Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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After Zappa had disbanded the original Mothers of invention, he kept on performing live. At first on a lower scale with the so called Hot rats band. Next there was a short Mothers of invention tour. In the summer of 1970 he picked up his regular touring schedule again with a new line up of the band, that was performing in this set up for one and a half year. He only started recording live more seriously with an album in mind in June 1971 at the Fillmore East. The 1971 tour ran from May through December. So there's a gap in the live recordings from the fall of 1969 through December 1970, the last month of the 1970 fall tour. Not only historically. The sources over this period are mostly indirect, in the sense that they aren't part of the official CD catalogue. They are bootleg recordings and documentaries, that indicate that there is material worth releasing on a regular CD as well. This section is centred around the touring from 1970.

NOVEMBER 1969 - MARCH 1970

At the end of 1969 Zappa spent some three months on writing out the orchestral scores for "200 Motels". He still did a couple of live concerts with the musicians from the "Hot rats" sessions in or around L.A., without a touring schedule. Two of these shows got bootlegged.

Twinkle tits

The setlist contains a still unreleased composition called "Twinkle tits", being an interesting combination of known and unknown themes plus soloing. The title seems to stem from Zappa himself. In 2009 "Twinkle tits" became part of "Beat the boots III", including the version of this song that was previously known via the "Apocrypha" bootleg. This song is thus now legally available, though still only with an inferior bootleg sound quality. On another bootleg album he's said to introduce it with this title, calling it a waltz. If that's so the term waltz can only refer to the "Holiday in Berlin" part in it. The general construction of this piece, as included in the "Apocrypha" bootleg, goes as:
- 0:00-0:13: a joyful riff of one bar in 12/8, played four times.
- 0:14-0:19: a second riff of two bars in 4/4 played once to introduce a guitar solo.

Twinkle tits, 0:07-0:25 (midi file).

Twinkle tits, 0:07-0:25 (transcription).

The opening riff is in E Mixolydian. The second riff and the soloing continue in E Dorian. The transcription is only a by approximation one because of the sound quality. It has Ian Underwood on keyboard, Zappa on guitar, Don Harris on electric violin and Max Bennett on bass.
- 0:19-1:20: first guitar solo.
- 1:21-1:34: the first riff played four times again.
- 1:34-1:42: a third more irregular riff played four times as well.
- 1:43-2:14: section from "Holiday in Berlin" from "Burnt weeny sandwich".
- 2:14-5:37: violin solo by Don Harris, Zappa plays rhythm guitar.
- 5:38-5:49: violin solo ends, the bass keeps vamping.
- 5:49-7:27: second guitar solo.
- 7:27-10:08: closing theme block, officially only known in a demo form from "Joe's domage" (spring 1972). There it's listed as "Another whole melodic section". See the Grand Wazoo section for a transcription.

Chunga's basement

It's unknown why fine instrumentals as "Twinkle tits" and "Imaginary diseases" (1972) haven't been released by Zappa himself. Not even anything from the tours they were part of. It's thinkable that he at some point didn't recall these songs, but that he forgot about whole blocks of touring, that's unlikely. He did include studio material from this period on "Chunga's revenge" and "The lost episodes", whereas the ZFT would release "Chunga's basement" as the central piece on "Quaudiophiliac".

Chunga's basement, section (midi file).

Chunga's basement, section (transcription).

The beginning of "Chunga's basement" is something you might call the lounge bar version of the more rock like "Chunga's revenge" (the slow tango type cover by the Gotan Project also has something of a lounge bar version). It skips the three guitar chords at the beginning; they turn up later in the song. The bass riff now gets divided over two bars, that are minor variants upon each other. The lead melody is played calmly and smoothly on keyboards, now in the form of a series of chords. The single E-D movement of the melody at the beginning has been replaced by a VII-I-IV chord progression in D Dorian for the descant in staff 1 (inclusion of the bass would extend the first chord to VII 11th). All notes are now arpeggio chords, played rapidly with the last note on the downbeat. The notation, via pick-up notes, looks a bit awkward for that reason. The sound of the keyboard is thick with some vibrato, so I'm not positive about all notes in the chords. Zappa enters with his solo in the same calm manner: he's playing unusually gentle and rhythmically easy here.

