An Autocratic Approach to Music Copyright?:A Frank Zappa case study

I have been aware for a number of years that there has been a legal battle between Gail Zappa, head of the ‘Zappa Family Trust’, and the so called ‘tribute’ bands that are determined to continue performing his music live. As some of you may know, there are numerous Frank Zappa tribute bands on the circuit at the moment that not only pay homage to Zappa, but also keep his memory alive. This is achieved by not only appeasing his current fans’ appetite of listening to this fantastic music live, but by spreading the word to a younger generation who are simply not aware of him. The most famous of these bands is called ‘Zappa Plays Zappa, and has the unusual credit of being legally sanctified to perform the great man’s music. This legality of course is no coincidence, as the band is headed up by Zappa’s son Dweezil (on guitar), and features the ‘Vault Master’ responsible for compiling all of the legal releases heralding from the Zappa Family Trust – Joe Travers on drums. The work that the Zappa Family Trust has implemented over the last 14 years deserves great respect, as it has unearthed numerous recordings that would otherwise not have been available to the general public. This is a laborious labor of love, and it is important that this process is quality controlled to avoid posthumous substandard releases that are associated with artists such as Jimi Hendrix for example. However, although I agree that copyright control of recorded music needs to be very carefully controlled, it is a different matter with live music. Bands such as Project/Object, The Muffin Men, Ugly Radio Rebellion, Bogus Pomp (which features guests such as Napoleon Murphy Brock and Jimmy Carl Black),The Band From Utopia, Frank Zappa Memorial Pancake Breakfast (amazing Finish band), The Zappatistas (UK) and a host of others have all performed Zappa’s music with great aplomb over many years. Indeed many of these artists come together to celebrate Zappa’s music at the Zappanale festival in Bad Doberan, Germany, which has itself been subject to the Zappa Family Trust’s legal force.  Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to witness an excellent Zappa tribute band in Cardiff called ‘The Grandmothers Of Invention‘. This band featured as far as I am concerned some of the legendary musicians who played with Zappa during the 1960’s – 1970’s, including Don Preston on Keyboards, Roy Estrada on bass (both of whom played on Zappa’s first album ‘Freak Out’), and Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals on Saxophone. This was a fabulous opportunity for someone such as myself, who never saw Zappa live, and more importantly was too young when these musicians played with Zappa in the 60’s – early 70’s. The irony of the Zappa Family Trust’s attempt to ban bands from performing Zappa’s music is that fact that Zappa was a keen protagonist of linking current ‘projects’ with past ‘objects‘ and to me many of these cover bands represent a perfect representation of what he entitled ‘conceptual continuity” . Zappa used this process to continuously reshape his past compositional portfolio, even using it to ‘virtually’ create utopian concerts and performances that included the best aspects of various gigs, songs and recordings over the years (Check out the ”You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore’ series for an example of this). This process however also involved Zappa using aspects of other composers’ music. For an example of this process in a single song, listen to ‘Wipe Out’ (2.54), Nite Owl (3.38) and allusions to The Beatles Sergeant Peppers (2.00) on the title track of “Joe’s Garage”. On the same album we can hear Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ (2.33) and his own ‘Mo ‘n Herbs Vacation’ (2.11) in ‘Fembot in a Wet T Shirt’ . Zappa labeled some of these extracts ‘Archetypal American Musical Icons’, and would use them as a means to get audiences to associate his music and live performances with the cultural memories associated with these works. I therefore find it difficult to believe that Zappa himself would advocate the hard-line approach his trusties are imposing on the very musicians who are attempting to honor him.


I read an article with Dweezel recently that almost seemed to claim that musicians’ outside of the ‘circle of trust’ were not capable of understanding the intricacies of Zappa’s music, and for this reason should refrain from playing it. As alluded above, this is a process that Zappa implemented to great aplomb, his music being a mixture of Do wop, Varese, Stravinsky, Musique concrète, big band jazz (although he would never admit it), rock, as well as non musical influences such as Spike Jones, cheap science fiction movies, Amos and Andy, etc etc.

Dweezel stated: “Frank’s music is much more like classical compositions than standard rock fare, The cover bands that attempt to do it don’t do it well because they’re changing things in the music to avoid the difficult parts. Most guitar players have a pattern-oriented mentality, and there’s nothing about Frank’s music that is pattern-oriented. It’s really hard to learn, especially if you’re learning things on guitar that were never meant to be played on guitar, like ‘Inca Roads’ and ‘St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast,’ things that were written to be played on marimba and keyboards, instruments that are laid out very differently than guitar. It required a complete physical transformation in terms of what I was capable of. I had to change my picking technique. It’s sort of like training for the Olympics.”

zappa21Performing Zappa’s music proficiently is indeed equivalent to competing at an Olympic games, but to me this statement represents a patronising slant on what many of these tribute bands are attempting to do. How would Zappa himself have learnt his trade if his heroes Varese and Stravinsky had asked him to stop appropriating their music into the popular music canon? How can musical ability and indeed our culture grow if we are not allowed to experience from the inside what the great masters have already done? Zappa was outspoken about this very process, as typified by the Central Scrutinizer character in “Joes Garage”. His much publicised confrontation with the ‘Parents Music Resource Centre’ also allude to his disdain for government control over musical content. It seems to me that The Zappa Family Trust is attempting to implement precisely what Zappa despised, and in doing so doing his memory a disservice.

After the result of a legal battle in the late 1970’s (I think), Zappa’s music ceased to be covered by ASCAP/BMI blanket licensing (the equivalent to the UK’s PRS/MCPS). Does this mean they can forbid other people performing their music? I ask this because I don’t know what the legal position is. I am a PRS member, but how could I stop other people playing cover versions of my music I have not registered? More importantly – would I want to? As opposed to attempting to sue these well intending venues and artists, is it not more appropriate to attempt a more amicable approach, possibly by investigating ways that live performance publishing royalties can be secured through independent publishing means? Indeed I would be really interested if anyone has examples of this procedure in practice. Alternatively, is this just a consequence of independent publishing??

There is an on-line petition for anyone interested in opposing this autocratic approach to music publishing. It can be found at

– I suggest you sign it.

PS: For other excellent blogs about this subject area – please refer here and here

For a list of other bands playing Zappa’s music, please refer here.

Also check out the legal ‘jam band’ album tribute to Zappa here

Other tribute albums: Strictly Off Limits – Music Of Frank Zappa & Tommy Fortman

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About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Frank Zappa and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to An Autocratic Approach to Music Copyright?:A Frank Zappa case study

  1. calvinwazoo says:

    Very cool blog; your analysis is both logical and tight. I like the presentation of Dweezil’s notion that Frank’s music is technically very difficult, it took him a long time to transpose the music played on other instruments to guitar, and because it’s so difficult and most people cannot accomplish this feat flawlessly, they should be disallowed from trying at all! What’s a guitar solo anyway? Is it something rigidly presented identically the same each time it is performed? Or is is personalized by both the moment of the performance and the personality of the player, even if the player is the composer? I will be adding your blog to mine as well.


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