When I first heard Frank Zappa, it was like most people of my generation. “Like… Oh, my God!” His daughter Moon Unit (because only Zappa would name his kids Moon Unit and Dweezil.) And my reaction – along with that of my high school classmates – was “WTF?” That’s usually the reaction to Zappa by even die-hard fans of his.
Zappa, in some ways, was like Tom Waits. Never massively popular, but with a sizable fan base to make him just successful enough to do whatever he wanted. What he wanted was pretty bizarre. “Valley Girl,” one of his rare Top 40 hits, was one of the more conventional tunes he wrote.
Yes, that is probably the only time you’ll ever see Frank Zappa on something as mainstream as Solid Gold. Mainstream was something Zappa did not do. At all. Not long after daughter Moon introduced the world to Val Speak, he changed up once again with an instrumental album called Jazz From Hell, an album so bizarre, it listed Joe Satriani partner in crime Steve Vai as rhythm guitarist. Yeah, Steve played rhythm like Fripp and Belew took turns playing rhythm in King Crimson.
But Frank’s best talent was as a story teller. With the Mothers of Invention, Zappa’s best known band, he did a bizarre twenty minute comedy bit called “Billy the Mountain,” about a mountain that decided to dodge the draft. More pointed and cynical was the seminal concept album Joe’s Garage, a semi-autobiographical rock opera about a man who finds himself pitted against the Church, a cult, and an oppressive government. If you really want short, with the infamous Zappa tongue firmly planted in cheek, great googly moogly, check out “Montana” or “Yellow Snow.”
Zappa questioned the norm. He named his kids to be anything but conventional: Diva, Dweezil, Moon Unit, and Ahmet. That’s right, the only one with an actual first name got his from Turkey. He attacked the sexual norms of society, religion, big government, and the music industry. Nothing was sacred. Even race relations got a shellacking from Frank, all over a video where he also expressed his opinion of Ronald Reagan, a video that later provided one of the classic Beavis & Butthead moments.
What else can I say about Frank Zappa that the videos haven’t already?