A Beginner’s Guide to Frank Zappa

Everyone could use a little Zappa in their life


    This feature was originally published in August 2012. Today, on the 50th anniversary of his debut album, we’re reposting it.

    Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

    You’re a Serious Music Fan. You like artists who have a “Genius With a Capital G” tag affixed to them. You’re looking to immerse yourself in the world of a composer who will always keep you guessing, a musician who gave great interviews, broke new ground every time his or her feet touched the floor, and has a catalog so densely packed that it would make even Robert Pollard blush. In such a case, it’s clear that you can no longer avoid it: You need Frank Zappa in your life.

    But with roughly a hundred catalog albums credited to his name, where on Earth do you start? You’ve heard that Freak Out is amazing, you know that “Valley Girl” song that he did with his daughter, but you also know that there’s some crazy instrumental work mixed in with soundtracks to unfinished theater shows about genetic experimentation, and you’re terrified that you’ll jump into the wrong end of the pool.


    Frank Zappa can be a bizarre and challenging artist for newcomers, but we can help. We humbly submit to you a playlist of ten Zappa songs that won’t immediately alienate a beginner. This YouTube-fueled list o’ tunes is geared to show you some of his material that wouldn’t have been terribly out of place on any radio playlist of its time. Before you can say “secret word,” you’ll be tracking down original mono versions of We’re Only in It for the Money, just like those other Zappateers.

    -Marc With a C
    Contributing Writer


    “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”

    Album: Freak Out!
    Label: Verve Records
    Year: 1966

    Why not begin with the first track on Zappa’s first album fronting The Mothers Of Invention? This song lays the foundation for a large portion of FZ’s work from this time period, glorifying the strange personalities of the Laurel Canyon freaks (and in this case, specifically the legendary L.A. freak Carl Franzoni), people not afraid to be a bit out there and yet still far removed from the media’s upcoming portrayal of the hippie counterculture. A great little song that was likely misunderstood as an anthem-of-sorts for the multitudes of dropouts descending on Haight Ashbury, it’s one that wouldn’t be out of place on a playlist full of Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service tunes.

    “Concentration Moon”

    Album: We’re Only in It for the Money
    Label: Verve Records
    Year: 1968

    But don’t go inserting these tunes in your Summer Of Love playlists just yet. Zappa was openly critical of the “Let’s get high and have a sit-in” types, as well as the inhumane treatment that law enforcement bestowed upon them. FZ wasn’t the type to write a pamphlet, instead coating his views with the great harmonies heard here, plus more than just a little bit of weirdness courtesy of inserted spoken interludes from engineer Gary Kellgren and Mothers drummer Jimmy Carl Black.

    “Stuff Up The Cracks”

    Album: Cruising with Ruben and the Jets
    Label: Verve Records
    Year: 1968

    In a rather anachronistic move for 1968, Zappa and his band of Mothers made a relatively straightforward record that could be seen as a love letter to the then-bygone days of doo-wop and teenage love songs. Said album comes complete with a story of the fictitious Ruben & The Jets, and the presentation was so effective that numerous radio DJs spun the tracks thinking that they had nothing at all to do with Zappa, despite this particular song being about a jilted lover taking his own life via gas-induced suicide (complete with sound effects). And dig that tasty guitar solo in the outro!

    “Peaches En Regalia”

    Album: Hot Rats
    Label: Bizarre Records
    Year: 1969

    While this choice may be a bit obvious to the hardcore Zappa fanatic, one cannot discount the effective majesty of this instrumental based on enduring popularity alone. Complete with bubbling organs and some amazing clarinet work courtesy of Ian Underwood, “Peaches” makes as good of an argument for Zappa’s instrumental compositions as any other track you can name.

    “Dirty Love”

    Album: Over-Nite Sensation
    Label: DiscReet Records
    Year: 1973

    On first glance, this number from Zappa’s exceptional Over-Nite Sensation record might seem full of uncharacteristic swagger, but closer inspection reveals it to be from the perspective of a narrator trying to convince a potential partner that some good ol’ fashioned lovin’ is in order. And since the recipient’s mother has allegedly had relations with a poodle, how bad can it really be? A funky groove permeates as a welcome spoonful of sugar to the sinister medicine of “Dirty Love.”


    Album: Roxy & Elsewhere
    Label: DiscReet Records
    Year: 1974

    This live track is culled from one of Zappa’s best-loved periods. Not only does it offer a glimpse into his penchant for “conceptual continuity” with continued nods to poodles, but you’re also getting into a bit of the monster movie mythology that Zappa loved so dearly and referenced quite often. The shared lead vocals on “Cheepnis” are delivered courtesy of Zappa and Napoleon Murphy Brock, who frame the constantly shifting, frenetic music in seemingly effortless fashion.

    “Inca Roads”

    Album: One Size Fits All
    Label: DiscReet Records
    Year: 1975

    One Size Fits All is the go-to mid-period album for many Zappa obsessive types, and with guitar gymnastics like those like the ones found in “Inca Roads,” it’s hard to argue otherwise. In many ways, “Inca Roads” is the gold standard by which much of Zappa’s career can be analyzed, touching on many of the musical directions that he is best loved for, all intersecting together in this nine-minute epic.

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