“Project/Object is a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’
Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: A novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel.”
“…In the case of the Project/Object, you may find a little poodle over here, a little blow job over there, etc., etc. I am not obsessed by poodles or blow jobs, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, videos (and this book) for no other reason than to unify the ‘collection.’”
– Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso, The Real Frank Zappa Book
“Like Mandelbrot’s fractals, every Zappa grotesquery springs from some tiny detail in previous work (the celebrated sex yarn ‘Dinah Moe-Humm’ was heralded by a phrase in the sci-fi story inside the booklet that accompanied Uncle Meat).”
– Ben Watson, Frank Zappa: The Complete Guide to His Music
“The official Zappa discography is often an unreliable indicator of chronology; therefore, one cannot necessarily assume that the composition of a given piece is concurrent with its first official release on an album.”
– Brett Clement, A Study of the Instrumental Music of Frank Zappa
tl;dr version: I made an interactive map of Frank Zappa’s conceptual continuity, and you can see it here.
One of the most alluring aspects of Frank Zappa’s music for me – behind the sheer beauty of his compositions – is that of what he terms ‘conceptual continuity’, or Project/Object. As the top quote from Frank reveals, he considers all of his artistic endeavours to be connected. This quite possibly comes from his theory of The Big Note, which listeners first heard about in the 1967 album Lumpy Gravy. Like The Big Bang, the theory of The Big Note posits instead that the universe was created with one initial note. All that we now see and hear are the remaining sonic vibrations leftover from that initial note. Everything is connected sonically.
By itself, this is a rather linear concept; an original note is played, and then slowly diffuses to encompass all we experience as time progresses. However, this would mean if you were to delve into Frank’s discography chronologically, that continuity will build up easily and in an orderly fashion. Although to an extent this is what happens, as the quote from Brett Clement reveals, this is not exactly the case. This is because time is not a linear progression to Frank, but rather a ‘spherical constant’.
“We’re dealing with time in a quasi-practical manner. We have devised our own personal universe and lifestyle that is ruled by time sliced this way, and we progress from notch to notch, day by day, and you just learn to meet your deadlines that way. That’s only for human convenience. That, to me, is not a good explanation of how things really work. That’s only the human perception version of how this works. It seems just as feasible to me that everything is happening all the time.”
So if you are to buy any Frank Zappa album at random, chances are you are falling into a minefield of cryptic self-referential lyrics from other albums, odd themes that only reveal their importance in future works, or even pieces of music that originated from a work 20 years earlier. I thought I would help with this (and in doing so pick up some more important continuity clues for myself) by working through 63 of Frank’s albums spanning from 1966 to 1996 in an attempt to map out the links between these songs. Frank passed in 1993, and only a select few posthumous releases have been included for consideration.
The posthumous releases I have included are: Civilization: Phaze III (a work he completed, but did not release before his death) and Läther. I have also referred to the Mystery Disc, which technically was released separately in 1998, but this album is made up of the ‘mystery discs’ that were included on The Old Box Masters in the late 80s. For the ease of referring to these tracks, I have used the Mystery Disc variant.
I also point out tracks that used to be explicitly linked together, but no longer are. This means I have shown links between tracks that used to be part of the rock-opera by Zappa and Captain Beefheart, “I Was A Teen-Age Malt Shop”, as well as the failed-musical Hunchentoot, where material was scattered over albums from The Grand Wazoo (1972) to Them Or Us (1984). This is just another instance of where music that seems completely unlinked (the sheer textural differences between “Cheepnis”, “The Grand Wazoo” and “Time Is Money” make it hard to imagine otherwise they would all be part of the same musical) proves itself to be the opposite – again, The Big Note theory is in effect.
There are a few decisions I had to make while going down this road, some possibly contentious. For indeed, what makes for conceptual continuity? To an extent, it’s incredibly subjective and each person will draw their line in a different place. For instance, does asking “get the picture?” on three different tracks over 40 years constitute a link, or is it merely just a turn of phrase that occasionally appeared? What about just mentioning the fact someone has a nose? In both instances here, I have personally not found these sufficient. Instead, I have focused in particular on exact lyrics and music that reappear in other works, as well as themes or objects that recur in a way that I feel is intentional. The latter in particular is certainly up for debate (and one I’m more than happy to dive into).