APRIL - MAY 1970

Zubin Mehta In December Zappa was offered the opportunity to have his newly written score premiered by the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta. To give this one time concert more body and publicity, he wanted his rock band to take part of it. He was able to regroup the former Mothers of Invention for a short reunion tour. The series of a dozen venues were meant to prepare for the concert with Mehta, to be held at the Pauley Pavillion. It turned out to be a major success, with this sports stadium filled to the full. To the right Zubin Mehta sitting with Zappa in front of the 200 Motels scores (from Changing Times: Los Angeles in Photographs, 1920-1990; photographer unknown). The following quotation can be found at,9171,878305,00.html: ""Most rock groups could not do this sort of thing because they cannot read music," said Zubin Mehta confidently. "Frank Zappa, on the other hand, is one of the few rock musicians who knows my language." As conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mehta is known not only for his willingness to step in where many Angelenos fear to tread but for his ability to get away with it musically."
Zappa wanted but couldn't record the concert, not even for private use. In order to do that he would have to pay the whole orchestra a union regulated fee, which was too expensive. When he wrote "Stick together" in the early eighties about union corruption, it was more than social criticism. It was personal resentment. So the only available documentation of this event is a bootleg version.

Dance of the just plain folks

The bootleg pressings include "Tuna sandwich", so next is a sample of the "Tuna sandwich" section of score. The first corresponding execution on album can be found on "200 Motels" as the opening of "Dance of the just plain folks". In the original score for "200 Motels" this section is called "Tuna sandwich ballet" (image below). The bars below contain changing meters, triplets and a tempo change. The main melody follows scales that keep changing.

Dance of the just plain folks, opening bars (midi file).

Dance of the just plain folks, opening bars (score).

Dance of the just plain folks

Along the way Zappa still wanted to finish his "Uncle meat" movie project. He was able to arrange a filming crew for a friend's price. He thought about interviewing the Mothers individually, so that it would be a documentary about the Mothers in the sixties. But when the members of the band got confronted with this unannounced project, they were reluctant to cooperate. So Zappa had to come up with something new, characterised by making something out of nothing, a method for which he praises John Cage on the "Lumpy Money" CD. Things were improvised on the spot and in the final edit nothing was done to conceal this. Don Preston took the major role as the monster Uncle Meat. Some of the acts and phrases used in it are thus bizarre that the result proves to be entertaining, despite of the extreme low budget.


In June 1970 Zappa had assembled a new line up of the Mothers of Invention and picked up his regular tour schedule again. The fall tour lasted through December with venues in both Europe and the U.S., usually with a concert in Canada attached to it. Today there is some official coverage, though it remains scattered. At the start of the tour, two songs were radio-broadcasted in Holland. They are included in the "At the circus" bootleg from the "Beat the boot series". There's some live footage from 1970 included in the "The true story of 200 Motels" video as well as "Do you like me new car" and "Penis dimension". Zappa himself recorded the "Nancy and Mary music" live for "Changa's revenge". The concert it was taken from, got released by the ZFT in 2016 as "Road tapes, venue #3". Jean-Luc Ponty included a live version of "King Kong" from this time on his album playing Zappa's music, though with a different one time only set up of the band.

