Frank Zappa

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This song here might offend you some

If it does it's because you're dumb
Frank Zappa"Wind Up Workin' in a Gas Station"

Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was a famous Crazy Awesome, unbelievably prolific composer/musician, singer, virtuoso guitarist, Record Producer, film director and anti-censorship activist. His massive 75-album output, both solo and with his band The Mothers of Invention, is largely known for spanning almost every genre known to man from straightforward rock 'n roll to free-jazz, musique concrète and classical music, alternating between heavy experimentalism and accesible catchiness and being chock-full of satirical, absurd, gut-bustingly hilarious lyrics. While he had occasional brushes with mainstream fame in The Seventies and The Eighties, the bulk of his career was spent as a legendary cult figure, boasting a small but devoted fandom and critical acclaim. His eclecticism, absurdism, instrumental talent and anti-establishment stance has been heavily influential, with numerous acts citing his influence such as Primus, Phish, John Frusciante, Black Sabbath, Dream Theater, System of a Down, George Clinton, Mike E. Clark and Weird Al Yankovic. Several other famous musicians have worked with him at various points, such as Adrian Belew, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, Mike Keneally, Steve Vai (who began his career as guitarist in his backing band), Jean Luc-Ponty, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and friend (occasional rival) and collaborator Don Van Vliet.

Zappa's life-long anti-establishment stance manifested itself through harsh criticism of public education and organised religion, and most famously through his anti-censorship activism. The latter earned him lasting fame when he showed up at a Senate hearing in 1985 and completely tore the PMRC a new asshole with his statement, memorably comparing their proposed "Parental Advisory" sticker to "treating dandruff by decapitation". As a result, the PMRC slapped his entirely instrumental Jazz from Hell album with the "Explicit Lyrics" warning (the only instrumental album to have such a sticker), citing the title of the song "G-Spot Tornado".

He once appeared in a Ren and Stimpy episode, voicing the Pope (which was edited due to censor complaints). He also appeared in an episode of Miami Vice, playing the role of a coke lord. Zappa also hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live during its fourth season (1978-1979), which didn't go over so well with the cast at the time, who saw Zappa's mugging and calling attention to the cue cards during sketches extremely irritating (the only cast member who liked Frank Zappa and was glad that he hosted was John Belushi). Zappa died of cancer in 1993. Some of his songs were used during the first two seasons of Duckman as a tribute and his son, Dweezil, was cast as the voice of Duckman's moronic, Valley Boy son, Ajax. Two years later a group of Zappa fans in Lithuania paid to have a bronze bust of Zappa erected in downtown Vilnius, although Zappa wasn't Lithuanian and had never visited the country. It went on to become Vilnius' second-most-popular tourist attraction. In 2008 a replica was erected in Baltimore. By the time you read this, most of the Earth's surface will be covered with busts of Frank Zappa.

Oh, and he gave his four kids really weird but cool names like Moon Unit Zappa, Dweezil Zappa, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan Zappa and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen Zappa.


