Frank Zappa's musical language
Frank Zappa's musical language
A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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Paris, 1980 The unlimited popularity of the tonal system in western music has a lot to do with its capacity, combined with instrumentation and the way music is performed, to translate emotions into music in a for everybody recognizable form. It's also the way most people like to talk about music, often giving highly subjective interpretations of what the music means in their opinion along with it. Sections of music can express feelings of joy, sadness, anger and relaxation. Why this effect exists is usually not very clear. Dissonants and shouting can be associated with anger or tension, but why some melodic lines have the effect of joy and others don't is hardly explainable. It's better to take it for granted that the three downwards played notes of a minor third have the effect of sadness, and composers looking to maximize recognizable emotional impact probably have a good catalogue in their mind of melody types and their effect (compare "Debra Kadabra" from "Bongo Fury" from 2:44 onwards for a minor third effect).
Music can also be on a more emotionally abstract level, but certainly not less emotional, where it becomes difficult to translate the emotions into words other than "expressive" or "intense" and where the emotions seem to rely more on the pleasure of the listening to the music itself. Zappa prefers the more abstract level, confirmed by his unwillingness to take his personal life as the subject of his lyrics. He may talk about his lovely wife and children in "The Real Frank Zappa book", but never on his albums. Zappa's music can be very expressive, but speaking for myself I have no idea how I could describe for instance the guitar solos on "Shut up 'n play yer guitar" in emotional terms as happiness or tension.
In Zappa's music the whole palette of emotions occurs in such a manner that it gets indefinable in easy terms. This is related to his attitude towards music, being that he can use any chord in any scale as well as atonal music. He can, but does not specifically look for progressions that express drama in a classical sense. I'm continuing with this subject with my comment upon the "San Antonio" guitar solo from "Guitar" (1988). The more abstract level of musical expression is possibly indicated as a piece of poetry by Zappa himself in "Packard goose":
"Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is THE BEST"
Specifically this last sentence has become well-known, because Zappa frequently used it as a slogan ever since the release of "Joe's garage" (next to "Don't forget to register to vote."). As I'm interpreting this, it means that one can listen to music entirely as a goal by itself. Above to the right FZ and Ray White singing "Joe's garage" (Paris 1980 show as broadcasted by Antenne 2).

Related to this is his instrumentation, that is functional for the composition, meant to make the notes audible in a clear way and not to create ornamental atmospheres or to overwhelm the listeners through sound building. Some exceptions do exist like the ornamental harp and percussion part at the end of the "Zoot Allures" guitar solo, that have a relaxing effect. There are also compositions that are specifically about sound effects, like "N-lite" from "Civilization Phaze III". In general Zappa chooses instruments that are unrelated in their sound so that they can play separately as well as together in different combinations, and always remain clearly distinguishable. Alternation of sound is the issue rather than the creation of an overall sound. Furthermore he doesn't raise or bend his voice while singing and he doesn't dance on stage, which is for pop music standards unusual. Zappa during the Larry King Live interview on this topic (CNN, 1989):
- LK: "How would you describe to someone, who had never heard it, the Zappa sound?"
- FZ: "Well, I do a lot of different kinds of music, and uh, you know, ranging from orchestral music to big band music to fuzz tone music, so...".
- LK: "There's no Zappa sound then?".
- FZ: "There are many Zappa sounds and you could specialize in one if you want to listen to only guitar type stuff, then I can give you a list of albums that have that. If you like orchestral music, that's another list, so it's a variety."


As far as I'm concerned most note examples presented in this site are of the emotionally abstract kind. With the ones in this section and the previous Ruben and the Jets section, we're getting at songs with a better translatable emotional dimension. Most of them can be found on "Freak out", "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets" and "Joe's garage". Of the infinite range from deepest inner sorrow to sound related expressions as feeling the groove, some basics are passing by in some of the examples from below.

Act I

1.1 Central scrutinizer

Joe's garage, Act I During the opening song, the Central scrutinizer character introduces the play. Speaking through a megaphone, he's trying to convince people why rock music should be made illegal. This piece gets accompanied by a lengthy vamp, lasting eight bars. Halfway the song, this vamps steps into the foreground, being played as an instrumental interlude (1:04 through 1:21).

Central scrutinizer, vamp (midi file).

Central scrutinizer, vamp (transcription).

It's another example of Zappa using closely related scales next to each other. Bar 1 follows D Mixolydian, bar 2 is in D Dorian. Bar 5 is step IV of D Dorian. Bar 7 transposes the marimba part up with a major second. This causes a key change to A Mixolydian. The harmonies are a series of thirds and triads. The synthesizer and duck quack sounds are only there as irregular embellishment. Towards the end the vamp is drawn back. Here Zappa is deliberately creating a chaotic atmosphere, letting the scrutinizer stumble over its words with a line taken out of its context. The white zone refers to the area in airport parking spaces, meant for loading and unloading only. It has nothing to do with the plot of "Joe's garage".

