‘Brown shoes don’t make it’…

Mark Irwin

London College of Music, TVU

Frank Zappa is renowned as a composer, filmmaker, guitarist, singer, social/political commentator, satirist, free speech campaigner and scatological humorist.
His work as a music producer and technological pioneer is less widely known.
Zappa’s prolific creative output plots a journey that has defined the art of the musician/producer.

Zappa is quoted as saying,  “A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians” - for musician we could equally substitute engineer. His work blended live and studio recordings alongside outtakes and found audio. Zappa’s legendary photographic memory and technical ability (particularly in editing and compiling) allowed him to constantly re-work his massive back catalogue of recordings.

This paper will draw on interviews with his engineers alongside examples of the audio output. I will look at the way Frank Zappa broke all the rules in inimitable style and re-invented the paradigm of music production, and ask; was Frank Zappa truly the mother of invention?

I was first introduced to Zappa’s work in my late teens by my friend and local vet Jack Russell Illingworth – or ‘Woof’– a nickname Zappa would have appreciated I am sure given his pen chance for naming things (his son Dwezill was named after one of his wife’s toes - I assume the other nine all had names).

Born in the 1940’s Frank’s interest in music began in the 1950’s (the family acquired a Decca record player in 1954) and his musical palette quickly became extremely eclectic; from the R&B and Doo Wop that was dominating radio and jukeboxes at the time. To the work of avante–garde composer Edgard Varese who inspired Zappa’s early forays into composition.

Zappa’s initial enthusiasm for writing music seems to have been a visual one, he had shown a talent for art and design from an early age and simply liked the way the notes looked on the page. He had no idea that composers might be hearing the notes they wrote, and as he recounts in his autobiography, “I thought that all you did was you got an idea for the way it looked, you drew it, and then you found a musician who could read it – and that’s how you did it.” [1] His interest in avante garde composers clearly stimulated his interest in percussion and dissonance, which became essential building blocks of his music in the years to come.

Zappa took up playing the drums aged 13, he was later to play in High School group the Ramblers and later formed R&B group ‘The Blackouts’.

In 1958 Frank met Don Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) in whom he recognised a kindred spirit.
The pair spent many hours listening to blues and R&B records, memorising lyrics and guitar solos.
Listening to Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown inspired Zappa to switch to playing the guitar. He said of Watson, “One of the things I admired about him was his tone, this wiry, kind of nasty, aggressive and penetrating tone, and another was the fact that the things he would play would often come out as rhythmic outbursts over the constant beat of the accompaniment…it seemed to me that this was the correct way to approach it, because it was like talking or singing over a background. There was a speech influence to the rhythm.”  [2]

This idea became another important strand in Zappa’s work, and he formalised this approach in his 1981 release ‘Tinsel Town Rebellion’.
The track ‘Blue light’ employs the vocal technique ‘sprechgesang’ (speechsong) first used in 1897 by Humperdink (in ‘Konigskinder’) and by Schoenburg (in ‘Gurrelieder’) in 1900.
Keyboard player Tommy Mars probably inspired Zappa’s use of this technique,  “ This is a guy that you could hold a conversation (with) and Tommy could harmonise it while you were talking.”  [3] said Zappa.

PLAY BLUE LIGHT (Tinsel Town Rebellion Track 10)

Frank Zappa’s career as a record producer started in earnest at the age of 21, when he started working with Paul Buff at his Pal recording studio in Cucamonga. Buff, an ex-marine and Aviation Electronics graduate had built the studio from scratch including his own ½ inch five-track machine.

The studio is also thought to have owned a unique Les Paul 1 inch 10 track.
Bluff taught Zappa how to record and overdub and Zappa went on to release a string of records from Pal. In 1962 Zappa used the proceeds of his first film score to buy the studio and renamed it Studio Z.
After an infamous police pornography sting and financial problems Zappa folded studio Z and joined commercial R&B band ‘The Soul Agents’, playing covers; but Zappa had a master plan,“ So I said, OK you guys, I’ve got this plan: we are going to get rich.”  [4]

The idea was that the band would play Zappa's own compositions. He renamed the band ‘Captain Glasspack & His Majic Mufflers’ and soon after this was changed to ‘The Mothers’.
The mothers’, or mothers of inventions’ (as they were renamed after record company pressure) 1966 release ‘Freak Out’ rode high on the hippie (or ‘freak’) explosion on the US West Coast.
The Mothers became a touring laboratory for Frank’s audio experiments and their early albums display the trade-mark segues and hard edits, found sounds, outtakes of band and crew dialogue and ‘Musique Concrete’ that was to become his stock in trade as well as a diverse range of writing styles; from Doo-Wop, Blues, Rock and R&B to Jazz and orchestral pieces. His production experience at Pal and Z allowed him to take the production credit from the second album.