Frank Zappa provides examples of the following tropes:
  • Affectionate Parody: The album Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, made along with the Mothers of Invention, is an affectionate parody of fifties doo-wop music. Borders on Indecisive Parody, as the sound was so authentic that many radio stations believed it to be made by another band entirely.
  • All There in the Manual: A lot of times, the liner notes spell things out and explain some of the in-jokes, word salads, and satirical intentions, not to mention to the weird lyrics (Zappa felt that having the liner notes and album jacket to look at and touch was part of what fans treasured about the music buying experience). Beyond that though, there's still his autobiography which explains a lot, not to mention the snippets of vital info you get from reading the oceans of Zappa info available on the net. Many Zappa confederates and well-wishers have stepped out from behind the curtains over the years to explain motivations or in-jokes or origins of songs. Also, Zappa's vast non-American audience is frequently confused by Zappa's satirically America-centric references, his younger audience is frequently confused by his unspeakable filthiness, and his modern audience is confused by his (often deliberately) dated references. These people gather all over the internet to enlighten each other in public. There's a lot out there to take in.
  • Anti-Love Song: Most famously on Freak Out!, but throughout his discography.
  • Arc Words: On Joe's Garage the phrase "The White Zone is for loading and unloading only. If you gotta load or unload, go to the White Zone. You'll love it. It's a way of life." comes up in at least three songs.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking / Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: This is sort of a YMMV example, but from versions of "Honey, Don't You Want a Man Like Me?" performed in the '80s (examples can be found on, at the very least volumes 3 and 6 of the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series): "He called her a pig, a slut, and a whore, a bitch and a Republican." The last of those epithets is likely to be interpreted as either the least or the most offensive. Knowing Zappa, he probably intended it as the most offensive, but it should also be pointed out that we're not supposed to like the character who thinks "Republican" is a good insult.[1]
  • Attractive Bent Gender: Occurs with Terry Bozzio in "Punky's Whips", in reference to androgynous male singer and guitarist Punky Meadows, a member of the glam rock band Angel.
  • Badass Moustache
  • Badass Normal: Believe it or not, a human being wrote all that.
  • Biting the Hand Humour: We're Only in It for the Money splits its time between satirizing the mistreatment of actual outcasts ("Concentration Moon", "Mom & Dad") and mocking hippies ("Who Needs the Peace Corps?", "Absolutely Free", "Flower Punk").
  • Black Sheep Hit: The rather catchy (with the obligatory share of Lyrical Dissonance) "Bobby Brown Goes Down". In a documentary, Frank admitted to being amused that it kept climbing to #1 in Norway every once in a while. Also fitting the bill are his two biggest hits in the US, "Dancin' Fool" and his only Top 40 hit, "Valley Girl".
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall:

"Then go home and check yourself. You think we're singing 'bout someone else?" ("Plastic People")
"The child will grow and enter a world of liars and cheaters and people like you/who smile and think they know what this is about/you think you know everything/maybe so/the song we sing/are you listening?" ("The Idiot Bastard Son")