Originally "Joe's garage" was released as a single album with act I and a double-album with acts II & III. Above and below are two outtakes from these original albums showing this. Both covers feature photos by Norm Seeff, with Zappa's face being all black by motor oil and grease.

1.2 Joe's garage

Relaxation and the building up of tension are present in the title track of "Joe's garage". It opens with a slow I-IV intro in E and then, as the sung melody begins, proceeds with I-IV-V. This movement continues in several shapes, alternated with divers interrupting bars, all in a slow tempo. The ease of the I-IV-V progression expresses Joe's fine memories of the good old times when he was playing a tune like this with friends in his garage. At the end of the song, when Joe is complaining about all the new fashions in rock music, the comfortable I-IV-V environment is left and the tension starts to rise, ending with police interference.

Joe's garage (midi file).

Joe's garage (transcription).

In the transcription above I've combined the opening and some sections, the last bar containing the start of tension. In the last two bars beats 1 and 2 of the first one still contain the I chord from E; on beat 3 this chord gets enlarged to I 9th. In the following bar the D# and G# are altered to natural and the whole harmony becomes an 11th chord over A.

1.3 Catholic girls

The outlines of "Catholic girls" go as:
- 0:00 Instrumental intro.
- 0:11 Theme 1. A melody of two bars in F#. The accompanying chord progression is I-IV-I-VI-V, like "Joe's garage" at this point quite conventional. See bars 4-6 from the example below. This theme gets repeated three times, before it ends with a final bar with B-E-C# as chord progression.
- 0:28 Theme 1 four times again, now ending with A-B as chord progression.
- 0:44 Theme 2, a sequence following a modulation scheme: C# Dorian, Gb Lydian, Db Dorian, Ab Mixolydian, E Dorian, A major/Mixolydian. So here all conventionalism is gone.
- 1:11 Theme 3, another sequence over a chromatically descending bass line.
- 1:22 Theme 1.

Catholic girls, 2:01-2:14 (midi file).

Catholic girls, 2:01-2:14 (transcription).

- 1:38 Interlude. This part is an instrumental variation upon theme 1 with odd rhythms. The transcription above contains the end of this section with:
a) Bar 1 in 18/16 with a repeated figure, lasting 9/16. The two altered notes, E and A natural, that you could hear earlier at the end of theme 1, turn up more explicitly here. It makes this part more volatile as it comes to what scale it is using. Instead of I-IV in F# major, you're now hearing I-III in F# Mixolydian with an E natural. The whole interlude gets characterized by an ongoing stream of notes using D#m7 and Bsus2 as broken chords.
b) Bar 2 in 14/16 with a repeated figure, lasting 7/16. The chords are the same as bar 2 from theme 1.
c) Bar 3 in 22/16 with a repeated figure, lasting 11/16. This figure follows the A-B progression as played at the end of the first repetition of theme 1. By itself you could call it A Lydian.
d) Bars 4-6 with theme 1.
- 2:09 Themes 1-3 again.
- 3:01 Theme 1 some more, with minor variations.
- 3:17 Theme 1 keeps being repeated to the end as a coda, with improvisations and additions.
- 3:54 With the coda almost faded out, the Central scrutinizer turns up, closing the song.
- 4:18 End.

1.4 Crew slut

The Central scrutinizer continues talking, introducing the next song, "Crew slut". This song follows the verse-chorus structure and includes solos by Denny Walley on guitar and Craig Stewart on harmonica. The verse has a characteristic vamp (F-E-D, A-C-A), played over a D by the bass as pedal note. This vamp continues during the solo. The basis is thus D Dorian, but it gets mingled with D Mixolydian by the soloists, who are playing the Mixolydian F# just as well. A crude earlier version of this song can be found on the ZFT release "Chicago '78". There it's a part of a piece called "Paroxysmal splendor".

Crew slut, 0:41-0:57 (midi file).

Crew slut, 0:41-0:57 (transcription).

The example above contains bars from the verse and chorus, bars that are getting repeated. To a degree the mingling of Dorian and Mixolydian can also here be recognized by the harmonica using an F#/Gb next to an F natural. The harmonica is staff 2 from bars 1-4 and staff 4 from bars 5-8 from the example.

Crew slut, 5:15-5:46 (midi file).

Crew slut, 5:15-5:46 (transcription).

This second example is the outro of the song. It starts with the progression V-IV from D Dorian. Next the Bb from bar 4 comes in as a surprise. So it's a deceptive cadence. This returns three more times, alternating the Bb chord a with Db chord:
Bars 1-4: A-G (three times) - Bb.
Bars 5-8: A-G (three times) - Db.
Bars 9-12: A-G (three times) - Bb.
Bars 13-16: A-G (three times) - Db.
Also rhythmically the final bar is breaking the steady pattern the preceding bars had. It ends with the final chord being sustained with Zappa and the Mary character talking over it about the gift, that looks like a Telefunken U47, followed by the Central scrutinizer.

