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Frank Zappa


NA- Zappa - guitars, vocals  
NA- The Mothers Of Invention - guitars, vocals  

Personal information

Born on: 21.12.1940
Died on: 04.12.1993

Official website

Early life and influences

Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland on December 21, 1940 to Francis Zappa (born in Partinico, Sicily, of Greek and Lebanese descent) and Rose Marie Colimore (who was of three quarters Italian including Sicilian and one quarter French descent). He was the oldest of four children (two brothers and a sister). In January of 1951, his family relocated to the West Coast because of Frank's asthma. They settled in Monterey, California, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Pomona, then to El Cajon before moving a short distance, once again, to San Diego in the early 1950s.

During Zappa's early childhood, his father, a chemist and mathematician, worked at the Edgewood Arsenal chemical warfare facility at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground. Due to the home's proximity to the Arsenal, Zappa's father kept gas masks on hand in case of an accident. Evidently, this had a profound effect on the young Zappa; references to germs, germ warfare and other aspects of the "secret" defense industry occur throughout his work. Zappa developed a sinus problem during his early teens. To his lasting horror, his doctor treated the stubborn ailment by inserting a pellet of radium on a probe into each of his nostrils. Nasal imagery and references would appear both in his writing and in the collage album covers created by his longtime visual collaborator, Cal Schenkel.

By 1955 the Zappa family had relocated to Lancaster. Lancaster was a small aerospace and farming town in Antelope Valley of the Mojave Desert, close to Edwards Air Force Base (30 miles away), Los Angeles (60 miles away), and the San Gabriel Mountains. By age 15, Zappa had attended six different high schools.

Lancaster's location gave Zappa access to the exciting sounds of radio stations in Los Angeles and KSPC 88.7 FM in Claremont, where Zappa had his own Saturday night show. In addition, his parents were affluent enough to afford a record player, records, a television, and musical instruments. Television also exerted a strong influence, as demonstrated by quotations from show themes and advertising jingles found in some of his later work.

As a student, Zappa was bored and given to distracting the rest of the class with juvenile antics. He left community college after one semester to make low-budget films. Frank maintained his disdain for formal education throughout his life, taking his children out of school at age 15 and refusing to pay for their college.

Zappa was, from the beginning, interested in sounds for their own sake. This led to his interest in modern composers, and he grew up influenced in equal measures by avant-garde composers such as Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, local rhythm and blues and doo-wop groups (particularly local pachuco groups), and modern jazz (including bebop and free jazz), but it was black R&B that was arguably the strongest and most pervasive musical influence on Zappa.

Zappa's own heterogeneous ethnic background and the diverse cultural and social mix that existed in and around greater Los Angeles at the time also had a strong influence on him. Zappa scholar Ben Watson argues that these influences were crucial in situating Zappa as a practitioner and fan of "outsider art". Throughout his career he was deeply distrustful and openly critical of "mainstream" social, political and musical movements, and he frequently lampooned popular musical fads like psychedelia, bubblegum pop, rock opera and disco. Among his many musical satires are the 1967 songs "Flower Punk" (which parodies the song "Hey Joe") and "Who Needs The Peace Corps?", which are withering critiques of the late-Sixties commercialisation of the hippie phenomemon.

The pivotal events leading to Zappa's engagement with modern classical music occurred after his reading of a LOOK magazine story on the Sam Goody record store chain that lauded its ability to sell an LP as obscure as The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One. It further described Varèse's percussion composition Ionisation as "a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds." Zappa then became convinced that he should seek out Varèse's music. When he spotted a copy of The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One in a local record store after a year of searching (he noticed the LP for the "mad scientist" looking photo of Varèse on the cover, and was surprised it was the Varèse LP he'd long been searching for), Zappa convinced the salesman to sell him the store's demonstration copy at a discount. Thus began a lifelong passion for Varèse and his music.

