Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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LÄTHER (1977 and 1996)

When Warner Bros. took notice of Zappa's deal with Mercury-Phonogram to release "Läther" at the end of 1977 they obstructed its manufacturing, because they by now had decided to release "Zappa in New York" themselves the coming year. Zappa felt infuriated and took the "Läther" tapes to the radio station KROQ-FM. The entire content was broadcast in December in Zappa's presence, where he stimulated the listeners to copy everything on cassette tapes, since he thought that Warner Bros. had no rights to it. In a way you can thus say that "Läther" was officially released with this radio broadcast; everybody who had made a cassette tape recording himself could call himself a legal owner of a limited edition. Historically it is by all means a 1977 project. That bootleggers would seize the opportunity to spread out copies was a to be expected side effect.
"Läther" got officially released on CD by the Zappa Family Trust in 1996. The included reel content pages show how Zappa had reordered the material, and - which makes it more interesting - that he was already changing the content compared to the W. Bros. tapes. The latter makes "Läther" a set that's more than a re-release of the W. Bros records: new songs were added and the two pieces with rearrangements of the "200 Motels" scores were left out. The Zappa Family Trust made a good move by adding some bonus tracks themselves. It makes "Läther", besides being a reissue, also a little new CD upon its own merits:

Duck duck goose - Down in de dew

Pieces unreleased on CD before:
- Duck duck goose
- Down in the dew
- Leather goods
- Revenge of the knick-knack people

The "Duck duck goose" section from below stems from the "Orchestral favorites" sessions. It has a bass motif following the blues scheme in E Mixolydian, over which the orchestra is playing an enlarged chord and some melodic movement. The held enlarged chord is I 9th in bars 2-6 and VII 9th in the remaining bars, played in the form of stacked fifths (plus a third the second time). With these chords being held, the bass following the blues pattern and the lead melody moving freely over it, you get a harmonic field using all kind of combinations of notes from the E Mixolydian key. It's this aspect that makes "Duck duck goose" sound interesting: a combination of traditional blues with modern harmonies. The opening theme of "Down in de dew" is another example of Zappa's fondness of odd rhythms and metres. Here it's achieved via a larger syncopic figure on beats 3 and 4 of the 4/4 bar and a bar in 14/32. Bar 1 is difficult to assign to a specific key. It tends towards a I-V progression in B during beats 1 and 2, and I-VI in C# minor during beats 3 and 4. Thus I've notated it in B. Bar 2 is in A Dorian, when you follow the bass pedal note, and bar 4 is chromatic. The lead melody in bars 2-5 is played via two rhythmically parallel melody lines. They move in the same manner, though the intervals between them vary. It introduces a guitar solo, which Zappa first used for a promotion cassette called "The Guitar world according to Frank Zappa".

Duck duck goose, section (midi file)
Down in de dew, theme (midi file)

Duck duck goose, section (transcription)
Down in de dew, theme (transcription)

A little green rosetta - Ship ahoy

Early versions of pieces released on album between 1979 and 1981:
- A little green rosetta
- For the young sophisticate
- Tryin' to grow a chin
- Broken hearts are for assholes

Green rosetta/Ship ahoy, section (midi file)

Green rosetta/Ship ahoy, section (transcription)

"A little green rosetta" is a two bar progression, each bar repeated once, over a movement of four chords. It's alternating IV-V-IV and I-IV-I in A. The bass notes of the piano are alternating B and A. It can also be seen as B Dorian, but the progression sounds more like a cadence in A. It's a rather easy basis, fit to improvise lyrics along it. This is done extensively on the "Joe's garage" version. Here the improvisation element is limited to singing around the line "A little green rosetta, makes a muffin feeling better", before the musical progression of "A little green rosetta" gets cut off abruptly for a section from the later "Ship ahoy" solo from "Shut up 'n play yer guitar". For "Ship ahoy" Zappa made use of a guitar effect causing irregular aftersounds. Halfway this solo he temporarily set this effect off and it is at this point that the solo falls in during "A little green rosetta" on "Läther". The transcribed "Ship ahoy" section begins in D Mixolydian (the part with an F#) and continues in D Dorian (the part with F natural). The midi file above is from the section with bars without an aftersound. "Ship ahoy" stems from the 1976 winter tour with a couple of shows in Japan. The "Green rosetta" intro must even be older, with George Duke on keyboards. George had left the band in 1975. Both "Duck duck goose" and "A little green rosetta" are smaller collages. The first containing various sections, the second being made up of two blocks. Zappa saying "whereupon the door closes violently" is probably a phrase that got overdubbed later on as a little bridge between the two sections of the collage.

