Frank Zappa


“Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.” – Frank Zappa

Frank Vincent Zappa (1940 – 1993) was possibly the most versatile musician of the 20th century. Zappa, primarily a guitarist, was also an excellent vocalist, bassist, keyboardist, pianist, drummer, composer, and more. Zappa was committed to both upsetting the system and exposing hypocrisy. Over the course of a 30 year career Zappa released over 60 albums, all of which are unique products of his bizarre creative genius. Zappa was also a filmmaker, video director, author, album cover designer, and a vocal figure on social issues. 

Born in Baltimore, Maryland to a family of Sicilian immigrants, Zappa was mostly self-taught as a musician. His music career began shortly after High School. Income was unstable. After a failed shot at the recording business Zappa joined The Soul Giants. He quickly made the band his own creative project, morphing them into The Mothers in 1965. Their 1966 debut Freak Out! (released under the name The Mothers of Invention) was the second double rock album ever made. After the release of their sophomore album Absolutely Free, the band had cemented a reputation and gained a European following. In 1969 Zappa broke up the band due to financial troubles. That year, Zappa released his first solo album, the Jazz-Rock fusion LP Hot Rats. In 1970 The Mothers reunited. Between 1966 and 1975 The Mothers released 11 studio albums. Zappa released a number of solo projects both during and after his time with The Mothers. Zappa released 62 albums during his lifetime. 

Zappa’s provocative style is the foremost reason that he should be discussed. Zappa’s art is intentionally unconventional and shocking. Zappa often liked to point out peoples’ insanity and stupidity. Zappa made fun of everybody and everything. Joe’s Garage spends nearly two hours making fun of Scientology. He especially liked to make fun of the popular music business. His song Be In My Video explicitly pokes fun at 80s music videos. Zappa was a vocal critic of almost anything and everything that he saw as enhancing societal stupidity. “There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe,” he said. 

Zappa infused his socio-political message with his unique style to create an impeccable effect. On first exposure, one might hear Zappa’s music and think “These lyrics don’t make sense. These characters he is describing are weird. This album cover is bold and inappropriate.” With further thought, however, he comes to see that those lyrics have an impact unlike anything that immediately makes sense. The ridiculous characters being described are a lot like people he knows, a lot like society as a whole. He realizes that he only finds the album cover inappropriate because it doesn’t fit the norms. He realizes that nothing else has been made quite like Zappa’s music. Zappa brutally exposed how stupid, ridiculous, and downright silly everything and everyone is. 

It was not only his eccentric style that made Zappa a Rock & Roll icon, however. The final strike that carved Zappa into the heart of Rock & Roll forever was his vehement opposition to censorship. One incident immediately comes to mind. In 1985, Tipper Gore (wife of politician Al Gore) formed the Parents Music Resource Center with the intention of restricting kids’ access to explicit music. The PMRC composed the “Filthy Fifteen,” a list of the fifteen most disturbing songs in their eyes. They devised their own rating systems with labels such as “X” for explicit lyrics, “O” for occult references, and “D/A” for drug or alcohol reference. The PMRC rallied support among teachers and parents in schools. Record companies began putting labels on certain albums. 

On September 19th, 1985, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing about the necessity of these labels. Zappa was one of three musicians who testified at this hearing. “The PRMC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years,” Zappa said early on in his testimony. Zappa also stated, “Ladies, please be advised: The $8.98 purchase price does not entitle you to a kiss on the foot from the composer or performer in exchange for a spin on the family Victrola.” As is evident, Zappa was an enthusiastic supporter of free expression.

In the end, the PMRC got their way, and the “Parental Advisory, Explicit Content” sticker was introduced. However, thanks to Zappa and the other musicians who testified (Dee Snider and John Denver) this was possibly the most ineffective censorship attempt in recent memory. The label didn’t really limit who could get their hands on explicit records. If nothing else, the Parental Advisory stickers guided kids right to the music their parents didn’t want them to listen to, which was infinitely more intriguing. The “Filthy Fifteen” just ended up as a good playlist. 

Zappa’s testimony truly speaks to his Rock & Roll legacy. Zappa stood up for Rock & Roll. At the threat of censorship, Zappa was there to tell everyone that Rock wasn’t just degradation. When Rock was on the verge of being reduced to explicit lyrics and inappropriate themes, Zappa was there. He told everyone how Rock was artistic, revolutionary, and deeply impactful. Zappa taught everyone that music is freedom, and that if freedom itself is restricted, then it isn’t good for much. 

On December 4th, 1993, at the age of 52, Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer. Zappa was loud. Zappa was weird. Zappa was passionate. Zappa was talented. Zappa was a beacon of free expression. Zappa was Rock and Roll in its truest form.