Zappa's mother gave him considerable encouragement. Though she greatly disliked Varèse's music, she was indulgent enough to award Zappa the gift of a long distance call to the composer as a fifteenth birthday present. Unfortunately, Varèse was in Europe at the time, so Frank spoke to the composer's wife. Zappa later received a letter from Varèse thanking Zappa for his interest, telling him about a composition he was working on called "Déserts" (living in the desert town of Lancaster, Zappa found this very exciting), and inviting Zappa to look him up if he was ever in New York. The meeting never took place (Varèse died in 1965), but Zappa kept the framed letter proudly displayed for the rest of his life.

Zappa's interest in composing and arranging burgeoned in his later high school years and he dreamed of being a composer. By his final year, he was writing prolifically and had not only composed, arranged and conducted an avant-garde performance piece for the school orchestra, but had also contrived to have the event both broadcast on local radio and recorded. A portion of this recording is included on The Lost Episodes (1996).

Zappa began his musical career on drums, taking his first lessons at school in the summer of 1953. He played drums with local teenage combos, but later switched to guitar. Although he performed as a singer and guitarist for most of his career, Zappa always retained a strong interest in rhythm and percussion. His bands have been noted for the excellence of their drummers. Works such as "The Black Page" are notorious for virtuosity and complexity in rhythmic structure and arrangement, featuring radical changes of tempo and metre as well as short, densely arranged passages contrasted by free-form breaks and extended improvisations.

In 1956 Zappa met Don Van Vliet (best known by his stage name "Captain Beefheart") while taking classes at Antelope Valley High School and playing drums in a local band, The Blackouts. The Blackouts, a racially-mixed outfit, included Euclid James "Motorhead" Sherwood (who later lived with Zappa at 'Studio Z' and was a member of the Mothers of Invention). Zappa and Van Vliet became close friends, influencing each other musically, and collaborating in the late Sixties and mid-Seventies (on the 1975 album Bongo Fury). They later became estranged for a period of years. Van Vliet's own feelings about Frank Zappa were perhaps best summarized in a quote published in a March 1994 issue of Musician magazine: "I knew him for thirty-seven years, and in the end, the relationship was private."

Zappa is quoted as saying, "Johnny "Guitar" Watson's 1956 song 'Three Hours Past Midnight' inspired me to become a guitarist." Zappa would later invite Watson to contribute on numerous albums.

In 1957 Zappa was given his first guitar and quickly developed into a highly accomplished and inventive player. He considered his solos "air sculptures", and developed an eclectic, innovative and personal style. Zappa eventually became one of the most highly regarded electric guitarists of his time. While it is possible that Zappa might have become a professional jazz musician, he was soon drawn into rock music. Throughout, he retained a lifelong attachment to jazz forms, voicing and structures and often drew his band members from the jazz world (if only because of the high degree of competence his complex music demanded).

After graduating in June 1958 Zappa worked for a time in advertising. His sojourn in the commercial world was another important influence on his work, and within a few years Zappa was co-opting the techniques he learned as a commercial artist. Zappa used them to deconstruct music, the music business, the media and society at large by combining them with the ideas he had gleaned from his studies of dada, the Situationist International, and surrealism. Zappa thereafter always took a keen interest in the visual presentation of his work, designing some of his album covers (for example, Absolutely Free) and directing his own films and videos. Zappa's album covers are highly distinctive; frequently bizarre and surreal. His two most important visual collaborators were Cal Schenkel in the Sixties and early Seventies, and Donald Roller Wilson in the Eighties and Nineties.

Zappa moved to Los Angeles in 1959 and spent most of the rest of his life there. Among his earliest professional recordings are two adventurous and remarkably accomplished scores for the low-budget films Run Home Slow and The World's Greatest Sinner. In 1963, he began playing professionally around Los Angeles and bought the small Pal Recording Studio in Rancho Cucamonga, California (formerly called Cucamonga), which he renamed "Studio Z". Zappa had been recording at Pal since the early 1960s and after receiving a payment for one of his film scores he was able to buy the studio, including a unique 5-track tape recorder, built by Paul Buff out of an old cabinet. Soon after, he moved out of his apartment and into the studio where he began routinely working 12 hours or more per day. This set a pattern that would endure for almost all of his life. At this time, only a handful of the most expensive commercial studios had multitrack facilities, the industry standard for smaller studios was still mono or two-track. By the time he recorded his first LP with The Mothers in 1966 he was already an accomplished recording and mastering engineer and from his third LP on and for the rest of his career, he produced all his own work.

