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Aardvark’s Musical Musings – Frank Zappa Edition
I’d like to take you on a journey of my favorite bands, musicians and songs that helped to shape my musical milieu such as it is. If you are familiar with these artists, then it will be a good chance to revisit an old love. If you aren’t, then give them a try. You just might find a new addition to your musical mosaic.
Let’s start off near the end of the alphabet with my first subject, one Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993). Zappa was, to my mind, a musical genius, dabbling as he did in rock, jazz, electronic and orchestral themes infusing each with a scathing sense of humour and flair. In his day Zappa was insanely prolific, with well over 100 releases to his credit. While alive Frank recorded every live show; when not on the road he recorded ceaselessly in the studio environment. So much so that his widow and current keeper of the Zappa Family Trust, Gail, is still able to release original, fully realized compositions and live recordings 18 years after the great man’s death from prostate cancer.
Frank started his career with The Mother’s Of Invention, and weren’t they just all of that and more. Upon the Mother’s disolusion, Zappa continued on. His musically demanding style naturally attracted like minded virtuoso players. During his time, Frank Zappa discovered currently day defacto musical giants such as;
Guitarist Steve Vai (David Lee Roth, Public Image Limited, Whitesnake, Alice Cooper, G3) who Zappa referred to as his “little Italian virtuoso”. Vai was listed on Zappa recordings from that era as having played “stunt guitar” or “impossible guitar parts”.
Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Gino Vannelli, Joni Mitchell, Megadeath, The Beach Boys, Leonard Cohen, Jeff beck, Sting)
Guitarist Adrian Belew (David Bowie, Talking Heads, The Tom Tom Club, King Crimson) who described his time with Frank Zappa as a “crash course” in music theroy, due in no small part to Zappa’s rigorous rehearsals and often technically demanding music, and has commented “I went to the Frank Zappa School of Rock.”
Trombonist Bruce Fowler (Captain Beefheart, Eric Clapton, Stan Ridgway (Wall of Voodoo vocalist))
Vocalists / Comedians Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman aka the Phlorescent Leech and Howard Kaylan aka Eddie) (The Turtles, T-Rex, Steely Dan, David Cassidy, Keith Moon, Bruce Springsteen, The Psychedilic Furs, Ramones, Duran Duran, Alice Cooper)
Drummer Chester Thompson (Weather Report, Genesis, Phil Collins, Steve Hackett)
I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that Zappa always endeavored to surround himself with players who would challenge him musically.
One of the first songs I remember hearing was Dancin’ Fool from his Sheik Yerbouti release. My best friend at the time Bill played it for me. Here then is a version which Zappa performed on the show Saturday Night Live in October of 1978. I don’t think I can introduce this any better than Frank himself did.
Tonight we’d like to do a song about an important social problem, Disco; it deals with lonely people with no natural rhythm impinging on each other in the darkness, it’s called Dancin’ Fool
Of course, growing up a young Zappa neophyte it wasn’t to long until I heard of THE song; you know, the song that no one mentioned or talked about in polite society. That song was, of course, Dinah-Moe Humm. Check out the painfully young Adrain Belew on guitar and vocals.
I couldn’t say where she was coming from, but I just met a lady named Dinah-Moe Humm, She strolled on over and said Look here bum, I gotta forty dollar bill that says you can’t make me come, You just can’t do it…
The Illinois Enema Bandit
One thing that has always amazed me about Frank Zappa is his ability to create a great song on just about any topic imaginable. Take this next song for example. For ten long years convicted felon Michael Kenyon cut a swath from Illinois to California, robbing and, more than just occasionally administering an enema to his female victims. This man became known as the Champaign Enema Bandit (named thus after his first known attack in Champaign Illinois), the Ski Mask Bandit and, as F.Z. famously immortalized him in song, The Illinois Enema Bandit.
Is that a song title or what?
This particular clip is taken from one of Frank’s 1981 Halloween concerts held at The Palladium in NYC. With the inimitable Ray White on vocals.
Lookin’ for some rustic co-ed rump, that he just might wanna pump
The Torture Never Stops
Like a lot of my original musical awakening, my best friend in high school was a big Frank Zappa fan. I remember listening to my first Frank Zappa album from start to finish at his folks place. That album was Zappa in New York. The version of this next song, The Torture Never Stops on that LP blew me away. That and Titties and Beer
A sinister little midget with a bucket and a mop where the blood goes down the drain
A highlight of many Frank Zappa live shows were the ad lib routines that followed a very basic format but took on the flavour of the current concert’s city. Here is one such instance based loosely around a Frank Zappa call to Room Service.
Taken from the excellent DVD The Dub Room Special, enjoy this humorous clip which gives a little insight into what made Frank and The Mothers of Invention such a great concert draw.
Dumb All Over
Heavenly Bank Account
At the end of the day though, Frank was at his best when he was waging a full frontal assault on everyday sacred cows. If I might make a suggestion then please watch these next three videos one after the other, the way they were played live in concert on this particular tour. The first video, Dumb All Over calls into question the practice of oh so many people to blindly follow one particular religious dogma or another.
The second, a personal favorite of mine, Heavenly Bank Account skewers television evangelism right where it hurts. Last, but certainly not least, Suicide Chump ridicules, well, suicides.
Remember, there’s a big difference between kneeling down and bending over…
Frank Zappa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame Induction by Lou Reed
While I believe The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is, in many ways apocryphal, I’m sure that having contemporaries of yours speak sincerely and lovingly of your contribution to the vast cannon that is rock ‘n’ roll music must surely be gratifying. In that spirit, I feel pretty comfortable in the belief that Frank just loved this homage to his memory by non other than Lou Reed.
Just a pity that Frank’s daughter Moon Zappa’s acceptance speech was so forgettable…
Frank Zappa testifies before congress
Check out Frank’s testimony before congress on the topic of censorship and it’s place (or non-place as the case may be) in popular culture. At a time when the PMRC (that would be Parents Music Resource Center) was a growing threat in music, Frank was one of the few that stood up and spoke out against censorship of any kind. It is down to his tireless efforts, at least in part, that we still are able to enjoy a fundamentally free view of the popular music landscape. Frank comes off intelligent, articulate and possessing a firm grasp on the issue at hand.
For that, if for no other reason, I will always love Frank Zappa.
We’re Turning Again
I leave you now with one final video, and the text of a warning sticker which appeared on each and every Frank Zappa release since the threat of the PMRC became real:
WARNING/GUARANTEE: This album contains material which a truly free society would neither fear nor suppress.
In some socially retarded areas, religious fanatics and ultra-conservative political organizations violate your First Amendment Rights by attempting to censor rock & roll albums. We feel that this is un-Constitutional and un-American.
As an alternative to these government-supported programs (designed to keep you docile and ignorant). Barking Pumpkin is pleased to provide stimulating digital audio entertainment for those of you who have outgrown the ordinary.
The language and concepts contained herein are GUARANTEED NOT TO CAUSE ETERNAL TORMENT IN THE PLACE WHERE THE GUY WITH THE HORNS AND POINTED STICK CONDUCTS HIS BUSINESS.
This guarantee is as real as the threats of the video fundamentalists who use attacks on rock music in their attempt to transform America into a nation of check-mailing nincompoops (in the name of Jesus Christ). If there is a hell, its fires wait for them, not us.