Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

Main menu


Ike Willis In 1983 Zappa was again debating with his record company, now CBS, about sales figures and their unwillingness to distribute "Thing-Fish". He switched CBS for EMI and "Thing-Fish" got released at the fall of 1984. It's a theatre piece in the form of an opera, with the libretto added to the CD, but musically more remindful of a Broadway musical. The 22 pieces are made up of dialogue sections with basic accompaniment, the reusing of earlier material, adapted for the opera, and seven new songs.

The mammy nuns - Wistful wit a fistful

These new songs give "Thing-Fish" musically its theatre appearance, like the three following examples, most specifically "Wistful wit a fist-full". The last piece is a joyful musical closing number, sung almost unrecognizably by Napoleon Murphy Brock, appearing as the evil prince. Its set up is quite difficult with varying meters, scales and tempi, as the transcribed part indicates:
- The figure in the 4/8 bar sounds modernistic. The notes don't form a traditional chord and in combination with C and D sharp a G sharp is more common in diatonic scales than a G natural. From bar 14 onwards this exact figure is played minor second lower. In bars 25-29 this theme ends with a little coda.
- In bar 25 the tempo gets slower. The music transforms from a modern style to a style used in musicals. It's in 4/4, played rubato. The music keeps moving through varying scales till the end of the transcription.
- In bar 38 the meter moves to 12/8. It goes a bit slower, but sounds as an acceleration because the main time unit in the accompaniment goes from a half note to three eighth notes.
- Bars 43-44 are two joyful exclamatory bars, typical of musicals.
The entire show is hosted by the mammy nun "Thing-Fish", a part sung by Ike Willis, who first appeared as Joe on "Joe's garage" and continued working with Zappa through the last tour of 1988. The mammy nuns introduce themselves and the show in the choir singing of the second song. The transcribed section has its basis in F# Mixolydian. In staff 1, bars 1-2, Zappa lets two major 5ths chords follow upon each other, rather than doing I-III, thus moving to an A chord instead of A#m-5. The A# thus alters to A natural doing so. Staff 1 mostly proceeds via 5th chords. Staff two is a melody sung against it in parallel fourths. The bass makes its own movement. The combination of these three part makes it another example of Zappa creating harmonic fields that mingle about all notes of a scale.

The mammy nuns, 2:29 till 2:45 (midi file)
Wistful wit a fistful, section (midi file)

The mammy nuns, 2:29 till 2:45 (transcription).
Wistful wit a fistful, section (transcription).

Right: FZ and Ike Willis singing "He's so gay" (Does humor belong in music DVD). Ike helped creating Thing-Fish's old southern accent and sings more than half of the libretto.
Below: Still from one of FZ 's appearances at the David Letterman show, talking about his upcoming Thing-Fish project. CBS Television, 1983.

The libretto deals with several topics taken from actuality as:
- the spreading of aids,
- the fact that it had become known that the U.S. government had experimented with viruses upon its own population in the fifties beyond their knowledge,
- the women's liberation movement,
- the popularity of gay pop groups as The village people.
David LettermanThese subjects are combined into a weird piece of fiction that, just as in "Joe's garage", shows several aspects of more-sidedness. In it the idea is uttered that the government could have caused the deaths among its gay population by spreading viruses as well as that it is sponsoring gay life, because it halts population growth. Apparently Zappa liked toying with diverse ideas and considered their consistence irrelevant. He had developed a kind of distrust towards governmental institutions in his younger years, helped by the fact that he got busted in a set up in 1965 and his difficulties at schools. In fact he had some sort of paranoid attitude towards anything institutionalised, including churches, unions and schools. All designed to dumb people down in his opinion. He attacked them frequently in his lyrics and a scent of paranoia runs all through "Joe's garage" and "Thing-Fish". "Freak out!" opened with an attack upon American schools and how real this was came out in the eighties, when he wouldn't pay scholarships for his children himself. They could go to college, but on their own expense. Dweezil was indeed making enough money at the age of sixteen to do so if he wanted to. As children of a rock star Zappa's children got drawn into adult life rather fast. Moon and Dweezil were in their mid-teens when they got into the spotlight via "Valley girl" and the 1984 tour.

