One of the most elusive, confrontational, and downright bizarre artists to ever grace the pages of rock history, Frank Zappa staked his entire being on messing with people. To outsiders, his music can seem both needlessly intellectual and disgustingly immature, but beneath all his crude jokes and mind-bogglingly complex compositions lies one of the first true avant-garde composers to make major waves in the rock mainstream. His cynical tirades and knotty arrangements certainly have a way of testing his listeners’ limits, yet the magic of Zappa’s music is how much fun the man clearly had designing his eccentric sounds, fusing the worlds of classical music, rhythm and blues, free-form jazz, and comedy as if they were naturally meant to be together all along.
As a young L.A. guitarist gigging in the city’s ‘60s freak scene, Zappa immediately stood out from his contemporaries with his staunch anti-drug stance and utter distaste for the entire flower power movement, backing up his satirical and sarcastic music with daring, genre-defying arrangements and serious instrumental chops. Early releases like Freak Out! (1966) embodied Zappa’s sense of humor, but it wasn’t until 1969’s Uncle Meat and Hot Rats that Zappa began to fully let his compositions run wild, incorporating long sections of free improvisation with performances so coordinated and tight that it’s almost hard to believe people actually played them. Zappa’s early phase reached a zenith with his two most popular records to date, Over-Nite Sensation (1973) and Apostrophe (1974), which mixed his juvenile sensibility with a bluesy take on classic rock, making for surprisingly hooky songs that still felt like one big joke.
As Zappa’s career went on, he took every possible opportunity to use his music to express his political ire, none more prominently than the filthy-funk epic Joe’s Garage (1979), which envisioned a world where the government has outlawed music. He continued to approach his music from a more serious angle in his later years, commissioning orchestras to perform his work (as on The Yellow Shark) and even pioneering computer music in the late ‘80s on albums like Jazz From Hell. But even at his most academic and studious, Zappa was never one to keep a straight face. Though he died in 1993 of prostate cancer, his sense of irony and musical dexterity has lived on to this day, inspiring everyone from Ariel Pink to Phish.
Zappa’s world is certainly a peculiar one, and reconciling his jokey disposition with his outlandish music requires a certain level of patience and adventurousness on the part of the listener. But his music represents a freedom in expression that one rarely sees in the mainstream, a win for the freaks whose legacy continues to endure. To crack the code on one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most mischievous maestros, hit “play” on our mix, and hold on tight.