  • Broken Pedestal:
    • Scottish rocker Alex Harvey loved Frank Zappa and finally got to open for him one night. The crowd booed Alex off the stage, and Frank never intervened or helped in any way. Alex was kind of crushed.
    • Tommy Chong is a huge Zappa fan. Zappa attended one of Cheech & Chong's performances and left because he hated the duo's stoner humor, much to Chong's disappointment.
  • Call Back: His music is filled with these; he called it "Conceptual Continuity." Musical and lyrical elements recurred from songs to song; for example, "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary" has both musical and lyrical references to earlier songs such as "For Calvin (and His Next Two Hitch-Hikers)" and "Billy the Mountain." The callbacks even extend to works of other artists he produced; Captain Beefheart's "The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica)" contains elements of the Mothers' "Charles Ives" (which appears on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5 as well as the coda to the CD version of "Didja Get Any Onya?" on Weasels Ripped My Flesh).
  • Casanova: "You want to get set free onetime? All you have to do is get your pants off, admit that you have your pants off, find somebody of the opposite sex, or, if you wanna be a little bit weird, you can do something else, but do it sexually, that's the only way you're going to set yourself free."
  • Catholic School Girls Rule: "Catholic Girls"
  • Concept Album - A handful of his albums fit this trope. A few examples are the Freak Out!-Absolutely Free-We're Only in It for the Money trilogy, Crusing with Ruben & the Jets, Uncle Meat, Joe's Garage, Thing-Fish, Broadway the Hard Way and Civilization Phaze III.
    • Freak Out! is often considered the first rock concept album (if The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, which came out a month before it, isn't[2]), so it could be listed as the Ur Example, Trope Maker, and/or Trope Codifier. Actually, all three of the Mothers' first albums (Absolutely Free and We're Only in It for the Money round out the trilogy) could qualify, depending on how you define "concept album".
      • Arguably, Freak Out!-Absolutely Free-We're Only in It for the Money could not be considered a trilogy, as the album Lumpy Gravy was produced before We're Only in It for the Money.
        • Lumpy Gravy was not a Mothers album, however, although some of the Mothers did appear on it. However, in its own way it, too, could be considered a concept album.
        • Apostrophe(') is a concept album for the first five songs. The narrator has a dream that he is an Eskimo named Nanook, and when he discovers a fur trapper beating his favorite baby seal he rubs yellow snow in his eyes, causing him to go blind. The fur trapper must travel to the Parish of St. Alfonso, currently hosting a pancake breakfast, with food cooked by Father Vivian O'Blivion. The narrator then visits a scamming fortune teller whom he humiliates. The album then branches off into unrelated territory, concluding with the tale of a horrid disease called Stink-Foot.
  • Drugs Are Bad: He didn't like them, and he didn't want his band members using them while working. Wrote some anti-drug themed songs like "Cocaine Decisions" and "Charlie's Enormous Mouth".
    • However, that said, he was a lifelong opponent of the drug war, making him a slight subversion of this trope as well. He didn't think people should be using drugs, but he also didn't think it was any of the government's business whether they were or not, and furthermore felt that creating a black market was much more dangerous than having a legal, regulated market.
      • Given his general aversion to authority and government, I would imagine he thought even a regulated legal market would be dangerous. All-in-all, Zappa's stances appear highly Libertarian.
  • Dystopia: Joe's Garage is a rock opera set in a dystopian future where music and sex will be illegal, and the dominant religion is the Church of Appliantology.
  • Dead Baby Comedy: The album Thing-Fish, about a mutated gang of black stereotypes with dresses growing out of their bodies putting on a Broadway show, in which they urinate on the audience. The two audience members remaining are chained up and forced to watch a character eat the raw digestive system of a pig surrounded by zombies. Various bizarre events ensue, involving a woman having simulated sex with an enormous briefcase, a man being defecated on by a deformed ventriloquist dummy while in bare-chested S&M gear, and an ending which has no resolution whatsoever, as dwarfs holding onions spill out of the set and several characters begin randomly having anal sex as a song from earlier in the album is played backwards. This also falls under What Do You Mean It Wasn't Made on Drugs?, Head-Tiltingly Kinky, Antiquated Linguistics and a variety of other tropes.
  • Epic Rocking: He did this countless times throughout his career; one of his best known examples is the seven minute guitar solo during "Willie the Pimp."
  • Evil Mentor: One night, the green but eager original line-up of Alice Cooper caused an entire club to walk out. A music manager named Shep Gordon saw the strong reaction they caused and realized their powers could be harnessed for more profitable use. He took them to see Zappa, who signed them for this own label (he was impressed when they mistook his instructions and showed up at 7 am completely ready to play, and the Alice Cooper band idolized Zappa). Once they were on the label, their maniacal labelmates The GTOs starting dressing the boys from Alice Cooper and giving them their signature bizarre look. Soon, these young "shock rockers" have a reputation, enough so that someone thinks it's cool to throw a chicken at them on stage. The lead singer, Alice Cooper himself, said that as a young man from Detroit he really didn't know from chickens and assumed that if he threw the stupid bird back it would fly away, right? It didn't and was famously torn apart by fans. Of course, Alice Cooper earned national news headlines for deliberately and Satanically killing a chicken on stage. Frank Zappa called Mr. Cooper the very next day and asked about the "Chicken Incident." Zappa heard the true story and immediately said "Well, whatever you do, don't tell anyone you didn't do it."