The 'torchum' never stops - The evil prince

The 'torchum' never stops, Evil prince aria (midi file)

The 'torchum' never stops, Evil prince aria (transcription).

In "The 'torchum' never stops" the evil virus experimenting prince sings a lengthy aria, also released as an individual piece, "The evil prince", on "You can't do that on stage, vol. IV". It's in 3/4. Like "The torture never stops" from "Zoot allures" it's in G Dorian. You can see the characteristic bass motif return once in bars 4-5, the motif that's used all through in staff 5 of the transcription of the opening from the Zoot allures section. The evil prince curses gay people and everybody creative. While the evil prince sections seem to be sympathetic of the gay community, most of "Thing-Fish" is quite opposite. Gay people are ridiculed as men unable to deal with liberated women. It culminates in Rhonda's severe feminist monologue in "Drop dead". A play as "Thing-Fish" doesn't stand by itself in Zappa's oeuvre. On various occasions he was busy writing plays and movie scripts as there are:
- "I was a teenage maltshop". This idea for a mini opera stems from 1964. It didn't get any further than a demo, but can be reconstructed about halfway. See the Mystery disc #2 section.
- "Captain Beefheart versus the Grunt people". A science fiction movie script, existing as an unpublished 94 page text from 1969 and photos of card board backdrops from 1965. Zappa once mentioned "Duodenum" as its opening theme.
- "Uncle meat". A movie project completed in three phases. Because of budgetary problems and people withdrawing themselves, Zappa almost had to rewrite the script on the instancy.
- "200 Motels". Only a third of the 100 pages of script got actually filmed, again due to the limited budget and people leaving the set.
- "Hunchentoot". A science fiction musical Zappa wrote in 1972. No budget could be raised; most music would be used on later albums, most notably "Sleep dirt", that today also has the original lyrics.
- "Joe's garage". This triple album/double CD follows the outlines of a play.
- "Them or us", the book. This writing has the set-up of a screenplay, revisiting the earlier pieces and "Thing-Fish" (the whole "Hunchentoot" libretto is included).
In the case of "Thing-Fish" Zappa typed out the blueprint during the Christmas days of 1982. Though an actual performance of "Thing-Fish" couldn't be brought together, this time Zappa had the means and contractual freedom to get the whole piece on album exactly as he wished. It's unlikely that "Thing-Fish" will ever be performed on theatre stage in full on a commercial basis. For that its content is too much far-fetched and musically it has little news to offer. Imagine how absurdistic stage directions as "Opal rides the bull while Francesco gives her an enema" should be executed. The opera has become much more palatable by its re-release on CD. Now you can select the new musical songs far more easily, listen to the textual pieces once in a while and include the recycled pieces when you're in the mood for them.

Harry and Rhonda

The pieces where the lyrics stand central and the ways they are accompanied musically is the set following beneath. In some cases the background music is pretty interesting, making one wish it could also be listened to with the lyrics mixed to the background. In other cases the music is clearly subservient to the text.
- "Prologue". Thing-Fish introduces the play, accompanied by an ongoing bass lick in A Mixolydian. A guitar plays the A/A7 chord and you can hear keyboards chords gliding over it. From 2:21 onwards Thing-Fish gets supported by the chorus.
- "Harry and Rhonda". This couple from the audience gets integrated into the show. They discuss what they've seen thus far, first whispering but soon talking and sometimes singing a little. The musical basis is a bass movement of two bars in Ab Mixolydian. It keeps being varied upon. The central element is Ab moving to Gb in the first bar and Ab moving to Eb in the second bar. The first example shows this bass theme as played at the beginning with Rhonda starting to talk to Harry (text not included in the example). The second example demonstrates how the piece evolves. It's the section between 2:30-2:48 where Rhonda is both singing and speaking a series of notes. The phrase "I want fairies on the string" is clearly sung (bar 1, beats 3-4), while "... real Broadway entertainment. I want spot-lights, guilt..." etc., is spoken in an aggressive manner (bar 2, from beat 2 onwards). The bass theme gets accompanied by a slow chord progression (Ab7-Dd-Ab) and an improvised descant melody.