I have also kept this solely to an aural exercise; as the opening quote from Frank reveals, conceptual continuity continues on into liner notes, interviews, movies, artwork. In order to be able to begin having a life once more, I have restricted the continuity search to the sounds in the albums alone (i.e. an aural continuity). I should also stipulate that I am, also, a human being. A human being trudging through 63 albums – even after triple checking my list, I am certain I have missed out on a few links. To ensure I limited this human error as much as possible, I am indebted to many sites, books and helpful sources which are listed at the end of this article.
But if other sites have attempted to show all conceptual continuity links, why make another? A valid point, even if I am somewhat hurt by your question. The main reason is that due to the sheer mass of conceptual material, no site has made working through this an easy task. I’ve been unable to find any graphical representation of Frank’s continuity, and although I might be willing to trudge my way through old newsgroup notes, that’s not for everyone. I thought it would be helpful and more accessible if this were put in graph form, like my much smaller Miles Davis piece from last year.
With the graphs, pink nodes indicate albums and blue nodes indicate songs. In more than a few instances, the song nodes will also link to later arrangements of the same piece (typically, live albums). I have only included other arrangements of songs that provide new continuity clues to the track.
Purple nodes indicate points of continuity, such as recurring lyrics, themes (poodles, leather, etc) or important external musical quotations (Louie Louie, Stravinsky, Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” etc). In the latter years particularly, there is an enormous abundance of musical quotations from external sources. I’ve tried to restrict my references to these to when they are inextricably linked to an internal (i.e. Frank written) piece of work. For example, the song “Be in My Video” is explicitly mocking Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” video, therefore future references to “Let’s Dance” will be also pointed out. For a comprehensive list of external musical quotations, I recommend looking at globalia’s near-exhaustive list linked at the end of the article.
There are two kinds of graphs here, an interactive map where you click through nodes to find connections, and a non-interactive poster-like graph. The interactive one is far more informative, as when you click on points of conceptual continuity I have tried to be thorough in explaining their history and why they are there. It’s also just fun to see where you can end up from one point to another. But on the other hand, the non-interactive graph looks cooler. So, whatever works for you.
Click here for a Hi-Res (5MB) version of the above poster- may take a bit to load!
Click here for the Interactive Map – This is the fun one!
- Firstly, this thing is huge. I knew it would be big, but it is fairly ridiculously huge. 1200+ lines of data in Excel big. Six months of my life big.
- One of the first things I noticed when I started compiling the data, was that Frank likes to include his band members in the songs themselves. Hence the largest point of continuity on this map, verbosely titled Mentioning Band Members By Name (I could not think of anything more succinct). I was to avoid live songs where he’s is simply introducing the band, but rather point out when a song mentions a band member’s name (“Chester’s thing! On Ruth!” refers to both Chester Thompson and Ruth Underwood) or when events from the road were immortalised in song, part of what Frank commonly called ‘band folklore’ (see ‘Stevie’s Spanking’ which documents the sexual activities between Steve Vai and an infamous Zappa groupie). I had always intended to include these as a form of continuity, but I did not expect it to be by far the largest point on the graph. It is a relatively vague title, to be fair, but it really reveals how much Zappa acted as a documentarian over his career.
- Thing-Fish. I’d been warned by many about this album, and was surprised to find myself enjoy it (see my piece on The Evil Prince). I think it was entirely to do with how I was approaching the record. Looking at it from a continuity perspective, the album goes a long way to tie some previously unrelated themes together. Quentin Robert DeNameland, Cologne, and The Evil Prince all come back with purpose, and without this want to find evidence of clues I may have otherwise ignored this somewhat impenetrable album.
- The resurgence of continuity in Frank’s latter years. Below is a graph (click it for a larger version) showing both the amount of new points of conceptual continuity, as well as how many references there are to pre-existing continuity. What we have here is a decline in new continuity after 1979, and an increasing urge to continue linking back to older continuity in the later years. 1984 is our first peak of ‘old’ continuity. This year contains Thing-Fish which, as discussed earlier, is obsessed with reaching back to earlier material. But it is also when Zappa writes Them Or Us: The Book, which claimed to answer questions about conceptual continuity. Indubitably, continuity was definitely on the mind. We also have an increase in ‘old’ continuity from 1988 onwards. This is understandable, as this is when Zappa starts moving away from new music and focuses more on live concert and archival material.