Youtube footage from 2019 with the cover band 2000 Motels performing Crew slut.

1.5 Fembot in a wet T-shirt

The opposition of tension and relaxation is more directly present in the "Run home cues #3" example from the Movie scores section and the chamber music section at the end of "Lumpy Gravy, part I". After the dissonant notes in this section a little dialogue follows with one saying "not okay" and the other one complaining in response "no, man, no, I can go through this again?". After this some charming consonants follow. Happiness has already come by. Controlled in "Jelly roll gum drop" and "Deseri" from "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets". Euphorically in "What will this evening bring me this morning" from "200 Motels". Here's one from "Joe's garage":

Fembot in a wet T-shirt, opening (midi file).

Fembot in a wet T-shirt, opening (transcription).

The harmonic basis in bars 1-4 is a I-IV alternation in E. Staff 1 in bar 1 adds in extra passing through chords: the II chord over I and the V chord over IV. These passing through chords are responsible for making the opening sound so cheerful. Bar 5-6 have something of the VII-I cadence of E Mixolydian.

The comment by Arthur Barrow upon Mo's vacation.

"Fembot in a wet T-shirt" knows an instrumental interlude that used to be available on the official scores list of the ZFT. It's listed at the group with "Numbers 7-9" in it as well, so probably it initially had such a numbered title. In Arthur Barrow's site you can find some comment upon a little section from "Mo's vacation" included in it (starting at 1:00), apparently originally a duet for bass and drums. More details about "Mo's vacation" are only known via bootlegs (see "Lobster girl", where I've included a Youtube image of a 1978 concert where it was played), but its score must exist in the ZFT archives. It's an earlier stage of music that got later on reworked upon for inclusion in "Mo 'n Herb's vacation".

1.6 On the bus

Joe's garage, Act I, tracklist Via interviews it is known that the guitar solos from "Joe's garage" were recorded live. They sound as if they stem from the same recording sessions as the other songs, because Zappa recorded the accompaniment anew in the studio. The method he applied for creating the illusion that everything got played simultaneously, he himself called xenochrony. How this technique worked, and why he used it so intensively, can be followed in detail by comparing "On the bus" to "Occam's razor", the original solo. Two sections are present in the previous One shot deal from this study. The riff that is used as a transitional figure for this track, can also be heard at the beginning of "Diseases of the band". See the corresponding section for a transcription.

Joe's garage, Act I, tracklist from the original album. As you can see, Zappa re-titled two songs for the CD release. "Wet T-shirt nite" became "Fembot in a wet T-shirt" and "Toad-O line" became "On the bus". The "Scrutinizer postlude" is still part of "Lucille".

1.7 Why does it hurt when I pee?

The outlines of "Why does it hurt when I pee?" are sketched on page 227 of the Ludwig study (see the references). It's a compact rock song with an interesting instrumental interlude. The song has a basis in A minor/Dorian with both F natural en F sharp being used (part a, "Teil a", of the outlines).

Why does it hurt when I pee?, outlines.

The interlude is to a degree a variation upon the sung part with most of its chord sequence re-appearing in a different set-up.

Why does it hurt when I pee?, interlude, 0:57-1:25 (midi file).

Why does it hurt when I pee?, interlude, 0:57-1:25 (transcription).

Bars 1-8 of the interlude are in A minor, playing around the I and VI 7th chords. Next you're getting at a series of major triads, interrupted once by a minor triad: E, F, G, E, Am and ending with D, sustained for various bars. They are the same chords as indicated by Ludwig for parts ("Teilen") b and c. Such a series can't be attributed to one specific scale. Keys are implied per chord, like A minor returning in bar 13. The D pedal part (bars 14-18) can be called D Mixolydian. This parallel playing of chord types is also addressed at in the Freak out and YCDTOSA II sections of this study. Bars 9-11 form a little sequence, with a figure being transposed upwards. First with a minor second, next with a major second.

1.8 Lucille has messed my mind up

"Lucille has messed my mind up" is one of many examples of Zappa doing something one time only. In this case a sentimental ballad, a slow love song following easy patterns. It's yet another example of him doing exactly what he himself claimed to dislike. See the Real FZ book, chapter IV, section "purely a mistake", about his dislike of love songs. Stating for instance: "When they start lingering about love as a romantic concept - especially in the lyrics of the sensitive singer/songwriter type - we're even one step closer to total mental decay". This is a recurrent factor in his output, that can be confusing. This particular song is also an example of reggae. Some of its elements are related to "Sy Borg" (see below), but that latter song is harmonically far more complex.

Lucille has messed my mind up, opening (midi file).

Lucille has messed my mind up, opening and main themes (transcription).

