Frank Zappa's musical language
Frank Zappa's musical language
A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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After the 1984 tour Zappa stopped touring each year, which he had by then done for twenty years. 1988 saw what would become his last "Broadway the hard way" tour. In 1990 it was already a public secret that he had cancer, and when its irrevocability had become clear, it was officially made public in 1991. The 1988 tour had a large band as well as a large program. The new material with politically inspired lyrics appeared on the "Broadway the hard way" CD from 1989. Most of the other "cover" material of his known compositions from the tour appeared on two 2 CD releases, "The best band you've never heard before" and "Make a jazz noise here". To the right the five piece brass section of the 1988 band (still from the RTVE Barcelona live registration).

Barcelona It's sometimes said that Zappa's music contains parodies. It's difficult to say when something becomes a parody and when it's sincere. On "Cruising with Rubin and the Jets" the parody effect on doo-wop lies in the outspoken simplicity of the songs and the use of higher voices as of young teenagers. Zappa calls these songs parodies in "The real Frank Zappa book", but on the other hand, as he writes in the album liner notes, he really likes them. The parody effect is stronger when certain clichés are used out of context, as the traditional waltz motif at the end of the atonal composition "Pedro's dowry" on "Orchestral favorites" and "The London Symphony Orchestra". It sounds as a joke at this place. This effect is also present after the orchestral "Tuna sandwich" block on "200 motels", when "Lonesome cowboy Burt" starts with country and western cliché music. See the corresponding section for the opening bars. The lyrics of "Lonesome cowboy Burt" confirm the parody intention: they let Burt sing his about his unmannered and down to earth life. Zappa liked the brief use of clichés for their comic effect. "Lumpy gravy" contains some of them, like the stereotype parallel fourths Chinese tune included in that section.

Welcome to the United States

"Welcome to the United States" from the 1993 CD with the Ensemble Modern features an intro with traditional fanfare music. It sounds as a parody because of its context. The Ensemble Modern only plays modern music, also in case of Zappa, so let them play some fanfare music sounds funny here. It's standard fanfare music in Eb, beginning with a bar in 6/4 and next continuing in 4/4. The theme lasts eight bars. It gets repeated a couple of times in the backgroud, when the narrator starts to talk (bars 9-13, staff 1). The intro in total lasts till 1:08. At this point the composed score starts. So the intro was added to this piece during rehearsals. The composed part leaves a lot of space for improvisation. The text to be told by the narrator is set (Hermann in the case of the Ensemble Modern): it's the literal text from the immigration form, you have to fill in when you enter the U.S. as a non-resident. Neither the pitches or the rhythm are prescribed. Only the outlines of the accompaniment are indicated. On the CD you hear how the ensemble worked out the sample of the score, that's reproduced in the CD booklet. This sample coincides with 1:08-1:46 on the CD.

Welcome to the United States, 0:01-0:19 (midi file).

Welcome to the United States, 0:01-0:19 (transcription).
Welcome to the United States, 1:08-1:46 (score).

Many songs on "Broadway the hard way" have little parody effects in them. Like "the big old cadenza" in "Planet of the baritone women"; the parade music that follows upon "Do you believe in the invisible army?" in "When the lie is so big"; the striptease music that introduces "What kind of girl?", etc.

1-2. Elvis has left the building - Planet of the baritone women

All newly composed titles for the 1988 tour with lyrics can be found on "Broadway the hard way". A few new instrumentals appeared on the two double CDs from the next section, where I've included for instance the intro from "When yuppies go to hell". "Broadway the hard way" begins with three pop-song you might call mainstream. During the opening song Zappa is making some fun of the unstoppable Elvis worship in a mild manner. Other than in classical music, in pop music people generally fail to distinguish between performing music and composing music. They sort of identify the person on stage with the music he or she is playing. Elvis is a charming and impressive performer, but he didn't write rock 'n roll songs himself as Chuck Berry did.
Regarding sound, the inclusion of the brass section gives many songs from the 1988 tour a special flavour. As I've been commenting upon in the Them or us section, instrumentation paragraph, Zappa didn't like to include extra instruments just for doubling parts. He wanted them to play lines and motifs of their own as well, and enrich the harmonies. This can be well heard during for instance "Planet of the baritone women".

Planet of the baritone women, lyrics-chords samples.