Re-editing and remixes:
There are various examples of forms in which some re-editing and remixing has taken place. The two most notable ones are the original drum parts by Chester Thompson versus Chad Wackerman on the "Sleep dirt" CD; the other one concerns the three original instrumental tracks from the same album, that on CD got a vocal overdub by Thana Harris.

The idea of releasing multi-record boxes lived in Zappa's mind since 1970. "Läther" as a four record set was almost the first to reach the market, with some hundreds of test pressings already made. I haven't heard of anyone with a copy that slipped out before they had to be destroyed. There are some people however who seem to own the first pressing of "Zappa in New York", with "Punky's whips" still on it. Of that one some copies had already reached the stores, before W. Bros decided to withdraw it. The behaviour of this company becomes ridiculous and short-sighted at this point. Even if they didn't care about the content of their records at all, in the long run they would have come out better if they would have let Zappa serve out his contract normally.
Triple records appeared with "Shut up 'n' play yer guitar" and "Thing-Fish", to be surpassed by the three big ones of the "The old masters" re-releases of the MGM and W. Bros. records. These soon became obsolete by the upcoming CD as a new medium. The next big project, the "You can't do that on stage anymore" series of six double CDs, seemed to be pretty massive as it is. The ZFT however has shown that there's much more live material, worth releasing.


Baby Snakes was premiered in 1979 as Zappa's second movie. Its core is concert footage. Footage from the sixties would appear in the 1987 "Uncle meat" movie and the "Does humor belong in music" video presents the band from the eighties. The Roxy concerts from 1973 got filmed as well, but went mostly unused. There are various TV shows that feature Zappa's band. There must be a great deal of material present in the vault. The ZFT has for instance released the "The torture never stops" DVD, taken from material once used for a MTV broadcast of a Zappa concert. "Baby snakes" opens with backstage stuff, clay animations by Bruce Brickford, some cartoon minutes and then is followed by the Halloween concert at the Palladium from 1977. The movie fared badly in the cinema and got reserved reviews, though it did win a prize at the First International Music Film Festival two years later. In the eighties the film became available on video and more recently on DVD, so maybe it's getting a second chance. Personally I find it excellent. What Bruce is doing with the clay is fascinating and the concert goes on fine. The crowd was enthusiastic and the interaction with the public worked out well. Literally physical during the "Black napkins" solo, touching the hands of people in the front row, and caressing a girl with the letters Zappa written on her forehead during "Disco boy". Zappa thanked them explicitly with "I have to say this, I really appreciate this".

Jones crusher - Punky's whips

In 1983 a soundtrack was released on album, premiering "Punky's whips", the song that Warner Bros. wouldn't include in their "Zappa in New York" version. He made no secret about his problems with Warner Bros. when performing "Titties and beer": "I've been through hell. I was signed to Warner Brothers for eight fucking years". Former Mother of Inventions bass player Roy Estrada returned for making Miss Pinky puke because of Warner Brothers and redoing the vocal parts like he did on "Weasels ripped my flesh". He's in the movie, but not on the CD.

Right: Adrian Belew singing "Jones crusher". Source: Baby Snakes DVD.

Jones crusher (1977), opening (midi file)
Punky's whips (1977), section (midi file)

Jones crusher (1977), opening (transcription)
Punky's whips (1977), section (transcription)

The CD is a live compilation without songs that are today unique for this release. All pieces are different versions of songs that appeared on other CDs as well. The above example "Jones crusher" for instance premiered on "Sheik Yerbouti", using the same basic tracks from 1977. The "Baby snakes" version begins with hammering on an E-A-D chord by the guitar for 8 bars. The bass E pedal note sets the scale to E Mixolydian. Compared to "Sheik Yerbouti" the bass is more in the foreground of the mix and the bass riff of the "Baby snakes" version only appears at the second time the verse gets sung on "Sheik Yerbouti". The transcription represents the opening plus the first two themes from this song. For the first theme the bass follows the C#m7 chord and the rhythm guitar keeps pulsing the E chord, both in fast triplet time. Both the melody and the keyboard harmony also make use of the remaining notes of the scale. The second theme begins with the 3/4 plus 4/4 bar with now everybody following the same chord progression: G-A-D-A-A. It's followed by three bars in reggae style. The bass alternates B and E in a regular manner, while the other accompaniment picks either just the E (accentuated) or the D chord in an irregular order. Via the 6/4 bar we are led back to the first theme.
"Punky's whips" is another example of a multi-theme, multi-rhythm and multi-tempi composition. The transcribed sections begins with some normal rock bars in 4/4 and then proceeds with note strings in various odd meters. In the 14/32 and 17/32 bars the band is playing up and down a scale. The 18/32 bar goes in swing time. The 33/32 bar is the weirdest one. The notes are jumping around over an odd rhythm, played by a 9th chord. If you take the low Ab as key note, the scale would be Ab and the notes (9th chord plus the melody) would be forming any combination within this scale. With the next bar, not transcribed here, we get back to normal. Such an odd 33/32 bar functions the better within an environment that, compared to it, is relatively normal. On the DVD Zappa and Adrian Belew show how its energy can make you want to dance. It's both typical and untypical of Zappa. It's typical of him to take such steps and it's untypical in the sense that you don't have examples that do exactly the same. The 1977 version of this section differs from the 1976 version in the sense that the bars don't get repeated and that the instrumentation is different.

