Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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YOU ARE WHAT YOU IS - THE DUB ROOM SPECIAL: ROCK 'N ROLL AND OTHER STYLES

"You are what you is" (fall 1981) is a continuation upon the commercial success of "Sheik Yerbouti" and "Joe's garage, act I". Much of the album has to do with familiar chord progressions and stylistic conventions. All is done with productional craftsmanship regarding sound quality and vocal harmonies. It's pleasant listening to this music and especially the various extras that go beyond conventions indicate that there's someone with a high musical capacity behind this album.
Rock journalists seldom use note examples to clarify what the music they are writing about goes like. Instead of that they prefer to classify music by categorizing it into a wide range of styles and to tell who got influenced by who. To call an artist "influential" has become the biggest cliche remark in rock writing. Many of these styles aren't styles in an abstract technical sense, but more groupings of similar sounding albums from a certain period. Some songs get mentioned as examplary of a style. California pop means little more than sounding as Fleetwood Mac and grunge means little more than sounding as Nirvana. Zappa changed the sound of his music about every album and on each one new stylistic directions can be found. The transitions can be flabbergasting, like from "Lumpy gravy" to "Cruising with Ruben and the Jets" or from "Just another band from L.A." to "Waka/Jawaka". From the technical perspective, reviews about Zappa are often kind of weird as it comes to attempts to say something about his music, but it doesn't really matter. As the saying goes, as long as it gets reviewed it's ok, preferably positive.
Zappa never aimed at one characteristic sound or a certain style. Instead of that, he kept doing whatever came up to him for all of his career, only kept together by what he himself called a "conceptual continuity". It's more an attitude towards music than a specific direction. How much has "Dance me this" drifted away from "Freak out!". This section mentions a couple of common styles you can encounter in Zappa's music, styles that have characteristics regarding their black dots (thus not only the sound). It's certainly not meant as complete, I'm just letting some passing by.

1. Teen-age wind

Like "Apostrophe (')", "You are what you is" begins with the sound of blowing winds, this time figuratively referring to the lyrics of the opening song. In the Neil Slaven biography, page 238, you can read how Zappa wrote "Teen-age wind" as reaction upon Arthur Barrow playing the Christopher Cross hit "Ride like the wind" to him. The lead melody from the main theme from "Teen-age wind" is present in the Ludwig study, pages 274-5 (see the references).

Country

2. Harder than you husband

Former Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black made a guest appearance in a traditional country song "Harder than you husband" with hypocrite standard break up lyrics ("it's better for you"). More complex country based Zappa songs are for instance "Truck driver divorce" on "Them or us" (1984), and, regarding thematic variety, "Rhymin' man" on "Broadway the hard way" (1988). A section of the latter song is included in the "Parodies" section. Earlier examples are "Lonesome cowboy Burt" from "200 Motels" and "Poofters froth Wyoming plans ahead" from "Bongo fury".

Harder than your husband, refrain (midi file)
Harder than your husband, end (midi file)

Harder than your husband, refrain (transcription).
Harder than your husband, end (transcription).

The first example above is the refrain from this song. Bars 1-4 form a conventional harmonic pattern, I-IV-V-IV-V-I in C. With bars 5-8 Zappa evades to other scales. This second half of the refrain starts in Bb and gradually moves back to step V of C. This is done by first letting the Eb become natural again on beat 4 of bar 6 and finally the Bb also gets natural again in bar 8. Regarding scales the situation remains ambiguous however, because these two notes that make the difference, are half of the time absent. Bars 5-8 can maybe better be interpreted as a chord progression unrelated to scales: Bb-F-Bb-F-Dm-F-C-G. The second example contains the end of this song. Zappa mostly let's his songs end in one of the following manners:
- End with one or more closing chords, in case of tonal music normally a harmonic cadence. This is the standard for classical music and pop bands playing life.
- End with, mostly, the main theme repeating and fading out. This has become the standard for pop songs recorded in the studio.
- End overnight at the end of a bar or a certain point in a bar and let the next song segue without any pause.
- End overnight at an arbitrary point and let the next song segue without any pause.
The last two ways are uncommon, because they make a change sound rather abrupt (actually I only know of Zappa doing this, but that doesn't mean much). Though stylistically different, "Harder than you husband", "Doreen" and "Goblin girl" are musically interwoven in subtle manners. The classical ending of "Harder than you husband" would have been bar 2 from the second example. Here the songs comes at rest with the I chord from C, confirming the tonic. It gets followed however by two variations upon bar 5 from the previous example, that get repeated a few times. These two bars thus become the coda. What would be the final chord, or even the scale, remains undecided within "Harder than you husband". The E/Eb is absent during these variations, and two chords are dealt with as equal: Bb-F (I've notated it with Bb and Eb in the presets, because it's a variation upon the earlier bar 5 from the first example, where the Eb does occur). Zappa lets "Harder than you husband" end with a 3/8 bar and "Doreen" segues with the F chord. So, in a way of speaking, "Doreen" decides that F is the closing chord for "Harder than you husband". Harmonically the transition is thus taking place smoothly. Regarding style, "Doreen" is pretty different and there's also a tempo change.