  • Filk Song: Cheepnis is a song about monster movies with unconvincing special effects.
  • Freak-Out: The name of his debut album, which really lives up to its name during the final three tracks.
  • Generation Xerox: Dweezil Zappa.
  • Genre Roulette: He performed at least one song in virtually every genre of his time: blues, rock, jazz, classical, fusion, and so on.
  • Heroic BSOD: For a while, he was paying the Mothers of Invention a decent stipend, even when they weren't working. One night, he heard his hero Duke Ellington begging a promoter for a small advance and got disgusted with the biz. He subsequently broke up the Mothers.
  • IKEA Erotica: Offences by a certain other rock musician are parodied hilariously in "Is That Guy Kidding or What?" and "I Have Been in You".
  • Informed Ability: We know Studebaker Hoch (in "Billy the Mountain") is heroic because the narrator claims he is. He never actually does anything heroic in the song, which is probably the whole point.
  • Instrumentals: They were often the highlights of his albums.
  • Insufferable Genius: Had an IQ estimated at 172 and could, at times, be somewhat insufferable.
  • Intercourse with You: Parodied and taken to the extreme with "Dirty Love", "Titties and Beer", "Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt" and many more.
    • Chunga's Revenge has almost every vocal tune be about this ("Road Ladies", "Tell Me You Love Me", "Would You Go All the Way?"), except "Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink".
  • Insistent Terminology: Zappa wanted the music itself to express ideas and humor beyond the words. He said that a college's music appreciation class's example of a trumpet sounding like it was "laughing" was a very weak and shallow example of what he was going for. He pointed out old car horns going "arooga" or Harmon-muted trumpets as being hilarious for unexplainable reasons. Now, in practice Zappa's theory along these lines mostly presented itself as a deliberately Igor Stravinsky-esque use of Standard Snippet for humor purposes, but there were some cases where he innovated his own motifs, which is where this trope comes. The most memorable is probably Zappa's idea that someone talking through a plastic megaphone is the ultimate expression of bland, faceless authority. If you don't think plastic megaphones are that hilarious and/or ominous, you will by the time Zappa's done with you, especially after Joe's Garage.
  • Last-Note Nightmare: Perhaps the Trope Maker, "I Ain't Got No Heart" from Freak Out! is a Double Subversion.
    • "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny" from We're Only in It for the Money is a Last Song Nightmare.[3] To a lesser extent "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" on Freak Out! could be perceived the same way.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: You have all the weird original characters from Zappa's songs, all the weird and talented musicians who play the songs and get mentioned in the songs like characters, and all of the weird non-musicians and hangers-on who get mentioned just as frequently.
  • Lyrical Dissonance
  • Magnum Opus Dissonance: Even though Zappa never named "Thing-Fish" his masterpiece he often called it an essential album because of the political message. Yet to this day many Zappa fans revile it as his worst, least imaginative and most unenjoyable record ever! Even the political aspect is so far-fetched that it loses its impact because people are unable to take it seriously.
  • Matzo Fever: "Jewish Princess".
  • Mondegreen: His cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" uses the widely noted mondegreen "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy" amongst other lyric changes For the Lulz.
  • Must Have Caffeine: Although he eschewed the harder stuff (and didn't tolerate drug use by his band members either), Frank consumed coffee and cigarettes by the truckload.
  • Myth Arc: His preferred term for it was "conceptual continuity". Also, his "xenochrony" method of lifting guitar riffs and melodies from either himself or others (he was a big fan of the "Louie Louie" riff) and inserting them in other songs.
  • Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: the Trope Maker, arguably.
  • Nipple-and-Dimed: Satirized in "Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt:" "that's right, you heard right...our big prize tonite is fifty American Dollars to the girl with the most exciting mammalian protruberances...as viewed through a thoroughly soaked, stupid looking white sort of male person's conservative kind of middle-of-the-road COTTON UNDERGARMENT! Whoopee! And here comes THE WATER!"
  • Not So Crazy Anymore: An almost immediate example: When We're Only in It for the Money came out a lot of people thought he was crazy because of all the references to cops shooting hippies. Slightly under three years later, the Kent State shootings happened. They were National Guardsmen rather than police, but other than that it occurred almost exactly as he predicted. The proximity of the events has also led to several cases of You Fail Rock History Forever as people have claimed that the songs on the album were inspired by the Kent State shootings.
  • One-Hit Wonder: as mentioned above, Zappa has just one Top 40 single to his credit, "Valley Girl".
  • One of Us: He was the quintessential band geek (He played snare, to be specific), and loved "monster movies".
  • Porn Stache
  • Progressive Rock: One of the Trope Codifiers. Songs like "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" and "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary" are staples of the genre.
