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Frank Zappa. How Influential Was He and Why?

A very quick, introductory guide to a music legend.

By Wade WainioPublished 3 years ago 4 min read

How influential is Frank Zappa? In addition to his own material, Zappa worked on a number of collaborative albums with musicians and musicians' bands (sometimes that distinction is crucial, even if it sounds clunky).

For example, Zappa co-wrote the song "Memories of El Monte" for the doo-wop group The Penguins in 1963 (you may have heard The Penguins' song "Earth Angel" in a little film called "Back to the Future"). He was also involved with The Animals' 5th album, Animalism, and produced a quirky album by The GTOs which (in addition to the female singers) featured guitarists Ry Cooder and Jeff Beck, The Monkees' Davy Jones, and even Rod Stewart (who, before mellowing out with "soft rock" actually performed some heavier tunes in his formative career).

Another Zappa-associated project, The GTOs, might seem like a mere blip on the radar, but they were themselves influential. Christine Frka, alias Miss Christine, is not only the woman on the cover of Zappa's "Hot Rats" album, but she is said to have highly influenced Alice Cooper's stage persona.

Also, although few ever seem to mention it, Zappa produced an album for Grand Funk Railroad, and he attempted to talk them into staying together. With the Mothers of Invention, he released at least 18 albums worth of material, as well as soundtrack recordings for at least 8 musical films he directed (some with "The Mothers," others without).

In addition, Zappa recorded and toured with numerous other talented musicians, including Adrian Belew (famously stolen away from a Zappa tour by David Bowie!), Steve Vai, Jimmy Carl Black, Terry Bozzio, Michael and Randy Brecker, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Vinnie Colaiuta, Ray Collins, Warren Cuccurullo, George Duke, Aynsley Dunbar, Bruce, and Tom Fowler, Terry Gilliam, Don "Sugarcane" Harris, Carol Kaye, Howard Kaylan, Mike Keneally, John Lennon, Ed Mann, Tommy Mars, Patrick O'Hearn, Lady Bianca Odin, Yoko Ono, Shuggie Otis, Don Pardo, Jean-Luc Ponty, Don Preston, Michael Rapaport, Linda Ronstadt, Lakshminarayana Shankar, Jim Sherwood, Jeff Simmons, Sting, Scott Thunes, Tina Turner, Ian and Rith Underwood, Don Van Vliet (AKA Captain Beefheart), Mark Volman, Chad Wackerman, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Ray White, Ike Willis, and some of his family members: Ahmet Zappa, Dweezil Zappa, and Moon Unit Zappa.

And, speaking of family members, the Manson family's Bobby Beausoleil performed vocals on Zappa's "Freak Out!" album. This proves that, if you cast a wide net for talent, you'll inevitably end up working with a few disreputable people as well (as another example, Roy Estrada, one of Frank's musicians, has been imprisoned for child molestation.

Those dark factoids aside, there are countless alternative rock bands influenced by Zappa, and his ability to just be himself and blur/ignore genre distinctions tended to keep people on their toes.

For Some, Zappa is the Greatest Rock Star/Guitarist/Bandleader/Composer Ever

I don't remember the original source, but I recall Frank Zappa stating that "Rating guitar players is a stupid hobby." Nevertheless, plenty of people would include him in lists of greatest rock stars, guitarists, bandleaders, and composers. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 (which surely would have also made him roll his eyes). Part of what makes Zappa great (in my book) is simply that he indeed wore so many hats. Wikipedia puts it as well as anybody: "[Frank Zappa] was an American singer-songwriter, innovative rock guitarist, modernist composer, multi-instrumentalist, satirist, film-maker, and bandleader. He was involved in styles as diverse as doo-wop to musique concrète (a fancy word for strange sound collages).

Although he was known for his absurd (and sometimes offensive) humor, Zappa's satire and social commentary were often razor-sharp, and sometimes serious messages can be found (the song "Trouble Every Day", about the Watts riots, easily comes to mind). Although he criticized the corporate music industry regularly, Zappa's achievements earned him two Grammy Awards, out of 9 nominations, which is a delightful little fact that people should probably mention more.

Early Life

Frank Vincent Zappa was born in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest of four children. His father was a chemist and mathematician at a chemical weapons manufacturing company, and he is known to have speculated that exposure to mustard gas might have contributed to his asthma and earaches as a child. Zappa's early musical experiences included being a drummer in high school. No doubt, another highly significant experience was his discovery of R&B musical singles, as well as his exposure to edgier classical composers like Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse.

By the time of his death in 1993, Frank Zappa's legendary status had already been achieved, but it's not something that's died down with age. Not only does his music itself lives on, but it has no doubt inspired countless musicians to push boundaries and ignore genre distinctions, and occasionally embrace/note the absurd. Zappa is also remembered for challenging the Parent's Music Resource Center (PMRC) and the music labeling/censorship movement of the 1980s and early '90s, during which time he testified in the United States Senate.

Also, his testimony to the Maryland State Legislature provides a quote on the absurdity of censorship that's worth ending this piece on: "I like nipples. I think they look good. If you are going to look at a woman's breast, if you take the nipple off, which is the characterizing, determining factor, what you've got is a blob of fat there. And I think that when you're a baby, one of the first things you get interested in is that nozzle right there, and you get to have it right in front of your face. You grow up with it, so to speak. And then you grow up in the state of Maryland and they won't let you see that little brown thing anymore."

This quote really gets to the core of Zappa's style of humor, which was so often integral to his music and part of what earned his icon status. Frank Zappa might not be loved by all, but it seems everyone must admit he was a highly original and impactful force in music.


About the Creator

Wade Wainio

Wade Wainio writes stuff for Show Snob, Undead Walking,, Vents Magazine and Haunted MTL. He is also an artist, musician and college radio DJ for WMTU 91.9 FM Houghton.

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    Wade WainioWritten by Wade Wainio

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