This week marks the third anniversary of the launch of TWBITW. The traditional third anniversary gift, in case you’re wondering, is leather. Thanks in advance.
Actually, we like to celebrate anniversaries around here with two things: The consumption of booze (although let’s face it, we celebrate everything with the consumption of booze) and the addition to The Weird List of a classic artist. Last year, it was Primus; the year before that, it was Parliament-Funkadelic. This year, we’d like to finally make a whole shit-ton of you readers happy by belatedly inducting one Frank Vincent Zappa into our hallowed halls of weirdness. Welcome, Frank! Your arrival is long overdue, we know.
Full disclosure: Although I’ve come to appreciate him in small doses, I never was much of a Frank Zappa fan. Way back in high school, I knew a kid who owned a copy of Joe’s Garage, and he would occasionally play it for us with all the usual Zappa-head exhortations: “The guitar on this track will blow your mind,” “The rhythm changes on this part are nuts,” “Check it out—this whole song is about sausage!” I wish I could say he eventually won the rest of us over, but honestly, we all just shrugged and went back to our U2 records.
So despite being the keeper of a weird band blog, I’m not really the best person to expound on the weirdness of Zappa’s colossal ouevre, which encompasses more than 60 albums and a mind-bending mishmash of rock, jazz, funk, doo-wop, classical and avant-garde tape loop and sound collage experiments, sometimes all of the same album and always shot through with a surreal sense of humor that made it hard to tell when he was trying to make a point and when he was just fucking around.
Still, I will endeavor to enumerate just a few of the many, many reasons why Frank Zappa not only deserves to be on The Weird List—he should probably be the patron saint of this whole damn blog:
- At the age of 22, he played a bicycle as a musical instrument on the Steve Allen Show. Yes, video of this exists.
- In 1968, at the height of the Flower Power era, he and his band the Mothers of Invention released an album called We’re Only in It for the Money that was basically a giant fuck-you to hippie culture.
- He is the inventor of a recording technique called “xenochrony,” in which two different studio takes done in entirely different tempos, keys and/or time signatures are merged together to jarring effect. You can hear a good example of it in
this track. (Reader Waffenspiel referred us to this later track, which is actually a better example.)
- He ran a pair of independent record labels called Bizarre and Straight. Among the artists signed to them was this guy. Also this guy. Oh, and Alice Cooper.
- At a time when most people were too chickenshit to openly criticize Scientology, he openly mocked it with his made-up religion, Appliantology, led by a con artist named L. Ron Hoover, on Joe’s Garage. Had I known all this back in high school, I might have been more inclined to dig Joe’s Garage.
- This was his only Top 40 hit in America.
- He helped give the world Steve Vai.
- His most controversial work was a 1984 rock musical called Thing-Fish, which has been variously condemned as being racist, sexist, homophobic and just in general bad taste. Here, judge for yourself. When he couldn’t get the musical produced on Broadway as he originally intended, Zappa instead partially staged the whole thing for a photo shoot for Hustler magazine. (All of this helped set the stage for Zappa’s anti-censorship campaign against the Parents Music Resource Center, Tipper Gore’s lobbying group that prompted the advent of parental advisory stickers. Zappa’s Senate testimony against the PMRC ranks among the most entertaining performances of his career.)
- For much of the last decade of his life, he composed and recorded almost entirely on the Synclavier.
- The same year he released Joe’s Garage (1979), he also released albums called Orchestral Favorites and Sheik Yerbouti. Yes, Orchestral Favorites featured a full orchestra. No, Sheik Yerbouti was not a disco record.
I could go on, but you get the idea. No one colored outside the lines like Frank Zappa.
“I never set out to be weird,” Zappa told his hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, in 1986. “It was always other people who called me weird.” Don’t all the best weirdos say that? (And in case we haven’t made this clear by now: Around these parts, we consider “weird” to be a high form of praise. “Weird” means you’re doing something original and exciting that changes people’s perceptions of what music or art can be. “Weird” should be a badge of fucking honor, not something used to belittle or trivialize an artist’s work. Can someone place explain that to this guy? Thanks.)
I’ll leave you, selfishly, with a song that’s not Zappa’s weirdest by a longshot. It just happens to be my favorite. After all, it’s our anniversary! Crank it up, and don’t forget to air out those python-skin boots.
P.S. As of Aug. 14th, Frank Zappa’s entire catalog is now available on iTunes. Frank would’ve been totally down with it.