unprepared and just being himself.”

“The other reason I love this piece is to watch it from the other side: the joy, concern, nervousness and reverence of these musicians, doing a fantastic job of playing a difficult piece for the notoriously discerning composer,” he continues. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the power of music. And Frank’s wonderful music in particular.”

Zappa loved this footage so much in fact, that he actually duplicated the master copy of it to ensure that he had his own version that he could preserve as it meant just that much to him. An artist who has always lived in the free-verse and unconventional space being serenaded by the most tightly regimented band in the world.

The documentary is now finished and Zappa’s son Ahmet told Rolling Stone earlier this year how proud he is of what Winter has created and how it is the definitive documentary about his father: “This film is by far the most intimate and expansive look into the innovative life of Frank Zappa, narrated by Frank in his own words. It’s quite unbelievable what Alex has achieved. This is the definitive Frank Zappa documentary.”

We can’t wait to see the finished result of the film if this clip is anything to go by, it perfectly encapsulates Frank Zappa, the man, rather than the artist, and works as a fascinating insight into what he was being himself with his family when he wasn’t playing an elusive character.

Watch the clip, below.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content