Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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When asked what he regarded as his best quality in writing lyrics, Zappa answered his sense of humor. With the title of his 1985 CD "Does humor belong in music?" he's referring to this aspect. In general Zappa's lyrics can cover:
- Social criticism, tending towards cynicism.
- Absurdities.
- Comedy of a provocative nature.
- Love songs (sixties).
The lyrics can be about anything, but the thing Zappa wouldn't do is expressing personal involvement, fake or real. "Freak out" (1966) starts right out with a sharp attack on the school system ("Hungry freaks, daddy") and attempts to manipulate the public opinion ("Brain police"). Absurdities turn up with for instance "Call any vegetable" (1967), where you're advised to invest in personal friendship with vegetables because they are good for your health and keep you regular.
Zappa did some common love songs in the sixties, but later on took a stand against such lyrics. "Tell me you love me" (1970),"Babette" (1974) and "Lucille has messed my mind up" (1979) are some of the last ones he allowed. In 1970 Flo & Eddie joined the band and comedy got introduced. Zappa and Flo & Eddie stimulated each other into a form of humor that is always on the edge.
The boundaries of humor can be a problem when you play it sharp. I recall a Dutch comedian, Freek de Jonge, telling about a tour he did in the U.S. One act was about racism and he told about an uncle of his who, as he noticed that his niece was playing with a black doll, said something like don't play with that, it makes your hands dirty. The idea was to ridicule the narrow-mindedness of racist thought, but a black guy in the audience stood up saying I don't like this and went. When you know a bit about Freek you know what he means, but when you don't the reaction of the black guy is just as valid.
Zappa deliberately always looked for the boundaries between humor and offensiveness and the interpretation of it formed a debate during his lifetime and probably will continue to do so. "For those who in the rush to be offended forgot to listen", he wrote on the backside of the "Shut up 'n play yer guitar" box.
Whether you find Zappa's lyrics entertaining or not is personal and when Neil Slaven in his book calls "The jazz discharge party hats" tasteless, then I don't have a problem with that. But I'm less pleased when interpretations are getting added in. Barry Miles in his biography is accusing Zappa of sexism, based upon three lyrics from "Tinsel town rebellion", namely "Bamboozled by love", "Easy meat" and "Fine girl". Within the framework of Zappa's output I think they rather belong to social criticism, being about stupid male behaviour (beating up women) and stupid female behaviour (walk around in a see-through blouse). "Fine girl" is cryptical. It looks at first as if it's about enjoying the benefits of a woman doing housekeeping tasks, but when you get at the sentence "She was built like a mule, her head was kinda flat", it can't be serious no more. "Build like a mule" doesn't fit into sexist thinking. I go along with Barry however in the sense that I find these three lyrics plain rude.

Baby take your teeth out

The next example is a friendly song from "Them or us" about false teeth. I think most people will find this song funny, unless you're born with bad teeth. The song is in D Lydian, beginning instrumentally with the progression I-II-V-III. Next Ike Willis and Thana Harris sing the main theme over this progression.

Baby take your teeth out, opening (midi file)

Baby take your teeth out, opening (transcription).

The lyrics here go as:
"Baby take your teeth out
Try it one time/It'll be fine/You look divine/I will recline
Baby take your teeth out
Try it one time/It'll be fine/You look divine/I will recline
Leave 'em on the kitchen table." Etc.

Zappa was always rapid in applying new techniques. It already started in the early sixties in Paul Buff's studio, when he got a chance to learn how to use multitrack recording equipment. The sound quality of "Sheik Yerbouti" is for a 1979 album amazing. I know virtually nothing about recording techniques, but you can look into the Ludwig study for this topic. With "Does humor belong in music" Zappa immediately responded to the just introduced CD by putting a half of a concert program from the previous 1984 tour on a disc. The humor from the title in this case not only refers to the lyrics in general but also to the inside on stage jokes of the band members, like Ike Willis adding in the "hi-ho silver" phrase from a then popular song.

Let's move to Cleveland

"Does humor belong in music?" is a coherent album with known pieces in interesting new versions and three unreleased pieces. One of them is "Let's move to Cleveland", a sort of a reggae waltz, reggae in 3/4. As more often Zappa's songs exist a while before they reach an album. In this case an earlier version of this song was part of the 1976 tour program and got released on the Zappa Family Trust release "FZ:OZ" as "Canard toujours" (French for always duck for dinner). Transcribed below are its two central themes. The first one, the reggae one, is in C, though with notes being altered frequently. Rhythmically of interest is bar 10, that has a subdivision into four within a 3/4 bar. The second theme, beginning in bar 13, is in E Dorian.

Let's move to Cleveland, opening (midi file)

Let's move to Cleveland, opening (transcription).

"Does humor belong in music?" was also used as the title for a DVD, that regarding songs partly overlaps with the CD, but is entirely taken from a single different concert, namely at the New York Pier. The idea behind the CD and DVD was an all across selection from the 1984 tour, not specifically the release of new material, otherwise Zappa could for instance have included "Ride my face to Chicago". Still, when you include the solos, more than half of the 60 minutes on the CD is unreleased music. Eventually the 1984 tour would become very well covered, with apart from "Does humor belong in music", about three CDs in the YCDTOSA series and many solos on "Guitar".