On internet I could find thumbnails of the lyrics with chords published by Kobalt music. It's an authorized issue. As you can see, the song is made up of three themes, with the instrumental intro using the chord progression from the opening line of theme one.

3. Any kind of pain

"Any kind of pain" however is about all conventional and has no parody effects. It's the most commercial song on the CD, but still has some complexities as changing keys and the adding in of two 7/8 bars. The song opens with a II 7th - I progression in F. In bar 15-16 it has arrived at B flat minor. The 7/8 bars cause an acceleration effect, a little stretto they would say in classical music. The set-up of "Any kind of pain" is the following verse - refrain construction, with a guitar solo functioning as the bridge:

0:00 Instrumental intro (bars 1-4 in the transcription below, the key is F till bar 8).
0:08 Motif 1 (bars 5-8).
0:19 Motif 2 (bars 9-10, modulation to G).
0:23 Motif 3 (bars 11-14, C minor).
0:33 Motif 4 (bars 15-17, Bb minor).
0:40 Main theme, played twice (bars 18-25, F Lydian).
0:59 Variation upon the main theme (bars 26-30 (with the little stretto), first with a chord alternation of Am-Bb, in its tail ending in A minor).

Any kind of pain, opening (midi file).

Any kind of pain, opening (transcription).

1:14 Instrumental intro.
1:23 Motif 1.
1:33 Motif 2.
1:38 Motif 3.
1:48 Motif 4.
1:55 Main theme, played twice.
2:13 Variation upon the main.
2:28 Guitar solo in F Lydian with the main chord progression I-VII. The bass is alternating F and E.
4:18 Instrumental intro.
4:27 Motif 1.
4:37 Motif 2.
4:41 Motif 3.
4:51 Motif 4, repeated three times in the form of a sequence, moving up a major second each time (in total a diminished fifth).
5:11 Main theme, played twice (following the previous sequence, the main theme also gets transposed up a diminished fifth, thus going from F Lydian to B Lydian).
5:30 Variation upon the main theme.
5:42 End.

4-5. Dickie's such an asshole - When the lie's so big

From track 4 onwards where getting at the political and anti-religious part of the CD. "Dickie's such an asshole" is a song Zappa had in stock since 1973 from the Watergate scandal era. It still fits in well in this context. The original recording from the Roxy theatre got included in "YCDTOSA Vol. III". Two examples from this latter version are included in the Roxy section of this study. "When the lie's so big" is another mainstream pop-song, summarizing Zappa's dislike of tv-evangelists and their support of the Republican party.

6. Rhymin' man

Next is a section of another country and western song, "Rhymin' man" from "Broadway the hard way". This comic song is all about the use of clichés. Its first theme is a typical country and western tune. The second theme is a melody beginning with a motif comparable to the opening of "Lonesome cowboy Burt". Every two bars the melody gets interrupted by two bars, that each time contain another familiar sounding tune remindful of the showbusiness world. The song includes three of such blocks.

Rhymin' man, section (midi file).

Rhymin' man, section (transcription).

"Rhymin' man" is in A and straightforward 4/4 for the lead melody. The interrupting bars can deviate from this by using altered notes and moving through various forms of syncopic figures. Showbusiness is also the subject of "Any kind of pain" and maybe the reason for the title of the CD.

7-8. Promiscuous - The untouchables

The last musical trend Zappa paid attention to was rap. Because of its speech influence, rap has some stylistic characteristics of its own. The singers are arguing as in a sort of indictment, using only small intervals and keeping pace with a severe steady beat. Zappa contributed with "Promiscuous" on "Broadway the hard way", having Ike Willis arguing against the Aids speculations of Surgeon General Dr. Koop.

Promiscuous, opening (midi file).

Promiscuous, opening (transcription).

It's entirely following the conventions of this style, but without a parody intent. The song is in D Mixolydian and begins with hammering the I 7th chord for beat 1 of bars 1-4. Next the singers enter into the picture with only a drum beat to accompany them. With "The untouchables" a series of covers of songs by others and new versions of Zappa's own songs begins.

9-10. Why don't you like me? - Bacon fat

"Why don't you like me?" is the "Tell me you love me" track from the Chunga's revenge section, with its lyrics adapted to Michael Jackson. At the time Jackson's album "Bad" got released the first signs of him trying to reshape his face got visable. Zappa couldn't have had an idea what happened afterwards. "Bacon fat" is a cover of a political song by Williams/Brown.

