Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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With "Apostrophe (')" Zappa continued the success he had with "Overnite sensation". Every now and then he would co-write a song with band members. "Apostrophe (')" contains two of them. Others included in this study are "Scum bag" and "No more Mr. nice guy". The title track stems from a 1972 recording session. Originally this song carried the title "Energy frontier", with "Down in the dew" as the main theme and "Apostrophe (')" as a large interlude. More from this session is included in the ZFT release "The crux of the biscuit", with alternative recordings and mixes of most "Apostrophe (')" tracks. "Down in the dew" only got postumely released on "Läther". It looks like Zappa aimed at "Apostrophe (')" being commercial, because the more complex songs he had in stock got skipped. He convinced Warner Bros. to advertise for it on TV. He was so delighted when this album reached number 10 in the LP chart, that he let a marching band parade in front of their office.

1. Don't eat the yellow snow

The riff from "Don't eat the yellow snow" from "Apostrophe (')" is using the chord progression I-I-I-II 7th (occ. VII 9th) in D Mixolydian (bass included in these chords).

Don't eat the yellow snow, riff (midi file).

Don't eat the yellow snow, riff (transcription).

Don't eat the yellow snow There are three live versions of "Don't eat the yellow" available, performed as a suite. To the right: Napoleon Murphy Brock and Zappa in the studio, 1974, rehearsing "Don't eat the yellow" in the Australia version (source: Roxy, the movie DVD). This suite is made up of tracks 1-4 from "Apostrophe (')" with some extras:

One shot deal: Australian yellow snow
- 0:00 Don't eat the yellow, Australia version with the instrumental intro skipped.
- 0:57 Nanook rubs it.
- 7:41 St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast. According to the Crux of the biscuit liner notes the sung version of "Father O'blivion" was included in this performance, but omitted for the CD edit (like the "Don't eat the yellow" intro). The next suite is presented as the full version of how it was performed in Australia.
- 8:40 The MAR-JUH-RENE spelling event.
- 12:26 End.

The crux of the biscuit: Don't eat the yellow snow/St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast
- 0:00 Don't eat the yellow, Australia version incl. the instrumental intro.
- 1:10 Nanook rubs it.
- 6:50 St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast.
- 8:58 Father O'blivion.
- 11:24 St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast, played faster.
- 12:26 The MAR-JUH-RENE spelling event. See the liner notes for a detailed description of the event.
- 16:06 The band soloing in mostly G Dorian, followed by the Father O'blivion text, spoken by Zappa over a bass G pedal note.
- 18:54 "Join the march and eat my starch". A section from the later "Greggery Peccary" composition, with some bars included in this study as the second example from this piece.
- 19:24 End.

YCDTOSA Vol. I: Don't eat that yellow snow (February 1979)
- 0:00 Don't eat the yellow. Again a slightly different version: the descending bass riff is played parallel on guitar with the chords turning up explicitly only at 1:18. There are quite some alternative bars to make this version of interest, like the "you don't really look like an Eskimo" line. A little instrumental add-in is included towards the end (2:04-2:16).
- 2:25 Nanook rubs it incl. the fur trapper pounding and poetry reciting event.
- 13:23 St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast.
- 15:11 Father O'blivion.
- 17:26 Rollo variant.
- 20:16 End

The first two suites are taken from two subsequent shows the band played in Australia, June 1973. It has a pretty different version of "Don't eat that yellow". Performed like this it could never have been the album opener of "Apostrophe (')", because it doesn't begin with the catching riff of this song.

Don't eat that yellow snow (Australia), opening (midi file).

Don't eat that yellow snow (Australia), opening (transcription).

Don't eat the yellow snow "Don't eat that yellow snow" (Australia) begins as an instrumental with the example from above (0:00 through 0:27). During the years 1973-74 Zappa experimented with irregular note strings to be played as fast as possible. The title of "Approximate" refers to this and the score of this song compared to the live performance shows how it worked. See the YCDTOSA Vol. II section. The band had to follow the rhythm and the direction of the string, but the individual pitches of the notes were left at choice. I can't absolutely proof that this is also happening here, but that this is the case is quite obvious. In bars 1 and 6 the band members are following the same movement but with different chromatic notes. These bars get repeated, but not identically. The recording is not bright enough to notate everything per player. It's transcribed by approximation with the notes reasonably audible in it. It goes as:

- Bar 1: a string lasting 30/16, following pattern 1. The band members play it chromatically, beginning on different pitches. It's totally atonal with harmonies being created at random, but the pattern comes out clearly.
- Bars 2-5: a normal pop music figure in 4/4. It's a repeated bar with I-VII-II in D Lydian.
- Bar 6: another string lasting 30/16, this time following pattern 2. The descant players end with a note during up to a whole note. This space is filled in by the bass and drum.
- Bars 7-8: patterns 2 and 1 get repeated.
- Bars 9-12: the main "Don't eat that yellow snow" riff. It's a different version of the above example regarding the chords and bass line. It's also in 7/8 and in D Mixolydian, but the construction and harmony are a more basic progression of triads: D-D-C-C#-D or I-VII with a chromatic passing chord betweem them. Other than above, the directions of the bass and chords are played parallel. This is done to let the riff turn into a vamp for the remainder of the song, while on the "Apostrophe (')" CD the riff is the core of the song. It's tuned down with Zappa speach-wise singing the lyrics, much shorter than on the "Apostrophe (')" CD.

Above to the right: cover of Don't eat that yellow, pop music wisdom, a collection of painted quotes from various popsongs by Marcus Kraft. It became a best-seller.

2. Nanook rubs it

In most of "Nanook rubs it" a bass riff of two bars is used as a vamp. Only at the beginning there are some pattern breaking bars in 4/8, for the remainder the bass keeps vamping. It's a relaxed song in a slow 6/8 metre with Zappa sometimes speechwise singing and sometimes normally singing about the clash between a fur trapper and an eskimo. As the song progresses short guitar solo comments and an interlude ("no, no, I can't see") pass by. The vamp is used at length in the 1979 live version on "You can't do that on stage anymore, vol. I", where it is accompanying the pouncing and poetry reciting event.

Nanook rubs it, opening (midi file).

Nanook rubs it, opening (transcription).

The basis of this transcription is by Andy Aledort, published in 2002, Hal Leonard series. His scores are arrangements for guitars. For my midi file I made some adaptations on it:
- Inclusion of the bass part. Andy normally doesn't transcribe the bass part, but indicates it here as a D#m7 and B9 chord alternation. Apparently this is a convention in the Hal Leonard series.
- Pitches of some parts I think are different (a fur..., strictly..., peek...).
- The 4/4 bars are an obvious writing error for 4/8 bars.
- In the spoken parts I think Zappa speaks more flatly and the rhythm is more irregular. Maybe you'd need to resort to quarter tones as well.
- Andy notates the key as normal D sharp Minor. This appears to be another convention in the Hal Leonard series (songs are notated in major or minor, also when the actual scale is modal). Since the E is always played natural I've notated no E sharp in the presets (the key is then modal, D sharp Phrygian).

3-4. St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast - Father O'blivion - Rollo interior

Rollo interior To the right a section of a screenshot of Ruth Underwood showing her copy of the "Rollo interior" lead sheet, handwritten by Zappa (source: "Overnite sensation/Apostrophe(')" DVD). She expresses how Zappa pushed the right buttons by writing pieces like this, exactly what she wished to play. Next she evolves about the 2-chords he prescribed for the harmony, contrary to the more usual triads (in this study mostly called 9th and 5th chords respectively). "Rollo interior" got used as the second instrumental half of "St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast" on "Apostrophe(')", leaving the harmony chords out or mixed to the background where I cannot hear them no more. The same happened to "The black page". Apparently Ruth liked the presence of these chords in Zappa's music a lot. In the "Roxy by proxy" CD liner notes she continues as "[...], the very chords that had always attracted me to FZ's music and that gave it such a distinctive sound". Zappa does indeed use sus2-chords - and sus4-chords - more than avarage. To mention some instances of sus2-chords from my study:
- "Peaches on regalia", bar 7.
- "Little umbrellas", 1st example, staff 2.
- "Little house I used to live in", melody during bars 27-30 (F#-G#-C#).
- "Rollo", bars 15-16, staff 1.
- The example Ruth plays on the "Overnite sensation/Apostrophe(')" DVD is from the "Idiot bastard son" (see the YCDTOSA II section), a clear example of Zappa using 2-chords.
- "Punky's whips", chord from the 33/32 bar.
- "No more Mr. nice girl, outchorus.
- "Alien orifice", 1st example, accompanying chords.
- "One man - one vote".
- "Outrage at Valdez", opening bar (F-G-C).
Ruth started working with Zappa as a percussionist on "Uncle meat". In 1972 she joined the Mothers as a steady member, taking her marimba with her on the road. Zappa already had used vibes and similar percussion instruments for playing lead melodies, and with Ruth in the band for five years, the relatively uncommon marimba grew out as a trademark of Zappa's instrumentation during that period.