After being approached by a customer who offered him $100 to produce a suggestive tape for a stag party, Zappa and a female friend jokingly faked the "erotic" recording, which purported to contain the sounds of people having sex (which consisted of Frank and his friend jumping on the bed and making sex sounds). Unfortunately the customer was an undercover member of the Vice Squad and Zappa was jailed for ten days on charges of supplying pornography. His entrapment and brief imprisonment left a permanent mark, and was a key event in the formation of his anti-authoritarian stance.


After a short career as a professional songwriter ? his elegiac "Memories of El Monte" was recorded by Doo-Wop group The Penguins ? in 1964 Zappa joined a local R&B band, The Soul Giants, as a guitarist. Soon he assumed leadership, renaming the band "The Mothers."

The Mothers gradually began to gain attention on the burgeoning Los Angeles underground "freak scene" and in 1965 they were spotted by leading record producer Tom Wilson, who had earned acclaim as the producer of the seminal Bob Dylan album Bringing It All Back Home and the single, "Like a Rolling Stone," as well as the breakthrough "electric" version of Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence." Wilson was also notable as one of the few African-Americans working as a major label pop producer at this time. Wilson signed The Mothers to the Verve label, which had built up a strong reputation for its fine modern jazz recordings in the 1940s and 1950s, but was then attempting to diversify into pop and rock, with an "artistic" or "experimental" bent. Around this time, Zappa also met and signed with longtime manager Herb Cohen.

The Mothers signed with Verve Records, which insisted that they officially re-title themselves "The Mothers of Invention" because "Mother" was short for "motherfucker" - a term that can denote a skilled musician, but that also has more profane meanings.


The record company that finally signed us didn't want to sign a group called The Mothers. Because - do you want the real reason or the television reason? In the United States the term "mother" is short for "motherfucker" and the term "motherfucker" can be used in a variety of ways. One way, it means somebody who stuffs it up their mother and in another way it means a musician who is supposedly good on his instrument. And at the time, in the place where we were working all the guys who were in the group were the best available in Pomona. Does that give you a rough idea of how sad it was in Pomona in those days? So I thought we should call the group The Mothers. As I explained, short for the other word. The record company said "no, you'll never be able to sell any records like that" and they said if you don't change the name of the group we're not going to give you a contract. They wanted to call it The Mothers' Auxiliary, which is a name that is usually attached to parent organizations in the States. So I said, "no, out of necessity, we will become The Mothers of Invention".


With Wilson credited as producer, The Mothers recorded their groundbreaking double album debut Freak Out! (1966), a mixture of often topical R&B and experimental sound collage that attempted to capture the "freak" subculture of Los Angeles at that time. One of the first record albums united by an underlying theme, it was also only the second double LP of rock music ever released, and firmly established Zappa as a radical new voice in rock music. Wilson is also credited with producing the even more accomplished follow-up Absolutely Free; but for the third LP, Wilson was listed as "Executive producer," and Zappa took over as producer for all the Mothers and solo Zappa recordings issued from that time on. It is clear that even on the two first albums, Zappa was already responsible for virtually all of the musical decisions, with Wilson providing the industry clout, credibility, and connections to get the unknown group the financial resources they needed to produce a double album with use of an orchestra; by the third album, Zappa had already enough of a proven track record to allow for a more accurate description in the album's credits of their respective roles. During this period, Wilson also had Zappa collaborate with The Animals on the song "All Night Long" on their album Animalism.

The early Mothers' anarchic stage shows were legendary ? during one famous 1967 performance at the Garrick Theatre in New York, Zappa managed to entice some soldiers from the audience onto the stage, where they proceeded to dismember a collection of baby dolls, having been told by Zappa to imagine that they were "gook babies".

