Zappa was born in Baltimore on December 21, 1940. He became the eldest of four siblings. His father worked as an engineer with varying jobs, which caused the family to have to move frequently. His interest in music first showed itself during his teens, when he became a drummer in local bands. At the age of eighteen he learned to play guitar. At the same time that he was listening to blues, he taught himself to write sheet music and got fascinated by the music of Edgar Varèse. After graduation Zappa took one semester of formal musical education at Chaffee Junior College, where he met his first wife Kay Sherman. When he had reached twenty, Zappa had enough musical understanding to write orchestra music, next to being able to play the standard pop and jazz repertoire. Playing in bands became his job. The first opportunity to have his sheet music performed came when he got commissioned by Timothy Carey to do the soundtrack for The world's greatest sinner. With the orchestra music recorded in 1961, this film premiered in 1963. In the same year Zappa could record chamber music for another movie, called Run home, slow.
The lost episodes: Zappa's teens
Lost in a whirlpool, Pound for a brown, Sleeping in a jar, Waltz for guitar, Mice, The Blackouts
The mystery disc #1: movie scores
The world's greatest sinner (single and soundtrack), Holiday in Berlin, Run home, slow (theme and soundtrack), The little march
In 1961 Zappa first met Paul Buff, who was running a recording studio at Cucamonga. Paul was one of the first to operate a multi-track recorder. Their working relationship intensified in 1963, when they began collaborating for releasing singles. Zappa was involved as player, producer and songwriter. Their biggest success became Buff's Tijuana surf, with Zappa's Grunion run on the b-side. In 2009 Paul opened his Pal and Original sound archives on line, bringing to the public some yet unreleased recordings by Zappa. The money coming in from the Run home, slow, movie gave Zappa the opportunity to take over Buff's studio. He started working on a film project himself, but got thwarted by local officials. A set-up got constructed for arresting him for recording pornographic material. He got a minor sentence and actually had to spend a couple of days in prison. This was sufficient to block his business in Cucamonga.
Pal and Original sound: working with Paul Buff
Take your clothes off when you dance, Any way the wind blows, Why don't you do me right, Walkin' out, Waltz, Speed-freak boogie, Metal man, Tiger roach
Cucamonga years: singles and broadcast music
Opus 5, Breaktime, Memories of El Monte, Love of my life, Grunion run, Jessie Lee
The mystery disc #2: projects
I was a teenage malt shop, Status back baby, Toad of the short forest, Duodenum, Bossa Nova, Mondo Hollywood, Motherly love
Zappa continued to play in bands and took the lead of the Soul Giants, in 1965 re-baptized as The Mothers Of Invention. Freak out!, their first album, got released in 1966 as one of the first double albums in rock history. With Absolutely free from 1967 Zappa could demonstrate what he was capable of as a composer. Brown shoes don't make it is famous for bringing together a multitude of styles, using varying meters and rhythms, as well as an atonal interlude. The sudden rise of the hippie movement incited Zappa to compile We're only in it for the money, a social commentary. No two sequent Zappa albums are more different from each other than Cruising with Ruben and the Jets and Lumpy Gravy. The first a tribute to the doo-wop genre from the fifties, the second a bizarre collage.
Freak out! - Fillmore West, 1966: into the rock industry
Hungry freaks, I ain't got no heart, Who are the brain police?, I'm not satisfied, You're probably wondering why I'm here, Trouble every day, Help, I'm a rock, It can't happen here, Monster magnet, Downtown talent scout
Absolutely free: complexities
Plastic people, Duke of prunes (1967), Amnesia vivace, Invocation & ritual dance of the young pumpkin, Soft-sell conclusion, America drinks (and goes home), Brown shoes don't make it (1967)
We're only in it for the money: the sixties
Who needs the Peace Corps?, Concentration moon, Bow tie daddy, Harry you're a beast, The ugliest part of your body, Absolutely free, Flower punk, Lonely little girl, Mother people, The chrome plated megaphone of destiny, No matter what you do
Lumpy gravy - Lumpy money: a collage
Oh no, It's from Kansas, I don't know if I can go through this again, King Kong (1968), Kangaroos, Foamy soaky, Unit 3A and 9, How did that get in here?
