Even from the grave, Frank Zappa continues to intimidate rock critics.
Facing the Zappa legacy is an enormous -- and, to some degree, thankless -- task. Not only does it involve days upon days of listening, it also requires far more thought and analysis than most rock music. Zappa wasn't like other rock stars, and his music has to be judged by a unique and idiosyncratic set of standards.
In the 27 years he spent making albums, the Baltimore-born Zappa indulged in everything from soundtracks and concept albums to orchestral works and concert recordings. There were nearly 60 titles overall -- an astonishing figure, given that the average rock star these days rarely produces more than an album every other year.
Amazingly, almost all of Zappa's work remains in print. Thanks to the consolidation that began with the sale of Zappa's catalog to Rykodisc, some 53 Zappa albums are currently in print (virtually all his albums except "200 Motels"). Moreover, plans are in the works for new albums to be compiled from unreleased material in the Zappa archives.
As a result, Zappa is ensured of taking up more shelf space than any other rocker of his generation.
To be honest, a fair amount of Zappa's reputation rests on the sheer bulk of his output, since most critics assume that only a genius could compose and record so much complicated music. But is quantity really an indicator of quality?
Not in this case. There has always been a lot to dislike about Zappa's writing, especially if you start with the words. Zappa's lyrics were often snidely sexist, reflecting an attitude that was misanthropic at best and misogynous at worst. It's not just that efforts like "Dinah-Moe Humm" from "Overnight Sensation" (Ryko or "Jewish Princess" from "Sheik Yerbouti" (Ryko 10528) seem politically incorrect by current standards; all too often, Zappa's songs presented women not as individual beings but as a semi-beguiling set of orifices. Even as a joke, that sort of thing isn't very funny.
Then there was his enduring interest in toilet humor, as typified by "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" from "Apostrophe (')" (Ryko 10519), and his tendency to treat average Joes as the punch line in some continuing moron jokes. Even his attacks on authority -- though often quite worthy, as with "Porn Wars" from "Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention" (Ryko 10547) -- often seemed embarrassingly mean-spirited.
Hold the humming
His music, on the other hand, generally earned the grudging admiration of his critics, if only because it was too complex for most of them to criticize intelligently. Where other songwriters would settle for a catchy chorus and a coherent verse, such Zappa tunes as "Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)" from "Roxy & Elsewhere" (Ryko 10520) proffered themes and variations of such complexity that you almost needed a music degree just to hum along.
Because his compositions tended to be as intricate as they were ingenious, Zappa was a musician's musician, admired by rockers, jazzmen and classically trained players alike. That he was a great bandleader goes without saying -- contrary to the title of "We're Only In It for the Money," nobody got rich playing with Zappa -- and the Mothers of Invention alumni roster includes such names as George Duke, Lowell George, Steve Vai, Adrian Belew, Captain Beefheart, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio, Duran Duran guitarist Warren Cucurullo, and Genesis tour drummer Chester Thompson.
Yet for all the intelligence and musicianship that went into Zappa's work, the question remains: Was it good music?
It wasn't good rock, but then Zappa wasn't much of a rocker. Sure, he looked the part -- he had the hair, the guitar, the groupies -- and was officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. He even got mentioned in a Deep Purple song. So what about him wasn't rock and roll?
His music, frankly. As much as Zappa liked to play off stylistic devices of classic rock (particularly doo-wop harmonies and melodic conventions), his music generally avoided the most basic component of rock and roll: the beat. As Chuck Berry so aptly put it, the thing about rock and roll music is that it has "a backbeat/You can't lose it."
But Zappa did. He went whole albums without once resorting to that familiar boom-thwack!-boom-boom-thwack! rhythm. It wasn't that Zappa's drummers couldn't keep a beat; Zappa simply didn't want them to.
Some of that no doubt extended from Zappa's musicianly disdain for music as bone-simple as basic rock and roll. This, remember, was a guy whose "serious" compositions were extolled by Pierre Boulez and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, and who was known to sprinkle allusions to 20th-century classical music through his work. In fact, the live album "Make a Jazz Noise Here" (Ryko 10552) includes excerpts from Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" and Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, both done Frank's way.