The story of Frank Zappa is, much like the man’s discography, a sprawling, convoluted assemblage of incongruities often too daunting or perplexing to be even approached by all but the most curious of enthusiasts. This presents an issue in the categorization of his work and legacy within the general scope of music, as the density and complexity of his output renders its thorough and objective analysis among the broader public an effective impossibility. Though this may be the case, one would be remiss to disregard Frank Zappa’s influence and ability, necessitating his inclusion within the general recapitulation of popular music. To rectify this conundrum, Frank Zappa’s storied career is often relegated to bullet points.
This popular distillation tends to hone in on his early blues and doo-wop influences, his rock guitar playing, and the mid-1970s run of his most successful albums. While these remain indispensable assets of Frank Zappa’s legacy, much is lost in the way of context upon discounting the other 80% of what it was he did. One such victim of circumstance is the final decade Frank Zappa would experience in its entirety, this of course being the 1980s. Frank Zappa was always indignant and he built a brand around being the smartest person in whichever room he happened to find himself. However, by the arrival of the 1980s the man appeared downright bitter. The witty and playful humor which had defined his lyrical approach had shifted ever so slightly, just enough to reveal an undercurrent of contempt and an ugliness that had not previously existed at the root of the jokes, at least not transparently.
Frank Zappa had utilized other musicians in the presentation of his work since the beginning of his career and would continue to do so into the 80s. But while the previous iterations of his Mothers of Invention, or Mothers as they were originally dubbed and would often be referred, had always felt like groups of collaborators – Frank Zappa’s uncontested orientation as leader notwithstanding – the top-notch groups of musicians flanking the iconoclast during his 80s shows felt more like backing groups than had any during previous decades. Frank Zappa began to delve heavily into politics, frequently appearing on television to discuss constitutional policy and debate high-profile media personalities, and at the halfway point of the decade he committed the ultimate rock and roll atrocity when he cut his hair.
He did manage to conjure up some goodwill among the youth once more in 1985 when he took a staunch stance against the Parents Music Resource Center’s (PMRC) efforts to bring into effect laws which would require albums featuring music considered profane to feature such a warning on the outer cover, efforts which ultimately were successful, but not for lack of effort on Frank Zappa’s part., as the senate hearings saw him – along with Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider – deliver eloquent statements from the stand in opposition to the proposed laws.
Frank Zappa would debate this issue specifically on many televised news platforms against figures such as John Lofton and Tipper Gore, wife of future democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. All these factors effectively paved the way for the development of the least Frank Zappa-sounding album that Frank Zappa would ever release, and the last that he would develop and record exclusively in the studio: 1986’s Jazz from Hell.
Completely instrumental and produced almost entirely on the primitive digital synthesizer known as the synclavier, Jazz from Hell is the product of over a decade’s worth of discontent. Frank Zappa was not known for his modesty, and he made it very clear from the inception of his career that the primary objective was to get a serviceable recording of his own ideas. That was his mission statement, and everything that fell outside of that boundary, including the trivialities and pleasantries necessary to execute the ideas in question, was considered to be little but a distraction. It was an ongoing source of frustration for Frank Zappa that his artistic expression, as well as his livelihood, were contingent upon the whims of others. Others, Frank Zappa realized early on, were capricious, unreliable, and worst of all unpredictable.
Generally regarded by those who knew him as a slave to his own ambition, Frank Zappa was unyielding in his pursuit of replicating the sounds he had in his head, and expected his collaborators not only to maintain virtuosic levels of proficiency on their respective instruments, he expected them to be just as resolute as himself in the fulfillment of his creative aspirations. The work itself was what mattered to Frank Zappa , and anyone who didn’t share his enthusiasm for the production of the material was swiftly shown the door. Those who knew him say he was constantly working. If he was not recording or performing live he is said to have been writing lyrics or sheet music. Due to the frantic pace of his productivity and the invariable complexity of the material, working with Zappa was intensely demanding, to put it lightly.
The dynamic between Frank Zappa and members of the Mothers of Invention was very much akin to that of an employer/employee relationship, with Frank Zappa having final (and often complete) discretion over musical direction and with band members expected to comply with the iconoclast’s strict no drugs or alcohol at work policy. Despite the very clear gap in the power dynamic, Frank Zappa became close to many members of The Mothers, particularly those most crucial in the realization of his musical vision.
One such member was Yale and UC Berkeley graduate and composer/saxophonist/keyboardist/guitarist Ian Underwood – would-be husband of future Mothers of Invention percussionist Ruth Underwood – who joined the original Mothers lineup for their 1967 classic We’re Only in It for the Money.