Rock and roll

3. Doreen - Stevie's spanking

The opening of "Doreen" is pure conventionalism, for its lyrics and for its chord progression: I-IV-V. The example below is transcribed from the life version on "You can't do that on stage anymore, vol. V" (1992), where this song is played in E. What's less conventional is that the sung melody doesn't try to be a part of the chords, but is moving freely through it. It starts as:

Doreen, opening (midi file)

Doreen, opening (transcription).

Steve Vai "Stevie's spanking" from the "Dub room special"/"Them or us" is another example of regular rock 'n roll in 4/4. See below at "Beauty knows no pain" for an unconventional example of rock 'n roll. Or at "I come from nowhere" from the Drowning witch section of this study. It served as a vehicle for both Zappa and Steve Vai playing solos, either alone or simultaneously. Below are the opening bars from the "Dub room special" version with Steve "pounding" the chords of the main theme along with the rhythm guitar and the keyboard, whereas Zappa is playing a few solo bars. It opens in A Mixolydian with in staffs 2-4 a VII-I progression in bar 1 and VII-I-IV-II-I in bar 2. Bars 3-4 are alternating I and VII again. Staff 1 is moving freely over it, not necessarily following the pattern in the same way. Zappa begins playing with the C# altered to C natural over it in bars 5-6, then continuing with C# in bar 7. Thus in bars 5-6 he's briefly mingling A Dorian of his solo with A Mixolydian of the accompaniment.

Stevie's spanking, opening bars (midi file)

Stevie's spanking, opening bars (transcription).

In Guitar player, August 2006, Steve Vai comments about soloing with Frank Zappa during "Stevie's spanking": "When you are improvising with another musician, you get to enter a private place with that person and share an intimacy that you don't have in any other kind of relationship. For a 20-year old guitarist like myself, entering that space with Frank Zappa represented a very challenging process. At first I had to get over the fact that it was really happening. Then I'd be afraid to step on his toes, and I'd worry about things like "Am I in tune? Is he listening to what I'm doing? Does he think it's good, or am I crap." In a short while I got over that, and I just started jamming - hard. Then, that space became some sort of sanctuary. I learned how to listen and speak at the same time. It's about relaxing and spontaneously creating, and having fun doing it. I believe that's one of the things Frank was looking for. If it wasn't happening for him musically, he would have shut it down in a minute. But it turned into a special moment in the show."

Above to the right: Frank checking out Steve Vai's blue hair during "Stevie's spanking". Source: Dub room special DVD.

4-5. Goblin girls - Theme from the 3rd. movement of Sinister Footwear

One of the extras on "You are what you is" is for instance how the melody of "Doreen" returns more slowly during the second half of "Goblin girls". It's sung over one of the "Goblin girls" themes vamping while a third voice joins in with horny fantasies about the girls in the green Goblin suits. This polyphonic writing style is quite rare in pop music.
An example from the "Theme from the 3rd. movement of Sinister Footwear" is dealt with in the Them or us section of this study. The whole solo is transcribed by Steve Vai in the Frank Zappa guitar book, pages 206-212.

6-7. Society pages - I'm a beautiful guy

With these tracks a series begins about people from the society world, their obsession with beauty and abuse of drugs. "Society pages" could be called a rock song. "I'm a beautiful guy" is a short collage-like song with a sequence of themes. Tracks 6-11 all directly segue, as are the lyrics flowing from one song into the next. It's written as a little story with episodes. Two more sequences of textually related songs can be found on "You are what you is" (see below). All three are outspoken examples of Zappa's social criticism, as is the addendum to the CD booklet (formerly the album inner cover). It's an article, called "Say cheese ...", that got rejected by Newsweek for being too idiosyncratic.

