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

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After all this analytical stuff, some more comprehensible entertainment.


Some more interesting material for the majority of people who don't care for Zappa's music and even less for musical analysis: why Frank Zappa sucks.

- "My problem is, I find the majority of Zappa's albums impossible to listen to. I won't go to the [Holland festival 200 Motels] concert". Rock critic Menno Pot in De Volkskrant, June 8th, 2000.

A normal reaction to Zappa's music. Most of his music only starts to work when you're interested in music that goes beyond standard patterns and when you're willing to listen repeatedly to albums that don't appeal at once. Most people aren't interested and everybody is entitled not to be interested. Here's some suggestions for Zappa CDs and songs that are better possible for the regular listener (they can be opened as midi file excerpts):

= Freak Out: Anyway the wind blows
= We're only in it for the money: Take your clothes off while you dance
= Cruisin' with Rubin and the Jets: Cheap thrills, Jelly roll gum drop
= Hot rats: Peaches en regalia
= Apostrophe ('): Don't eat that yellow snow
= Sheik Yerbouti: Dancin' fool, Bobby Brown, Wild love
= Joe's garage, act I: Joe's garage, Lucille has messed my mind up
= You are what you is: Doreen, The meek shall inherit nothing

- "I don't like Zappa. All this male chauvinist stuff, it's repulsive". Mathilde Santink, Dutch singer, in Rails, quoted from memory.

Right again. Zappa's lyrics are about phenomena from society, depicted in a cynical and provocative way. It's more the latter that can get offensive, than the actual content of his lyrics. The "Dinah-Moe humm" story is pretty harmless compared to the script for Roman Polanski's "Bitter moon" or Lou Reed's "Waltzing Mathilda". What's going on in songs as "Wet T-shirt night" is overt sexism. In general Zappa's songs are descriptive, rather than personal opinions, nor do they have to move in the same direction. The following is a quotation from "Drop dead" from "Thingfish": "We (women) are the future, Harry! Not you! We don't need you and your kind, because our kind is the best kind. Man-kind is shit, Harry! Our kind will get rid of your kind, just like wiping off this fountain pen ... (etc.)".

- "Frank Zappa is the most untalented musician I've ever heard... He can't play rock 'n roll because he's a loser...". Lou Reed according to Neil Slaven, Zappa, Project/Object chapter. "He isn't really interested in music...he's using music for ammunition". John Cale in Oor, January 1994.

During the sixties Zappa's Mothers of Invention and The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed and John Cale were competitors for the promotion budget of MGM, for which both groups were contracted. Some serious animosity evolved. On the tapes for Zappa's "We're only in it for the money" The Velvet Underground got mentioned via a musician complaining that he has to play Zappa's creations and to make matters worse, he has to play with the Velvet Undergroud the next day, "just as shitty a group". The sentence was cut off halfway on the original album, but included in total on the 1985 CD re-release, the one with the newly recorded bass and drum parts. The nowadays Rycodisc version has the original tapes restored. Their dislike of Zappa is understandable, but they could have done better in finding arguments, because Zappa can play rock 'n roll, as in Brown shoes don't make it or Disco boy. And using music for ammunition, well Zappa surpassed them with the "Weasels ripped my flesh" title track, but isn't that what the Velvet Underground liked to do in songs as "Sister Ray"?
So if I may make a suggestion: "Frank Zappa is the most irritating musician I've ever heard. His music is nerve-racking and his lyrics are insulting".

- "Because Zappa composed as a playing musician, the structure of his work is weak. He couldn't plan something over longer periods as classical composers do, because he played everything directly into the synclavier. He worked in fragments and layers put over each other... etc." (Roeland Hazendonk reviewing the 200 Motels suite, Telegraaf 13-06-2000).

Since a lot of Zappa's compositions sound as loose ends at first hearing, it can be tempting to write down something like this. Especially 200 Motels, a movie soundtrack, with it's many divers short individually composed pieces, can make a chaotic impression. It's possible however to show the structures in Zappa's music, as Wolfgang Ludwig has done in detail for "Big Swifty" from "Waka/Jawaka". I did something on "Uncle Meat" and "Mo 'n Herb's vacation", a 25 minute atonal piece, that also many Zappa fans consider uncoherent. It's more a matter of frequent listening or maybe you'll just have to be sensitive to his various ways of structuring. 200 Motels was composed on paper in the sixties by the way (see the Songbook for handwritten examples), about 15 years before Zappa had the digital aid of the synclavier. For matter of completeness I'll also have to mention that this review was moderately positive.


Something for the lyric interpreters: Wind up working in a gas station.

This little section I wrote 20 years ago because I got annoyed by the blindfoldedly copying of things on internet. It has become a bit outdated, because in printed publications since, the gas chambers interpretation from below doesn't return. This interpretation stems from Ben Watson. Personally I think it's an overinterpretation, but if someone finds it's all right then I don't mind. When you do take it over, I think it should be notated as a quote from Ben, rather than a fact. I find it heard to believe that if Ben hadn't included this interpretation in his books, someone else would have come to the exact same conclusion by himself. The following continues with the text as it was:
Let's look at the lyrics of "Wind up working in a gas station". The gas station is a place Zappa considered the location of utter boredom, only fit for persons with no education whatsoever. When asked once why his musicians would invest so much time into playing his music, he replied "What else would you expect them to do, work in a gas station?". This idea gets poetrically depicted in the opening song of "Zoot allures". It goes as:

This here song might offend you some
And if you think it does it's because you're dumb
That's the way it is where I come from
And if you think that too, let me see your thumb
Show me your thumb that you're really dumb
Hey now, better make a decision
Be a moron and keep your position
You gotta know now all your education
Or else let me know how you're gonna
Wind up working in a gas station
Pumping the gas every night
Zoot Allures album:
Many the camper wants to buy some bite (fish)
1976 tour:
Many the camper wants to buy some white

The first and last sentence are grammatically twisted to fit in into the rhythm of the song. The whole song is full of rhyming words (some, dumb, from, thumb etc.). I think it's pretty obvious that rhyme is the main reason for the choice of words. Especially the last sentence is a poetrical variant upon the previous one, it's probably the first thing you notice listening to the song.
In content, I personally think, this last sentence doesn't mean much. It's the ongoing process of camper users looking for something to buy in the station store and the words bite and white (white, colourless, gas for stoves) are merely chosen because they rhyme to night.
Ben's interpretation has a lot more in it:
- White can be associated with racism
- The sentence is pronounced with a German accent
- The German automobile producer Volkswagen is known for its campers
- The gas and the whole song therefore must be a reference to the nazi gas chambers
Some people started copying this is as if it is plain truth, instead of an interpretation, and copyright doesn't exist. You might also try to check things out:
- Is Zappa saying "white" on Zoot allures?
- How do Germans pronounce their word "weit"?
- Did Volkswagen produce campers or vans?
- Why would someone who wrote things as "ram it up your poop shoot" need such a cryptical way to refer to nazis?
- Why refer to nazis anyway in this context?

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