Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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The vault From 1987 onwards Zappa turned his attention more and more to the large tape vault at the cellars of his house in Los Angeles with all the live recordings and unreleased studio tracks. He had the habit of changing his compositions a little and sometimes drastically for each tour and even during a tour. So the tape vault contained a large collection of different versions or "covers" of his music. Some of it had already appeared in the first half of the eighties: a third of "Tinsel town rebellion", "Baby snakes" and most of "Does humor belong in music" (1985) consisted of such recordings. Now he set off to compile a six double CD series from the tapes called "You can't do that on stage anymore" (YCDTOSA), released during the period 1988-1992. This series, as well as the bootleg albums, show that Zappa didn't write most of his material with a specific album in mind. Some of the bootlegs were "officially" released in limited supply as the "Beat the boots" series of 1991/2 to spoil the bootleg market (see the left menu). The compositions were added to a pool of unreleased compositions, from which from time to time the albums were extracted. Many songs were part of the concert program for some time, before they appeared on album.

The vault, still from "The present day composer refuses to die" (Frank Scheffer).

Most of these CDs contain quite some unreleased material. When you include the solos the "You can't do that on stage anymore" series offers between 30 and 40 minutes of music that you can qualify as new per CD. Zappa always looked for new approaches to his music, giving each release some specific characteristics of its own. The special treat of this massive series here is that this time it is not chronological, but an arbitrary selection of music from all concerts from all periods. It's looking at his entire career from another angle and, as far as I know, never been done this way before by other artists. Next are a couple of examples of unreleased pieces from the series, plus two titles in much different versions.



"Babette" is a simple vocal harmony love song from the fall of 1974. Zappa loved such pieces and normally included one or two of them in the concert program. They could be either composed by himself or covers, as the series at the end of vol. IV. Presented below is the main theme from "Babette".

Babette, theme (midi file).

Babette, theme (transcription).

- Pick-up bar: Napoleon Murphy Brock starts singing, ritardando.
- Bar 1: Phrase 1 of the main theme. Everybody starts in the tempo Napoleon originally started with, ignoring the ritardando.
The song is in C with the meter being 12/8. The band is playing in an improvised manner around the I chord.
- Bars 2-4: Phrase 2 of the main theme in three variants. The chords in the subsequent bars are II-V-IV. At various points you can see that twoplets or quadruplets are used for the melody, thus the subdivision of the beats into three gets repeatedly passed. On beat three a Db and Bb turn up as passing notes for everybody, a little chromatic element.
- Bars 5-6: Phrase 3 of the main theme played twice. The chord progression is II-V. The II-V-I progression, that Zappa claimed to hate according to the Real Frank Zappa book, turns up here a couple of times, in full or partially. See also the Absolutely free section at "America drinks at goes home". One might try to explain such examples away as parodies. Personally I think it's better to notice that Zappa followed no rules whatsoever, even rules he sometimes suggested himself.
- Bars 7-8: Phrase 4 of the main theme. The band returns to I, moving two IV in bar 7, next to return to a repetition of the main theme.

Other tracks from Vol. I

Many titles from the "YCDTOSA" series also appear in other sections from this study. In this case I'm only mentioning the examples that have been specifically transcribed from the version on "YCDTOSA". In case of volume I:
- "Once upon a time": this song belongs to the Sofa-suite or Divan series, that has a subsection of its own in the Playground psychotics section.
- "Sofa": this title is part of the same series and is also included in the same Playground psychotics subsection.
- "The groupie routine": this one is a variation upon "Do you like my new car?" Excerpts from both versions are included in the Fillmore East, June 1971 section.
- "The deathless horsie": the opening of this version is described in the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section.


"You can't do that on stage anymore, vol. II" has a section of its own in this study. This volume is entirely devoted to a single concert held at Helsinki, 1974. The following titles are represented in this study with examples from the specific YCDTOSA, vol. II version:
- "Approximate".
- "Room service".
- "Pygmy Twylyte".
- "Village of the sun".
- "The idiot bastard son".
- "Dupree's paradise".
- "Inca roads".


Ride my face to Chicago

The next piece is a rock song from the 1984 tour, called "Ride my face to Chicago".

Ride my face to Chicago, theme (midi file).

Ride my face to Chicago, theme (transcription).