Harry and Rhonda, 0:00-0:16 (midi file)
Harry and Rhonda, 2:30-2:48 (midi file)

Harry and Rhonda, 0:00-0:16 (transcription).
Harry and Rhonda, 2:30-2:48 (transcription).

- "That evil prince". Harry and Rhonda discuss the scene with the Evil prince in his dungeon, eating raw chitlins (pig intestines). It contains the first appearance of the melody from the later "Amnerika" from "Civilization phaze III" (1992).


- "Harry-as-a-boy". The juvenile Harry enters the show, confessing he decided to turn gay as a reaction upon women becoming executives, looking like males. There's a drum pattern played in a loop (bars 1-4 of the transcription). The chords played over it are led through various scales and sound very interesting as a composition by themselves. The section below from 1:36 through 1:51. It contains broad chords with slow melodic fragments played over them, that further widen the harmonic fields you can hear. It's played in the background and it's hard to hear the exact notes from the chords and their positioning. There are no clear key notes; the Bb and F# pedal notes in the bottom staff are more part of the entire harmony than individually audible, functioning as key note. In major three scales are passing by: Ab (bars 1-5), Bb (bars 5-8) and D (bars 8-9).
The transcription below contains both the accompaniment and Harry's text. The first midi file below presents the background music by itself. The second one is mixed as on record with Harry's line in the foreground, but it's hard to get a spoken text properly represented in a midi file (here by a sax following the pitches of the lyrics).

Harry-as-a-boy, background music (midi file)
Harry-as-a-boy, album mix (midi file)

Harry-as-a-boy, section (transcription).

- "The massive improve'lence". The teen-age Harry shows interest for starting a relationship with a mammy-nun, Artificial Rhonda it becomes. It's for over five minutes accompanied by a jazz type improvisation with only the upright bass and a drum set.

The crab-grass baby - The white boy troubles

- "The crab-grass baby". A baby has been born and Harry thinks he's the father. The baby first babbles, but half-way the song its words become understandable. The music consists of an ongoing bass lick in C Mixolydian, first accompanied by the chorus, later on replaced by keyboard chords. Via a loop the chorus sings the progression II 7th - VII - V - V - I (plus possibly an F, Csus4, though I can't hear this for certain). The bass figures lasts 4/4, while the chorus theme has a duration of 6/4, thus another example of Zappa using two meters simultaneously.

The crab-grass baby, section (midi file)

The crab-grass baby, section (transcription).

- "The white boy troubles". Artificial Rhonda seems to be more interested in starting a career. This track is musically made up of three blocks:
a) Bass motif following the blues scheme.
b) The "Amnerika" melody re-appears, first solo, next over a bass line. The opening bars of this piece in a vocal version are included in the Civilization, phaze III section. It's very hard to transcribe. For that reason I'm here including only a midi fragment and no note example of this section. "Amnerika" as a score already exists and it has been used by the Ensemble Modern, so I don't feel like investing hours to figure out every detail by myself. The note durations of the melody are irregular and its melodic line moves along varying scales. The fragment included in the midi example goes as E-D-D-E-A-G-D, followed by D-Eb-D-C-C-B-C. It's played over a steady bass line, here alternating Bb and Ab, thus not interacting with it.

