Early years (1958-1961)

Zappa was born in Baltimore on December 21, 1940. He became the eldest of four siblings. His father worked as an engineer with varying jobs, which caused the family to have to move frequently. His interest in music first showed itself during his teens, when he became a drummer in local bands. At the age of eighteen he learned to play guitar. At the same time that he was listening to blues, he learned himself to write sheet music and got fascinated by the music of Edgar Varèse. After graduation Zappa took one semester of formal musical education at Chaffee Junior College, where he met his first wife Kay Sherman. When he had reached twenty, Zappa had enough musical understanding to write orchestra music, next to being able to play the standard pop and jazz repertoire. Playing in bands became his job. The first opportunity to have his sheet music performed came when he got commissioned by Timothy Carey to do the soundtrack for The world's greatest sinner. With the orchestra music recorded in 1961, this filmed premiered in 1963. In the same year Zappa could record chamber music for another movie, called Run home, slow.

The lost episodes: Zappa's teens
Lost in a whirlpool, Sleeping in a jar, The legend of the golden arches, Guitar waltz
The mystery disc: movie scores
Run home, slow (theme and soundtrack), The little march, The world's greatest sinner (single and soundtrack), Holiday in Berlin


Singles (1962-1964)

In 1961 Zappa first met Paul Buff, who was running a recording studio at Cucamonga. Paul was one of the first to operate a multi-track recorder. Their working relationship intensified in 1963, when they began collaborating for releasing singles. Zappa was involved as player, producer and songwriter. Their biggest succes became Buff's Tijuana surf, with Zappa's Grunion run on the b-side. In 2009 Paul opened his Pal and Orginal sound archives on line, bringing to the public some yet unreleased recordings by Zappa. The money coming in from the Run home, slow, movie gave Zappa the opportunity to take over Buff's studio. He started working on a film project himself, but got thwarted by local officials. A set-up got constructed for arresting him for recording pornographic material. He got a minor sentence and actually had to spent a couple of days in prison. This was sufficient to block his business in Cucamonga.

Pal and Original sound: working with Paul Buff
Any way the wind blows, Waltz, Why don't you do me right, Metal man, Take your clothes off when you dance, Walkin' out, Speed-freak boogie, Tiger roach
Cucamonga years: singles and broadcast music
Grunion run, Love of my life, Breaktime, Memories of El Monte, Opus 5, Jessie Lee
The mystery disc #2: projects
I was a teenage maltshop, Status back baby, Duodenum, Bossa Nova, Mondo Hollywood, Toad of the short forest


First line-up of The Mothers Of Invention (1965-1969)

Zappa continued to play in bands and took the lead of the Soul Giants, in 1965 re-baptized as The Mothers Of Invention. Freak out!, their first album, got released in 1966 as one of the first double albums in rock history. With Absolutely free from 1967 Zappa could demonstrate what he was capable of as a composer. Brown shoes don't make it is famous for bringing together a multitude of styles, using varying meters and rhythms, as well as an atonal interlude. The sudden rise of the hippie movement incited Zappa to compile We're only in it for the money, a social commentary. No two sequent Zappa albums are more different from each other than Cruising with Ruben and the Jets and Lumpy Gravy. The first a tribute to the doo-wop genre from the fifties, the second a bizarre collage. Uncle Meat was the title of both an album and a movie. This movie only got completed as a video in 1986, with the music appearing on Ahead of their time. The modern harmonies of the Uncle Meat title track sound refreshing till today. Next Zappa recorded a fusion album under his own name. Hot rats features complex interwoven harmonies, obtained through overdubbing. In 1969 was looking for new directions and disbanded the original Mothers Of Invention overnight. The band members were taken by surprise. The unreleased material Zappa had in stock appeared on Burnt weeny sandwich and Weasels ripped my flesh.