- Bars 1-6: the song opens instrumentally in D Mixolydian with the chord progression I-V. The bass guitar is giving a D on beat, while the guitar is playing a low riff. This riff combines a subdivision into two and into three and is using syncopes as well. There's a slight difference between bars 1-2 in the sense that the V chords last an eight note and a dotted quarter note respectively.
- Bars 7-8: the figures continue, while the bass goes down from D to D following the entire scale.
- Bars 9-16: theme I. Like the previous guitar riff, the lead melody is using subdivision into two and into three. You now got syncopes with triplets and syncopes going over a bar, so rhythmically it's a complicated figure. The accompanying chords are all played off-beat. The progression turns up in two variants: I-VII and I-VII, followed by the F chord (thus with F# turning F natural). This last chord implies a switch to D Dorian, but this doesn't get effectuated any further.
- Bars 17-24: theme II. The music modulates to B minor. Theme II knows two phrases. The first is sung over a broken I chords in triplet time, the second over a broken VII chord. Other than theme I, this one is rather elementary going on beat with Zappa commenting "sing can do that".

King Kong (1971/1982)

"King Kong" was part of about every tour program Zappa did, so it can be found in a number of studio and live versions. Five by Zappa himself, and a couple more of them on ZFT releases and the "Beat the boots" series. Five are passing by in this study:
- Lumpy Gravy version: this is the first time Zappa recorded the "King Kong" theme. It's played over a jazz type vamp in a polyrhythmic manner, combining a 4/4 meter for the vamp with 3/8 for the melody.
- Uncle Meat: here the melody of King Kong gets its definitive form. Zappa hardly changed the notes and the rhythm of this melody ever since, nor did he transpose the song (all versions are in Eb Dorian). The differences therefore lie in the accompaniment. The Uncle Meat section shows that there's already a difference between the sheet music and the album recording.
- Finer moments: for the 1969 live performances Zappa added a second theme to "King Kong". The Uncle Meat section contains an example plus a re-appearance of the main theme in a weird combination with the "Uncle Meat" theme.
- Hammersmith Odeon: the example contains the final bars of the "King Kong" theme, followed by a guitar solo.
Here we continue with the version you can find on "YCDTOSA Vol. III". It's a compilation of four concert outtakes, one from 1971 and three from 1982. It lasts over 24 minutes, thus with "Billy the mountain" the longest one-track recording in Zappa's official catalogue. Still unedited 1969 and 1971 performances of "King Kong" could last longer, taking up half an hour, as you can find one on for instance "Carnegie hall". This is largely due to the fact that Zappa used the "King Kong" theme most of the time as an introduction to at least one, but mostly a couple of solos. The theme itself is relatively short, lasting one and a half minute. This also applies to the "YCDTOSA Vol. III" version, that with its different sources and improvised extravaganza, becomes a very interesting overview of what could happen to this song on stage. It's made up of six blocks.
- Block I, 0:00-1:14. Theme from "King Kong". In this case you've got a minor rhythmic variant, in the sense that the three beats of the 3/8 meter now get played in the form of triplets. So this notates more easily as 3 times 3/16 = 9/16. As on Lumpy Gravy the presentation is polyrhythmic. The vamp that's accompanying the theme namely lasts 12/16. This vamp is a two-bar bass theme with free keyboard improvisation over it. As said it's largely this accompaniment, that's responsible for the main theme sounding different on various occasions. The bass line forms a I-IV alternation in Eb Dorian. It gets interrupted by bars 8-9, where the bass plays along with the melody. In order to get the two parts equal at the start of bar 8, you have to plan such things carefully in advance. Only when the main melody begins on beat 4 of bar 4, you're getting the picture as in bar 8.

King Kong (1982), opening (midi file).

King Kong (1982), opening (transcription).

- Block II, 1:15-5:02. This block is using a vamp in Bb. The example begins with the final bar of the "King Kong" theme. As also shown in the Uncle Meat example, at the end the meters get grouped as larger periods, so here two times 12/16 has become 24/16. The next vamp in Bb continues with this meter. It's a figure of one bar. At first very faintly, you've got synthesizer notes coming up (bar 2, staff 3; staff 1 from bar 3 onwards). In bar they come up explicitly as glissandos. In bar 7 the bass figure briefly gets a pause, while the keyboard improvisation continues in the background. After a while members of the band sing along with only "blow job" as text.

King Kong (1982), section #1 (midi file).

King Kong (1982), section #1 (transcription).