"Lucille has messed my mind up" is in A minor. The instrumental opening, bars 1-7, is using a subset of six notes from this scale. It's made up of A-B-C-D-E-G, thus avoiding the F. You have to wait till bar 9 to know that the song is in minor for certain. The song displays a simultaneous use of 4/4 and 12/8, a very mild form of polyrhythms. Four beats can get subdivided into two or three ticks. The basis is the reggae rhythm by the bass and the two rhythms guitars. They are consistently playing in 12/8, so I've notated this song in 12/8. W. Ludwig, page 273, transcribed the lead melody of the two themes, that I've added to the example to show the polyrhythms more explicitly. These sung themes are in 4/4, so it's logical that he chose 4/4 for his transcription. The keyboard players and the drummer alternate between 4/4 and 12/8. Since 4/4 is the standard in pop-music, you've also got some authors who prefer to avoid notating in 12/8. Then you get triplets all the time or - when applicable - a note that two eighth notes should actually be played as a triplet (a fourth and an eighth note). These are all valid notational variants, but what's more simple than noting that four times three is twelve. The reggae rhythm, that Zappa is using here, is standard. There's a weak downbeat and a stronger accent on the third beat. The rhythms guitars are playing two ticks on beats two and four. The outlines of the song go as:
- 0:00: Bars 1-7 contain the instrumental opening bars, introducing the reggae rhythm. The keyboard players are improvising during the intro.
- 0:15: Main theme. Bars 8-13 feature most of theme 1. It's sung over a chord progression. C mingled with Am (or Am7), Dm mingled with F (or Dm7), G and Am. So it comes to rest upon the tonic at the end, rather than at the beginning.
- 0:49: Second theme, phrase 1 (bars 18-20 from the Ludwig transcription).
- 1:13: Second theme, phrase 2 (bars 21-24 from this transcription).
- 1:19: Main theme.
- 1:53: Second theme.
- 2:24: Playing around the main theme till the end of this song.
- 5:42: End.

1.9 Scrutinizer postlude

On the original vinyl album the "Scrutinizer postlude" was part of the previous song. They got separated on the CD version. "Scrutinizer postlude" is now an individual track of 1:54 minutes with only the Central scrutinizer talking. At the end he introduces the L. Ron Hoover character, head of the Church of Appliantology. His name is a contraction of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology church, and J. Edgar Hoover, former head of the FBI. Hoover might also be a reference to the Hoover vacuum cleaner, shown on both the "Chunga's revenge" and "Joe's garage" album covers.

Joe's garage, Acts II & III

Act II

1.10 Tush-tush-tush - A token of my extreme

"A token of my extreme" is a relaxed song, part of a set of three such songs following closely upon each other. The others are "Lucille has messed my mind up" and "Sy Borg", these last two with a slow reggae rhythm underneath them. With different lyrics you could call these songs ballads. For "Joe's garage acts II & III", Zappa could return to a number of unreleased songs he had in stock as well as guitar solos from the last tour. See the One shot deal section for the "On the bus" solo. "A token of my extreme" draws upon a 1974 concert opener, called "Tush-tush-tush". This predecessor got released itself on the later 1988 "YCDTOSA Vol. II" release. "Tush-tush-tush" is built over a I-VII alternation in F# minor (E-F# when the pick-up bar moves over to bar 1; from bar 1 onwards you've got two bars with F#, followed by two bars with E). A bit later on, starting at 1:38, you can also hear a II-I progression being used at the pick-up point, G#m-5 - F#m). Both Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke had the ability to improvise lyrics combining understandable parts with meaningless and strangely pronounced text blocks. It creates an illusion of an interesting story being told and you're blaming yourself for not understanding it to the full. You can listen to it again and the same thing reiterates. George Duke and Napoleon Murphy Brock also do this on "Smell my beard" and "The booger man" from "YCDTOSA Vol. IV", for which songs they get most of the credit. Zappa makes fun of this with his introduction to "Dupree's paradise" on "YCDTOSA Vol. II", another such example ("... confronted with a partial - how shall we say this - language barrier here. We don't want to press the issue too much folks, but the chances that you figuring out what he [George Duke] is going to say during the song are nil."). In the midi file below the lyrics aren't included except for the three returning "Tush-tush-tush" notes that George and Napoleon jointly sing.

Tush-tush-tush, opening (midi file).
A token of my extreme, themes (midi file).

Tush-tush-tush, opening (transcription).
A token of my extreme, themes (notes).