  • Protest Song: Many, many examples to name. Played both relatively straight ("Trouble Every Day", "Who Needs the Peace Corps?", "Plastic People") and subverted ("Who Are The Brain Police?", "Flower Punk").
  • Pun-Based Title:
    • Zoot Allures - say it out loud and use your French knowledge.
    • Sheik Yerbouti - Think of a famous disco hit
    • "Dinah-Moe Humm": "I heard a Dinah-Moe humm", a pun on a humming dynamo.
    • "Manx Needs Women" is a pun on the film "Mars Needs Women".
    • "Aybe Sea"
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Many of his lyrics are inspired by 20th century society, both politics and real life anecdotes from his personal or bandmembers' lives.
  • Recurring Riff: Often from songs written decades earlier; see xenochrony above.
  • Reference Overdosed: Zappa's work is literally packed with references to other musical works and genres, 20th century politics and society and even inside jokes. Fans are still deciphering hidden meanings.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Became increasingly prevalent as the years passed, although it was there from the start -- it was unheard of for an unknown rock group to release a double album at the time Freak Out! appeared, and by some accounts it's the first rock double album of any kind. The fact that Tom Wilson produced it probably helped the group's fortunes a lot -- Wilson had, by that point, gotten the kind of stature that basically meant any act he produced could do pretty much anything they wanted, as long as he signed off on it (which he usually did -- he was a smart enough producer to trust his artists' instincts).
    • Released Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, a triple album of guitar solos excerpted from live performances. Followed by another album of similar length and execution, Guitar, 7 years later.
    • Let's not forget his quadruple album with a running time of over two and a half hours, Läther, which his record company refused to release at the time. It eventually got released in 1996 as a 3-CD set with four bonus tracks that extended the running time to almost three hours.
  • Refuge in Vulgarity: He loved this, particularly on albums like Joe's Garage and Thing-Fish.
  • Rock Opera: Most famously Joe's Garage. Also, 200 Motels, Thing-Fish, "Billy The Mountain", "The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary" and "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" (a seven-minute long mini-rock opera).
    • It's worth noting that a lot of these are pretty obvious parodies and deconstructions of rock operas in general, namely "Greggery Peccary". Thing-Fish also features deconstructions of a lot of Broadway tropes.
  • Rockstar Song: "Joe's Garage" again.
  • Saying Sound Effects Out Loud: Waka Jawaka.
  • Serious Business: Turned down a nomination for running for the President of the United States on the Libertarian Ticket. Also, was cultural attaché for the Czechoslovak government and has a statue of him in Vilnius, Lithuania.
  • Shaggy Dog Story: Several, including "Billy the Mountain" and "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary".
  • Space Whale Aesop: "A mountain is something you don't want to fuck with."
  • Shout-Out: Zappa quotes various works from Igor Stravinsky and Gustav Holst's in Absolutely Free
  • Standard Snippet: Zappa had an ironic and fervent love for how hilarious and expressive these could be and had his band drilled to play them flawlessly. The combination of universal recognition and wretched cliche was like a magical drug to Zappa's post-modern psyche.
  • Take a Third Option: When there were two diametrically opposed groups, Zappa would usually choose to ridicule them both: hippies/squares, Republicans/Democrats (although he generally heaped much harsher scorn on Republicans), battle of the sexes, list goes on. It even extended to his serious writings -- for instance, in The Real Frank Zappa Book he notes at various points that unions, businesses, and governments are all untrustworthy.
  • Take That: Many, of which the quote at the top is a Take That, Audience!.
  • The Evil Prince: Thing-Fish features a government scientist and part-time theater critic who's referred to as The Evil Prince.
  • The Rival: Occasionally Captain Beefheart. Both were cult icons of avant-garde music who were once childhood friends and always shared a love-hate relationship.
  • The Spartan Way: He loved family life and relished being a father... But his whole life and in fact his whole house were configured to serve his musical career. His entire family was swept up in its orbit, and they've all helped out one way or another. Not to mention the nightmarish practice and touring schedules of his bands. Living with Zappa meant living for Zappa's music.
  • They Plotted a Perfectly Good Waste: Loved it in all of its forms. Stupid jokes and unpleasant sounds had a welcome place in a lot of his work.
  • Torture Cellar: "The Torture Never Stops" from Zoot Allures, which hovers between funny and scary.
  • Training From Hell: Serving a tour in Zappa's band was proof to all discerning people that you had chops, but the tours lasted forever and Zappa demanded perfection. George Duke related a story about how he missed a note in a concert once. Zappa stopped the whole song, announced that George was going to try that again, and restarted at the point he made an error on.
  • Two-Part Trilogy: Hot Rats got two sequels released close to each other, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. Then, several years after that, there was the unoffically named Läther(German for leather) trilogy, consisting of Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt(sometimes referred to as Hot Rats III), and Orchestral Favorites, making up a three-part sexology. Confused yet?
  • Uncommon Time: Used pretty frequently. Lampshaded in one section of "Toads of the Short Forest" on Weasels Ripped My Flesh:

