Recently, I was pleased and very surprised to hear a youngish (30s?) sales assistant playing Zappa’s Apostrophe while guarding the till at a local charity bookshop.
A quick and enjoyable conversation led us to agree that of all the major music figures who emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, FZ may be the least respected/understood these days.
You’ll seldom see a major piece about him in the heritage rock magazines (and the family estate keep a close eye on such, as I discovered when writing this piece), but if you do, it’ll probably focus on the ‘golden’ era – i.e. the late 1960s.
Maybe Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece had more power than he anticipated, and he certainly wasn’t the only naysayer – many were turned off by Zappa’s unapologetic, un-PC lyrical stance as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. But his musical intelligence is beyond question and pretty much unprecedented in the ‘rock’ era.
Frank kicked off the 1980s with the release of the stand-alone ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ single, recorded on 16th and 17th February 1980 at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles and released 40 years ago this month.
A satirical comment on the draft policy of the Carter administration, it was the first product issued on his own Barking Pumpkin label – and reached #3 in the Swedish singles chart!
It kicked off an incredibly busy decade for FZ. Two albums – Francesco Zappa and Thing-Fish were released on the same day in 1984.
There were two albums of guitar solos (one triple and one double), three major orchestral works and hundreds of instrumental pieces for the Synclavier. Not forgetting many other studio/live albums, compilations, and two books, ‘Them Or Us’ and ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, though both contained some previously-published material.
In the live arena, Zappa embarked on major tours in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1988. Now that he, Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul are gone, it’s hard to imagine that any other major artist will ever again play such virtuosic, challenging music in front of large crowds, whilst also blooding young musicians in the process.
Author Ben Watson memorably described FZ’s final 1988 tour as ‘the wildest and most speculative music…heard in rock arenas since the days of Cream, Hendrix and the Mothers Of Invention’.
One of the pleasures of lockdown has been discovering some ’80s FZ works I hadn’t heard (Francesco Zappa, London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 and 2) via Charles Ulrich’s excellent book ‘The Big Note’.
What struck me again is the lack of sentimentality in his music (off the top of my head, only three ’80s tracks feature those ‘bittersweet’ major-seventh chords: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’, ‘Jumbo Go Away’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), something that also seems to drive ‘rock’ critics crazy.
It ain’t all good, but the best of Zappa’s ’80s output is absolutely superb, and it really pays to have a root around in his discography. I’ve tried to separate the wheat from the chaff here. There’ll never be anyone like FZ again.
5 thoughts on “Frank Zappa: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ 40 Years On”
I actually struggle with a lot of the 1960s stuff, and gravitate to the 1970s. I like his forays into fusion best.
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He certainly went pretty ‘rock’ in the early ’80s, not surprising I guess when Steve Vai was just over his shoulder. The ’88 band was more geared towards jazz, Broadway tunes, soundtracks, Ravel… But I guess you’re thinking more along the lines of ‘Inca Roads’ in terms of fusion, right?
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Yes, I love Inca Roads.
The man had an obsessive work ethic. I was very fortunate to have worked in his home for a few days about a year before he passed & he was in his studio all day coming out only to retrieve lunch, a juice cocktail and back in he went. That juicer was going all day. Gail introduced us & it took everything for me to say only, “it’s pleasure to meet you sir”.
Seems everyone assumes he took drugs which provided his unique style but his mastery was purely genius. He didn’t use drugs nor did he drink though on Friday afternoons it was Margarita Friday at the house.
His unparalleled humor was on display in the foyer where sat a Pachinko machine. The target hole at top center offered a reward.for making the shot. “Win a fag”. Of course it was a vintage machine from the 50’s when the term was slang for “cigarette”.
No there never will be anyone like Mr Zappa.
Honor him this Halloween. Play “Goblin Girl”.
Thanks for the fine words about an amazing man.
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Thanks for the kind words Dominic, and for your great memories. I love the idea of the Margherita Fridays. I’ve seen that great footage of Johnny G Watson and Terry Bozzio at his place for a ‘soiree’, probably around the time you met him, and he seemed a really generous, funny friend to those guys. And a good call re. ‘Goblin Girl’ – one of the few ‘pop’ songs that makes me LOL (most of the others are also by FZ). Cheers.