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This lesson will cover the life, career, and legacy of Frank Zappa. We will consider his experimentalism, influences, and passion for fighting censorship.

Frank Zappa: Visionary Eccentric

Few rock musicians have challenged popular tastes and expanded the vocabulary of rock music more than Frank Zappa. Throughout his career Zappa composed virtuosic, deeply bizarre music that delighted his fans and confused most everyone else. The majority of Zappa’s music was too long (and much too strange) for top 40 radio; nonetheless, he earned a reputation during his relatively short life as one of the most complex and iconoclastic rock musicians of the 20th century.

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Frank Zappa, 1977
Frank Zappa
The Mothers of Invention, 1971
The Mothers of Invention

Zappa Live

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention toured extensively and perfected a dazzling live show. Zappa sacked many of the original members of The Mothers of Invention, hiring new musicians at will.

Zappa produced the experimental, semi-autobiographical movie ‘200 Motels’ that remains beloved by Zappa fans, but which mostly confused audiences in the 1970s. The lyrical content of Zappa’s work throughout his career was often peppered with sexual and scatological references, causing numerous run-ins with censors. Songs like ‘Crew Slut’ and ‘Why Does It Hurt When I Pee’ frequently rubbed would-be censors the wrong way. In 1971, Zappa was pushed off the stage by an audience member during a performance and suffered serious injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life.In the mid 1980s, Zappa become embroiled in a battle with the Parents Music Resource Center, a committee formed by Tipper Gore to censor music members felt was offensive.

Zappa appeared before a Senate hearing in 1985 to protest the efforts of the PMRC. Attempts by the PMRC to censor popular music amounted to very little, but Zappa emerged from the incident as a free speech hero.

Legacy and Death

In 1993 Zappa passed away after a long battle with prostate cancer. During his fairly short life, Zappa recorded a staggering number of albums. His unique fusion of jazz, avant-garde music, and rock would inspire legions of musicians from many different parts of the musical landscape.

He is now regarded as one of the most musically fearless and distinctive American musicians of the 20th century.

Lesson Summary

Frank Zappa was a virtuosic, highly distinctive rock musician who was active from the 1960s until the early 1990s. He blended modern jazz and avant-garde techniques with psychedelic rock and doo-wop music.

In his numerous bands and side projects Zappa challenged mainstream tastes and fought censorship.

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