Frank Zappa is one of those rare American visionaries you either love or despise -- like black licorice (a Jerry Garcia reference, if you didn't know) or late-'80s Camaros. One thing that can't be debated, however, is the man's hyper-productivity and incessant experimentation. From 1966 (when Freak Out!, the debut album from his Mothers of Invention, was released) right up to his way-too-early demise in 1993 (from prostate cancer), Zappa explored an obscene breadth of sounds and styles, including progressive rock, outsider comedy, avant-garde classical and jazz fusion. He even flirted with doo-wop and heavy metal!
Though he recorded a ton of music as a solo artist (beginning with 1967's Lumpy Gravy), it can be argued that Zappa produced his most influential music with The Mothers of Invention, whose evolution can be split into three distinct chapters. The first -- and weirdest -- incarnation emerged from Los Angeles' underground rock scene and lasted from 1964 to '69. Erecting manic assemblages of jazz, blues, psychedelia and doo-wop, this was a group of arch satirists hell-bent on calling bullshit on American society (and not just "Great Society" squares, but all them cooler-than-thou hippies up in San Francisco as well). Indeed, their blend of music and humor was sharp and intricate, inspired as it was by oddball composers Spike Jones and Raymond Scott, as well as the pop culture subversion tactics of surf rockers Jan & Dean (you really should check out the duo's Jan and Dean Meet Batman album from '66 -- so twisted).
After disbanding lineup 1.0, Zappa put together a new Mothers of Invention anchored by Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (aka Flo & Eddie), cofounders of proto-bubblegum hitmakers The Turtles (their 1968 album The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands is nearly as strange as the aforementioned Jan and Dean Meet Batman). This is the band's most contentious version; because it was more focused on scatological skit-work and x-rated theater probing the seedy side of the rock scene, those Zappa fanatics obsessed with the previous group's musical chops and sonic experimentation weren't too terribly interested in their dialog-heavy shenanigans. Still, the Fillmore East -- June 1971 record is one hell of a bizzaro listening experience.
The Flo & Eddie edition ground to a halt after Zappa fell from the stage at a particularly rowdy performance at London's Rainbow Theatre in 1971. Two years later, following an extended stretch of convalescence (dude was seriously messed up: head trauma, crushed larynx, numerous broken bones), he assembled the final and most popular Mothers of Invention (who by this point were commonly referred to as just the Mothers). Comedy and satire were still a part of the stew, but with virtuosos Ian Underwood (piano), George Duke (keyboards) and Jean-Luc Ponty (violin) anchoring the sound, this ensemble was a prog-fusion beast renowned for its complex compositions and full-throttled performances. It's this line-up that would go on to influence jam-band icons such as Phish and The String Cheese Incident. But hey, that's a whole other story.
Now, on to Napster's Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention album collection.