The three pick-up notes with a VII-I progression in the "Tush-tush-tush" example form the starting point for theme I from "A token of my extreme". Its full melody is presented in bars 1-4. It's also played over an F#-E (I-VII) alternation by the bass, thus the same F# minor key is used again, but the chords in this case are played softly in the background and are mostly used for harmonic fill-in. The melody and the two bass pedal notes stand central. Bar 5, with just the Fmaj7 chord gliding downwards, makes the transition to theme II. The drummer beats syncopically through this bar: four dotted eighth notes, followed by two normal eighth on beat 4. The remainder of the transcription is this second theme. It's made up of two phrases. The first, bars 6-9, gets played three times with variations. Bars 6-8 are in A minor. In bars 6-7 you have the minor variant with a major 7th (G#). In bar 8 you get the Aeolian variant with a minor 7th (G natural). For bar 9 the music modulates to D Mixolydian. Bars 10-13 are mostly identical, only some melody notes are different because the lyrics have a different amount of syllables. In bars 14-17 you get at a more serious variation. The notes for "cra-zy" are now B-G# instead of an only a G#. Notable is the chord used for the "-zy" syllable, namely Ab. Hence I've notated G# as Ab at this instance. It implies a modulation, but the bass persists in playing A pedal, so a modulation doesn't actually take place. Bars 18-22 form the second closing phrase of theme II. Bars 18-20 continue with D Mixolydian. Bars 19-20 contain improvised keyboard notes along the Dsus4 chord, played lightly. Bars 21-22 are in C# minor (or Dorian, the A/A# that makes the difference isn't used). The keyboard is now playing along Bsus2.

1.11 Stick it out

Joe's garage, inside cover art "Stick it out" is the oldest track from "Joe's garage", going back to 1971. At that point it was part of a sequence, known as the "sofa suite". See the Just another band from L.A. section for a description of this suite. There you can find what the original reason was to partially sing the lyrics in German. When re-using this song for "Joe's garage", Zappa decided to keep this in and integrate it into the plot. The "sofa suite" remained unreleased for quite a while. To the left a sample from the album's cover art by John Williams, featuring collages of all kinds of scientific graphs, drawings and photos. The text has L. Ron Hoover inciting Joe to learn a foreign language in case of "Joe's garage" ... "German for instance?".

Stick it out, 0:00-0:30 (midi file).

Stick it out, 0:00-0:30 (transcription).

The example above is the opening of this song. Its general outlines are:
0:00 Intro.
Bars 1-4 from above are the intro following an articulated rhythm:
- The singers are sometimes on beat, sometimes before or after beat. As 16th notes the counting goes as 3-2-1-1-1, followed by 1-2-5.
- The slapped bass, staff 5, is always before or after beat.
- The picked bass and the drumming are on beat.
In German:
0:12 Theme 1, "Fick mich ...".
Next the example continues with themes one and two in a more regular rhythm within a 4/4 meter. The slapped bass continues with playing before or after beat. The key is B Mixolydian with some occasional chromatic notes. 0:24 Theme 2, "Streck ihn aus ...".
The last two bars from the example are its opening.
0:41 Theme 3, "Mach es ja schnell ...".
0:52 Theme 4, "Biss es spritzt ...".
1:06 Theme 5, "Aber bekleder ...".
1:30 Transition with the intro returning.
In English:
1:44 Theme 1, "Fuck me ...".
1:54 Theme 2, "Stick it out ...".
2:11 Theme 3, "Make it go fast ...".
2:22 Theme 4, "Till it squirts ...".
2:35 Theme 5, "Don't get no jizz ...".
3:01 Outro with the rhythm of the intro getting varied upon.
4:18 The central scrutinizer introduces the next song.
4:33 End.

1.12 Sy Borg

If it wasn't for its lyrics, "Sy Borg" could be called a ballad. The lead melody of its main themes can be found in the Ludwig study, pages 273-4, while I've transcribed theme A including the accompaniment. Its structure goes as:
- 0:00 Instrumental intro in F Lydian. Here the same is happening as above at "Lucille has messed my mind up". The rhythm section is following a reggae pattern in a 12/8 meter, while the sung melody goes more like 4/4.

Sy Borg, 0:16-0:39 (midi file).

Sy Borg, opening and main themes (transcription).

- 0:16 Theme A (midi file from above). Switch to, nominally, E minor, with altered notes turning up frequently. The rhythm guitars and keyboards are playing triads while the bass guitar is often playing notes, that aren't part of these triads. It makes this song harmonically quite complex. It's starting with Em7-C7-Gmaj9 during bars 1-3. Because of this first chord Ludwig probably chose to notate this song as if in E Dorian, but notes are getting altered all the time. The second chord already includes a Bb, played by the bass. Theme A only involves an E natural, so I've notated it as in E minor. The song can also be heavily syncopic. At the transition from bar 1 to 2, the singer and bass are sustaining their notes, but also the drummer doesn't hit anything at all at the downbeat. Everybody floats over the downbeat, as if it doesn't exist, and recommences playing at beat two. Bars 4-5 are a repetition and bar 6 is a cut-off version of bar 3. Bar 7 begins with the C and D chords mingled (in total a 13th chord) and ends with D. At beat two of bar 8 an E is mingled with this D chord. Next a sustained B by the singer gets mingled with F, C and E7, as well as sort of a tremolo (A-B). Thus with F natural and G# turning up as altered notes. Theme A ends with the progression Amaj9 - Gmaj9, a parallel playing of chord types.
- 0:40 Theme A gets repeated, a little shortened.
- 1:02 Theme B ("Little wires ..."), bars 16-25 from the Ludwig example.
- 1:22 Theme C ("Maybe I'm crazy ..."), bars 26-36 from this example. This theme sounds as a modulation, the key being A Lydian.
- 1:50 Theme A, played instrumentally.
- 2:14 Themes A-C return with variations and many alternative bars.
- 3:24 Themes A-C as at the beginning.
- 4:52 A keyboard solo, with the song getting more stable in C Lydian.
- 7:04 The ending block is sung and played in a jazz-like semi-improvised manner.
- 8:54 End.