So, what have I gotten out of all of this work? After all, in the opening quote Zappa calls all of his conceptual continuity “equally insignificant” – its only reason for being is to add legitimacy to the self-constructed mythology. In the blurb of Them Or Us: The Book, Zappa poses the question “How do all of these things that don’t have anything to do with each other fit together, forming a larger absurdity?”, and it is in recognising that the whole undertaking is absurd where everything starts to click. To link blowjobs to poodles to the jazz musician Eric Dolphy is a very silly, pointless venture. And yet, its pointlessness is its very point. It is the purest expression of Zappa’s Dadaist tendencies. Suddenly, the longwinded acronym of Zappa’s creation starts to make sense. AAAFNRAA: Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All.
And in spite of this supposed ‘meaninglessness’, I have come out of this endeavour with a greater respect for all of Frank’s work, some of which I certainly would have outright ignored otherwise. His dedication to this conceptual continuity framework is beyond ambitious and, after spending all these months combing through the 60-odd albums, I feel closer to the man. I realised that at some point along the way, whenever anyone asked what I was working on, I would simply reply with “Frank”. I was speaking with the familiarity of a good friend: a lewd, sublime, obscene and ingenious friend.
A new level of personal appreciation, respect and familiarity came out of undertaking this behemoth of a task that very few other artists, if any, have ever achieved. As absurd and pointless and silly as it may have been, I feel more engaged with the music than I ever was before. Connected to it, like I had caught a glimpse of The Big Note that reverberates through us all.
Gephi for both the interactive and non-interactive maps, Tableau Public for the new vs. old continuity graph.
Zappa Wiki Jawaka: the Zappa wiki. Helpful in parts, incredibly sparse in other areas.
Globalia: Full lyrics for all the albums, as well as listing links and musical quotations I would have otherwise never found. It is, however, inconsistent. Some sections are gloriously in-depth; others leave things a little vague.
Arf.ru: Linked to Globalia, this is a database of old USENET newsgroup posts (sometimes including those by Zappa alumni!) and has people pointing out continuity clues. Some I agree with, others I don’t, but it’s a good source of information regardless. Unfortunately, this site does not include all albums.
Zappateers: Although more focused on live bootlegs which I don’t really look at here, the site certainly helped point out a few obscure recurring riffs.
Ben Watson: A bit of a controversial figure in Zappa academia, some people loved his work The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play which was indeed playful (a section compares Apostrophe(‘) to King Lear) but others found it far too over the top. I loved it and used it to help find clues, as well as his work Frank Zappa: The Complete Guide to His Music.
Frank Zappa: The Real Frank Zappa Book is more just a great read if you want to learn about the man, but there are a few nice elaborations on clues there, as well as his approach to art. Them Or Us was written in an attempt to ‘explain’ conceptual continuity…by including more than there was before. It links Francesco Zappa to “Billy the Mountain” to Thing-Fish to Joe’s Garage to “The Sofa Suite”, but it doesn’t reveal any clues in the existing material itself, just adds more to the wagon. Another reason I chose not to include non-aural works! I did also watch the movie 200 Motels for context purposes, but only speak of its actual soundtrack.
Brett Clement: This PhD thesis on A Study of the Instrumental Music of Frank Zappa was the only reason I was able to make the “Cruisin’ For Burgers” (Zappa in New York version) and “Mo ‘N Herb’s Vacation I” (London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 1) link, as it actually listed the times.
And here are some links I found along the way that pointed out some excellent pieces of continuity:
My girlfriend, for putting up with six months of dedicated Frank Zappa listening, as well as providing some pro Excel knowledge.
 The title of the article comes from the only time that Frank Zappa explicitly uses the phrase ‘conceptual continuity’ in his lyrics. In the track “Stink Foot” off Apostrophe(‘), a man asks a dog, “What is your Conceptual Continuity?” The response is typically cryptic: “It should be easy to see/The crux of the biscuit/Is the Apostrophe(‘)”.
 My emphasis. Check out the interview between Frank Zappa, Matt Groening (of The Simpsons fame) and Don Menn in full here: http://wiki.killuglyradio.com/wiki/The_Mother_Of_All_Interviews_(Part_2)
 A 3 LP box set that Frank attempted to release through Warner Bros. They did not want to release the music like this, and instead split the work over several albums, which turned into Zappa In New York, Sleep Dirt, Studio Tan, Sheik Yerbouti and Orchestral Favourites. The original version featured some tracks not released on any of these albums, and also arranges the sound-collage material differently.
 The constellations on the One Size Fits All artwork are a veritable minefield of continuity.