Conehead - Basement music #2

The Movie/DVD version of "Baby snakes" contains two smaller disco references. Track 16, "Conehead", opens in a peculiar way. Zappa introduces it as "Watch me now because the name of this song is Conehead. One, two, three, four". Then "Conehead" does indeed start on the next beat with a vamp, though not in the same tempo. Possibly this vamp is a tape playing. On the DVD it's not clear who's doing what. Patrick O'Hearn is pouring himself in some Heineken beer, if I'm not mistaken, and gets out of the picture when the bass part starts. Terry Bozzio is playing the drum part, vaguely visible in the background. Adrian Belew is holding his guitar, though I don't think he's the one playing the vamp. The chord progression in rock terms is Ab2-Bb 3rd. The pedal note at first appears to be Ab, but this one gets overruled by the bass lick, which sets the pedal note to Bb. The progression in traditional terms then becomes VII 9th - I in Bb Mixolydian. How this vamp relates to the song we later on came to know as "Conehead" I don't know. It's a disco type vamp as above for the "Black page #2", also with a clear downbeat, but otherwise off beat. On the DVD it fades out for an interview with Adrian. According to the bootleg collectors the 1977 "Conehead" was an instrumental with Zappa playing a solo over the vamp, a pity it isn't on an official release this way. How it would evolve into the 1978 "Conehead" thus remains unclear, as far as there is a connection at all. Maybe he used the same title for two different pieces of music. Following upon it below is the opening and a section of the guitar solo from "Conehead", as present on the 1978 "Saarbrücken" bootleg from the "Beat the boots" series. The solo is using the opening bass theme of the song as a vamp. The bootleggers were using the speed knob here, the pitches aren't constant. At 1:51 it jumps to another fragment of the solo with the speed and corresponding pitch a half second lower. The first block is in F Dorian with the bass alternating F and Bb. Syncopically in bars 1-4, on beat when Zappa starts singing. The harmonies in the opening bars 1-4 are a blend of I 7th and IV. Staffs 2-4 begin with playing I 7th, while staff 1 already has the upcoming IV chord as held notes. In the second part the key becomes E Dorian. Zappa is now soloing over the bass lick as played in the opening bars.

Conehead vamp (1977), (midi file)
Conehead (1978), opening bars (midi file)
Conehead (1978), solo fragment (midi file)
Frame of Basement music #2, opening (midi file)

Conehead vamp (1977), (transcription)
Conehead (1978), sections (transcription)
Frame of Basement music #2, opening (transcription)

Next to the two examples from the following Sheik Yerbouti section the two "Basement music" instrumentals are another instance of some disco influence. Zappa recorded this music in the basement of his house in 1978 using a synthesizer. The disco aspect lies in the mechanical drum part that the rhythm box produces, a bar repeated identically all through as often done for disco. Only the accentuated beats fail for actually calling it disco. Both "Basement music" pieces are specifically synthesizer music, in the sense that the instrument is used for modifying a tone after it is initially entered on its keyboard: the tone changes, the pitches are in glissandos and the volume keeps changing. This makes it very difficult to reproduce it literally. In a transcription you would need various staffs to represent different sounds and you would have to lead the melody over these various staffs, making it sort of unreadable. Secondly you would need very strong editing equipment to be able to play it, including the undaily sounds that synthesizers produce. If you play the notes straightforward on a midi editor as above, the result is disturbing. It still sounds nice, but leaving out the synthesizer sound and sound effects makes the piece as good as unrecognizable. For that reason I chose for the word frame above, rather than calling it a good midi representation of the original. In that sense the "Basement music" and various pieces on "Civilization phaze III" are untypical of Zappa, because you can play about all of his music on any instrument and it still would be immediately recognizable.
"Basement music #1" got released on "The lost episodes" from 1995, whereas "Basement music #2" was first used as background music for "Baby snakes". The original recording got included in the ZFT release "Quaudiophiliac".