2.1 Dong work for Yuda (1979)

"Dong work for Yuda (1978)" is standard blues. During the 1978 tour Zappa played a somewhat different version live. A section from the latter edition can be found in the Hammersmith Odeon section of this study. The 1979 version is in E (major/Mixolydian). Its general outlines are sketched on page 228 of the Ludwig study, with the lead melodies included below.

Dong work for Yuda (1979), lead melodies (transcription).

The 1978 version follows this pattern too, but at a detail level there are many differences. The little instrumental intro and the 23/16 bar from the 1978 version are for instance absent in the 1979 rendition. Instead it has an introduction by the Central scrutinizer and the comments of the John figure are much more extensive.

2.2 Keep it greasy (1979) - Outside now (original solo)

"Keep it greasy (1976)" goes back to 1976. A section from the 1976 version is included in the FZ:OZ section of this study, containing the main theme. In this section I'm concentrating upon the 1979 guitar solo. Like the "Catholic girls" interlude, the 1979 rendition of "Keep it greasy" knows an odd meter. This time it's an articulated vamp in 19/16, used for a guitar solo in G Dorian.

Keep it greasy (1979), end of the solo (midi file).

Keep it greasy (1979), end of the solo (transcription).

There's a page about how to learn the drum part of this vamp in Vinnie Colaiuta's site ( In Modern Drummer, November 1982, Vinnie commented:
"There's this one part where the actual time signature is 19/16. The feel is like it is 4/4 with three 16th notes tacked onto the end of it. Then there's another part in 21. It was all one live take; no splices or adds or anything. We just rehearsed it. We used to play it on the road and Frank said, "Okay, we're going to elongate that in the studio and that's going to be a solo. You're just going to vamp out until I give you a cue and then we'll go into something else." And bingo, he gave us a cue and zipp, we were in 19/16. We just cut that track with guitar, bass and drums. I don't recall if there was electric piano in that particular solo section or not. We went to Village Recorders one day and just churned out tune after tune, all live, no edits or anything."
The vamp is played fast in a nervous manner, thus forming a sharp contrast with the following song, "Outside now", that has a much slower sentimental vamp. Because of this the emotions from "Outside now" never come out as outspoken as at the beginning of this song in the "Joe's garage" version. The example above contains the ending of the guitar solo. After that the vamp plays solo for a while before "Outside now" starts off.

In 1987 Zappa released "Guitar", containing a 1979 live rendition of "Outside now", calling it "Outside now (original solo)". Sections from this solo can be recognized as being used for the "Keep it greasy" solo. So this is an example where you can check in detail how xenochrony worked on "Joe's garage". Another one is included in the previous section at "Occam's razor".

Outside now (original solo), 1:42-2:00 (midi file).
Keep it greasy (1979), 4:04-4:17 (midi file).

Outside now (original solo), 1:42-2:00 (transcription).
Keep it greasy (1979), 4:04-4:17 (transcription).

In this case a solo in 11/8 got superimposed over a vamp in 19/16, showing the almost infinite possibilities xenochrony offered for combining unrelated tracks. I don't know how it technically worked, but it must have been time-consuming. In the examples you can see that:
- The speed, thus in effect the rhythm, gets adopted almost all through to create instances of the live solo to be equal with the 19/16 vamp. In effect, without knowing that xenochrony got applied, you could never tell just by listening to it.
- Below the second example I've encircled a block from "Outside now (original solo)", that got skipped on "Keep it greasy". This is also happening during "On the bus", in my opinion the main reason why Zappa chose for xenochrony.
- The single F note from bar 7 from "Outside now (original solo)" returns as getting repeated in bar 5 from "Keep it greasy". Of the E note there's one instance less. So this was another possibility to adapt the tape. Bar 5 is also a very clear example of how the rhythm got adapted to be in line with the 19/16 meter.
The pitch didn't have to be adapted, because Bb Lydian and G Dorian are overlapping. When necessary, this could be done as well, without changing the speed.