Freak out! - Fillmore West, 1966: into the rock industry
I ain't got no heart, Help, I'm a rock, Monster magnet, Downtown talent scout, Trouble every day, You're probably wondering why I'm here, Hungry freaks
Absolutely free: complexities
America drinks, Plastic people, Brown shoes don't make it, Invocation & ritual dance of the young pumpkin
We're only in it for the money: the sixties
Mother people, The ugliest part of your body, Concentration moon, No matter what you do, Absolutely free, Bow tie daddy
Lumpy gravy - Lumpy money: a collage
Oh no, King Kong (1968), Foamy soaky, Unit 3A and 9, I don't know if I can go through this again, It's from Kansas
Cruising with Ruben and the Jets - Greasy love songs: doo-wop
Jelly roll gum drop, Stuff up the cracks, Oh, in the sky, "No, no, no", Cheap thrills, You didn't try to call me, If only I could be your love again
Uncle Meat - Ahead of their time: integration
Uncle meat, King Kong (1969), Dog breath, The rejected Mexican pope, Project X, Epilogue, Agency man, Zolar Czakl, Uncle rhebus
Hot rats: overdubs
It must be a camel, Peaches en regalia, Little umbrellas, Twenty small cigars, The Gumbo variations
Burnt weeny sandwich: atonality and the use of scales
Igor's boogie I and II, Eric Dolphy memorial barbecue, Kung fu, The little house I used to live in, My guitar
Weasels ripped my flesh - YCDTOSA V: counterpoint #1 and improvisations
Dwarf nebula, Didja get any onya?, Baked-bean boogie, What will this evening bring me this morning?, Sofa, Weasels


Comedy shows and 200 Motels (1970-1971)

In 1970 Zappa met Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, former singers of The Turtles. He asked them to become the frontmen of his new band. At first this new line-up of the Mothers of invention started where the previous band had stopped, with newly written material appearing on Chunga's revenge. Next they started working on specific subjects, building comedy acts around them. The groupie opera was released on Fillmore East, while Billy the mountain appeared on Just another band from L.A. A third sequence, the Sofa suite, only became completed with the 1992 release Playground psychotics. With Uncle meat still unfinished, Zappa did manage to film 200 Motels, a movie about a band on the road. The soundtrach offers a bewildering variety of styles, featuring modern orchestral works as well as rock band pieces. The orchestral works were also planned to be performed in the shape of The suites, but the direction of the Albert Hall cancelled the concert when they noticed that they considered some of Zappa's lyrics obscene. Eventually The suites did appear on CD in 2015. The 1971 tour ended with disasters. In Montreux the concert hall took fire and in London Zappa got thrown off stage.

Chunga's revenge: mainstream pop
Tell me you love me, Sharleena, Chunga's revenge, Rudy wants to buy yez a drink, Transylvania boogie
Quaudiophiliac - Fillmore East, 1970: bootleg and archive recordings
Chunga's basement, Twinkle tits, Dance of the just plain folks, Brain police (1970), Solos from Call any vegetable and Holiday in Berlin
Fillmore East, June 1971 - Playground psychotics: comedy shows
Latex solar beef, Willy the pimp (1971), Do you like my new car?, Bwana dik, Brixton still life, Scumbag, The sofa suite/Divan
Just another band from L.A. - Carnegie Hall - Finer moments: sequences and tempo changes
Billy the Mountain, Call any vegetable (1971), Penis dimension, Magdalena, Number 7, Brain police (1971), The subcutaneous peril
200 Motels (1971 album) - 200 Motels, the suites: the overall piece of art
Overture, What's the name of your group?, She painted up her face, Mystery roach, The pleated gazelle, Dental hygiene dilemma, Can I help you with this dummy?


Jazz (1972)

Confined to a wheelchair, Zappa composed on paper with an unprecedented pace. He returned to the idea of recording a sequel to Hot rats. The recording sessions resulted in enough material for two albums, Waka/Jawaka and The grand wazoo. A small tour with this band got planned. The first part involved a big band, the second part - due to contractual obligations of some members - a smaller combo. Strangely enough Zappa himself released nothing from these live shows. This conspicuous gap was filled by The Zappa family trust (ZFT), governing his tape archive since 1993. Three CDs could be compiled from these concerts, Imaginary diseases, Wazoo and Little dots.