8-9. Beauty knows no pain - Charlie's enormous mouth

"Beauty knows no pain" is complex rock 'n roll, using changing metres and scales. The odd 18/16 metre is a difficult figure, subdivided as 5+5+2+2+2+2. You can learn it by counting through it as one-two-three-four-five one-two-three-four-five one-two one-two one-two one-two and then speed up the pace. Or listen to how it sounds on record, get it in your recollection and reproduce it. The song starts in G Dorian. Bar 1 has the bass note going from Bb to G to C, leaving it in the middle what the key note might be. Only in bar 4, when the progression comes at a rest on G, a choice is made for G. Bar 8 is chromatic, containing a series of parallel minor thirds. "Beauty knows no pain" segues into "Charlie's enormous mouth". This last song is very accessible mainstream music. That doesn't apply to the lyrics, that are kind of brutally formulated.

Beauty knows no pain, opening (midi file)

Beauty knows no pain, opening (transcription).

The 1981 Halloween concert was broadcasted by MTV with the title "You are what you is" and sections are included in Zappa's "Dub room special" DVD as well. Recently the ZFT has made 10 of the 15 tracks from the "Dub room special" available on CD, with two tracks from the MTV show, whereas various other tracks from this concert - not on the DVD/CD - are included in the YCDTOSA series. A friend of mine was advertising Zappa at that time and at the age of 19 I watched the MTV concert. It made me decide to buy a Zappa record, "Drowning witch" it became. It was not the music, but Zappa's stage behaviour that made me try it out. Here was someone not shouting and dancing all the time, but sincerely performing music. His music never appealed to me at once and it took me more than a year to understand most of "Drowning witch". At first I thought the solos were album fillers, but at the time I got to buying "Shut up 'n play yer guitar", I was forced to listen more carefully. Well, as long as you can learn from your mistakes.

10-11. Any downers - Conehead

An interesting earlier version of "Any downers" is included in the ZFT release "Joe's camouflage", featuring rehearsal recordings of a band that never came to be. The outro of this 1975 version of this song is included the FZ:OZ section of this study. The outlines of the "You are what you is" version of "Any downers" are sketched on page 229 of the Ludwig study.
An earlier live version of "Conehead" is described in the Baby snakes section of this study. Here you can find the main theme and an outtake from the guitar solo, as transcribed from the "Saarbrücken" bootleg from the "Beat the boots" series.

Reggae

The previous Tinsel town rebellion section dealt with reggae. Though Zappa did not write outspoken reggae songs, the reggae rhythm occurs frequently in his eighties songs, like in the next song.

12. You are what you is

You are what you is "You are what you is" is a rock song with a syncopic movement from the 2nd to the 3rd bar. It's theme is build around two alternating bass notes/chords along a fast reggae rhythm, at that time called ska. They can be seen as I-V of Bb Mixolydian when you take the first Bb as key note. When you consider the lower F of the second bar to be the key note it becomes IV-I of F Dorian (the instrumental opening ends on F, so it has something of a cadence).

You are what you is, opening (midi file)

You are what you is, opening (transcription).

The chorus is excellent poetry:

"Do you know who you are
You are what you is
And you is what you am
A cow don't make ham
You ain't what you're not
So see what you got
You are what you is
And that's all it is"

To the right: Ike Willis with Reagan-look alike, the video that MTV refused to air, but this channel compensated Zappa by broadcasting one of his concerts.

Mainstream pop music

13-14. Mudd club - The meek shall inherit nothing

"Mudd club" has one theme, sung at the beginning and the end. In between you've got Zappa talking over a vamp with an electronically modified voice. "The meek shall inherit nothing" is accessible mainstream pop. This doesn't go for the lyrics. Together with "Dumb all over" and "Heavenly bank account", they form an effective criticism upon the negative side of religion. Especially "Dumb all over" is very well written, and audacious with Zappa using blasphemy to accentuate his argument.

The meek shall inherit nothing, 1:33-1:56 (midi file)

The meek shall inherit nothing, 1:33-1:56 (transcription).

The outlines of "The meek shall inherit nothing" go as:
0:00 Opening - transition from the preceding "Mudd club" track to the main theme from this song.
0:13 Main theme.
1:02 Second theme with Zappa speach-wise singing with electronically modified tones.
1:21 Third theme.
1:43 Main theme again.
2:07 Main theme in another rhythm.
2:32 Main theme in its first shape some more.
2:56 Outro - transition to "Dumb all over".