Cruising with Ruben and the Jets - Greasy love songs: doo-wop
Cheap thrills, How could I be such a fool, Jelly roll gum drop, You didn't try to call me, "No. No. No.", Stuff up the cracks, Oh, in the sky, If only I could be your love again
Uncle Meat was the title of both an album and a movie. This movie only got completed as a video in 1986, with the music appearing on Ahead of their time. The modern harmonies of the Uncle Meat title track sound refreshing till today. Next Zappa recorded a fusion album under his own name. Hot rats features complex interwoven harmonies, obtained through overdubbing. In 1969 he was looking for new directions and disbanded the original Mothers Of Invention overnight. The band members were taken by surprise. The unreleased material Zappa had in stock appeared on Burnt weeny sandwich and Weasels ripped my flesh.
Uncle Meat - Ahead of their time: integration
Uncle meat (variations) (1969), Nine types of industrial pollution, Zolar Czakl, Dog breath (variations), Blood unit, The legend of the golden arches, Exercise #4 (1973), Prelude to King Kong, Ian Underwood whips it out, We can shoot you, The air, Project X, Cruising for burgers, King Kong (1969), Epilogue, Agency man, The rejected Mexican pope, Uncle rhebus
Hot rats: overdubs
Peaches en regalia, Willie the pimp (1969), Little umbrellas, The Gumbo variations, It must be a camel, Bognos Regis, Peaches jam, Twenty small cigars
Burnt weeny sandwich: atonality and the use of scales
Igor's boogie I and II, Theme from Burnt weeny sandwich, Holiday in Berlin (full blown), Aybe sea, The little house I used to live in (1970), Kung fu
Weasels ripped my flesh - YCDTOSA V: counterpoint #1 and improvisations
What will this evening bring me this morning?, Sofa (1976), Didja get any onya?, Gas mask, Get a little, Eric Dolphy memorial barbecue, Dwarf nebula, My guitar wants to kill your mama, The Orange County lumber truck, Weasels ripped my flesh, Baked-bean boogie, No waiting for the peanuts to dissolve, Chocolate Halvah, Underground freak-out music
In 1970 Zappa met Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, former singers of The Turtles. He asked them to become the front men of his new band. At first this new line-up of the Mothers of invention started where the previous band had stopped, with newly written material appearing on Chunga's revenge. Next they started working on specific subjects, building comedy acts around them. The groupie opera was released on Fillmore East, while Billy the mountain appeared on Just another band from L.A. A third sequence, the Sofa suite, only became completed with the 1992 release Playground psychotics. With Uncle Meat still unfinished, Zappa did manage to film 200 Motels, a movie about a band on the road. The soundtrack offers a bewildering variety of styles, featuring modern orchestral works as well as rock band pieces. The orchestral works were also planned to be performed in the shape of The suites, but the direction of the Albert Hall cancelled the concert when they noticed that they considered some of Zappa's lyrics obscene. Eventually The suites did appear on CD in 2015. The 1971 tour ended with disasters. In Montreux the concert hall took fire and in London Zappa got thrown off stage.