Waka/Jawaka - The grand wazoo: the jazz band in the studio
Big swifty, One shot deal, The grand wazoo, Your mouth, Think it over, Blessed relief, For Calvin, Eat that question, Another whole melodic section, Waka/Jawaka
Wazoo - Imaginary diseases - Little dots: the jazz band live
Imaginary diseases, Variant I, Rollo, D.C. boogie, Farther O'blivion, Little dots


The Roxy band (1973-1975)

In 1973 Zappa had formed a band, that has become known as the Roxy band. First they recorded two commercially succesful albums, Overnite sensation and Apostrophe ('), the latter briefly reaching #10 in the album charts. With Roxy and elsewhere this band showed that they could play complicated music live. One size fits all is a carefully balanced album, one of many examples of bringing together various styles on one release. In 1975 Zappa toured with Don van Vliet a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, his friend from high school days onwards. Their collaboration resulted in Bongo fury.

Overnite sensation: riffs
Dirty love, Montana, Fifty-fifty, I'm the slime
Apostrophe ('): collaborations
Don't eat the yellow snow, Apostrophe ('), Uncle Remus, Nanook rubs it, St. Alfonso/Father O'blivion
Roxy and Elsewhere: metres and rhythms
Echidna's arf (of you), Orange county guitar solo, Tangos, All skate, Village of the sun, Don't you ever wash that thing, Dickie's such an asshole, Pojama prelude, Inca roads (1973)
YCDTOSA II - A token of his extreme: versions differences and routines
Approximate, Pygmy twylyte, The idiot bastard son, Room service, Dummy up, Dupree's paradise (1974)
One size fits all: through-composed melodies and song structures
Florentine Pogen, Evelyn, Inca roads (1975), San Ber'dino, Andy
Bongo Fury: working with Don van Vliet
Debra kadabra, 200 years old, Muffin man, Cucamonga


Zoot allures - Zappa in New York (1976-1978)

When all members of the Roxy band had left, Zappa decided to stop using the name Mothers Of Invention, continuing under his own name only. Another new band participated on the rock-based Zoot allures album with Zappa himself appearing as a multi-instrumentalist. He now started touring with a smaller band of five or six members. Live material with this band has mostly been released by the ZFT. Zappa himself recorded Zappa in New York, with this band augmented to 12 persons for his December 1976 concerts only. This album includes The black page, his best known example of composing with irregular rhythmic groupings. The refusal of Warner Bros. to include Punky's whips was one of the reasons for a clash, only ending with a settlement in 1982. Next Zappa proceeded with a plan to release the material he had in stock as a quadruple album called Läther, to be halted by Warner Bros. issuing these pieces themselves as four individual albums (Zappa in New York, Studio tan, Sleep dirt and Orchestral favorites).

Orchestral favorites - Studio tan: classicism
Duke of prunes (1963-1975), Bogus pomp, RDZNL, Music for low budget orchestra, Greggery Peccary
FZ:OZ - FZ plays FZ - Joe's series - Philly '76: the 5- and 6-piece band
Kaiser rolls, Black napkins, Rhythm guitar solo, City of tiny lights, Keep it greasy, Phyniox, Reeny ra, Any downers?
Zoot Allures: harmonies and vamps
Disco boy, The torture never stops (1976), Friendly little finger, Wind up working in a gas station, Zoot allures
Sleep dirt: harmonies and vamps (cntd.)
Filthy habits, The ocean is the ultimate solution, Time is money, Regyptian strut, Sleep dirt
In New York: irregular rhythmic groupings
The black page #1, Titties and beer, Manx needs women, I promise not to come in your mouth, The purple lagoon
Läther - Baby snakes: boxes and concert footage
Duck duck goose, Down in de dew, Green rosetta/Ship ahoy, Punky's whips, Jones crusher, Conehead, Bowling on Charen


Sheik Yerbouti - You are what you is (1979-1981)

With Sheik Yerbouti took a major leap in improving the sound quality of his albums. The release became his best selling album with Bobby Brown becoming a big hit in some European countries. The lyrics got in the way of this single becoming an international hit. Joe's garage deals with a hypothetical situation where a government is prohibiting music, with the main character Joe winding up only being able to play music in his mind. The album ends with the touching solo Watermelon in Easter hay. Tinsel town rebellion is a selection from recent live recordings. The growing importance of guitar solos in Zappa's output culminated with the box set Shut up 'n play yer guitar. You are what you is a one of Zappa's more accessible albums with for instance country, rock and even a gospel song.