Zappa is known for his long and exacting rehearsals and hectic touring schedules (Zappa toured 10 months a year through the mid 60’s to mid 70’s) and he honed the band in its various incarnations over the next few years and Zappa began to realise that the studio was not the place to capture the best performances.
The Mothers Mark Volman said of Zappa’s approach in 1971, “For me that’s the greatest way to get the best recordings. Frank is very smart, he tapes just the tracks in a lot of cases, so you’ve got something that’s being played in front of people and generally when you play in front of people the performance of any tune exceeds itself, ‘cos you’ve got something really happening.”  [5]

In an interview with Neil Slaven, Zappa said - “I don’t like playing in the studio. I hate it.”  [6]
And engineer Mark Pinskie sums up the approach -  “Franks whole theory was… the band’s never as psyched-up as they were when they were on tour in front of an audience.”

This approach led to a extraordinary amount of live recording during Franks career; live recordings began in 1969 with a portable Uher (1/4 inch 15 ips) recorder running off a pair of Shure mixers, later the setup developed to a Scully 4-track (280 – ½ inch) running at 30ips which ran alongside a Nagra used to record outtakes and guitar solos.

Eventually as technology became available 16 and 24 track machines were used. In the early 1980’s Zappa purchased the Beach Boys mobile recording truck and equipped it with a Neve 8108 and Midas custom consoles, 3 analogue 24 track machines running at 30ips (2 Ampex MM1200’s and 1 3M M79) and a total of 102 input channels. Mark Pinske remembers that one 3-month tour with Zappa generated 946 14” master reels.

Zappa also wrote prodigiously whilst touring and it was normal for new pieces to be rehearsed during sound checks and trialled in front of an audience. By the time he returned home a new album was all but in the bag, Engineer Mark Pinskie remembers coming off tour with Zappa with 10 new songs ready for the next album. Zappa would then take the live tapes into the studio and build them up with overdubs to compile complete albums.

A shining example of the live plus overdubs approach is the (controversial) 1979 release ‘Sheik Yerbouti’ most of which was recorded live at the Hammersmith Odeon with some recordings from the New York palladium in 1977 on 4 track.
Some tracks are compiled from performances on different nights or at different venues (Yo Moma for example – in which there are three separate guitar solo recordings).

The exceptions to this are Track’s 7 (Rat Tomago) and 11 (The Sheik Yerbouti Tango – both recorded in Berlin) which are straight 4 track live recordings from the Scully.

Track 10 – ‘Rubber Shirt’ is an example of a new technique Zappa called xenochrony (Greek: xeno = strange or alien and chrono = time). The track takes three solos from different (and originally unconnected) tracks – Zappa on Guitar, Terry Bozio on Drums and Patrick O’Hearn on Bass.
This technique was used extensively on albums from this point on.

Zappa would take a rhythm track from one song and combine it with solos from another. As he said in 1991, “ It’s not going to land exactly. It takes a certain amount of experimentation to get a musically pleasing result with that. It’s not going to work every time you try it.”   [7]


Zappa continued to experiment with xenochrony on his 1979 release ‘Joes Garage’, though a (rare) studio recording the triple album set boasts live xenchronus guitar solos for all but one track (‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’).
Zappa said of the solos on Joes Garage,  “In the studio, they called it ‘Ampex' guitar’. I had all these quarter-inch tapes of guitar solos that I liked from the ’79 tour, and I’d go through my files, see what key a certain solo was in, and just experimentally hit the start button on the playback machine and lay it onto the multi-track…We’d wiggle the pitch around to make sure it sounded like it was in the right key.”  [8]


In this paper I have barely scratched the surface of Zappa’s production work; he released more than 70 records in his lifetime and shortly after finishing Joes Garage he built a $3.5 million studio at his home in LA called the ‘Utility Muffin Research Kitchen’ where the rest of his catalogue over the next two decades was created  before his death from prostate cancer in 1993.

Zappa had been a pioneer in the art of recording throughout his lifetime; always an early adopter of new technology and never afraid to take a risk financially or creatively.
As Zappa said of himself, “Well, some rock n’ roll musicians make a bunch of money and stick it up their noses. I stick mine in my ear.”  [9]

[1] The Real Frank Zappa Book, Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso, Poseidon Press, 1989.
[2] Frank Zappa, Barry Miles, Atlantic Books, 2004.
[3] BBC-TV Interview by Nigel Lee.
[4] ZigZag, 53, “The Earliest Days Of The Mothers: Just Another Band From L.A.”
[5] NME, November 6, 1971, He Directed it but… Tony Palmer.
[6] Electric Don Quixote - The Definitive Story of Frank Zappa, Neil slaven, Omnibus 2003, p142.
[7] FZ Interview 12 January 1991, Society Pages 7, September 1991.
[8] Guitarist, June 1993, “Unholy Mother”, David Mead.
[9] NME, September 30, 1978, “Aunt Meat?”, record review by Ian Penman.