Zappa's second and third studio albums were landmarks of record production highlighted by liberal use of 'cut-up' editing techniques. Absolutely Free (1967) continued Zappa's lyrical preoccupations with the hypocrisy and conformity of American society, with the alleged suppression of underground and alternative culture. It was followed by the album widely regarded as the peak of the group's late Sixties work, We're Only In It For The Money (1968) which featured some of the most radical audio editing and production yet heard in pop music, and ruthlessly satirized the hippie and flower power phenomena. The cover photo (which included Jimi Hendrix) parodied that of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

This was book-ended by two closely linked companion pieces. The audio collage Lumpy Gravy (1968) ? released as a solo album under the name Francis Vincent Zappa ? took Zappa's production techniques to a new level and, according to Zappa himself, took nine months to edit; at this point, he still did all of his edits the old-fashioned way -- with a razor blade. It mixes a multitude of musical styles and orchestra line ups. His next album was a tribute to the doo-wop genre Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968). Other important Mothers recordings from this period were collected on the 1969 compilation Weasels Ripped My Flesh which includes the vocal version of the song "Oh No" -- regarded by Zappa scholar Ben Watson as one of the central works of Zappa's oeuvre -- and featuring a memorable cover design by Neon Park. It was followed by the 1970 album Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

During the late Sixties Zappa continued to develop as an artist, emerging as a superb lead guitarist, skilled producer and engineer, and a composer and arranger of extraordinary range and facility. He increasingly used tape editing as a compositional tool; his editing skills are apparent on the work he produced in the late Sixties with The Mothers. A prime example being the double album Uncle Meat (1969), where the track "King Kong" is edited from various studio and live performances.

Zappa evolved a unique compositional approach ? which he dubbed "conceptual continuity" ? that ranged across virtually every genre of music. His work combines satirical lyrics and pop melodies with virtuoso instrumental prowess, where long, jazz-inflected improvisational passages are counterbalanced with densely edited and seemingly chaotic collage sequences that mix music, sound effects and snatches of conversation. Conceptual continuity clues are to be found throughout Zappa's entire oeuvre.

He also became famous for regularly quoting musical phrases that influenced or amused him ? one of his most famous and regular quotes was the riff from the perennial Sixties rock hit "Louie Louie", which appears in various forms in more than twenty separate recordings over the whole span of his career. He also frequently quoted from or referred to TV show themes ("The Untouchables") and advertising jingles ("WPLJ"), from famous rock & pop songs such as "My Sharona," "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?", "Let's Dance," (David Bowie was a particularly frequent object of Zappa's derision; eg. "Smell the Glove") "Whip It," "Owner of a Lonely Heart," and "Stairway To Heaven," and from classical works such as Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring (also the source of "Igor's Boogie" on the album "Burnt Weenie Sandwhich") and Ravel's Boléro.

Around 1968 Zappa also began regularly recording his concerts, beginning with a simple two-track portable recorder and eventually progressing to a portable 48-track digital system. In the process he built up a vast archive of live recordings. In the late 1980s some of the best of these recordings were collected for the 12-CD set You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore. Because of his insistence on precise tuning and timing in concert, from the 1970s on Zappa was able to augment his studio productions with excerpts from live shows, and he is known to have inserted 'live' guitar solos into the final studio recordings of some compositions, a process he dubbed xenochrony.

Although they were lauded by critics and their peers and had a rabid cult following, mainstream audiences often found much of Zappa and the Mothers' music, appearance and attitude impossible to comprehend, and the band was often greeted with derision. More importantly, the financial strain and interpersonal tensions involved in keeping a large jazz-rock ensemble on the road eventually led to the group's demise in 1969, although numerous members would remain with or return to Zappa in years to come.

After he disbanded the original Mothers, Zappa released the acclaimed solo instrumental album Hot Rats, featuring his jazz-inflected guitar playing backed by jazz, blues and R&B session players including violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris, drummer John Guerin, multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, and bassist Shuggie Otis. It remains one of his most popular and accessible recordings and undoubtedly had a major influence on the development of the jazz-rock fusion genre.