Sheik Yerbouti - Hammersmith Odeon: disco references and solo building
The black page #2, Dong work for Yuda, Watermelon in easter hay (prequel), Wild love, Mo' and Yo' mama, Flakes, I have been in you, Dancin' fool, King Kong (1978)
One shot deal - Chicago '78 - Halloween: live compilations #1 and xenochrony
Heidelberg, Stinkfoot, Ancient armaments, On the bus, Occam's razor, Paroxysmal splendor
Joe's garage: the emotional dimension
Joe's garage, Watermelon in easter hay (1979-1984), A token of my extreme, Fembot in a wet T-shirt, Outside now, No more Mr. nice girl, Packard goose, Lucille
Tinsel town rebellion - Buffalo: fashions
Fine girl, Easy meat, Panty rap, Pick me, I'm clean, Peaches III
Shut up 'n play yer guitar: modes
Five-five-FIVE, Return of the son, Pink napkins, Canarsie, Why Johnny can't read, The deathless horsie
You are what you is - The dub room special: rock 'n roll and other styles
You are what you is, Heavenly bank account, Harder than your husband, Beauty knows no pain, Stevie's spanking, Jumbo go away, Doreen, The meek


Orchestral works and chamber music (1982-1984)

In 1982 Zappa had acquired sufficient means to hire the London Symphony Orchestra to perform a number of his orchestral works. At the same time he got commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain to write a chamber music piece for them. These recording were released as The L.S.O. and The perfect stranger, the latter with Pierre Boulez conducting. Other performences of orchestra and chamber music scores followed. Among them Sinister footwear, in full regrettably only available as sheet music (apart from a bootleg recording). During these years Zappa's modern music works could also appear on his rock albums. Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch unintendedly contained a small U.S. hit with Valley girl. On Them or us one of the Sinister footwear movements can be found. On The man from Utopia Zappa experimented with recitatives.

Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch: the modern rock band
Drowning witch, Valley girl, Teen-age prostitute, I come from nowhere
The L.S.O. - The perfect stranger: a modern composer
Mo 'n Herb's vacation, Pedro's dowry, Outside now again, Envelopes, Sad Jane, The girl in the magnesium dress, Dupree's paradise (1984), The perfect stranger, Bob in Dacron
The man from Utopia: recitatives
The jazz discharge party hats, We are not alone, Tink walks amok, The radio is broken, The torture never stops (1980), Moggio
Them or us - Sinister footwear: the modern rock band (cntd.) and instrumentation
Ya Hozna, Sinister footwear I-III, Marque-Son's chicken, Naval aviation in art?, Frogs with dirty little lips


The synclavier (1984-1986)

In 1982 Zappa bought a synclavier, a computer controlled synthesizer, that offered him the possibility to execute pieces, humanly impossible to play. Among the first recordings where this machine was used, was Thing-Fish. This work belongs to the literary side of Zappa with a peculiar plot about a government trying to spread out diseases deliberately. It has the shape of an opera. Does humor belong in music? is a compilation of live music as played during the 1984 tour. In 1985 a senate hearing was held about the possible introduction of warning labels when the lyrics of pop albums could be deemed dangerous or offensive. Zappa was one of the speakers against this idea and released FZ meets the Mothers of prevention as a reaction, doing many interviews as well. This last album also included some complex synclavier works. The next year Jazz from hell followed with the synclavier being present full-fledged. This album got rewarded with an Emmy.