Next are the closing bars of "St. Alfonso's pancake breakfast", segued by the opening of "Father O'blivion". Both are complex songs on an album that mostly is accessible, that is to say for Zappa standards. They contain constantly changing themes, meters, rhythms, keys and tempi. The example discussed here is based upon Andy Aledort's 2002 "Apostrophe(')" songbook, who got commissioned to transcribe all of this album (thus including the solos).

St. Alfonso/Father O'blivion, transition (midi file).

St. Alfonso/Father O'blivion, transition (transcription).

St. Alfonso part of the transcription:
- Bars 1-6: the ending of the so-called "Rollo interior" section (see also "Rollo" from the previous section). A highly irregular melody. It does use diatonic material from various scales, but without key notes. The bass keeps moving freely with a counterpoint line and virtually nowhere traditional chords are formed. The rhythm however is constant: an ongoing stream of 16th notes.
- Bars 7-9: closing bars from "St. Alfonso", forming a transition to "Father O'blivion".
Father O'blivion part:
- Bars 1-8: instrumental opening in E Mixolydian with a guitar lick. It gets joined with a second lick in bars 5-8.
- Bars 9-14: main theme. The first guitar lick stops, the second lick now gets accompanied by the bass.
- Bars 15-18: second theme in varying meters.

5-6. Cosmic debris - Excentrifugal Forz

"Cosmic debris" gets described by Ludwig on page 218 of his study. It includes a standard blues guitar solo. "Excentrifugal Forz" begins with a riff in A Mixolydian. Next you've got Zappa speach-wise singing the lyrics in an irregular manner, interrupted by a little guitar solo.

Cosmic debris

Sample from the Apostrophe (') guitar book with the opening lick from "Cosmic debris".

The scores of all songs from "Apostrophe (')" are available as the Apostrophe (') guitar book from the Hal Leonard series. The transcriptions are done by Andy Aledort, who earlier transcribed "Hot rats" as well. The opening lick is in C Dorian, as is the guitar solo. The "Crux of the biscuit" release by the ZFT has this lick first being played by brass instruments. It lasts six seconds and got edited out for the album. In this version the chords aren't only implied as with the guitar intro from above. The bass keep giving an C as pedal note. Over this the harmony goes as:
- bar 1, beat 1: C7.
- bar 1, beat 2: Eb.
- bar 1, beat 3: C7.
- bar 1, beat 4 through bar 2, beat 1: G-C-F (stacked fourth).
- bar 2, beat 2, tick 2: C.
- bar 2, beat 3-4: Bbsus2.
So the implicated chords by Andy happen to be in line with how the band actually played this at the time Zappa had it harmonized. This also means that my remark that this lick is in C Dorian needs some refinement. The major third from the C/C7-chord shows that there's a Mixolydian aroma to this riff as well, thus yet another example of mingling two closely related scales.

7. Apostrophe (')

The title track from "Apostrophe (')" is one of two instances on this album of Zappa collaborating with others regarding songwriting. Next to Zappa himself, it gets credited to Jack Bruce and Jim Gordon. Without inside information it's impossible to know who exactly contributed what. Since Jim Gordon plays the drums, I felt obliged to include the drum part in the note examples in this case. "Apostrophe (')" got recorded as a quartet with also Tony Duran on rhythm guitar. Jack Bruce plays the fuzz-like bass. The Apostrophe (') guitar book comes in handy for following the structures of the included songs, because they are subdivided into blocks with capitals. I'm following these blocks in the overview below.

A (0:00-0:17). Opening theme. The central theme of "Apostrophe (')" is a guitar-bass riff presented in bar 1 of the next note example. It is using notes from the Em7 chord, only at the end getting at an A outside this chord. It gets played without accompanying chords but with some synthesizer sounds added to it as shown in staffs 2-3, probably overdubbed. The riff is played four times and it gets followed twice by a chord progression: G-A-Em. Because the riff begins on E and the chord progression ends on it, the key can be identified as E Dorian. Rhythmically the riff is half on-beat and half syncopic. The A and Em chord of the progression appear in syncopic positions as well.

Apostrophe ('), section #1 (midi file).

Apostrophe ('), section #1 (transcription).

B (0:17-1:19). Alternation between D Mixolydian and C major, each played for two consecutive bars every time they appear. Here the bass is leading, playing the melody, while the guitar plays a number of chords on D or C. The two scales, that are being used, differ by one note, namely the F# from D Mixolydian and the F natural from C major. In the note example you can see the F# in the chords from bars 3-4. The F natural turns up in the bass line from bars 5-6. The following note example begins around the middle of this block with the alternation being at C major, though the bass line in bars 1-2 is chromatic.

Apostrophe ('), section #2 (midi file).

Apostrophe ('), section #2 (transcription).