During this period Zappa also produced the double album Trout Mask Replica for his old friend Captain Beefheart (who also appeared on Hot Rats) as well as releases by Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, Wild Man Fischer and The GTOs.


Around 1970, Zappa put together a new version of The Mothers that included British drummer Aynsley Dunbar, jazz keyboardist George Duke, previous Mothers member Ian Underwood, and no fewer than three members of The Turtles: bass player Jim Pons, who before joining The Turtles had been the lead singer of The Leaves (of "Hey Joe" fame); and singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who due to persisting legal/contractual problems adopted the stage-monikers "The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie," or "Flo & Eddie" for short.

The new lineup debuted on Zappa's next solo LP Chunga's Revenge, which was followed by the sprawling soundtrack to the movie project 200 Motels, featuring both The Mothers and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. At the time George Duke was in the band and appears both in the film and on the sound track as a musician. He left the band to play with Cannonball Adderly and was replaced by Don Preston from the original Mothers, who acted in the film, but is not playing on the soundtrack.

This double album was followed by two live sets, Fillmore East - June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A., which included the 20-minute track "Billy The Mountain," Zappa's satire on rock opera, set in Southern California. The hilariously low-concept cover art of the Fillmore album -- satirising the bootleg albums that had recently become popular, and of which Zappa was a favoured target -- appeared just at the apex of the era of great rock "album cover artwork".

The June 1971 Fillmore concerts also marked Zappa's only colaboration with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. This historic performance was recorded and Lennon released excerpts on his album Some Time In New York City in 1972, but Zappa was reported to have been unhappy with the result. He later released his own version of excerpts from this historic concert, including the jam track "Scumbag" and an extended avant garde vocal piece by Yoko (originally called "Au") which Zappa caustically retitled "A Small Eternity with Yoko Ono".

In December 1971 there were two serious setbacks. While performing in Montreux, Switzerland, the Mothers' equipment was destroyed when a flare set off by an audience member started a fire that burned down the casino where they were playing ?an event immortalised in Deep Purple's song "Smoke On The Water." The event and immediate aftermath can be heard on the bootleg album Swiss Cheese/Fire, released legally as part of Zappa's Beat the Boots II compilation. Later that month, Zappa was attacked at the Rainbow Theatre, London. A jealous boyfriend of a female fan[citation needed] pushed Frank off the stage and into the orchestra pit. Zappa suffered serious fractures, head trauma and injuries to his back, leg, and neck, as well as a crushed larynx (which caused his voice to drop a third after healing). This left him wheelchair bound for a time, forcing him off the road for over a year. (He was wearing a leg brace for a period thereafter, had a noticeable limp and couldn't stand for very long while on stage.) He said one leg healed "shorter than the other" (a reference found in the lyrics of "Zomby Woof" and "Dancin' Fool"). He employed tour bodyguard John Smothers, who was an accomplished martial artist and bodyguard for several big-name celebrities. Meanwhile, the Mothers were left in limbo, and eventually formed the core of Flo and Eddie's band as they set out on their own.

In 1971-72 Zappa released two strongly jazz-oriented solo LPs, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, which were recorded during the forced layoff from concert touring, using floating lineups of session players and Mothers alumni. He began touring again in late 1972, first with a scaled-down version of the big band appearing on Grand Wazoo - appropriately known as "Petit Wazoo." Then he formed groups that variously included Ian Underwood (reeds, keyboards), Ruth Underwood (vibes, marimba), Sal Marquez (trumpet, vocals), Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, flute and vocals), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), Ralph Humphrey (drums), George Duke (keyboards, vocals) and Jean-Luc Ponty (violin).

He continued a high rate of production through the early 1970s, including the albums One Size Fits All and Apostrophe, Over-Nite Sensation and Roxy & Elsewhere featuring ever-changing versions of a band though still called the Mothers. These albums were notable for the highly technical jazz-fusion the bands were renowned for, demonstrated on such pieces as "Inca Roads," "Echidna's Arf (Of You)" or "Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen's Church)."