Thing-Fish: an opera
The evil prince, Wistful wit a fistful, No not now, Won ton on, Mammy nuns, Harry and Rhonda, The crab-grass baby, Harry-as-a-boy
Does humor belong in music?: the lyrics
Baby take your teeth out; Hot plate heaven; Bobby Brown, Let's move to Cleveland, For Giuseppe Franco, He's so gay
FZ meets the Mothers of prevention: politics
One man - one vote, Alien orifice, I don't even care, Aerobics in bondage, What's new in Baltimore
Jazz from hell: the synclavier #1
Damp ankels, Massagio Galore, Night school, G-spot tornado, The Beltway bandits


The final tour and the tape vault (1987-1990)

In 1984 stopped being on the road every year and turned his attention to his huge tape archive with, among others, all the live recordings. He had the habit of permanently changing his compositions, so many alternative versions got available via the massive You can't do that on stage anymore set. It comprises six double CDs, covering his whole career and about all different bands and tours. Guitar is another guitar solo collection from the 1982 and 1984 tours. Still there would be much more releasable material in the vault, as some of the ZFT issues indicate. In 1987 Zappa initiated what turned out to be his final tour. It was done with a large band with a large repertoire. The last leg of the tour had to be cancelled because of conflicts within the band. The financial loss was compensated by releasing most of the set on Broadway, the hard way, The best band you never heard in your life and Make a jazz noise here. Trance-fusion is a third guitar solo CD, with the accent lying on the 1988 tour.

Guitar: solo types
Sexual harassment intro, In-a-gadda-Stravinsky, Sunrise redeemer, Republicans, Canadian customs, Orrin hatch on skis, GOA; San Antonio
You can't do that on stage anymore: live compilations #2
Shall we take ourselves seriously, Ride my face to Chicago, Thirteen, Babette, Don't you want a man like me? (1976-1988), King Kong (1971/82)
Broadway the hard way: parodies and conventions
Rhymin' man, Any kind of pain, Jesus thinks you're a jerk, Welcome to the U.S., Promiscuous
Best band - Make a jazz noise here: live compilations #3
The black page (new age version), The torture never stops - part two, Zomby woof, Heavy duty Judy (1988), When yuppies go to hell, Let's make the water turn black
Trance-fusion: chromatic notes and quarter-tones
Trance-fusion, Bavarian sunset, Ask dr. Stupid, Diplodocus, Light is all that matters, Soul polka


The late works (1991-1993)

In 1991 it was publicly announced that Zappa suffered from incurable prostate cancer. He still lived for three years, being able to compose and yet again come up with new directions for his music. It did something to make up for his early death in 1993. After Jazz from hell Zappa continued working on the synclavier, eventually leading to Civilization phaze III and Dance me this. Both CDs show a mix of composed music and collage pieces, achieved by assembling samples. Wolf Harbour is a fascinating world of industrial sounds and percussion sections. Other synclavier music reached a public via indirect sources, as The Valdez score (radio broadcast) and Uncle Sam (as part of a ZFT release). The cooperation with the Ensemble Modern worked out very well. With The yellow shark, Zappa could release some early and recently written chamber music.

Outrage at Valdez and others: documentaries
Outrage at Valdez, The Valdez score, Improvisation in A, Budapest solo, Strat Vindaloo
The yellow shark - EIHN: counterpoint #2
Strictly genteel (1987), Times beach; None of the above, T'Mershi Duween, This is a test, 9/8 Objects, Ruth is sleeping, What will Rumi do?, Exercise #4
Civilization phaze III: the synclavier #2
Put a motor in yourself, Get whitey, Samba funk, Uncle Sam, Beat the reaper, Xmas values, Reagan at Bitburg, Amnerika, N-lite
Dance me this: the synclavier #3
Calculus, Pachuco gavotte, Dance me this, Rykoniki


Conclusion

Zappa has referred to his output as one big project, being held together by a conceptual continuity. This motto was more an attitude towards music than something you might call a development of a Zappa style: anything was allowed. Another slogan he liked to use was "AAAFRNA": anything, anytike, anywhere for no reason at all. This study contains 400 note examples, showing a huge variety in every aspect: meters, rhythms, styles, instrumentation. About anything is coming by in such a creative manner that many consider Zappa a genius.

Conclusion (in full)