Solos from Holiday in Berlin and Call any vegetable

For long most material from this tour stemmed from three bootlegs from the "Beat the boots" series. Both "Tengo na minchia tanta" and "Freaks and motherfu*#@%!" were recorded at the Fillmore East, November 1970. They largely overlap. The first is of a far better sound quality, though the latter contains "Call any vegetable" uniquely. The following three guitar solo examples are taken from these two bootleg recordings. The "Holiday in Berlin" solo is listed as s separate track, "Inca roads/Easy meat", on "Tengo na minchia tanta". In the movie scores section I explained my preference for naming it a "Holiday in Berlin" solo (same D Lydian solo type). The one from "Call any vegetable" corresponds with the solo from "Invocation & ritual dance of the young pumpkin" from the Absolutely free section. The B-C#-D-C# movement by the flute has been replaced by the chord progression I-IV-V-IV in E Dorian. The IV and V chords only contain the third, so the high notes from the chords follow the original flute tune. Rhythmically they do the same on beat - before beat alternation of the four notes/chords.

Holiday in Berlin solo (1970), section #1 (midi file).
Holiday in Berlin solo (1970), section #2 (midi file).
Call any vegetable solo (1970), opening (midi file).

Holiday in Berlin solo (1970), sections (transcription).
Call any vegetable solo (1970), opening (transcription).

These three solo sections show how Zappa's style of soloing developed when you're comparing them to his later solos. The following remarks are applicable only in general:
- The rhythmical figures in his early solos are less complicated than in his later solos, that are full of irregular rhythmic groupings. The larger part of the bars above are fit for sight reading for a trained musician. This is something that can't be said of the solos that Steve Vai transcribed for the Guitar book. The "Orange county" solo section from the Roxy section is a good example of a readable earlier solo. The "Hot rats" solos, that Andy Aledort transcribed, confirm this picture.
- The emotions in the melodic lines are less abstract than in his later solos. His style in the examples above is lyrical, almost romantic. Zappa created an image of himself that can't be associated with romanticism or love songs. But when you hear Bianca Odin singing "You didn't try to call me" on "Philly '76" or the above solo, you can see that things are never a rule for him.
- In his earlier solos there's more room for the accompaniment to take part into the solo. The types of accompaniment have always remained the same, see the Guitar section for that matter, but in his earlier solos the accompaniment could respond to the solo more readily. For his later solos Zappa mostly wanted things as a reliable steady vamp. The band could vary around the vamp, but not interfere with his playing. Above in the second "Berlin" transcription you can see an example of the bass player responding to the solo. In bar 6 Zappa goes from low notes to fast high notes, starting with an F#. The bass player reacts to this by playing F# himself in bar 7, instead of going back to D, as the chord alternation would require. Here it works out well in accentuating the emotional density of bar 7.
The "Vegetable" solo following upon it can only be found on the "Freaks and motherfu*#@%!" bootleg. Most of the bass part is about inaudible. I've included what I can hear as well as the keyboard part, for some of the solo's finesses lie in the cooperation between the guitar solo and the accompaniment. This solo appears to be more preconceived than usual and the construction of this particular section is quite unusual in Zappa's oeuvre.
- The drum part in his earlier solos is less elaborate than in his later solos. Specifically Jimmy Carl Black used to play just the beat, whereas Vinnie Colaiuta said that for Zappa you could hardly get over-excited drumming to his solos.

Who are the brain police? (1970)

The third bootleg from "Beat the boots", covering this tour, is "Disconnected synapses". It contains material from a concert at Paris, December 1970, that also got broadcasted on French TV the next year. Below follows a variation upon "Who are the brain police?" to be found on this bootleg. Notable are the irregular rhythm and large interval jumps in the bars with lyrics:
- Bars 1-4: opening with stressing the C via two triplets (or sixtuplets) in beats 1-3.
- Bars 5-8: a I-III-IV-III progression in C Dorian.
- Bars 9-12: main theme. In bar 9 you can hear a Bb going to F over an octave, thus a jump of a 12th. Bar 10 is a variation upon bar 9. On beat one the triplet rhythm is left for a split second for two 16th notes. The interval jump on beat three gets reduced to a 9th.
- Bars 13-17: second theme.

Brain police variation (Paris, 1970), theme (midi file).

Brain police variation (Paris, 1970), theme (transcription).

In the Carnegie Hall section another version of "Brain police" is included, played in a different manner a year later.

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