In the mid 1970s Zappa began recording material for Läther (pronounced "leather"), an ambitious four-LP project. Läther encapsulated all the aspects of Zappa's musical styles ?rock tunes, theatrical works, complex instrumental compositions, and Zappa's own trademark tube distortion-drenched guitar solos were all recorded for the release. Zappa had completed the recording for the album and presented it to Warner Bros. Records executives. Wary of a quadruple-LP, they refused to release it and told Zappa that he owed them four more records.

In an attempt to complete his contract, he reedited Läther into four separate albums, and delivered the master tapes to Warner Bros., who refused to release the albums, and told him he still owed them four more albums. Zappa soon appeared on the (at the time) influential Los Angeles radio station KROQ, allowing them to broadcast the Läther album and encouraging listeners to make their own tape recordings. A lawsuit between Zappa and Warner Bros. followed, during which the four albums were dumped on the market as the live album Zappa in New York (1978), Studio Tan (1978), Sleep Dirt (1979), and the symphony orchestra-based Orchestral Favorites (1979), with no promotion and only cheaply produced cover art by Gary Panter. Läther was released in its original form in 1996.

Zappa's relationship with long-time manager Herb Cohen ended in 1976. The breakup was an acrimonious affair, exacerbated by Zappa's ongoing feud with Warner Bros. Cohen had created DiscReet Records with Zappa as a label of Warner Bros., in order to be used as a business venture to aid funding of Zappa albums. Zappa however discovered that Cohen had been skimming more than he was allocated from the label, and he also alleged that Cohen had used some of Frank's money to fund recordings for other artists. Cohen filed a lawsuit against Zappa in return, due to Zappa taking the master copies of Zoot Allures (1976) directly to Warner Bros., thus bypassing DiscReet completely. While it is unknown what became of the lawsuits, with both parties remaining tight-lipped about the affair, Zappa and Cohen would never work together again. Zappa eventually gained the rights of all his material created under the Warner Bros. contract. Cohen also reportedly retained many of the pieces created by visual artist and Zappa protege Cynthia Plaster Caster, who became famous for making casts of the penises of rock musicians of the Sixties and Seventies (including Zappa), and the artist was later forced to sue Cohen to regain possession of them.

During the late 1970s Zappa made several celebrated appearances on the popular NBC series Saturday Night Live, both as guest host and as featured musical guest. His renowned SNL appearance in December 1976 included an impromptu musical collaboration with cast member John Belushi (playing his famous Samurai Futaba character) and a performance of "I'm The Slime" which featured a voice-over by SNL booth announcer Don Pardo, who also performed on stage with Zappa a few days later, reading the narration for "The Illinois Enema Bandit" (a performance which can be found on Zappa In New York and Läther).

Zappa's 1970s period ended with the releases of Sheik Yerbouti (1979), which contained Zappa classics such as Dancin' Fool, Bobby Brown (Goes Down), as well as Jewish Princess, which received some controversial attention, and the triple LP Joe's Garage (1979), which features lead singer Ike Willis as voice of "Joe". Joe's Garage is considered to be one of Zappa's definitive achievements of the period. It features a coherent story line (which Zappa, however, later described as "stupid") about the suppression of freedom of speech (and music), and mixes catchy songs like "Catholic Girls," "Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up," and the title track, with long guitar solos taken from live concerts and mixed with studio material (cf. the aforementioned process xenochrony). Finally, the album contains what would become one of Zappa's most famous signature guitar pieces, "Watermelon in Easter Hay." Sheik Yerbouti was a commercial success, and according to Zappa's record company Rykodisc: "Bobby Brown (Goes Down)" is perhaps the oddest of Zappa's successes. This colorful tale of a young man's encounter with a "dyke by the name of Freddie" would never get airplay in the US, but it reached the top of the charts in Sweden, Norway and Austria, was Top Ten in Germany and remains a favorite in territories where English is not the primary language. Said Zappa to Matt Groening in a 1992 interview, "I don't think anything has outsold Sheik Yerbouti, partly because "Bobby Brown" keeps becoming a hit every ten years... I think it was back on the charts again in Norway. For no apparent reason, it was back."