The example from above begins with the last three bars from theme three. It's an opgoing line from Ab to Db by the bass, with the other parts moving in a contrary direction. It ends with an instrumental bar in Db Dorian. The next four bars are the core of the main theme. They follow a chord progression, being Gb-Fb-Ebm-Gb. It's using Gb major and Gb Mixolydian next to each other. It's performed in a rather loose manner with a lot of improvisation to it. Three guitars and two keyboards are filling in the harmony. As usual in Zappa's arrangements, the vocalists don't sing identical notes, but are forming harmonies instead. The bass is playing around pedal notes in a free manner.

15. Dumb all over

The inclusion of tracks 14 through 16 got partly triggered by the popularity of some TV evangelists, that particularly irritated Zappa. "Dumb all over" is a rock piece with a rap sermon against religion in general. Like in "Mudd club", he has his voice being electronically modified, this time also affecting the pitch. It's going up and down. Life this couldn't be done and a second theme got added to compensate for this. These live versions can be found on "YCDTOSA Vol. II" and "Have I offended someone?". The song ends with the chorus repeating the last sentence from the sermon as a vamp, over which Zappa is playing a solo. In Greg Russo's Cosmic Debris book it is said that Zappa edited out this solo on the CD issues. My CD is the one by Rykodisc with number RCD 10536. Indeed this track gets listed as lasting 4:03 minutes, which would mean the solo got skipped ... on some releases? When I'm playing it I'm actually getting this song with the full length of the original album, lasting 5:50 minutes. Luckily so, because it's a strong solo.

Gospel

16. Heavenly bank account

"Heavenly bank account" is his only attempt at gospel, following all the stereotypes of this genre. It opens with a "preacher" singing to the community with a choir and keyboard backing him up. The chord progression in rock terms is G-G-C-C#-5 -G-G-Em-Am-D (bars 1-16). The main part of the song starts in bar 18 with the central theme in G Lydian. Between these two blocks you've got Zappa talking in bar 17 without a meter.

Heavenly bank account, opening (midi file)

Heavenly bank account, opening (transcription).

"Heavenly bank account" is another example of Zappa adapting the speed of a song. It lasts 4:03 minutes on the original album, compared to the 3:44 minutes on CD. In this case the frequencies got right between keyboard frequencies, thus creating all quartertones. When you're listening to it normally that's no problem, but when you're transcribing it with the aid of a keyboard, that's really nasty. It's transposed a quartertone down in the transcription.

Blues

17. Suicide chump

"Suicide chump" is a song from "You are what you is", following the standard blues pattern. With this song the final third sequence from "You are what you is", this time more about people living at the self-side of society.

Suicide chump, blues scheme.

Ludwig depicts the blues scheme on page 231 of his study (reproduced above). Blues examples included in this study are for instance "Grunion run" and "Sexual harrasment in the garage". See the Bongo fury section at "200 Years old" for more about blues.

18. Jumbo go away

Most pop-music follows standard patterns, not specifically related to a certain style in a technical sense. It's using a rather limited number of chord types with the meter normally being 4/4, the reason why "new" albums mostly sound as if you already know them. These standards also occur frequently in Zappa's music, but they get mingled with a bewildering variety of non-standards. It makes the analysis of his songs interesting, even after some 400 examples. You still don't know for sure what the next one brings. "Jumbo go away", described beneath, knows normal chord progressions next to chromatic passages and an interlude, that's far away from pop standards.

The third sequence of songs with related subjects on "You are what you is" are tracks 17-20, this time about people who fail socially. It's part of the Zappa folklore that Moon Zappa entered her dad's business by writing him a letter about the idea of impersonating a Valley girl (included in the "Drowning witch" CD booklet). Actually she made her debut on "You are what you is" and probably Frank had asked her. She's the one doing the high vocals of Jumbo in the transcription below, like "feed me". "You are what you is" uses a wide range of singers, nine in total. As done more often, Zappa doesn't use the singers here to sing identical parts, but lets them sing in parallels and/or some devious lines. In the pick-up bar for instance you have four times a Db over the main melodic line, F-G-Ab-Bb. Next you've got staff 1 and 2 moving on via parallel thirds. In bar 11 you've a lead melody with the other singers forming two accompanying chords. Examples of the use of vocal parts in this way are numerous. The subject already came by in the examples sung by Flo and Eddie. Other examples in this study with creative ways of using vocal parts are for instance "Flakes" (2nd example), "I have been in you" (opening bars), "Doreen" (example above, bar 7), "Heavenly bank account" (opening with the gospel choir) and "The mammy nuns". The construction of "Jumbo go away" goes as follows:

- 0:00 Theme I with a I-II chord alternation in Eb Mixolydian. If you would take the G-Ab bass notes as leading it would lead to an obscurity, G Locrian, so I think most people would rather call it Mixolydian.
- 0:16 Theme II in Bb Dorian with the guitar chord progression I-IV-I-IV-III.
- 0:27 Theme I. The transcription below starts at 0:31 with this theme.