- Block III, 5:02-12:12. Now we're getting at the part with solos from 1971:
a) 5:02-7:13. Sax solo by Ian Underwood in D Dorian.
b) 7:14-8:11. Intro for the guitar solo. I'm not sure if this is a keyboard part, sounding like a guitar, or the guitar itself playing softly.
c) 8:12-9:56. First part of the guitar solo. Zappa is here moving through notes from varying scales via chord progressions. There are no clear tonics, making it as good as impossible to assign sections to keys. The solo is adrift through the diatonic world. Only at 9:11 the chords seem to settle for A Mixolydian. The meter is 4/4 with a number of different subdivisions. It can be plain 4/4 with the beats subdivided into two. But the beats can also be subdivided into three, thus more like 12/8. These beats, on their turn, can also get subdivided into three, leading to figures that look like the ones in bar 5.
The chords in the first example below are:
bars 1-2: Gm7-Am7-Bb.
bar 3: C add M9th.
bar 4: Gm7-Am7-Bbmaj7.
bar 5: playing along Amaj7 (beats 1-2) and Am7 (beats 3-4). Notes gets altered compared to the preceding bars, so it sounds as two modulations.
bar 6: Asus4-Am7.
bar 7: Gm7-Am7-Bb again, followed by two parallel fifths.
d) 9:56-12:12. Second part of the guitar solo with Zappa soloing in a way that's more common in his music, namely an improvised melody in A Mixolydian. The bass is doing a little vamp, while the chords alternate VII and I per bar. Next are two sections from the last two guitar solo parts.

King Kong (1971), section #1 (midi file).
King Kong (1971), section #2 (midi file).

King Kong (1971), section #1 (transcription).
King Kong (1971), section #2 (transcription).

- Block IV, 12:13-18:02. We return to 1982 with a number of routines the band did. Tommy Mars stands central with a keyboard solo. Sometimes solos from "King Kong" refer to the "King Kong" lead melody. This happens in "Lonesome electric turkey" from the "Fillmore East" album during the 0:14-0:22 seconds period, or as in the next example from the keyboard solo on this occasion. It shows Tommy Mars varying the "King Kong" melody in 2/4 during bars 1-9, before continuing with has own extravaganza (bars 10-17). These "King Kong" quotes happen during 12:54 through 12:58 seconds and 15:00 through 15:17 seconds.

King Kong (1982), section #2 (midi file).

King Kong (1982), section #2 (transcription).

- Block V, 18:02-22:29. Guitar solo by Zappa himself. It's using the same vamp as in "It ain't necessarily the St. James infirmary". The key is Eb Dorian, the same key as for the lead melody. The next example is from the opening of the solo, this time without the "It ain't necessarily so" and the "St. James infirmary blues" music, written by George and Ira Gershwin, and by Jim Pimrose respectively. Thus as a composition attributable to Zappa himself only. The vamp follows a I-V-IV pattern, while the rhythm during bars 1, 2 and 3-4 uses different figures.

King Kong (1982), section #3 (midi file).

King Kong (1982), section #3 (transcription).

- Block VI, 22:30-24:32. Reprise of the King Kong theme, as played at the beginning.

Other tracks from Vol. III

See below at vol. VI for an overview of "Honey, don't you want a man like me?" versions, including the one from vol. III. "Dickie's such an asshole" stems from the Roxy concerts from 1973 and is included in the corresponding section.


The black page (1984)

In the 1984 version of "The black page" the disco vamp from the Sheik Yerbouti section has been replaced by a reggae type vamp. A then popular fast kind of it, called ska. In the Zappa in New York section you'll find an overview of "The black page" examples in this study at the "Black page #1" and "#2" tracks. Instead of playing around the pedal notes, the bass is now playing a fifth upon the pedal note in a strict rhythm. The rhythm guitar fills in the harmony with triads, also in a tight ska rhythm. The lead melody of "The black page" is full of irregular groupings. According to Zappa such rhythms function the best when the accompaniment is kept easy and regular. In case of "The black page" the meter is consistently 4/4 and the accompaniment follows pedal notes or a steady type of vamp.

The black page (1984), opening bars (midi file).

The black page (1984), opening bars (transcription).

The constant 4/4 meter, combined with the presence of pedal notes, make "The black page" fit for such adaptations. It shows how easy Zappa could switch between styles. The Best band you've never heard before section contains the opening of yet another "The black page" arrangement. This time for something you might call the jazz band version.

Other tracks from Vol. IV

The opening from the 1988 version of "Filthy habits" is included in the Sleep dirt section.
The opening bars from the 1984 version of "Carolina hard-core ecstasy" are described in the Bongo fury section.


Shall we take ourselves seriously

Next is a short jazz composition, called "Shall we take ourselves seriously", the jazz element being effected by the free bass movement, syncopes and the shifting through keys. I've notated bar 1 in C, bar 2 in C Dorian and for the remainder I'm using an F# in the presets only because the F is mostly sharp. One might just as well use no presets. The meter of this piece remains 4/4, but the subdivision keeps varying. It can be standard 4/4, but you also have a lot of beats with triplets (more like 12/8), as well as triplets over two beats. During bars 13-16 you've got a chord that goes syncopically over a bar, using a triplet.

Shall we take ourselves seriously, opening (midi file).

Shall we take ourselves seriously, opening (transcription).

