Understanding and Rediscovering Zappa Through My Life
Since, I’d say around high school, I’ve been a fan of Frank Zappa and his seemingly wacky music. I remember my dad, Jimmie (PapaJ), would burn me CDs with songs we found in the depths of whatever MP3 sharing platform we were using at the time (don’t judge us, it was a new shiny thing. Go buy music!). One of these burned gems contained two songs. The first was an edited version on Frank Zappa’s Don’t Eat Yellow Snow mixed with pieces of St Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast and another song called Mud Shark.
As a kid that grew up a huge fan of Weird Al, these two songs really struck a chord with me. They contained humorous stories through their lyrics and were accompanied by music that wasn’t afraid to throw in bizarre sound effects. While I really enjoyed it, my teenage brain didn’t take it super seriously and just listed at a surface level.
Fast forward a few years and I’m in college exploring new music. While finding myself going down the prog-rock/metal rabbit hole, I decided to revisit Zappa’s music as it was always a part of the conversation when folks were talking about progressive music. That’s when everything started to click.
The music was the heart and soul of any Zappa tune. The lyrics were a tool to bring a listener into the music itself. Frank himself has said that he would much rather make instrumental music but since the ear of a modern music listener prefers lyrics he added them in. Mind blown!
This new exploration of Zappa and his music came at the same time as I started collecting vinyl so I immediately picked up Apostrophe(*) and Over-Nite Sensation, which contained some tunes I was already familiar with. As I dove deeper into the music I paid more attention to what the music was doing. As my appreciation for Zappa and his band began to grow I kept exploring more of his expansive catalog and found more music to latch onto.
Finally, we get to today. I’m a 34 year old parent with a career who just lived through a global pandemic and music is even more important for me than ever. As I’m listening to and obsessing over an artist I fell in love with over the course of the pandemic, Thundercat, I’m finding him often citing Frank Zappa as an influence. So, in my mind, why not explore his music again and see what I can find going deeper down the rabbit hole.
But this time, the rabbit hole is slightly different. This time, the rabbit hole is a bit more about the man himself. In comes the films about Zappa as a person in addition to his music.
Zappa is a documentary by Alex Winter (insert Wild Stallions air guitar lick) that goes through the entire life of Frank Zappa’s life. This film utilizes interviews from the people that participated in Frank’s life as well as archival footage and interviews.
While there is no way to go into extreme detail of such a complex person in roughly two hours, this documentary does a good job of giving you enough information while remaining entertaining. It’s a great enhancement if you already have a slight knowledge of Frank.
One of my personal favorite aspects of this documentary is its honesty. It doesn’t really sugarcoat anything. While it speaks on the genius of Frank as a modern composer, it also goes into the not so great details of his life. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that he could be a bit cold to the musicians he employed, the fact that he was very much unfaithful to his wife while on the road, and how he was so consumed in his music while at home that he wasn’t really present as a parent for his children. That honesty helps you better understand who Frank was as a person and seeing some of those parallels in the music he made, for better or worse.
If you are looking for more info on Frank, this is definitely the direction I would recommend going in. Check out Zappa here!
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
This 2016 “documentary” directed by Thorsten Schütte, we get a better look at Zappa strictly through the use of archival footage and interviews. While this film does not necessarily take a typical narrative approach, it is still incredibly entertaining because you are getting to hear directly from Zappa.
While still being honest about Frank’s life, this film doesn’t go into as much detail about his life as the Zappa film previously mentioned does. It almost acts as a timeline that gives you a glimpse into the life of the artist without holding your hand, which is kind of nice.
In my personal opinion, I think these two films work well together almost as companion pieces. Where one may fall short, the other picks up those shortcomings. While I maybe wouldn’t recommend this to the casual Zappa fan, diehards will absolutely love this film. Or, if you found yourself super interested in Frank after watching the first film, give this one a watch. Check out Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words here!
Classic Albums: Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe(*)
If you’ve made it this far into the article, you will know that I started my more serious journey into Zappa’s music through the albums Apostrophe(*) and Over-Nite Sensation, which are typically regarded as his “most popular” releases. A lot of that exploration can be credited to watching this documentary when I was in college.
For a long time, as I was diving deeper into music I had been aware of my entire life but knew very little about, I started watching a ton of the Classic Albums series. So, as soon as I saw one dedicated to Zappa, I decided to check it out to learn more about Frank.
Through this documentary, including interviews with folks involved in this era of Zappa’s band, I started to understand that there was more to the music than silly lyrical themes and plunky sounds. Specifically, the sections where Ruth Underwood talks about some of the more complex percussive arrangements Frank would produce was the moment I understood that there was more to the music than I truly understood. There are also several other members of that band including George Duke and Napoleon Murphy Brock.
Definitely check it out if you want some more details on how these two albums were made and the legacy they created.Check out Classic Albums: Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe(*) here!
This one is a little bit outside of the box compared to the previous three films. Baby Snakes is a film created by Frank Zappa that combines footage from the famous Halloween 1977 show with backstage footage, various clay animation sequences, and some “documentary” style footage about the making of these animations.
The concert itself is excellent and a great view on how Zappa took the music seriously but was also willing to be more playful with it. As someone who is mostly used to concerts after the year 2000, it’s crazy to me to see how much interaction he had with fans during his shows. That’s just not something that would happen now. I was also surprised to see how much fun he was having with his band. Seeing how he played with Terry Bozio and Adrien Belew was really fun to see and made me fall in love with this era of the band even more.
While not necessarily a documentary like the previously mentioned films, I still highly recommend giving this a watch. Seeing the band play songs like Titties and Beer, Broken Hearts are for Assholes, Punky’s Whip, Bobby Brown Goes Down, Dinah-Moe Humm, and Camarillo Brillo in this semi-loose and playful context is really fun. Also, if you would just rather listen to these songs the album Halloween 77 are the audio from this show so you can enjoy on the go.Check out Baby Snakes here!
Other Frank Zappa Watching/Reading
These are just a few options for diving deeper down the Frank Zappa rabbit hole, especially since Zappa was known to record just about everything. If you’ve watched our previous recommendations and find yourself wanting more you can also check out 200 Motels, Classic Albums: Freak Out, Roxy the Movie, and many more across various streaming platforms.
There is also a book that Frank wrote and released before his death that goes a bit into his life and his philosophy on music called The Real Frank Zappa Book. If you are more into audiobooks, the book is also featured as an Audible exclusive read by his son Ahmet.