The music of “Weird Al” Yankovic wouldn’t exist without Frank Zappa, who cranked out avant-garde comedy tunes in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s before his death at age 52 in 1993.
“I came into Frank’s band on the 1988 tour … so I’m still the new guy,” Mike Keneally told WTOP. “We’ve got Ray White, who started with Frank in 1976 on lead vocals and guitar, then two guys who came in on the 1981 band are Robert Martin on lead vocals, keyboards and saxophone, then Scott Thunes on bass. We’re the four who played with Frank.”
The six-person band also includes newcomers Joe Travers and Jamie Kime.
“Joe Travers is an amazing drummer, but his day job is working in the Zappa Tape Vault,” Keneally said. “His job title is ‘Vaultmeister.’ It’s his job to go into the thousands of tapes that Frank recorded … to find unreleased music to put out in amazing box sets. … The other guitar player is Jamie Kime, who played in Zappa Plays Zappa in the 2000s.”
The group has the blessing of Zappa’s son, Ahmet, who named them The Zappa Band.
“Ahmet, who’s essentially in charge of the Zappa trust … formed this band three years ago for a tour that he conceived of called ‘The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa,'” Keneally said. “After we finished that tour, the rest of the band was like, ‘We’d like to keep playing.’ … Ahmet came to see us and said, ‘Yeah, this is a good thing, a valid enterprise to continue.”
Born in Baltimore in 1940, Zappa moved to Cucamonga, California with eclectic tastes.
“Frank was real interested in unusual music,” Keneally said. “He was into real hardcore R&B but also severe contemporary composers like Edgard Varèse and Anton Webern, not easy-listening classical, this is stuff that makes a lot of people run out of the house. … He also was into [Igor] Stravinsky, so his composition chops got developed at an early age.”
He famously formed his band The Mothers of Invention in 1964.
“He started making a name for himself in the Los Angeles club scene as the rare entertainer who didn’t care if you liked him,” Keneally said. “If an audience was hostile to him in any way, he was happy to be hostile right back. … His music right from the get-go was very adventurous and very experimental, so he developed a following.”
The band’s first album was “Freak Out!” (1966), arguably the first concept album.
“Paul McCartney once said ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was The Beatles’ attempt at doing a ‘Freak Out,'” Keneally said. “It’s a loose concept, mostly by virtue of the packaging. On the inside he presents almost his mission statement. … ‘Freak Out!’ was a double record, along with ‘Blonde on Blonde’ by Bob Dylan, two of the first stand-alone double albums by rock acts.”
His second album “Absolutely Free” (1967) reached No. 41 on the U.S. albums chart.
“They overspent their budget on ‘Freak Out!’ … so they were given like nine hours to make ‘Absolutely Free’ … but they managed to really quickly create two sides of music that are unbroken, meaning each song goes right into the next. They’re basically two 18-to-19-minute suites. … ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’ is a character study of an evil industrialist.”
The band’s third album “We’re Only In It For the Money” (1968) reached No. 30.
“It was a really unflinching look at the hippie culture of the time, which Frank was disdainful of,” Keneally said. “The sound was groundbreaking. He was doing a lot of experimentation with tape, manipulation of sounds, he’d take the sound of a clarinet, speed it up, run it through various effects, tape slices and have it come out like some crazy beast.”
One of their most successful albums was “Uncle Meat” (1969), which reached No. 38.
“He got some more people in the band at that point,” Keneally said. “A guy named Ian Underwood had joined … a beautiful piano and alto-sax player, he really came into his own on ‘Uncle Meat.’ Frank was able to take him and Bunk Gardner, who played woodwinds, and overdub them many times, so you’d hear what sounded like a chamber group.”
Next, he famously recorded the soundtrack to his own movie “200 Motels” (1971).
“Ringo [Starr] played a character, Larry the Dwarf, impersonating Frank Zappa, and Keith Moon played a nun,” Keneally said. “Frank was given a budget … and was only able to film a small portion of the script, so in editing tried to make some sort of coherent plot. … It was the first film shot on videotape, so that gave them more fast-editing capabilities.”
Soon after, Zappa landed his first gold-selling album with “Over-Nite Sensation” (1973).
“Sonically, it’s incredible,” Keneally said. “He had violin, clarinet, trombone, marimba, all these tambours became what people think of as the Zappa sound. … At the same time, he pretty intentionally … focused on more accessible stuff, so in addition to ‘Montana’ … there’s another song, ‘Zomby Woof,’ then ‘Dinah-Moe Humm,’ which became infamous.”
He went gold again with the solo album “Apostrophe (‘)” (1974), which reached No. 10.
“It’s comedy music, but if you listen to it with the right ear, you can hear what the band is doing is just unbelievable,” Keneally said. “It’s a four-movement piece. The third movement is ‘St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast,’ some of the most insane music I’d ever heard. … ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ became well known when a radio DJ … did his own edit.”
Later,” Dancin’ Fool” was a hit song off “Sheik Yerbouti” (1979) a.k.a. “shake your booty.”
“One of the things he really liked doing was to take live recordings of his band on the road, bring them into the studio, then do a whole bunch of overdubs,” Keneally said. “It’s this very interesting hybrid where you’ve got powerful live energy at the core of it, but on top you’ve got additional orchestration. … It was the first album on his label Zappa Records.”
Dozens more albums followed, from “Joe’s Garage” (1979) to “Tinsel Town Rebellion” (1981) to “You Are What You Is” (1981). You’ll hear all of these records and more at both The Birchmere in Alexandria on Sunday and Rams Head in Annapolis on Tuesday.
“We know too much music to play in one night, so if anyone comes to Alexandria and Annapolis, they’ll see different stuff,” Keneally said. “We cover a lot of ground, from the ’60s and ’70s all the way to the ’80s. … We’re trying to strike a nice balance between the more intricate, complex instrumental stuff … and the more straight-ahead vocal material.”