At this very moment on stage we have drummer A playing in 7/8, drummer B playing in 3/4, the bass playing in 3/4, the organ playing in 5/8, the tambourine playing in 3/4, and the alto sax blowing his nose.

  • Unusual Euphemism: On Joe's Garage the term "to plook" is used to refer to sex and rape.
    • Other unusual Zappa euphemisms include "poot" (a reference to flatulence), "spoo" (ejaculation), and "numies" (mucus), although this is by no means an exhaustive list.
  • Valley Girl: Codified the trope with his 1982 hit single "Valley Girl".
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: A lot of his material requires extensive knowledge of multiple musical genres before you can even begin to appreciate it. Most obvious on albums like Lumpy Gravy.
  • What Do You Mean It Wasn't Made on Drugs?: Frank made some of the most bizarre music ever recorded, but his only drugs of choice were caffeine and nicotine. All the more remarkable given he created 53 albums in the span of 30-35 years, on top of touring, managing his record company, and verbally bitch-slapping the PMRC. Oh, and raising four kids.
    • As he points out, a lot of his stuff is so complex that you have to be sober to play it. For an example of what can happen, check out the London Symphony Orchestra's drunk version of "Strictly Genteel."
  • What's an X Like You Doing In a Y Like This?: Used repeatedly.
  • Word Salad Title: A lot of his albums: Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Zoot Allures, Sleep Dirt...
    • "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" was from the cover of a magazine. The piece is about exactly that, apparently.

Notes

  1. (Notably, he also revised Betty's favourite group from Helen Reddy to Twisted Sister in this era. In a coincidence, that group's frontman Dee Snider was, alongside John Denver, the only other musician besides Zappa to testify at the PMRC hearings, but Zappa had already started performing the revised lyrics before that occurrence).
  2. the songs on Pet Sounds are thematically unified but Brian Wilson has hinted that it may not have been consciously intended as a concept album
  3. Of course, that album was intended to be played before Lumpy Gravy, so conceptually it leads into an even weirder album which ends with the instrumental version of the straightforward and upbeat "Take Your Clothes Off"... which leads into the third album, released over 30 years later, Civilization Phaze III, which is a Last Album Nightmare, depending on how you look at it.