The white boy troubles, fragment (midi file)

c) Second bass motif following a blues-like pattern.
- "Brief-case boogie". The real Rhonda mocks Harry and uses a brief-case for sexual stimulation. At the first you hear a fast drum pattern with some loosely improvised notes played over it. Next the drum set goes to normal tempo and the bass enters with a little boogie.
- "Drop dead". The show comes to an end. The Evil prince and the crab-grass baby re-appear. A variation upon the bass theme from "Harry and Rhonda" is now vamping unaltered throughout this 7-minute track. The evil prince sings over it, but Rhonda delivers her feminist monologue without further musical embellishments. The vamp gets louder and Zappa lets the text at this point entirely prevail.

No not now - Won ton on

One of the re-used songs is "No not now" from "Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch". Zappa is using original tracks unaltered with new tracks added to them. Here we get Thing-Fish doing all the comments instead of Zappa. The original "Drowning witch" version goes as:

No not now, 0:21 till 1:28 (midi file)

No not now, 0:21 till 1:28 (transcription).

"No not now" is using three themes. The set up with the starting times on the CD is:
- 0:00     Intro, theme A instrumentally.
- 0:21     "No not now", theme B.
- 0:36     "Maybe later", theme C.
- 0:43     "She say I'm free", theme B.
- 0:58     "But I like her sister", theme C.
- 1:05     "She can't decide...", first variation upon theme A with lyrics.
- 1:33     "She changed her mind", theme B.
- 1:48     "And I don't blame her", theme C.
- 1:56     "No not now", theme B.
- 2:10     "Maybe later", theme C.
- 2:17     "Giddy-up...", second variation upon theme A with lyrics.
- 2:42     "The big old hat...", theme B.
- 2:57     "String beans to Utah", theme C.
- 3:05     "Ah the wife...", theme B.
- 3:19     "String beans to Utah", theme C.
- 3:26     "Deliver string beans...", second variation upon theme A with lyrics.
- 3:54     "No not now", theme B.
- 4:09     "Maybe later", theme C.
- 4:17     "She changed her mind", theme B.
- 4:32     "And I don't blame her", theme C.
- 4:41     "She sorta wild...", first variation upon theme A with lyrics.
- 5:07     "There she goes...", theme B.
- 5:50     End.

The closing song of "Thing-Fish", "Won ton on", is using the vocal "No not now" tracks played backwards. "Ya Hozna" from the preceding Them or us section is another example. The song has a rhythm section of its own. If you play the three themes of the above "No not now" score backwards you get the following:

Won ton on, themes (midi file)

Won ton on, themes (transcription).

This example has the backward themes in the following order A (bars 1-7), C (bars 8-11) and B (bars 12-17). The sound of the midi file misses to a degree the effect of the reverse fade outs of the notes, but it's good enough to recognize the melodies. See the transcription for details about the backward fade out. The reverse fade outs and reverse pronounced consonants give the backwards playing its strange effect. Whereas the D of "chile" in No not now fades out descending towards an A, in Won ton on it swells and sounds like "iesh".
The "No not now" vocal tracks in "Won ton on" start at 0:18 on the CD, corresponding with 5:37 on the original "Drowning witch" CD and then going backwards.

The "Won ton on" following order is:
- 0:18     Theme B.
- 0:48     Theme A.
- 1:11     Theme C.
- 1:19     Theme B.
- 1:33     Theme C.
- 1:42     Theme B.
- 1:56     Theme C.
- 2:23     Theme A.
- 2:31     Theme C.
- 2:46     Theme B.
- 2:53     Theme C.
- 3:08     Thing-Fish's epilogue.
- 3:39     Theme B.
- 3:55     Theme C.
- 4:02     Theme B.
- 4:18     End.

Other tracks from Thing-Fish

Another song, that was re-used for "Thing-Fish", is the title track from "You are what you is", in this study present in the corresponding section.
"He's so gay" is a newly composed title for "Thing-Fish". In the next section I'm dealing with the "Thing-Fish" version and the "Does humor belong in music" version of this song.

Back to the menu