Chunga's revenge: mainstream pop
Transylvania boogie, Road ladies, The Nancy and Mary music, Tell me you love me, Would you go all the way?, Chunga's revenge, The clap, Rudy wants to buy yez a drink, Sharleena
Quaudiophiliac - The Mothers 1970 - Fillmore East, 1970: bootleg and archive recordings
Twinkle tits, Chunga's basement, Dance of the just plain folks, Red tubular lighter, Giraffe-take 4, Brain police (1970), Solos from Call any vegetable and Holiday in Berlin
Fillmore East, June 1971 - Playground psychotics: comedy shows
Little house (1971), Bwana dik, Latex solar beef, Willie the pimp (1971), Do you like my new car?, Tears began to fall, Scumbag, Brixton still life, Once upon a time, Sofa (1971), Divan
Just another band from L.A. - Carnegie Hall - Finer moments: sequences and tempo changes
Billy the Mountain, Number 7, Call any vegetable, Magdalena, Penis dimension, Brain police (1971), The subcutaneous peril, You never know who your friends are
200 Motels (1971 album) - 200 Motels, the suites: the overall piece of art
Overture, Mystery roach, What's the name of your group?, Can I help you with this dummy?, Tuna sandwich bolero, Lonesome cowboy Burt, Touring can make you crazy, Would you like a snack?, Centerville, She painted up her face, Lucy's seduction of a bored violinist, Dental hygiene dilemma, I'm stealing the towels, The pleated gazelle, Magic fingers
Confined to a wheelchair, Zappa composed on paper with an unprecedented pace. He returned to the idea of recording a sequel to Hot rats. The recording sessions resulted in enough material for two albums, Waka/Jawaka and The grand wazoo. A small tour with this band got planned. The first part involved a big band, the second part - due to contractual obligations of some members - a smaller combo. Strangely enough Zappa himself released nothing from these live shows. This conspicuous gap was filled by The Zappa family trust (ZFT), governing his tape archive since 1993. Three CDs could be compiled from these concerts, Imaginary diseases, Wazoo and Little dots.
Waka/Jawaka: the jazz combo
Big swifty, Your mouth, It might just be a one shot deal, Frog song, Waka/Jawaka
The grand wazoo: the big band
For Calvin, The grand wazoo, Think it over, Another whole melodic section, Cletus awreetus-awrightus, Eat that question, Blessed relief
Wazoo - Imaginary diseases - Little dots: the jazz band live and blues
Greggery Peccary (1972), The new brown clouds, Imaginary diseases, Variant I, Rollo, Been to Kansas City in A minor, D.C. boogie, Farther O'blivion, Little dots
In 1973 Zappa had formed a band that has become known as the Roxy band. First they recorded two commercially successful albums, Overnite sensation and Apostrophe ('), the latter briefly reaching #10 in the album charts. With Roxy and elsewhere this band showed that they could play complicated music live. One size fits all is a carefully balanced album, one of many examples of bringing together various styles on one release. In 1975 Zappa toured with Don van Vliet a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, his friend from high school days onwards. Their collaboration resulted in Bongo fury.
Overnite sensation: riffs
Camarillo Brillo, I'm the slime, Dirty love, Fifty-fifty, Dinah-Moe Humm, Montana
Apostrophe ('): collaborations
Don't eat the yellow snow, Nanook rubs it, St. Alfonso/Father O'blivion, Excentrifugal forz, Apostrophe ('), Uncle Remus, Stinkfoot (1974)
Roxy and Elsewhere: meters and rhythms
Pygmy twylyte (1973), Village of the sun, Echidna's arf (of you), Don't you ever wash that thing, Cheepnis, Son of Orange county, The be-bop tango (1973-1992), The Sheik Yerbouti tango, Pojama prelude, All skate, Inca roads (1973), Dickie's such an asshole
YCDTOSA II - A token of his extreme: versions differences and routines
Approximate, Pygmy twylyte (1974), The idiot bastard son, Room service, Dummy up, Dupree's paradise (1974)
One size fits all: through-composed melodies and song structures
Inca roads (1975), Can't afford no shoes, Po-jama people, Florentine Pogen, Evelyn, San Ber'dino, Andy, Sofa (1975)
Bongo fury: working with Don van Vliet
Debra kadabra, Carolina hard-core ecstasy, 200 years old, Cucamonga, Muffin man
When all members of the Roxy band had left, Zappa decided to stop using the name Mothers Of Invention, continuing under his own name only. Another new band participated on the rock-based Zoot allures album with Zappa himself appearing as a multi-instrumentalist. He now started touring with a smaller band of five or six members. Live material with this band has mostly been released by the ZFT. Zappa himself recorded Zappa in New York, with this band augmented to 12 persons for his December 1976 concerts only. This album includes The black page, his best known example of composing with irregular rhythmic groupings. The refusal of Warner Bros. to include Punky's whips was one of the reasons for a clash, only ending with a settlement in 1982. Next Zappa proceeded with a plan to release the material he had in stock as a quadruple album called Läther, to be halted by Warner Bros. issuing these pieces themselves as four individual albums (Zappa in New York, Studio tan, Sleep dirt and Orchestral favorites).