Underwood worked closely with Zappa for many years and was essential in the execution of such major Mothers projects as the aforementioned We’re Only In It For the Money, Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. In fact, when Frank Zappa disbanded the original Mothers of Invention in 1969 due to frustrations with the musicians’ technical ineptitude, Underwood was the only member of the group who’s services would be retained. The beloved original Mothers lineup was replaced with the controversial second lineup which later would often be referred to as the Flo & Eddie lineup for it’s two singers, Mark and Howard of The Turtles, who during their time with Frank Zappa would adopt the Flo & Eddie moniker which they would retain for the rest of their careers.
This iteration of the band was antithetical to the highly stylized original lineup, featuring a stronger emphasis on a stadium rock sound as well as melodic vocals, blues forms, and perhaps most importantly, musical aptitude. This iteration of the band would be the closest the Mothers of Invention would ever come to anything resembling a musical democracy, and would establish key relationships which would significantly contribute to Frank Zappa’s late-career apprehensiveness and overall distrust in collaborators and in people in general, not that he was highly trusting to begin with.
One of the new members was fan-favorite jazz pianist George Duke who was formally trained at San Francisco Conservatory of Music and also attained a master’s degree in composition from San Francisco State University. Duke added a high level of musical interest to the group, and also was responsible for Frank Zappa’s association with classically trained french violinist Jean-Luc Ponty with whom Duke recorded his second album and who had a brief run with the Mothers himself. Jean-Luc Ponty’s time with the group was short, with varying reports as to what caused a riff between the violinist and the guitarist, although the primary consensus appears to be that Ponty was uncomfortable with simply being a backing musician in another musician’s act. Duke himself would leave the group after only two years to join his hero Cannonball Adderley – who famously played on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – but would ultimately return to Zappa after a subsequent two years.
Bassist Jeff Simmons was another key player during this time, forming a close personal and professional relationship with Frank Zappa. Simmons was originally a member of Easy Chair, a band Frank Zappa signed to his newly formed Straight record label in 1968, but the group disbanded before a record was made. Frank Zappa would continue to work with Simmons despite the dissolution of Simmons’ group, producing, writing for, and contributing guitar to his debut solo album, 1969’s Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up, named for the Frank Zappa-penned title track which would later show up on Zappa’s own Joe’s Garage album ten years later.
Simmons was recruited for the new version of the Mothers and would tour heavily with the band and contribute bass and vocals to the sole studio project from this group, 1970’s Chunga’s Revenge. Creative frustrations would lead to Simmons’ departure from the group in 1971, as the incongruity of his more blues and rock oriented disposition with Frank Zappa’s own proclivity for the bizarre and humorous elements of composition became increasingly discernible an unmanageable over the course of the two’s working relationship. Simmons’ departure was reportedly a heavy personal blow for Frank Zappa, and left him in the precarious position of being left without a bass player and key actor for his 200 Motels film project which was set to begin filming days later.
Drummer Aynsley Dunbar who also served as a crucial member of the band during this period may have been the last musician aside from George Duke with whom Zappa had hoped to work indefinitely. One of the premier blues drummers in England, Dunbar was convinced by Frank Zappa to relocate to the states to join his group. Dunbar recorded and performed with the Flo & Eddie lineup of the Mothers until the lineup dispersed following a 1971 performance at London’s Rainbow Theatre after which Frank Zappa was pushed from the stage by a deranged concertgoer. The singer fell from the stage to the bottom of the orchestra pit, breaking multiple bones and sustaining various injuries in the process. Howard Kaylan (Eddie of Flo & Eddie) recounts the event in his 2013 memoir Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo & Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, explaining that members group immediately considered their frontman dead based solely on his appearance in the pit and the distance of the drop.
While Zappa would survive the incident, it would leave him nursing his wounds for over a year, consequently rendering him unable to tour. Out of work, the members of the band unceremoniously dispersed, with many of them including Dunbar, original Mothers keyboardist Don Preston – who had returned shortly before the incident – and Simmons’ replacement, former Turtles bassist Jim Pons, opting to join Flo & Eddie who had recently signed their own deal with Reprise Records and set to work recording their self-titled debut album. Frank Zappa saw this as a personal betrayal, and was once again without a band.
While Ian Underwood did not join Flo & Eddie, his working relationship with Frank Zappa was winding down, resulting in his departure from the Mothers of Invention in 1973. Despite joining Flo & Eddie for their musical venture, Aynsley Dunbar would continue to work copiously with Frank Zappa assuming drum duties for the latter’s highly complex jazz-fusion records Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, as well as tracks on 1974’s Apostrophe (‘). Despite Frank Zappa’s personal affinity for Dunbar and the musical chemistry between the two, Dunbar would eventually leave to pursue other projects, becoming the drummer for the original – more fusion oriented – lineup of Journey, and later playing with a host of acts including David Bowie, Jefferson Starship, Whitesnake, Sammy Hagar, and Lou Reed. While Frank Zappa wished to continue the collaboration, Dunbar felt restrained within the constraints of the written scores he was being asked to follow and needed more creative freedom. Communicating this to Zappa, Dunbar offered to continue working with him while also pursuing other projects. This arrangement was not satisfactory for Frank Zappa who offered an ultimatum that Dunbar work with him exclusively or not at all, to which Dunbar chose the latter.