2.3 Outside now (1979)

On "Joe's garage" Zappa depicted what can go wrong if you decide to start a career in the rock 'n roll business, with the accent on sexual abuse. It's also an example of the always present two-sidedness in his ideas. On the album sleeve we are warned that people exist who would like to make (rock) music illegal, but the so called central scrutinizer presenting and commenting the little play on the album, gives you some reasons why it should be. Whatever the purpose (if there is any), the play ends with the main character Joe winding up in prison, being able to play his music and guitar solos only in his imagination.

Outside now (1979), 0:00-0:14 (midi file).
Outside now (1979), 4:17-4:34 (midi file).

Outside now (1979), 0:00-0:14 (transcription).
Outside now (1979), 4:17-4:34 (transcription).

The first example is the opening of this song. It's also present in this study in the 1988 with an additional brass section. See the Broadway the hard way section for this "Outside now, 1988 version", where I've included a description of it. The guitar solo from "Outside now" returns on the Perfect stranger from 1984 in a version for synclavier, called "Outside now again". The second example above is an outtake from this solo, that corresponds with the "Outside now again" example in this study (Perfect stranger section). The guitar solo part from "Outside now" got transcribed by Steve Vai, The Frank Zappa guitar book, pages 243-9. The notes got entered into the synclavier, though not 100% identically. See the Guitar section for the opening bars of the guitar solo.


2.4 He used to cut the grass

"He used to cut the grass" begins with Joe trying to cope with a society where music has become forbidden. Most part of this song is taken up by a guitar solo, sometimes interrupted by Mrs. Borg. There are four solos from "Joe's garage" available in the Frank Zappa Guitar book:
- Outside now, pages 243-249.
- He used to cut the grass, pages 250-267.
- Packard goose, pages 226-242.
- Watermelon in Easter hay, pages 214-225.

He used to cut the grass

Above are the opening bars from the solo, including the drum part by Vinnie Colaiuta. Steve calls it "super spacey Lydian". Two more sample bars from "He used to cut the grass" are included in the quartertones subpage from the Trance-Fusion section. All of the solo from 1:13 through 7:36 can be found in the Guitar book. As you can see in the Guitar book, and hear of course, the song knows a modulation to Mixolydian halfway:
- 0:00 Sung intro in E Lydian.
- 1:13 Start of the guitar solo, continuing in E Lydian.
- 3:31 The Central scrutinizer enters the picture, commenting. Modulation of the solo to F# Mixolydian by a switch of the pedal note.
- 4:35 The Central scrutinizer has faded out. The solo continues in F# Mixolydian.
- 6:36 Mrs. Borg returns with her lines from the earlier "Joe's garage" title track.
- 7:36 End of the solo. The Central scrutinizer rounds off the song, speaking all by himself, introducing the next song.
- 8:35 End.

2.5 Packard goose (1979)

In the case of "Packard goose" the direction of the emotions lie mostly in the lyrics. The melody itself is fluid diatonic material, that you could just as well use for a love song. Subtle and effective is a chord change in bars 5-6 compared to bars 7-8, returning in bars 9-10 compared to bars 11-12. It's just the A# going to A natural, but it changes the climate in bars that are otherwise mostly the same. Here it's sung by Joe for fulminating against imaginary reviews of his guitar solos. Touching is also the re-appearance of Mary, just the soft intonation of her voice makes an impression. Her little speech includes Zappa's favorite phrase "Music is the best". "Packard goose (1988)" got played live during the 1988 tour, as included in the ZFT CD "Zappa '88: the last U.S. show". Two examples are included in the Make a jazz noise here section from this study. In 1988 the Mary part got re-arranged totally anew.

Packard goose, section (midi file).

Packard goose, section (transcription).

It's also the non-imaginary Zappa himself, who once referred to rock journalists as people who know nothing about music, who write for people who know nothing about music. His irritation stems from the time "Absolutely free" was released. The album was for a rock album unprecedentedly complex and its details went unnoticed in reviews. There is more to this remark however. He also knew that it would get quoted by these same journalists, who can always comfort themselves with the thought that it's about their colleagues and not about themselves. Rock journalism is a strange business indeed. It's the only type of journalism I know of where it is considered normal to have no technical knowledge about the subject you're writing about whatsoever. Their articles are mostly about the lives of the artist, the music gets only vaguely described by naming styles and mentioning who's influenced by whom. It leads to bizarre individual reviews that don't contain any specific information about the music itself. Only when you're looking for a common denominator and average things out, something more sensible comes out. Another song in which the lyrics are responsible for the impact is an unreleased tribute Zappa wrote for his wife, called "Solitude". It was rehearsed in 1981 and premiered by the Band from Utopia. It's known by fans via a bootleg copy, indeed a touching piece, still waiting for an official release.