Orchestral favorites - Studio tan: classicism and modulations
Strictly genteel (1975), Duke of prunes (1963-1975), Bogus pomp, Black napkins instructions, Evening at the Hermitage, Greggery Peccary (1975), Music for low budget orchestra, Lemme take you to the beach, RDZNL
FZ:OZ - FZ plays FZ - Joe's series - Philly '76: the 5- and 6-piece band
Phyniox, Reeny ra, Any downers?, Kaiser rolls, Keep it greasy (1976), Black napkins, Rhythm guitar solo, City of tiny lights
Zoot allures: harmonies - preferred and unstable chords?
Wind up working in a gas station, The torture never stops (1976), Friendly little finger, Zoot allures, Disco boy
Sleep dirt: harmonies (ctnd.) and vamps
Filthy habits, Flambay, Time is money, Regyptian strut, Sleep dirt, The ocean is the ultimate solution
Zappa in New York: irregular rhythmic groupings
Titties and beer, I promise not to come in your mouth, Manx needs women, The black page drum solo, The black page #1, Big leg Emma, The purple lagoon, The be-bop tango (1976)
Läther - Baby snakes - Halloween 77: boxes and concert footage
Duck duck goose, Down in de dew, Green rosetta/Ship ahoy, Broken hearts are for assholes, For the young sophisticate, Leather goods, Punky's whips, Jones crusher, Conehead (1977-78), Wild love (1977), Bowling on Charen, Läther
With Sheik Yerbouti took a major leap in improving the sound quality of his albums. The release became his best-selling album with Bobby Brown becoming a big hit in some European countries. The lyrics got in the way of this single becoming an international hit. Joe's garage deals with a hypothetical situation where a government is prohibiting music, with the main character Joe winding up being able to play music in his mind only. The album ends with the touching solo Watermelon in Easter hay. Tinsel town rebellion is a selection from recent live recordings. The growing importance of guitar solos in Zappa's output culminated with the box set Shut up 'n play yer guitar. You are what you is a one of Zappa's more accessible albums with for instance country, rock and even a gospel song.
Sheik Yerbouti - Hammersmith Odeon: disco references and solo building
The black page #2, I have been in you, Flakes, I'm so cute, What ever happened to all the fun in the world, Rubber shirt, Baby snakes, Dancin' fool, Wild love (1979), Mo' and Yo' mama (London), Dong work for Yuda, Watermelon in easter hay (prequel), King Kong (1978)
One shot deal - Chicago '78 - Halloween: live compilations #1 and xenochrony
Heidelberg, On the bus, Occam's razor, Paroxysmal splendor, Yo' mama (Chicago '78), Ancient armaments, Stinkfoot (1978)
Joe's garage: the emotional dimension
Central scrutinizer, Joe's garage, Catholic girls, Fembot in a wet T-shirt, Why does it hurt when I pee, Lucille, A token of my extreme, Sy Borg, Keep it greasy (1979), Outside now (1981), Packard goose, Watermelon in easter hay (1979-1984), No more Mr. nice girl
Tinsel town rebellion: fashions
Fine girl, Easy meat, Panty rap, Now you see it-now you don't, Dance contest, The blue light, Tinsel town rebellion, Pick me, I'm clean, Bamboozled by love, Brown shoes don't make it (1981), Peaches III
Shut up 'n play yer guitar: modes
Five-five-FIVE, Shut up 'n play yer guitar, While you were out, Treacherous cretins, Soup 'n old clothes, Gee, I like your pants, Canarsie, The deathless horsie, Pink napkins, Return of the son, Why Johnny can't read, Canard du jour
You are what you is - The dub room special: rock 'n roll and other styles
Harder than your husband, Doreen, Stevie's spanking, Tengo na minchia tanta, Goblin girl, Society pages, I'm a beautiful guy, Beauty knows no pain, Charlie's enormous mouth, You are what you is, Dumb all over, Heavenly bank account, The meek shall inherit nothing, Jumbo go away, If only she woulda, Drafted again
In 1982 Zappa had acquired sufficient means to hire the London Symphony Orchestra to perform a number of his orchestral works. At the same time he got commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain to write a chamber music piece for them. These recording were released as The L.S.O. and The perfect stranger, the latter with Pierre Boulez conducting. Other performances of orchestra and chamber music scores followed. Among them Sinister footwear, in full regrettably only available as sheet music (apart from a bootleg recording). During these years Zappa's modern music works could also appear on his rock albums. Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch unintendedly contained a small U.S. hit with Valley girl. On Them or us one of the Sinister footwear movements can be found. On The man from Utopia Zappa experimented with recitatives.
Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch: the modern rock band
Valley girl, I come from nowhere, Drowning witch, Envelopes (1982), Teen-age prostitute
The man from Utopia: recitatives
Cocaine decisions, SEX, Tink walks amok, The radio is broken, We are not alone, The dangerous kitchen, Stick together, The jazz discharge party hats, Moggio, The torture never stops (1980)
The London Symphony Orchestra: a modern composer
Sad Jane, Bob in Dacron, Mo 'n Herb's vacation, Envelopes (1983), Pedro's dowry, Strictly genteel (1983)
The perfect stranger: a modern composer (cntd.)
The perfect stranger, Naval aviation in art?, Jeff and Don, The girl in the magnesium dress, Outside now again, Love story, Dupree's paradise (1984), Jonestown
Them or us - Sinister footwear: the modern rock band (cntd.) and instrumentation
In France, Ya Hozna, Truck driver divorce, Marque-Son's chicken, Planet of my dreams, Them or us, Frogs with dirty little lips, Sinister footwear I-III
In 1982 Zappa bought a synclavier, a computer controlled synthesizer, that offered him the possibility to execute pieces, humanly impossible to play. Among the first recordings where this machine was used, was Thing-Fish. This work belongs to the literary side of Zappa with a peculiar plot about a government trying to spread out diseases deliberately. It has the shape of an opera. Does humor belong in music? is a compilation of live music as played during the 1984 tour. In 1985 a senate hearing was held about the possible introduction of warning labels when the lyrics of pop albums could be deemed dangerous or offensive. Zappa was one of the speakers against this idea and released FZ meets the Mothers of prevention as a reaction, doing many interviews as well. This last album also included some complex synclavier works. The next year Jazz from hell followed with the synclavier being present full-fledged. This album got rewarded with an Emmy.
Thing-Fish: an opera
Prologue, Mammy nuns, Harry and Rhonda, The evil prince, Mudd club, Harry-as-a-boy, Artificial Rhonda, The crab-grass baby, The white boy troubles, No not now, Briefcase boogie, Brown Moses, Wistful wit a fistful, Drop dead, Won ton on
Does humor belong in music?: the lyrics
Baby take your teeth out, Let's move to Cleveland, Hot plate heaven, For Giuseppe Franco, He's so gay, Bobby Brown
FZ meets the Mothers of prevention: politics
I don't even care, One man - one vote, Little beige sambo, Aerobics in bondage, Alien orifice, Yo cats, What's new in Baltimore, Porn wars, H.R. 2911
Jazz from hell: the synclavier #1
Night school, The Beltway bandits, G-spot tornado, Damp ankels, St. Etienne, Massagio Galore, The black page (1987)
In 1984 stopped being on the road every year and turned his attention to his huge tape archive with, among others, all the live recordings. He had the habit of permanently changing his compositions, so many alternative versions got available via the massive You can't do that on stage anymore set. It comprises six double CDs, covering his whole career and about all different bands and tours. Guitar is another guitar solo collection from the 1982 and 1984 tours. Still there would be much more releasable material in the vault, as some of the ZFT issues indicate. In 1987 Zappa initiated what turned out to be his final tour. It was done with a large band with a large repertoire. The last leg of the tour had to be cancelled because of conflicts within the band. The financial loss was compensated by releasing most of the set on Broadway, the hard way, The best band you never heard in your life and Make a jazz noise here. Trance-fusion is a third guitar solo CD, with the accent lying on the 1988 tour.