Other tracks from Vol. V

- Disc I of vol. V deals with the 1968-69 tours. It was a catch up after the royalty issue with some of the original members of the Mothers of invention had been settled. See the seperate Weasels ripped my flesh - YCDTOSA V section for "Baked-bean boogie".
- "The downtown talent scout" is included in the Freak out! section.
- "The little march" stems from the "Run home, slow" movie. See the Movie scores section for this title and the film.
- The "What's new in Baltimore?" version from 1982 is included in the Frank Zappa meets the mothers of invention section.
- The "Doreen" version from 1982 is included in the You are what you is section.


Honey, don't you want a man like me? (1976-1988)

"Honey, don't you want a man like me?" is today available in four versions. I'll take the opening, with two of the three main themes, to indicate the changes upon this song, that Zappa made for the corresponding tours. There are each time four years between the sequent shows. The premiere of this piece is on "Zappa in New York". For the 1980 tour he changed the opening riff such drastically, that only when the lyrics begin you'll realise it's a "Honey, don't you want a man like me?" version. It's available on the recent ZFT "Buffalo" CD, with Zappa surprising himself that he can't remember the words of one particular bar. For the 1984 gigs he returned to the original riff with some variation upon it and a keyboard off beat counter movement (YCDTOSA III). In 1988 a brass section was present to add another little on beat figure. The 1988 version is otherwise basically the same, but here the riff halts during the bars with lyrics except for the bass line (YCDTOSA VI). The scales used differ: A Dorian for the original version, E minor for the 1980 version and C Lydian for the last two renditions. These changes are made by moving the pedal note from A to E and next to C. Zappa keeps commencing the melody of this song on E. All versions have pattern breaking bars as the ones with the 32nd notes. The drum pattern in these bars is strict. It's followed by the others, but there may be an improvised element here as it comes to pitches. Counting via 16th notes the rhythm of 1976 version goes as indicated: 3+3+3+3+4 and 3+3+3+4+3. The 1984 en 1988 versions have 3+3+3+3+2+2.

Honey, don't you want a man like me?, opening, 1976 (midi file).
Honey, don't you want a man like me?, opening, 1980 (midi file).
Honey, don't you want a man like me?, opening, 1984 (midi file).
Honey, don't you want a man like me?, opening, 1988 (midi file).

Honey, don't you want a man like me?, opening, 1976-1988 (transcriptions).


The last example is a cooperation with L. Shankar on violin. It's from the 1978 Halloween concert, of which the ZFT would release more in 2002 as the "Halloween" audio DVD. On this DVD you can also hear Shankar playing during the "Black napkins/Deathless horsie" medley. The vamp for the violin solo in "Thirteen" is in 13/8 with Zappa counting through it at the beginning: "One two - One two three - ONE - TWO- THREE - FOUR". It's in C Lydian with the accompanying chord progression I-II-I, while the bass keeps giving a C pedal note. More on Zappa working with Shankar in the Joe's garage and Documentaries sections.

Thirteen, riff (midi file).

Thirteen, riff (transcription).


Title Released Date of the tracks
- Baby snakes (DVD/CD) 1979/1983 1977
- The dub room special (DVD/CD) 1984 1974/1981
- Does humor belong
    in music (CD/DVD)
1985 1984
- YCDTOSA, Vol. I 1988 1969-1984
- YCDTOSA, Vol. II 1988 1974
- YCDTOSA, Vol. III 1989
   disc 1 1982-1984
   disc 2 1971-1984
- YCDTOSA, Vol. IV 1991 1969-1988
- The best band you never heard
    before in your life
1991 1988
- Make a jazz noise here 1991 1988
- YCDTOSA, Vol. V 1992
   disc 1 1966-1969
   disc 2 1982
- YCDTOSA, Vol. VI 1992 1970-1988
- Playground psychotics 1992 1971
- Ahead of their time 1993 1968
- ZFT: FZ:OZ 2002 1976
- ZFT: Halloween (audio DVD) 2003 1978
- ZFT: Imaginary diseases 2006 1972
- ZFT: Buffalo 2007 1980
- ZFT: Wazoo 2007 1972
- The torture never stops (DVD) 2008 1981
- ZFT: One shot deal 2008 1972-1981
- ZFT: Joe's menage 2008 1975
- ZFT: Philly '76 2009 1976
- ZFT: Hammersmith Odeon 2010 1978
- ZFT: Carnegie Hall 2011 1971
- ZFT: Finer moments 2012 1969-1971
- ZFT: Road tapes, venue #1 2012 1968
- A token of his extreme (DVD) 2013 1974
- ZFT: Road tapes, venue #2 2014 1973
- ZFT: Roxy by proxy 2014 1973
- ZFT: Roxy, the movie (DVD/CD) 2015 1973
- ZFT: Road tapes, venue #3 2016 1970
- ZFT: Chicago '78 2016 1978
- ZFT: Little dots 2016 1972

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