In 1980, Zappa helped former band members Warren Cuccurullo, Terry Bozzio and Patrick O'Hearn launch their new band, Missing Persons, by letting them record their 4-song demo EP in his brand new UMRK (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) studios. In 1981, the double album You Are What You Is was released, featuring 19 songs, which included such complex instrumentals as "Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear", but mainly focused on rock songs with Zappa's sardonic social commentary. "Dumb All Over", is an example of this, being a devastating tirade on religion, as is "Heavenly Bank Account", wherein Zappa rails against people such as Jerry Falwell for relying upon the US administration to finance the religious organization, the "Moral Majority," while simultaneously embezzling the funds. The album is also notable for the presence of guitar virtuoso Steve Vai who joined Zappa's touring band in the Fall of 1980.

In the same year, Tinsel Town Rebellion was released, a mixture of songs taken from a 1979 tour, one studio track and the rest were taken from the last tour of 1980. The album is a mixture of complicated instrumentals, of which "The Blue Light" is a salient example, demonstrating Vinnie Colaiuta's dexterity around a drum kit, and Zappa's use of sprechstimme (speaking voice), a compositional technique utilized by such composers as Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg. Colaiuta's performances on Zappa's albums Tinsel Town Rebellion, Joe's Garage and Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar are considered by many drummers to be among the most astounding ever recorded. Joe's Garage was named one of the top-25 drumming performances of all time in a 1993 Modern Drummer magazine article.

1981 also saw the release of three instrumental albums Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More, and The Return of the Son of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, which were initially sold via mail order by Zappa himself, but were later released commercially through CBS label due to popular demand. As the titles reveal, these albums focus exclusively on Frank Zappa as a guitar soloist. Frank Zappa's guitar solos had been a trademark during his career, and now he decided to release albums focusing on his work as a guitarist. The tracks on the albums are predominantly from 1979-80, and highlight Zappa's exceptional improvisational skills and unique sound. The albums were subsequently released as a 3-album box set, and were in 1988 followed by the album Guitar focusing on recordings from 1981-82 and 1984. A third guitar-only album, Trance-Fusion, was completed by Zappa shortly before his death, but had not been officially released until 2006.

In May of 1982, Zappa released Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, which featured his biggest selling single, "Valley Girl" (topping out at #32 on the Billboard charts). In her improvised "lyrics" to the song, Zappa's daughter Moon Unit satirized the vapid speech of teenage girls from the San Fernando Valley. Naturally, this led to the meme-like propagation of "Valspeak" such as "gag me with a spoon" and "barf out".

1983 saw the release of two different projects, The Man From Utopia, a rock-oriented work. The album itself is eclectic, featuring the vocal-led "Dangerous Kitchen" and "The Jazz Discharge Party Hats", both continuations of the sprechstimme excursions shown on Tinseltown Rebellion. The second album was the first fully orchestral recording of Zappa pieces, something he had been waiting to accomplish for some time. Conducted by Kent Nagano and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, it featured the compositions "Sad Jane," "Pedro's Dowry," and "Mo 'n Herb's Vacation." A second record of these sessions saw release in 1987, containing "Bogus Pomp." Frank was not pleased with the LSO recordings as they were not perfect performances of his compositions. The most notable example is Strictly Genteel, which was recorded after the trumpet section had gone out for drinks on break. This track took an immense amount of edits to get a passable version.

For the remainder of his career, much of Zappa's work was affected by use of the synclavier as a compositional and performance tool. In 1984, he released four albums within a few months. Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, which juxtaposed orchestral works commissioned and conducted by world-renowned conductor Pierre Boulez and premiere synclavier pieces; Thing-Fish, an ambitious three-record set in the style of a Broadway play (where new vocals are combined with previous released tracks and new synclavier music); Francesco Zappa a synclavier rendition of works by 17th century composer, Francesco Zappa (a relation to Frank is uncertain); Them or Us, a two-record set of heavily edited live and session pieces.