Guitar: solo types and mingling of closely related scales
Sexual harassment intro, Which one is it?, Republicans, Do not pass go, Chalk pie, In-a-gadda-Stravinsky, That's not really reggae, Once again, without the net, Jim and Tammy's upper room, San Antonio, That ol' G-minor thing again, Hotel Atlanta incidentals, That's not really a shuffle, Sunrise redeemer, Orrin hatch on skis, But who was Fulcanelli?, For Duane, GOA, Winos do not march, Swans, what swans?, Too ugly for show business, Systems of edges, Do not try this at home, Things that look like meat, Canadian customs
You can't do that on stage anymore: live compilations #2
Babette, Ride my face to Chicago, King Kong (1971/82), Shall we take ourselves seriously, Don't you want a man like me? (1976-1988), Thirteen
Broadway the hard way: parodies and conventions
Welcome to the U.S., Any kind of pain, Rhymin' man, Promiscuous, Jezebel boy, Outside now (1988), What kind of girl?, Jesus thinks you're a jerk
The best band you never heard in your life - Make a jazz noise here: live compilations #3
Heavy duty Judy (1988), The torture never stops - part two, Zomby woof, The black page (new age version), When yuppies go to hell, Let's make the water turn black
Trance-fusion: chromatic notes and quarter-tones
Good Lobna, Butter or cannons, A cold dark matter, Ask dr. Stupid, Trance-fusion, Gorgo, Diplodocus, Soul polka, After dinner smoker, Light is all that matters, Finding Higgs' Boson, Bavarian sunset
In 1991 it was publicly announced that Zappa suffered from incurable prostate cancer. He still lived for three years, being able to compose and yet again come up with new directions for his music. It did something to make up for his early death in 1993. After Jazz from hell Zappa continued working on the synclavier, eventually leading to Civilization phaze III and Dance me this. Both CDs show a mix of composed music and collage pieces, achieved by assembling samples. Wolf Harbor is a fascinating world of industrial sounds and percussion sections. Other synclavier music reached a public via indirect sources, as The Valdez score (radio broadcast) and Uncle Sam (as part of a ZFT release). The cooperation with the Ensemble Modern worked out very well. With The yellow shark, Zappa could release some early and recently written chamber music.
Outrage at Valdez and others: documentaries
Outrage at Valdez, The Valdez score, Improvisation in A, Budapest solo, Strat Vindaloo
The yellow shark - EIHN: counterpoint #2
9/8 Objects, What will Rumi do?, T'Mershi Duween, This is a test, Uncle meat (1993), Times beach, Ruth is sleeping, None of the above, Pentagon afternoon, Food gathering in post-industrial America, Exercise #4 (1992)
Civilization phaze III: the synclavier #2
Get whitey, Put a motor in yourself, Reagan at Bitburg, Xmas values, N-lite, I was in a drum, A pig with wings, Hot & putrid, Gross man, Why not?, Beat the reaper, Samba funk, Uncle Sam, Amnerika
Dance me this: the synclavier #3
Dance me this, Pachuco gavotte, Wolf Harbor, Rykoniki, Piano, Calculus
Zappa has referred to his output as one big project, being held together by a conceptual continuity. This motto was more an attitude towards music than something you might call a development of a Zappa style: anything was allowed. Another slogan he liked to use was "AAAFRNA": anything, anytime, anywhere for no reason at all. This study contains over 400 note examples, showing a huge variety in every aspect: meters, rhythms, styles, instrumentation. About anything is coming by in such a creative manner that many consider Zappa a genius.