Today is the birthday of the late Frank Vincent Zappa,
born in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. Zappa's long and storied career could --
and has -- filled volumes; he recorded over 60 albums spanning rock, jazz and
eclectic genres and continues to make waves though he passed away over three
years ago. His influence on contemporary rock is immense; bands ranging from
Phish and Primus to the Residents owe much to Mr. Zappa.
The eldest son of
a guitar-playing government scientists, Zappa became, at a young age, obsessed
with '50s rock 'n' roll and contemporary composers like Stravinsky and Varese.
In high school he formed his first band, the Black-Outs; around the same time
he met Don Van Villet, christening him Captain Beefheart.
After stints at
Chaffey College, as a lounge musician and scoring the films The World's
Greatest Sinner and Run Home Show, Zappa built a recording studio in
Cucamonga, California and in 1964 began working with the Soul Giants (which
included vocalist Ray Collins, drummer Jimmy Carl Black, saxophonist Dave
Coronada and bassist Roy Estrada). The group was later renamed the Muthers,
then the Mothers; they were finally dubbed the Mothers of Invention by MGM
records, who were wary of the band's outlandish nature. Their first album, the
appropriately-titled Freak Out! was released in 1966. It is one of the
most important rock albums of all time.
The Mothers of Invention released several more brilliant
albums--Absolutely Free, We're Only In It For The Money (a
send-up of the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers that skewered the hippie ethos),
refining the eclectic, sarcastic style that would infuse all his work.
Following the release of 1969's Uncle Meat, Zappa married his second
wife, Gail, with whom he would have his children: Moon Unit, Diva, Dweezil and
Ahmet Rodan. Later that decade, Zappa moved to L.A. and founded the Straight
and Bizarre labels, producing acts like the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously
featuring groupie/author Pamela Des Barres), Alice Cooper and Captain Beefheart
(Zappa is credited with both producing and releasing Beefheart's masterpiece,
Trout Mask Replica).
During the early 1970s Zappa began scoring
films again, having temporarily disbanded the Mothers. The group reformed, but
critics were beginning to look cynically upon the band's penchant for wild
humor. Zappa continually ran into trouble on obscenity charges, but that never
stopped him. In 1977 he retired the Mothers name, instead using his own last
name for future works, and released Sheik Yerbouti. The album featured
"Jewish Princess," a song which led the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League to
file a complaint with the FCC. It also included a surprise hit single with
Problems regarding Zappa's 1980 recording of "I Don't Wanna
Get Drafted" -- specifically, his current label at the time, Mercury, refused
to release it -- led to the founding of the guitarist's Barking Pumpkin label.
He continued producing solo works, satirizing American culture and offending
the moral majority. During the '80s he also consolidated his business affairs,
taking time out to support free speech and voter registration. He began
dabbling in classical work with Pierre Boulez, culminating in 1984's Boulez
Conducts Zappa/The Perfect Stranger; he became enamored with the
Synclavier, a complex synthesizer with which he recorded his award-winning 1986
release Jazz From Hell.
During the early 1990s, Zappa mentioned
that he'd like to run for president, but the 1991 announcement that he was
suffering from prostate cancer drowned those hopes. Though he'd always taken
care of himself and continued to do so, he couldn't beat the disease; he died
December 4, 1993. Since his death, Civilization Phase III was released
in 1995 and his disemboweled masterpiece Lather was released in its
entirety earlier this year. Other birthdays: Carl Wilson (Beach Boys) and Tony
Lewis (Outfield). Also, yesterday we forgot to note that it was Mike Watt's
birthday. We hope he celebratedit in style. -- Beth Winegarner