On September 19, 1985, Zappa testified before the US Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation committee, attacking the Parents Music Resource Center or PMRC, a music censorship (though others would say watchdog) organization founded by then-Senator Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore and including many other political wives, including the wives of five members of the committee. In his prepared statement, Zappa said


The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design. It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation. (...) The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow "J" on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?


Zappa put some excerpts from the PMRC hearings to music in his composition "Porn Wars" from the 1985 album Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention. Zappa is heard interacting with Senators Fritz Hollings, Slade Gorton, Al Gore (who admitted to being a Zappa fan), and, most notably, a funny exchange with Florida Senator Paula Hawkins over what toys the Zappa children played with. Zappa would also go on to argue with PMRC representatives on the CNN's Crossfire in 1986 and 1987.

The album Jazz From Hell, released in 1986, brought Zappa his first Grammy Award in 1988 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Except for one live guitar solo, the album exclusively featured compositions brought to life by the synclavier.

His last tour in a "rock band format" took place in 1988 with a 12-piece group which was reported to have a repertoire of over 200 (mostly Zappa) compositions, but which split in acrimonious circumstances before the tour was completed. The tour was documented on the albums Broadway The Hard Way (new material featuring songs with strong political emphasis), The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life (Zappa "standards" and obscure cover tunes), and Make a Jazz Noise here (mostly instrumental and experimental music). Parts are also found on You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vols. 4 and 6.

In the late '80s Zappa's passion for American politics was becoming a bigger part of his life. Throughout the 1988 tour, he regularly encouraged his young fans to register to vote, and even had voter registration booths at his concerts. He was also considering running for President of the United States, believing that there was a fascist bias in American politics at the time.

During this period Zappa was also simultaneously undertaking a comprehensive re-release program of his earlier recordings. He personally oversaw the remastering of all his classic 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s albums for the new compact disc medium, although certain of these re-issues were criticised by some fans as being unfaithful to the original recordings. In the case of Hot Rats, the mix on the CD version differs markedly from the original LP version. We're Only In It For The Money was particularly criticised because Zappa used his current touring bassist and drummer to re-record some of the rhythm parts. Zappa's explanation was that the multitrack tapes of the album had deteriorated so badly that the original rhythm tracks were unuseable, but the criticism evidently had an effect and several years later he released a second CD version of the album, this time prepared from the original two-track safety master.


In 1990, Zappa visited Czechoslovakia at the request of President Václav Havel, a lifelong fan, and was asked by Havel to serve as Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism. Zappa enthusiastically agreed and began meeting with corporate officials interested in investing in Czechoslovakia. He told The Nation "You don't have to know about international financing. You just have to know about composition." Bush administration officials pressured Havel to withdraw the appointment, but Havel made Zappa an unofficial cultural attaché anyway. Zappa's political work would come to a halt all too soon, however. In 1991, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

After his diagnosis, Zappa devoted almost all of his energy to modern orchestral and synclavier works. Although ill, in 1992 he appeared as a guest conductor with the "Ensemble Modern" in a series of concerts in Germany devoted to his compositions, recordings from which appeared on The Yellow Shark.

During these years, he edited numerous CD collections of concert recordings made throughout his career. In 1993, he completed Civilization, Phaze III, a major synclavier work he had begun in the 1980s. He stated in interviews that he was working on hundreds of synclavier pieces, most of which remained unfinished.

Frank Zappa died on December 4, 1993, age 52 of prostate cancer, and was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. His grave is unmarked, although its location is known among fans and can be found on the Internet.

Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. That same year the only known cast of Zappa was installed in the center of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Zappa was immortalized by Konstantinas Bogdanas, the famous Lithuanian sculptor who had previously cast portraits of Vladimir Lenin. In 2002, a bronze bust was installed in a square in Bad Doberan, a small town in the north of Germany, where, since 1990, there has been an annual international festival celebrating the music of Frank Zappa, the "Zappanale". Zappa received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.