11-12. Stolen moments - Murder by numbers

"Stolen moments" is an instrumental jazz classic featuring Walt Fowler on trumpet. The 1988 tour saw the return of Bruce and Walt Fowler as members of the brass section. Together with their brother Tom, as bass player, they had contributed earlier to Zappa's albums from the seventies. "Murder by numbers" is a song written by Sting, who has a guest appearence on this CD. Zappa accidently met him in the hotel lobby where he was staying, and asked him if he would like to perform with him. So the band had to learn this song swiftly. It worked out well and Zappa thanked Sting, on stage of course, but also in the CD liner notes. Something similar happened with Johnny Cash. The band had learned how to play "Ring of fire", but Johnny said he had to leave before the show because his wife got sick. On this occasion the band played this song anyway with Zappa making some fun of the situation.

13-14. Jezebel boy - Outside now

With "Jezebel boy" we're back at Zappa himself composing. The theme from this specific version of "Outside now" is included in the Joe's garage section of this study, thus including the additional harmonies by the brass section from the 1988 tour.

15-16. Hot plate heaven at the Green hotel - What kind of girl?

The theme from the 1984 version"Hot plate heaven at the Green hotel" is included in the Does humor belong in music? section of this study. "What kind of girl?" belongs to the so-called groupie opera from the 1970-71 tours. These form a specific intertwined story, so the individual songs from this opera weren't fit for inclusion in other tours. In 1988 TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart got caught visiting a prostitute. By itself nothing illegal about it, but in his condition the hypocrisy of it was severely embarrasing. Zappa simply loved this coming out to the open and couldn't resist adapting the lyrics of some of his songs to the occasion, like in "What kind of girl?".

What kind of girl?, 0:00-0:32 (midi file).

What kind of girl?, 0:00-0:32 (transcription).

The general set-up of this piece goes as:
- 0:00 Compared to the original from 1971, this instrumental intro is new. It follows old-fashioned striptease music standards and, for that reason, fits in well into the context of this section. You've got the band members largely improvising over the bass progression that ends the central theme of the song. It goes upwards as A-C#-D-D#-E. First with two beats per note during bars 1-2, next with a note per beat in bar 3.
Nominally this song is in A Mixolydian, but the C turns up just as much as natural as as sharp. Bars are switching between A Mixolydian and A Dorian. The intro, like the phrase it's derived from, ends with playing around a chord progression. Here it's a F-E progression, thus further challenging the A Mixolydian tonality. Altered notes as D# and B# are used as well.
Bobby Martin - 0:16 Central theme, following the blues scheme. During bars 5-7 you've got the four vocalists singing in lower registers. In bars 8-9 Bobby Martin (image to the right) is continuing solo in a high register, kind of suggesting the higher voice of a prostitute compared to her male visitors. The basic rhythm of this piece is three ticks per beat, thus embedded in a 12/8 meter. Frequently beats get subdivided into two as well . Bobby Martin is here singing in an irregular rubato manner. These bars 5-9 are steps I-IV from the blues scheme. The example from above stops here and the song continues with IV-I-V-IV-I. At 0:48 the bass line, that got mentioned above, is used for ending the theme. This time it's followed by a C-Bm chord progression.
- 0:54 Central theme some more. Variations and additions turn up during the repetitions of the theme all through this song.
- 1:43 Citation from "Strawberry fields forever" by The Beatles. Zappa covered a number of classic tunes and pop-songs during his 1988 tour, including Beatles songs. No Beatles songs appeared on CD due to copyright related reasons. "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" got played too, with the opening line adapted to the Swaggart situation as "picture yourself on a whore in a motel".
- 2:00 Central theme for the third time.
- 2:38 Central theme, now with the title from the song as part of the lyrics.