Jumbo go away, 0:31-1:02 (midi file)

Jumbo go away, 0:31-1:02 (transcription).

- 0:41 Theme II.
- 0:50 Chromatic passage with a constantly descending melody (bars 9-10 from the transcription).
- 0:55 Theme III in G Dorian with the guitar chord progression I-IV. The transcription ends here.
- 1:13 Theme III some more, now transposed up a minor second.
- 1:30 Instrumental interlude. A highly irregular section, not specifically related to the other parts of this song. This interlude used to be available via Barfo Swill.
- 2:20 Theme I.
- 2:35 Theme II.
- 2:47 Theme I.
- 3:01 Theme II.
- 3:10 Postlude ("wash up your pie"), making the transition to the next song as it comes to the lyrics.
- 3:43 End.

19-20. If only she woulda - Drafted again

"If only she woulda" is built around a keyboard chord progression. This song segues into "Drafted again". This track got released earlier as a single, carrying the title "I don't want to get drafted". This single version can be found on "The lost episodes". The "You are what you is" version is more phrenetic, with vocal parts by Ahmet and Moon. Below some more styles get mentioned, that you can encounter in Zappa's music. References are made to examples from other sections from this study.

Jazz

Jazz gets amply dealt with in the Waka/Jawaka, The grand wazoo and Imaginary diseases sections, next to jazz-rock in the Hot rats section.

Lounge music

Lounge music can be seen as a form of easy-listening jazz, combined with pop-standards. "Americs drinks" from absolutely free is included in this study. The "Chunga's basement" version of "Chunga's revenge" is dealt with in this study as well. One might call this more relaxed version lounge music too.

Atonal music

This is more a category of music than a style. Examples of atonal music in this study are listed in the Burnt weeny sandwich section.

Serial music

This might be to a point be called a style within atonal music. Apart from a juvenile attempt (see the Zappa's teens section), it had no influence upon Zappa's music.

Doo-wop

The Ruben and the Jets section deals with Zappa's tribute to this style, popular in the fifties.

Waltzes

Examples of waltzes coming by in this study are "Sofa" and "Strictly genteel". The "Waltz for guitar" and the "Waltz" from the Cucamonga archive are called that way for their 3/4 meter, but for the remainder these two songs are stylistically untypical of waltzes.

Tangos and ballroom music

Zappa wrote two tangos during his lifetime. The Roxy and elsewhere section includes a subsection dedicated to his tangos. "Paroxysmal splendor" contains a section with ballroom music (see the Heidelberg section).

Disco

The occurence of disco in Zappa's music remained limited to some influences that you could call disco-like. See the Sheik Yerbouti section.

Rap

With "Trouble every day" Zappa wrote a song in 1965 that during the eighties retrospectively could be called rap. "Promiscuous" from "Broadway the hard way" is his only genuine rap song. See the corresponding section. It's the last time Zappa would react to a trendy style.

Ballads

Slow sentimental pop songs sometimes get referred to as ballads. "Lucille has messed my mind up" is an example from the Zappa catalogue. Rhythmically this song is also reggae, played very slowly.

World music

A term to cover non-Western styles of music. Some examples are present in Zappa's output. I'm dealing with this subject in the Documentaries section.

Minimal music

Minimal music came up in the sixties, the idea being letting limited thematic material getting varied upon with only minor changes. The purpose is to create a meditative atmosphere, while some just find it boring. One might argue if not Erik Satie should be seen as a predecessor. It looks like Zappa wasn't interested in composing like that, but he did take a minimalistic approach to music in cases he wanted to let the lyrics or spoken text stand central. This subject is coming by in the Fillmore East and Thing-Fish sections, where you can find examples of vamps that are subservient to the text.

Collages

Like atonal music, this is more a category of music than a style. The subject is coming by in the Civilization phaze III and Dance me this sections.

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