C (1:19-1:24). Two transitional bars in B Dorian.
D (1:24-3:22). Bass and guitar duet in B minor or Dorian. These two scales differ by one note, G versus G#, and they both are being used. In the example below you have a G by the bass. In the guitar book you can see both G and G# turn up for the guitar part. Andy Aledort apparently marked this block as a guitar solo, rather than a duet. Indeed you could say this is the part with the guitar soloing being the most active contributor. The guitar solo itself starts with a riff played four times, not returning elsewhere in this piece.

Apostrophe ('), section #3 (midi file).

Apostrophe ('), section #3 (transcription).

E (3:22-3:44). Closing notes of the guitar solo and bass, a faint C# for the guitar and the tonic B for the bass. With it four bars of drum soloing start.
F (3:44-5:31). Variations upon the previous:
- The central theme returns four times.
- Mix of free variations upon the central theme by all parts and improvised melodic lines. The lead guitar is little by little moving towards the background till in the last five bars its only the rhythm guitar and the bass left. In these last bars a closing riff gets repeated, not directly related to the central theme.
G (5:31-5:50). The central theme returns once more, while this instrumental fades out to its end.

8. Uncle Remus

"Uncle Remus" is a collaboration between Zappa and George Duke. When I included this example during the update of the summer of 2013, I had no information about who contributed what. In the "Crux of the biscuit" liner notes, George Duke gets quoted from an unreleased interview with Andy Hollinden from 1997, saying: " [...] So he was going to do a demo for me. We did three songs and "Uncle Remus" was one of them. Frank decided, after we recorded it - I didn't get a deal out of it, by the way - but, basically, he said, "I think I'd like to use this track on my album and I'm going to write some lyrics to it". And so I said, "Hey Frank, you paid for it. Go ahead". [...] I was very happy and honored by the fact that he'd even consider doing it, because I didn't think it'd be the kind of song he'd be interested in". So as a musical collaboration it's a lesser example than the above "Apostrophe (')" track or "No more Mr. nice guy" from the Joe's garage section from this study. These two songs contain no lyrics, so the cooperation can only have been musical. Still there's some musical contribution by Zappa in the sense that he plays solo guitar on it, as well as being the producer of the song. But the music is written by George Duke alone, and the lyrics by Zappa alone. The example below contains a part of the instrumental interlude with Zappa soloing on guitar along the chord progression of the central theme. George of course is playing the keyboard part. It's a progression drifting along a number of scales. Andy Aledort notates it as D minor, but that's only a relatively best fitting choice. The chord progression here is, mostly as indicated by Andy:
bar 1: Dm - Dm plus C by the bass.
bar 2: G - Bb - Am.
bar 3: Gm7 - Dm - C plus D by the bass.
bar 4: Gm7 - Bb - Eb - Bb.
bar 5: F - Bb - F - Fsus2 - Gm.
bar 6: Bbmaj7 plus C by the bass - C - Bbmaj7 plus G by the bass - C - Bbmaj7 - C - Bb.
bar 7: Dm7 - G7/G.
bar 8: Bbm - Eb - Bbm - D.
The scales passing by briefly are: D Dorian for bar 1, bar 2 is transitional, D minor for bar 3, G minor/Bb major for bar 4, F major or Mixolydian for bar 5, C Mixolydian for bar 6, D Dorian/G Mixolydian for bar 7. Bar 8 follows a Bb minor variant, the series of notes being Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-G-A. With the last chord from bar 8 you're getting back at D Dorian. The rhythm of this song is standard playing in 4/4. The lyrics have Zappa accompanied by a female chorus all through (staff 1 in bars 1 and 8). The Ikettes without Tina now get mentioned by their first name (Debbie and Lynn; see also above). The album also mentions Susie Glover, so she might be in the chorus too. These lyrics refer to black people and the riots they could get involved in in the sixties and seventies. As in many of his songs Zappa sings it in the I-form, while it's obviously not about himself, with its purpose remaining cloudy. Maybe it was just for portraying some aspects of what was going on in these days.

Uncle Remus, interlude (midi file).

Uncle Remus, interlude (transcription).

The two collaboration pieces from above however never appeared live on official albums. "Apostrophe (')" was used as a concert opener during the Bongo Fury tour, an interesting version that fans know by for instance the El Paso bootleg. Since the ZFT steadily releases live albums, we might get to hear more from this tour one day too.

9. Stinkfoot

In the Halloween section you can find the live version of "Stinkfoot" compared to the studio version from "Apostrophe (')". They main vamp goes pretty differently. This goes for all live editions of "Stinkfoot", the other ones appearing on "YCDTOSA Vol. II", "FZ:OZ" and "Make a jazz noise here". All have a guitar solo in C Mixolydian in them, making each version of interest.

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