Bowling on Charen

"Bowling on Charen" stems from the October 28th concert from the 1977 Palladium series. It's the oldest track on the "Trance-Fusion" CD, released in 2005 (see the corresponding section). It's a solo made up of three blocks. Specifically the coda is more pre-conceived than usual.
- 0:00-1:04 Opening block. The solo opens with a series of variations upon a theme as presented in bar 1 from the first transcription below. What's notated as a pick-up bar isn't really a pick-up bar, but the incomplete closing bar from the preceding song. Zappa is here using a self-created scale, B-C#-D#-E-F#-G-A/A#. It's a variant upon B Mixolydian with the G# turned to G natural. Both A and A# get used. B as the tonic gets predominantly established by the theme itself, that keeps returning to B as the starting point, while its tail keeps varying. The bass staff represents different instruments: keyboard/sax in the pick-up bar, some background guitar notes during beat 1 of bar 2 and a high B by the bass guitar beginning at beat 3 (pitch notation as it sounds). This is the only note the bass guitar plays during the opening section. The keyboard is using series of dissonant chords as you can hear for instance during bars 3-4 from the transcription below. On beat 4 from bar 7 you have an accentuated B7 chord.

Bowling on Charen, opening (midi file)

Bowling on Charen, opening (transcription)

- 1:04-4:15 Central block with a bass notes alternation. The second example below shows the transition to and the opening of this block. Via G-A# by the bass Zappa moves over to a B-A alternation in B Mixolydian. From bar 4 onwards the G natural has disappeared in favor of the normal G# from the B Mixolydian scale. If one would step into this section at an arbitrary point one would be more inclined to identify it as a A-B alternation in A Lydian, a more common alternation for Zappa's solos (see also the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section). In this case however, the solo begins on B, the alternation and most specifically the coda end on B. So taking B as the overall tonic is the more appropriate option. A peculiar phenomena to notice is that Zappa at some points manages to sound as if he's playing two melodic lines at once, presented via an extra guitar staff in the example below. Specifically in bars 5-6 you've got two points with two melodic fragments sounding simultaneously. It probably stems from a combination of picking notes and a guitar effect (it doesn't sound like a second guitar or an overdub). The theme from the opening block returns during 2:22 through 2:35.

Bowling on Charen, 1:04-1:23 (midi file)

Bowling on Charen, 1:04-1:23 (transcription)

- 4:15-5:03 Closing block. "Bowling on Charen" has a clear pre-arranged coda, a minority in Zappa's output. The 1979 "Watermelon in Easter" is another example of such a coda rounding off a solo. Zappa's standard way of ending a solo during a concert was diminishing the pace, end on a note, and then turn around to the band, as an indication that the next bar should be the continuation of the song the solo was part of. Sometimes Zappa would turn to the melody of the song with his guitar playing himself, as in "Yo' mama". On CD, when a solo gets presented as an individual composition, Zappa would often simply cut it off a couple of seconds before its actual ending during a concert.

Bowling on Charen, end (midi file)

Bowling on Charen, end (transcription)

Presented above is the second half of this ending block. The chord progression used here is:
- bar 1: transition to the second half of the coda with I-VII-I in B Mixolydian.
- bar 2: beat 4 of bar 1 and beats 1-2 of bar 2 contain an extended harmony. Zappa plays in an arpeggio manner over what you could call I 9th from B Mixolydian, while the bass gives an A. Zappa loved applying such wider harmonies (9th, 11th and 13th chords) next to standard chords, giving him a sense of total harmonic freedom. On beats 3-4 Zappa lands on simply the A chord.
- bar 3: beat 1 is the Bm7 chord, beat 2 the E chord and beat 3 the B chord (plus an E by the bass).
- bar 4: beat 4 from the previous bar plus this bar use the chords from bar 2 again. The bass notes are different, widening the harmony. The A chord in this case gets extended with a D# by the bass.
- bar 5: beats 1-2 can be identified as for instance Asus2 plus F# or I 11th from B Mixolydian. On beats 3-4 Zappa reaches his final chord: simply B or the I-chord from B Mixolydian. The bass begins with F#, but also moves to a final B at the beginning of bar 6. At the end of bar 6 and the following bar (cut off a little before its end and not included anymore in the example above) feedback notes get the upperhand and the bass seems to hint at the next song.

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