2.6 Watermelon in Easter hay

Zappa's two most famous vamps have probably become the two ones from "Joe's Garage", that are thus touching by their emotional impact. The "Outside now" vamp from above he himself was much fond of, because he used it so often. For the 1984 solo on "Guitar" (1987) he returned to the wailing "Watermelon in Easter hay" theme. Beneath are the theme in its 1984 phrasing and the closing bars of the 1979 version. They go as:

Watermelon in Easter hay, theme (1984, midi file).
Watermelon in Easter hay, coda (1979, midi file).

Watermelon in Easter hay, theme (1984, transcription).
Watermelon in Easter hay, coda (1979, notes).

Zappa playing Watermelon in Easter hay These last two midi files lack the richness and warmth that you can hear on the album. Not only because of sound quality (at least on my pc), but also because my midi editor can't do things as crescendo, decrescendo, glissando and vibrato. To the right: Zappa playing "Watermelon in Easter hay" in 1988 (Barcelona concert).
Both "Outside now" and "Watermelon in Easter hay" are unusual solos in their use of meters. Zappa normally plays over 4/4 in his solos, but these two have odd additional metres, namely 6/8 + 5/8 and 4/4 + 5/4. Apart from the phrasing, the 1984 version of the theme also deviates from the 1979 execution in its rhythm. The one from "Joe's Garage" places the A of the theme on the fourth beat of the vamp, whereas the "Guitar" version does this on the fifth beat. The vamp is a string of nine fourth notes, moving from C# downwards to E over an octave and then going up again to D#. The chords formed by the vamp in the two bars are IV 7th and I 9th of E. The E, being the lowest note of both the vamp and the bass, takes the weight of being the key note, more than the first A of the bass. This gets confirmed by the coda at the end. The core of the guitar motif, played over it at the beginning, is a D#-B-A-G# movement. The D# and B of bar 3 aren't part of the IV 7th chord of the vamp, thus extending the harmonic field to almost the whole scale. Likewise the A of the second bar isn't part of the I 9th chord. The guitar coda, that's eventually played over the vamp on "Joe's garage", is much more in line with vamp (which makes it functioning as a coda so clearly recognizable). It only has an extra V chord added between the two vamping chords. It goes as IV-V-I-V-IV etc., where the root bass note from the IV and I chords is sustained during the V chords. The closing bar contains I being sustained (the E chord).
An earlier version of this composition is coming by as "Watermelon in Easter hay (prequel)" in the "Hammersmith Odeon" section. Other instances to raise our tears are the classical broken heart song "How could I've been such a fool" from "Freak out" and the fragment from "You didn't try to call me", included in the "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets" section.

2.7 A little green rosetta

The original recording of "A little green rosetta" is present in the Läther section. At that point it got combined with an outtake from the later "Ship ahoy". With "Watermelon in Easter hay" the story of "Joe's garage" came to an end, but there was still space left on side 4 of the vinyl album, so Zappa decided to use the "Green rosetta" theme to start a studio jam. The people working at Village Recorders could participate in the chorus. It lasts 8:14, much longer than the original recording that only states the theme a couple of times before it gets abruptly cut off.


In 1979 Zappa produced L. Shankar's album "Touch me there" for his new Zappa Records label. Shankar had made some guest appearances during Zappa's 1978 US tour. See also the previous Halloween section and the YCDTOSA section for "Thirteen". The album consists of five instrumentals with Shankar soloing on electric violin and three songs for which Zappa wrote the lyrics. One of them, "Dead girls of London", is also known via YCDTOSA vol. V. The title track shows Zappa's flexibility. During the seventies he took an anti-love song attitude on his own albums, but this one is a sensitive song, sung by Jenny Lautrec. Apparently Zappa had no problems delivering the lyrics that go as "Touch me there, I like it. Touch me there, again. Touch me there, some more" with several repetitions. On paper rather simple, but in combination with Shankar's music it works.

No more Mr. nice girl

For "No more Mr. nice girl" Shankar and Zappa co-wrote the music, all other music on the album is by Shankar alone. The opening and outchorus are included in this section because it's such a merry feel good song. It opens with a syncopic disco type vamp in A Lydian, with the chord progression I 7th- II. It's followed by a melody in E, played consequently by various instruments. Then follows a violin solo, that ends with the repeated outchorus as presented below. The bass lick from the beginning returns, whereas staff 2 contains a repeated E2 chord. Over this the violins play a sequence of 5th chords, followed by the keyboards, doing a sequence of thirds.

No more Mr. nice girl, opening (midi file).
No more Mr. nice girl, outchorus (midi file).

No more Mr. nice girl, opening and outchorus (transcription).

More about collaborating with Shankar in the Documentaries section with "Strat vindaloo". In this song Zappa is creating Indian music. Shankar himself played only western music on "Touch me there".

Touch me there L. Shankar

Touch me there album cover and photo of L. Shankar.
Source: CD booklet, design by Carol Friedman.

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