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The 10 Most Bodacious Frank Zappa Songs Ever

Bill & Ted star and Zappa fanatic Alex Winter picks Uncle Frank’s greatest ever songs. Party on, dude!

Hollywood star Alex Winter made his name in The Lost Boys and the Bill & Ted movies during the ’80s and early ’90s. Now, as an acclaimed documentarian, he’s attending to a lifelong obsession with Frank Zappa. “There are lots of specific documentaries, but nothing that really dug into Frank’s life definitively,” explains the man known to a generation as lovable heavy metal doofus Bill S. Preston, Esq. “So my producer and I approached his family and put a pitch movie together.” With the backing of the Zappa Family Trust, and having being granted access to Zappa’s vast personal archive, Winter aims to make the first fully-authorised documentary about his subject. “I’ve got about a year of preservation and archival work in front of me first,” says Winter of his as-yet-untitled film. “This is a kaleidoscopic human being and that’s why I wanted to invest so much time in making a film about him. As a huge fan, I was extremely intrigued by who Frank really was.” Which is why we’ve asked him to pick his ten favourite Zappa tracks. Take it away, dude…

Little Umbrellas (1969)

“The thing that a lot of people don’t get about Frank is his compositional genius. And composition doesn’t just mean banging timpani drums and cymbals. The album it’s from, Hot Rats, is my favourite Zappa record and there’s probably a childhood nostalgia factor here. So there’s like an almost Proustian quality to this song for me. There’s a couple of songs that have that vibe - Dylan’s Buckets Of Rain does that, and pretty much all of Abbey Road too. You hear them and you’re just zapped back to a completely different time in your life. And Little Umbrellas has that kind of resonance. Whenever I hear it, it just makes me happy.”

Dog Breath Variations (1993)

“This has got a lot of orchestral complexity and that’s the stuff that I really love. It’s from The Yellow Shark, which is probably my second favourite Zappa album, after Hot Rats. A lot of people say that Zappa is compartmental, but I hear one artist with one point of view. In my mind he’s an orchestral composer at heart, who sometimes uses rock‘n’roll instruments. And he uses all these different instruments in a specific way to make a specific sound. He also uses lyrics and humour in a specific way. His lyrics are really just another instrument, he’s not trying to write verbal poetry. For him it’s phonetics, what do these words do to you, emotionally? How do they resonate? He’s using lyrics in a way that someone else might use a slide trombone.”

Chunga’s Revenge (1973)

“I don’t know what to say about this, other than it’s just a solid, classic piece of music that’s always going to be great. Everyone loves Chunga’s Revenge. It probably wasn’t what I first heard of Zappa’s music, but it’s what I always tell people I heard. Given that I was born in the sixties I probably heard Who Are The Brain Police? first, but Chunga’s Revenge is the first one I remember as being a quintessential Frank Zappa song, in the same way that Aja is definitive Steely Dan.”

Muffin Man (1975)

“It’s a great track and it’s got Captain Beefheart on it. Everybody wanted Zappa and Beefheart to get along and the impression I have is that almost all rock feuds are primarily nonsense. The fans blow stuff up and yeah, sometimes people don’t talk, but the thing about Frank and Beefheart is that they were high school buddies. And this to me was more like your kind of slightly nutty, but brilliant, high school friend who’s just really difficult to be friends with. Add music, legacy, money and fame on top of it and their relationship was complicated. But I do think they loved each other underneath it all.”

200 Motels Suite (performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra, 2013)

“I always sought out his stuff whenever he was doing anything orchestral. And I really felt that this was a true version of the orchestral stuff, which didn’t always happen. Sometimes the orchestral stuff got done by musicians who Frank paid and who really didn’t give a crap about his music. But with this one I felt like they really understood him. They put a lot of heart and passion into what they were playing, so it never feels as though they’re a hired band who wish they were doing something else instead.”

Cosmik Debris (1974)

Apostrophe (’) is my favourite mid-period Zappa album and it’s like Hot Rats for me, in that I can put it on any time and it just always makes me happy. I can listen to it all the way through and it’s just always good. It’s classic Frank. I don’t use this word lightly, but that record is a true masterpiece. I hated having to pull a single track out of this album, because I feel like the whole of Apostrophe (’) is one extended track. You have to listen to it from beginning to end to fully appreciate it.”

Let’s Move To Cleveland (1986)

“This has more theatricality than some of the stuff I often listen to, and so much complexity and humour. I don’t think Frank was a rock‘n’roll musician. People think they have to take his lyrics as seriously as they do a Bob Dylan track or a Roberta Flack love song. And there he is, singing about stuff that on the surface is really random. But you need to think of him less as a balladeer or a bard, and more of a classical composer. Zappa hated the fact that, in rock‘n’roll, the vocals tend to take a front seat to the music. When Lou Reed said that Frank didn’t play rock, it was meant as a criticism. But Frank wasn’t trying to play rock at all.”

Penguin In Bondage (1974)

“I love Frank live. All-cylinders-firing Zappa live is really something to behold. And this particular track, from the Roxy & Elsewhere live album, is all cylinders firing. It’s an amazing band and everybody on that stage is absolutely at the top of their field, whatever instruments they’re playing. And they’re in the perfect mathematical equation that Frank has built, all locked together in complete harmony. It just blows your mind. If you have any musical knowledge or appreciation, and you don’t get why this is a piece of unassailable genius, then I think you have a problem.”

Revised Music For Guitar & Low Budget Orchestra (1978)

“Again, it’s just stuff that I love. I don’t know if I even have words for this one. Musically I’m always happy to listen to it. This is mid-period Frank and came at an interesting period for him, when he was really exploring and finding where he was going. But it was also at a time when he was making some very commercial music.”

Who Are The Brain Police? (1966)

“I saw an interview where Frank said that the Freak Out! album wasn’t supposed to be serious: “It was supposed to be a piece of vaudeville.” What’s great about this album, and this track, is that it just looks like a piece of nostalgic psychedelia in today’s context. But at the time it was extremely subversive, both from an audio standpoint and from the whole notion of the freak persona that Frank ushered in. It was a way for a very important, significant artist to show up on the world stage. And, in typical Zappa fashion, to do it in a way that on the surface felt disposable or just a novelty. But for those who had the ability to actually listen to it, all the elements are there for what was to come in the rest of his career.”

For more information on Alex Winter’s Frank Zappa documentary, visit WhoIsFrankzappa.com


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