17. Jesus thinks you're a jerk

The closing song of "Broadway the hard way", called "Jesus thinks you're a jerk", opens with an outspoken cliché theme. It sounds as a joke, as if a vaudeville show might begin. The entire song is a sequence of four blocks. The connection between the blocks is made by some cross references and, of course, the lyrics.
Block I:
During the first block the opening theme is repeated several times. Zappa keeps it interesting by adding extra phrases to this theme and varying it via different settings. The notes of the basic melody remain unaltered. The first example below is in C and one of these instances with the main theme being played. At 3:16 a second theme turns up before the main theme gets played one more time.
- 0:00 Theme A, instrumentally, lasting 13 seconds.
- 0:14 Pick up notes ("There's an ...").
- 0:17 Theme A, sung. Zappa inserts two little add-ins at 0:26-0:32 and 0:34-0:37. Combined these 10 seconds explain, why this instance of theme A, being sung, lasts 23 seconds in total. The tempo has remained the same.
- 0:40 Theme A, instrumentally, with a different instrumentation.
- 0:53 Theme A, sung.
- 1:07 Theme A, instrumentally, similar to 0:40. At this point the first example below starts.

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #1, 1:08-1:22 (midi file).

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #1, 1:08-1:22 (transcription).

- 1:20 Theme A, sung.
- 1:32 Variation upon theme A.
- 1:43 Theme A, instrumentally. The accompaniment and bass are now playing at double speed while the lead melody remains the same.
- 1:56 Theme A, sung, a little cut off at the end.
- 2:07 A longer add-in becomes a side theme ("To the bank..."), in some of its aspects related to theme A.
- 2:25 Theme A, instrumentally, with several of the repeating notes skipped. It thus sounds as slowing down, while at 1:43 it sounded as an acceleration. The same number of bars is still played during 13 seconds as at the beginning.
- 2:38 Theme A, sung, a little faster.
- 2:49 A repeated second side theme, also still being related to theme A. A couple of times the sung bars alternate with instrumental bars.
- 3:16 Theme B, sung ("Convinced they are..."). This is truly a new theme, played over an alternation of Em7 and Dm7. It's sung four times, the last time with some rhythmic variation in it.
- 4:02 Theme A, sung, no brass or keyboards this time.
- 4:12 The second side theme from 2:49 returns twice. Bars 1-6 from the second example below contain its tail with Zappa preparing the transition to Block II ("And now, ladies and gentlemen, ...").

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #2, 4:19-4:35 (midi file).

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #2, 4:19-4:35 (transcription).

Block II:
- 4:28 After Zappa has introduced Eric Buxton, this second block continues with Eric doing a little speech in a gloomy atmosphere. This surrounding is created via dissonants, a chromatic bass line and a diminished 5th chord in the background (if I hear it right). It follows a pattern lasting four bars with the bass lick of one bar returning every four bars and pausing in the other three. One might call this theme C. The midi file sounds a bit crappy here; it's hard to represent someone talking in midi format. Bars 7-12 from the second example are the opening of this block with Eric taking over from Zappa from bar 9 onwards.
Block III:
- 5:48 Theme D. When Eric has finished his speech, a more regular pop block follows. It begins with the main theme of this block, played over an alternation of Em7 and Fmaj7, the bass switching between C and F underneath it. In this block III this Em7 and Fmaj7 chord alternation, later on Am/Am7 and G, is more a constant factor than the pedal notes, that keep changing position.
- 6:11 Variations upon theme D.
- 6:30 Reference to block II.
- 6:33 Theme D returns as presented below, again with a reference to block II. This time the original Fmaj7 chord gets played before the Em7 chord and both chords get reduced. Without the F and E as root they become Am and G. Material from the second block returns in the interrupting bars 11-12 and 15-16.

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #3, 6:33-7:01 (midi file).

Jesus thinks you're a jerk #3, 6:33-7:01 (transcription).

- 6:55 Theme D once more, now with Am7 and G alternating and the bass switching between F and D as pedal notes.
- 7:07 Side theme ("Then surely...").
- 7:31 Variation upon theme D with the original Em7 and Fmaj7 alternation as at the beginning. At the end of the second repetition you shortly get to hear one of the many vaudeville like instrumental passages.
- 7:42 The side theme from 7:07 returns, followed by a coda for this block.
Block IV:
- 8:04 Theme E. At 8:04 a fourth block starts, again with a vaudeville like theme ("there's an old rugged cross"). This part thus refers to the opening as it comes to style.
- 8:15 As a closing for theme E, one of the various quotes of the "Louie Louie" progression can be heard, also mentioned in the Absolutely free section. Zappa liked to include this progression every once in a while in his compositions.
- 8:32 Coda.
- 8:56 Intermission of the show starts.
- 9:17 End.

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