George Duke would continue to work with Zappa until the release of 1975’s Bongo Fury, a live collaborative album with Captain Beefheart and the final release of original music under the Mothers handle, as all future releases would simply be billed as Frank Zappa albums. This is generally considered the point where Zappa became truly insular in his personal and professional lives. Never a vulnerable man by nature, the few times he acquiesced to personal relationships with professional associates he had been left hurt and, perhaps more importantly in his mind, in a professional bind. Zappa’s emotional and professionally compromising falling-out with longtime manager and trusted confidant Herb Cohen could be seen as the quietus of Frank Zappa’s capacity to believe in anyone but himself. Future projects would feature rotations of highly accomplished virtuoso musicians including Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta, Adrian Belew, and Steve Vai. While Frank Zappa was cordial and did work directly with his backing musicians after the mid 1970s, the camaraderie of earlier projects – even in its limited capacity – had all but dissipated entirely by this point.
In the late 1970s Frank Zappa would begin to experiment heavily with tape editing, compiling complete, original tracks using recorded tracks from various sessions, times, and locations to create an entirely new piece of music through a process known as xenochrony with which he would begin to dabble during the production of 1967’s We’re Only in It for the Money. This process endowed with a wider breadth of control not only in the recording of his more rock and blues oriented material, but also in his more traditional orchestral material which had gone widely unheard for many years. Coinciding with his other mid-to-late 70s troubles, Frank Zappa engaged in many failed arrangements to have his written scores recreated by traditional orchestras, squandering excessive amounts of time and many hundred thousands of dollars in failed negotiations.
These efforts would finally culminate in a 1983 performance by the London Symphony Orchestra which was recorded and released as two separate albums, 1983’s London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I and 1987’s London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. II, respectively. The recordings would be one of the earliest known uses of a digital 24-track recorder in an orchestral setting. These releases did little to mitigate Frank Zappa’s frustrations, as due to lack of sufficient rehearsal time the performances were not up to his standards, and necessitated heavy editing and remixing of the material which Frank Zappa said had been performed at roughly 75% accuracy.
Zappa’s embrace of digital technology in the 1980s was off-putting to some, but Frank Zappa saw it as a respite from the unpredictability and inconsistency of human beings, as well as a means of forgoing the litany of expenses which were involved in reproducing orchestral pieces during that time. The synclavier endowed Frank Zappa with complete control over his compositions and their musical execution, with the device giving him the means to edit sounds and rhythms down to the millisecond. This was the ultimate freedom for a man who ultimately had sought musical independence from the onset of his career, and the entirety of 1986’s Jazz from Hell would be performed and recorded by way of the device with the exception “St. Etienne,” which was pulled from a live performance which features an extended Frank Zappa guitar solo as well as guitar contributions from Steve Vai who is amusingly relegated to playing rhythm.
One number featured on the record, “G-Spot Tornado,” had been presumed by Frank Zappa to be irreplicable by human musicians, although this would be proven false upon its performance by Ensemble Modern for 1993’s The Yellow Shark. Despite the bewilderment elicited among fans upon the album’s release, Jazz from Hell would garner Frank Zappa his first and only Grammy in 1988 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. There was also a fair amount of controversy surrounding the album due to reports that it was being sold with an RIAA Parental Advisory label in certain locations, despite being entirely instrumental, although there remains no credible confirmation of these reports.
The confusion brought about by Frank Zappa’s decision to create an album like Jazz from Hell remains palpable even today, and the project is a highly divisive entry within the composer’s catalogue. While Jazz from Hell stands out significantly among Zappa’s output – many fans have dismissed the album for this very reason – this is not necessarily indicative of a lack of conviction from its creator. On the contrary, Jazz from Hell was almost certainly the truest interpretation of the work to which Frank Zappa had held dear over the course of his storied career. This was Frank Zappa finally achieving an accurate recreation of the sounds in his head, even if the sounds that emerged weren’t entirely dissimilar to those found within a primitive video game or computer system. Despite holding the distinction of being the Frank Zappa album that sounds the least like Frank Zappa, Jazz from Hell is likely more reflective of Frank Zappa as an artist than any other album he would release during his lifetime.