So, whenever someone finds out that you play guitar, sing, record and produce music, etc etc, there is a question that follows shortly after that makes many artists retch with awkwardness. "So, what kind of music is it?"
I gotta admit I am no different, partly because I sincerely struggle to define what I sound like and partly because that inner monologue of artistic individuality starts screaming at me. "YOU DON'T SOUND LIKE ANYONE!! YOU ARE YOUR OWN ARTIST!! AAAAARRRRGHHH!"
But. I learnt that like it or not, you need an answer. And for the longest time, I answered that question like this -
"I'm a bit like Frank Zappa, but without the chops."
Of course that often triggered even more confused looks. What I was trying to say was that the sense of humour and strangeness that infects Zappa's music also infected mine, but that the ridiculous level of musicianship it took to play most of his material was not reflected in my music.
I ended up coming up with the term "Strange Rock" as the descriptor for my music. That seemed to work more readily with most.
The mention of the name of Zappa in the context of a musical discussion with a normal human being elicits some recognition, but normally without any musical exposure. Instead, you get "Ah yeah, he ate his own faeces on stage didn't he?" or "Didn't he name his daughter Moon Unit?" or "Didn't he run for President once?"
I'll let you all check Wikipedia for which of the above statements is true. (and chuckle at my suggestion that Wikipedia is a source of truth.)
Very occasionally, you come across someone who is truly interested in exploring the world of Zappa and his immense, eclectic musical output. So they ask the obvious question "What should I listen too first?"
At last count including posthumous releases, there are 95 albums released either as Frank Zappa or Mothers Of Invention albums. Granted, there is some double up going on here with some live albums, edited live albums and reworked studio cuts. But that is still a lot of work to sift through and make recommendations about. Add to that the stylistic and thematic differences in his work and you are definitely on the horns of a dilemma making recommendations.
So, let me see if I can do my best to help out here. Here is my official 'start here' list of ten Frank Zappa releases, aimed at getting you the best overview of his material.
1. Absolutely Free (1967)
To many, to suggest not starting with the landmark first album Freak Out is sacrilegious. But for mine, of the early Mothers Of Invention albums, Absolutely Free stands out as not only accessible but extraordinarily different. Plus - it has "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," a personal favourite. When listening to this album, just keep remembering this is 1967 - prominent releases that year include Are You Experienced, Disraeli Gears & Fresh Cream, The Who Sell Out and The Doors. I think it is fair to say that this album ups the ante on strange when compared to the other releases, classic as they are!
2. Were Only In It For The Money (1968)
Combine truly hummable little ditties, musique concrete, various vocal conversational elements edited to give the impression of a storyboard (albeit of a very strange story) and lots of vari-speed weirdness with a clever Beatles rip off on the cover art and you get this album. A true step forward from what came before, showing the boundaries were definitely going to be stretched.
3. Hot Rats (1969)
Frank gets his rock on. Showcasing riffs, guitar improvisation and melodies, you could say that this is a more traditional rock album from Zappa as his first after the 'original split' of the Mothers. But the rhythmic interplay and use of melody and harmony, though they appear effortless at times, are anything but. This is possibly the first time Frank really displays that he is a serious guitarist. Serious. Guitarist.
4. The Grand Wazoo (1972)
I adore this album. An often overlooked work, this beautiful sounding release showcases Zappa's arrangement ability with a "big band" at his disposal. Gorgeously layered, brilliant melodies, inventive harmony and a rich timbre, this album is a delight and sticks in your head long after it is finished.
5. Apostrophe (1974)
Together with the album it is often spoken with in the same breath (Overnite Sensation, 1973) these albums were immensely important in bringing Zappa into the mainstream music consciousness, primarily due to 4 tracks detailing the adventures of a certain young eskimo named Nanook and a piece of advice regarding the danger of yellow snow. Whether you like the funny story or not, the musicianship on something like "St Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast" is still gob smacking.
6. Lather (1996)
Whether you believe all you read or not, this 1996 release is apparently how Frank initially intended the work to appear. Instead, due to various record contract wrangles, they appeared at the time as various albums such as Sheik Yerbouti, Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favourites and Studio Tan. The collection as it appears in Lather is a better representation for mine. It is also the start of a period in Zappa's output that is controversial for some as they believe he gets lazy on the lyrical and thematic elements and relies on simple sex jokes. You be the judge.
7. Joe's Garage (1979)
I don't think this is cheating. I include all Acts of Joe's Garage here as a single piece. This collection suffers again from a lot of fan criticism that the music is getting simpler and the sex jokes and smut is getting more prominent. The right of reply - listen to how extraordinarily gorgeous "Watermelon In Easter Hay" and "Outside Now" are.
8. Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers of Prevention (1985)
The 80's are a difficult period to distil the important albums out of. For me, The Mothers Of Prevention however fits the bill. Classic early examples of Zappa at work with the Synclavier coupled with great montages of the senate hearings on music censorship that he was involved with make compelling listening if not instantly engaging. There are other albums that sold more and had classic musicianship (You Are What You Is, Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch and Man From Utopia come to mind) but this album is important.
9. Broadway The Hardway (1988)
The 1988 band, notorious for self-destructing in the middle of the tour, documented in all its glory on this release. A full, virtuosic big band tonality with amazing vocals packed with a very full element of humour. Big, gorgeous melodies and harmonies to the fore, backed by a band that could turn on a dime. This is the tour that our mate Mike Keneally cut his teeth on, playing guitar/keyboards and impersonating Bob Dylan probably all at the same time. As you do.
10. The Yellow Shark (1993)
Gobsmackingly beautiful. Rich. Textured. Funny. This album is worth the price of admission alone to the Zappa world. A glorious gift of orchestral wonder after what can only be described as some difficult earlier orchestral albums, The Yellow Shark documents what happens when a truly brilliant bunch of dedicated musicians immerse themselves in the world of a composer. The footage of Zappa working with the Orchestra Ensemble through the rehearsal periods certainly indicate he was enjoying the process and the outcomes. You will too.
At the end of the day, your first Zappa album will make a mark on you of some kind. And there are definitely arguments for approaching this from a whole different mindset - like picking up any of the excellent You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore releases for a real live overview. Pieced together with extraordinary attention to detail of course with parts seldom coming from the same performance.
What was my first Zappa album?