Hot plate heaven at the Green hotel - For Giuseppe Franco

St. EtienneZappa's solos are sometimes independent pieces, but normally they are part of songs. Some of the fanatics, the ones with all the bootlegs and giglists, are therefore able to identify which songs they stem from and even to correct Zappa's dates occasionally. "Hot plate heaven at the Green hotel" for instance is good for four solos in total. For the 1984 tour it was agreed upon that halfway the solo the accompaniment would accelerate to double density. What used to be one bar then becomes two bars. It can be heard this way on the "Does humor belong in music" CD. Since the "For Giuseppe Franco" solo on "Trance-fusion" is in the same key and doing exactly the same, it is obviously another "Hot plate heaven" solo. The song reappeared in the 1988 tour, again with a solo, but this time without an acceleration. It's on "Broadway the hard way" in total and again a similar solo was released on "Trance-fusion", called "Finding Higgs' Boson". Next are the theme from "Hot plate heaven at the Green hotel" and a section from "For Giuseppe Franco" with the double density. The song's theme is in E Dorian and the solo in A Mixolydian (the same notes but with A pedal). In the transcribed section below however the accompaniment is playing a progression.

Hot plate heaven at the Green hotel, opening (midi file)
For Giuseppe Franco, 2:30 till 2:48 (midi file)

Hot plate heaven at the Green hotel, opening (transcription).
For Giuseppe Franco, 2:30 till 2:48 (transcription).

Above to the right: FZ playing "St. Etienne" in 1982 (still from the "Ein leben wie ein extravaganza" documentary by Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher).

He's so gay - Bobby Brown

I'll continue with two mainstream pop-songs that can be found on the DVD version only. Regarding its rhythm "He's so gay" is for Zappa-standards unusually straightforward. Not only is the meter regular 4/4, about everything is played on beat. Zappa may complain about most pop music going boom-tick-boom-tick in the Real Frank Zappa book. Something that can be confusing however, is that whenever you find Zappa talking about something he dislikes, you'll also find examples of him doing exactly that. In this bottom section it's about rhythmic and harmonic conventions. What makes "He's so gay" sound interesting, specifically on the "Thing-Fish" studio version, is the way the bass part is handled. I don't know how exactly Zappa created this effect, but is has the accent fluctuating between the left and right channel of the stereo field plus it's made up of more than one single bass line. I've notated it via three staffs, one for the left channel, one for the right channel and one for the middle. Zappa about always looked for a stable fully deployed stereo field, so this is something unusual. Already around 1970 he started using the possibility of double-channeling a guitar, with the left channel reacting a bit different to the instrument than the right channel. So he started playing in stereo ever since. Only during the "Burnt weeny sandwich" guitar solo he let an instrument move between right and left via the simple method of using the stereo buttons from the control pannel. What's done here with the bass line is a much more sophisticated manner of letting an instrument vacillate.

He's so gay (Thing-Fish), section (midi file)

He's so gay (Thing-Fish), section (transcription).

In case of "Bobby Brown", Zappa's choice for following pop-standards payed off, maybe more than he had expected. With "Dancin' fool" on the other side it became a hit, though only in some specific European countries (see the screenhot below from The lyrics about a sexually degenerated male got in the way of getting it aired in English speaking countries. With hindsight the song could better have had conventional lyrics as well. Another problem was that among discjockeys an indecision grew about what was to be seen as the proper side of the single to promote. In my country, Holland, "Dancin' fool" was the side that got some radio play. Not enough to get it into the Dutch top 40, but two broadcasting entities are yearly airing a top 2000 at the year's end with "Dancin' fool" in it. It's composition is determined by forms that the public can fill in on-line (I do my duty each year).

The construction of these two songs on DVD, mostly global, but filled in with details for the transcribed sections:

He's so gay
- 0:00 Intro. The song is in Bb.
- 0:05 Theme 1
The trancribed section from "Thing-Fish" from above corresponds with the DVD at 0:51 for its starting point. Bars 1-5 are the tail of theme 1. The spoken words in staff 1 are Brown Moses commenting.
- 1:00 Theme 2
Bars 6-9 contain phrases 1 and 2 from theme 2. Harmonically the song so far mostly has been a series of triads in Bb. During phrase 2 you can see some altered notes turning up. In bar 8 the Bb chord moves down chromatically with a minor second to the A chord. Bar 9 contains the progression Bb-Eb-Bb7-Fm plus B. So Zappa has modulated here briefly to Bb Mixolydian. Next the example from above stops and phrase 1 gets repeated, followed by a variation upon phrase 2 and a longer coda.
- 1:31 Theme 1 returns.
- 1:57 Theme 3.
- 2:11 Finale. While so far the lyrics of this song have been making fun of gay life, at this point it's given a comic twist. It ends with saying "maybe later we'll all be gay". The example below jumps in at 2:16. It ends with the chord progression I- V 7th plus Bb - I 7th in Bb (bars 3-6). Ike Willis is starting with an A in bar 5, but lets it resolve to Bb. So it's essentially the standard cadence I-V 7th-I, with extra notes added to it. Also the keyboard part in staff 5 is moving freely through the scale, but neatly ending with the Bb chord.
- 2:26 Bars 6-9. Citation from the Culture Club song with the same title. The melody and chord progression are a variation upon their version. Zappa is using I-II-III-III 7th. If I'm hearing it correctly the last chord has an extra Bb added to it.
- 2:34 Bars 10-11. Transition towards "Bobby Brown". The "He's so gay" track on YCDTOSA VI CD is from the same concert as on the DVD, but doesn't include this transition.
- 2:37 Bars 12-15. Intro in C for "Bobby Brown", still included in the "He's so gay" track.

