Alex Winter’s guide to Frank Zappa

The director of 'Zappa' takes us through his top five albums from the rock iconoclast

‘Hot Rats’

Released: 1969
As… Frank Zappa

“Whenever anyone asks me where to start with Frank Zappa, I tell them ‘Hot Rats’. Zappa is an artist of extremes; I really see him more as an avant garde composer than as a rock and roll musician and I love ‘Hot Rats’ because it shows off his compositional skills that are more avant garde, but it also is just a cracking rock album. It’s a combination of his extremes. I like the wildness of it; you’ve Shuggie Otis on this album, you’ve got Captain Beefheart. That’s an all-star cast and they’re really firing on all cylinders. If you don’t like this record it’s hard to imagine that you’ll be a Zappa fan!

[My new documentary] Zappa isn’t really a music movie – it looks at Zappa’s life in all areas. It’s an examination of what it meant to make art at that time in America and the consequences of a life that he committed himself to when he was quite young. But we certainly cover the era of his life around ‘69 [when ‘Hot Rats’ came out] and what he was going through. It was an important period of Zappa’s life.”

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Fave track: ‘Willie The Pimp’
‘Hot Rats’ in one word: Eclectic

‘The Yellow Shark’

Released: 1993
As… Frank Zappa and Ensemble Modern

“It may honestly be the Zappa album that I listen to the most. For me it’s the album that speaks the most to who Zappa was. It’s very, very personal and it really conveys his inarguable compositional genius. It is so beautiful and hilarious and whimsical and avant garde. It’s also the only time that he was able to get his orchestral music played to his standards, which says a lot. It’s just spectacular to listen to. He was dying when he made this. He had been sick for several years – he’d been given a diagnosis of having six months to live and then he blew past that and lived for another several years. So he was on very, very borrowed time. But it’s not a morose record at all. In fact we end the movie with it and while I think he’s feeling somewhat sombre, because he’s literally at the end of his life, the performance is exuberant and filled with humour and joy. It’s just fantastic.”

Fave track: ‘Dog Breath Variations’
‘The Yellow Shark’ in one word: Spectacular

‘Apostrophe (‘)’

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Released: 1974
As… Frank Zappa

“This is what I would say most Zappa fans would call one of their favourite, if not their favourite, Zappa albums. He’s playing with arguably the greatest band he would ever have. It was very refined. These are like Olympic gold medal level musicians, just playing absolutely at the top of their game. He’s got this banging band, but the tone of it is all Zappa. There’s really serious rock songs, there’s more avant garde, almost jazzy pieces like ‘Cosmik Debris’ and you got the very famous ‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow’, which kicks off the whole album and is probably the most quoted line of Zappa’s whole career. I’d also say this album is probably the most accessible album of Frank’s. It’s the one that most people who grew up in my era in the ‘70s, either they or their older brother and sister had the ‘Apostrophe (‘)’ poster hanging up on the wall of their basement. In the pot smoking den this was this face staring out at you, this is the face most of us remember growing up and identify with the classic Zappa era.”

Fave track: ‘Cosmik Debris’
‘Apostrophe (‘)’ in one word: Gonzo

‘Freak Out!’

Released: 1966
As… the Mothers of Invention

“We’re gonna go all the way back to the beginning, which is ‘Freak Out!’ This was the debut album. It was a seminal record and it woke up everyone from The Beatles to the Beach Boys. It had extremely complex and sophisticated recording processes that he was using that he would then evolve as he went along. It seems like it’s just a freaky record until you get into it and then you realise that it’s actually quite sophisticated. The Beatles loved the album and were very influenced by it and Zappa heard that from both Paul McCartney and John Lennon. He planted a pretty big flag; McCartney, the Stones, David Bowie, Eric Clapton… all these people started showing up in LA and hanging out with Zappa. But at this point, while it was not a huge commercial success, for anyone who understood music, they were blown away by its compositional genius. He showed his hand from the get-go.”

Fave track: ‘Any Way The Wind Blows’
‘Freak Out!’ in one word: Groundbreaking

‘Civilization Phaze III’

Released: 1994
As… Frank Zappa

“This was actually released posthumously but was finished before he died. This record is so great – but it is not for the uninitiated. You could jump into this if you want, but this is literally like jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool with concrete boots on. It is Zappa at his most esoteric, but it’s the Zappa that I probably love the most. It is a combination of concepts. He looked at it as the end of a trilogy of albums that started all the way back with ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’ (Mothers of Invention, 1968) and ‘Lumpy Gravy’ (1967). So for the real Zappa fanatic, you can find all kinds of great Easter eggs there in that way. Musically, it is a combination of the Synclavier synth work that he was doing, which was completely ahead of its time. He was one of the first major artists to be given a Synclavier to work on and produced an enormous amount of work with it. It’s gorgeous, it’s electronic, it’s ahead of its time – it’s pure Zappa.”

Fave track: ‘A Kayak (On Snow)’
‘Civilization Phaze III’ in one word: Continuity

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