He's so gay - Bobby Brown, transition (midi file)

He's so gay - Bobby Brown, transition (transcription).

Bobby Brown
- 0:00 Verse. Beat 4 of bar 15 is used as the pick-up bar for "Bobby Brown". Zappa starts singing theme 1 all by himself at first. The general outlines of "Bobby Brown" have been described briefly by Wolfgang Ludwig (see below). I'm filling it in with some details from the "Does humor belong in music" DVD. The song is in C and theme 1 follows the progression I-VI-II 7th-V. The transcription above stops with bar 20 with the II 7th chord.
- 0:25 Refrain.
- 0:42 Verse.
- 1:08 Refrain. At this point the last example below starts. Its chord progression goes as:
Bars 1-2: V sustained with the chorus singing IV-III-II-I-IV-III-II over it.
Bars 3: III 7th sustained by bass, keyboard and chorus. Zappa sings the lyrics alone.
Bar 4: VI sustained. Zappa continues solo.
Bar 5: II 7th sustained. Zappa now continues with notes of the melody, while the chorus is singing A and C steadily. The rhythm is speech-influenced and can get syncopic at various points. Here you've got a pretty heavy syncope between bars 5 and 6. Also the drummer follows this (main beats are included for these bars). Also bar 8 looks a bit strange on paper.
Bar 6-8: V sustained. Here the chorus is moving rather freely. Zappa sings the lowest notes, the melody itself. The higher notes are sung by Ike Willis, Ray White and Bobby Martin, forming improvised harmonies. In bars 7-8 all four are following their own melodic line. Basically the "Does humor belong in music" version and the original on "Sheik Yerbouti" are the same. It's details like the specific notes by the chorus, that form the difference.
Bars 9-10: Other than on Sheik Yerbouti, you're here having a unisono G note following the "I wonder, wonder" text. On "Sheik Yerbouti" the text is also only using the G, but the accompaniment follows the progression V-IV-III-V and the bass is decending from G to D to ultimately the C of the verse.
- 1:24 Verse. The example below stops here after the first two bars.
- 1:49 Refrain.
- 2:28 End.

Bobby Brown, section (midi file)

Bobby Brown, section (transcription).
Bobby Brown, analysis by W. Ludwig.

There's a number of ways for identifying chords. In the Ludwig study you'll sometimes find a coding, used in Germany only. In my study you'll also find differents methods, so a brief overview might at this point be handy for knowing what the German symbols stand for. Even so there are more notational variants.
Chord identification with numbers, related to scales and their tonic:
- In Europe chords are identified by their root note, corresponding with a scale step, identified with the Roman numbers I to VII. Chords are always interpreted as derived from stacking thirds. Two thirds form a 5th chord, three a 7th chord etc. Not all thirds have to be present.
- In the US the same idea gets applied with an extra distinction. Major chords use an uppercase, minor chords a lowercase Roman number.
- The German variant uses the series T-Sp-Dp-S-D-Tp-(VII) instead of I-VII. T stands for tonic, Sp for subdominant parallel etc.
Identification of diatonic chords by their root note plus symbols for the type of chord:
This is the method common in songbooks. The major triad on C gets the symbol "C", the minor triad "Cm", the dominant 7th "C7" etc.
Chords in general:
- By simply mentioning the individual notes in the chord, for instance F-C-E-G-B.
- By naming the intervals as the number of minor seconds between the subsequent notes. F-C-E-G-B then becomes 7-4-3-4.
- This can be refined by identifying the octave the notes are in as well. The central C gets called C4. When you move this C an octave down you get C3, and by going up you get C5. By the standard that A4 has the frequency of 440 Hz, chords can be identified in an absolute manner.

Other tracks from Does humor belong in music?

CD and DVD:
- "Zoot allures": the original 1976 recording gets dealt with in the corresponding section.
- "Trouble every day" follows the "More trouble every day" song from "Roxy and elsewhere". Only the lyrics overlap with the first edition of "Trouble every day" from "Freak out!".
DVD only:
- "The dangerous kitchen" is or used to be available via Barfko Swill (transcription by Steve Vai).
- "Keep it greasy": excerpts from two earlier versions are present in the FZ:OZ section.
- "Honey, don't you want a man like me?": four versions are coming by in the YCDTOSA section.
- The scores from "Dinah-Moe Humm" and "Cosmic debris" are available via the Hal Leonard guitar books series (see the Overnite sensation section).

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