Bowie, Zappa, and Prince: What We Can Learn From Music’s Wonderful Weirdos

Not too long ago I posted the following poll on Twitter:

Okay, barely anybody responded. That’s not the point. The point is that these three men, David Bowie, Prince, and Frank Zappa, were all viewed weirdos or oddballs for their music, their styles and tastes, and their personal lives. But what if those weirdos were on to something?

What if those weirdos were really only perceived as “weird” because the rest of us are so boring?

Maybe being weird let these three men break free from the shackles of conventional wisdom and achieve success on their own terms.

I admire these three men greatly, both for their musical talents and the way they lived their lives (minus the drugs in Prince and Bowie’s cases). Their lives have been examples to me, and are more similar than they may appear on first blush.

Whether you like their music or not, the lives of these musicians teach some lessons about life and business that can be applied to scenarios outside of the music world. 

Uncompromising vision. “You are your own brand.” We hear this all he time today. But what does this mean?

Bowie, Prince, and Zappa provide great examples of this philosophy. People had a problem with their music, the famous example being a record exec’s statement that Zappa had “no commercial potential,” something he proudly used as a slogan, even emblazoning it on some album art.

And take a look at Prince. The guy could play every instrument, and often did, so that each part of his vision was just the way he heard it in his head.

Undaunted, each of them pursued their musical visions, trends (mostly) be damned. Bowie was fronting a hard rock band dressed as an androgynous alien, for     crying out loud.

Control freaks? Probably. But they had the track record to back it up.

Lesson: Listen to others, but if you have a vision you believe in, and are willing to live with the downside if fails, don’t let anybody change your mind.

Embrace change. Some acts do the same thing over and over and still kick ass doing it. AC/DC comes to mind. Prince, Bowie, and Zappa did not.

These three tossed styles and genres into their mind’s blender and used the influences of the day to their own ends.

The stubbornly anti-punk Zappa incorporated elements of punk into his music, even though he hated it. Usually it was for satiric value, but still. And you can’t ignore that he combined rock, blues, jazz, electronic, and orchestral music within the same album and in the same songs.

Or how about Prince? What do you call him? Rock? Funk? Pop? Jazz? R&B? Dance? Black? White? How about “yes.”Blazing  guitar solos over a hip-hop groove? More please.

And while Bowie was more rock- and pop-oriented than Zappa and Prince, he jumped styles more than he gets credit for, from folk to hard rock to funk to electronic, back to rock, without missing a beat.

Lesson: Stagnation is boring, and the best stuff comes from looking outside your comfort zone and making it your own.

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.

–Frank Zappa

Look beyond the horizon. When people told Prince it was ridiculous to start selling his music online because that’s not how it’s done, he went ahead and did it anyway, his later antagonism towards the Internet notwithstanding. Zappa tried to get an eerily similar idea to iTunes off the ground in the early 80s. And on his “Berlin trilogy” of albums (Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger), Bowie and collaborator Brian Eno helped bring electronic music to the mainstream…in the mid- and late-70s. Not to mention his 1998 announcement of Bowienet, his gateway to the Internet.

If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the internet.”

–David Bowie

These are just three examples of musical and industry innovation, but they illustrate each man’s relentless and questing spirit.

Lesson: Don’t be a slave to conventional wisdom. Just because something’s “not the way it’s done around here” doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Sometimes it’s worth listening to, but other times it’s the sign of a small imagination. And don’t become an old-fart uninterested in new technology, or the revolution will skip you completely. Stay curious!

Nobody will look out for you like you. Remember Prince’s well-publicized dispute with Warner Bros.? It was over the rights to his music, something many musicians now take for granted. Anyway, to get out of his sea, Prince released a bunch of previously recorded music to fulfill his number of album obligations, among them Come (pretty bad) and Chaos and Disorder (nowhere near as bad as advertised). He even changed his name to that unpronounceable symbol as a way to fight back, not to mention scrawling “Slave” on his cheek in public during his lawsuit. When he got the rights to his music, Prince became a famous, or infamous, copyright warrior who fielded with YouTube, among others, but he also experimented with different ways to distribute music, becoming a pioneer of electronic distribution.

Incidentally, Zappa had his own beef with Warner Bros., partly of his own doing and partly based on the company changing its position on contractual obligations. Required to release for more albums, Zappa submitted the quadruple-album Läther. Warner Bros. only counted it as one, so Zappa played tonged the radio and encouraged listeners to tape it. Warner responded by breaking Läther up into the albums Sleep Dirt, Studio Tan, and Orchestral Favorites without Zappa’s approval and with awful cover art.  Afterwards, Zappa moved everything in-house, running his own record company with his wife Gail.

Zappa also fought the U.S. government in the 80s over the Parents Music Resource Center (PRMC), which proposed censorship and a tax on blank tapes, both of which threatened Zappa’s livelihood as well as that of any musician. Ironically, this whole battle began over Tipper Gore, then-Senator Al Gore’s wife, hearing a Prince song!

Bowie’s career wasn’t saved contractual disputes either. He wanted to be done with his deal with RCA and thought his double-album Stage counted as two. It didn’t. So he released Scary Monsters and Super Creeps to get out of his deal (note: This might be my favorite Bowie album).

Lesson: Nobody cares as much about you or your business as you. Sometimes it’s worth fighting the big guys if your cause is right.

Seek out and promote new talent. Remember the time David Bowie toured with Nine Inch Nail? Bowie was ostensibly the headliner, but the two shows blended together, and both acts really co-headlined, giving fans the opportunity to see an established rock legend play with a rising star.

Why would someone of Bowie’s stature so this? Not only did he like and respect Trent Reznor’s music, he wanted to challenge himself by playing in front of and proving himself to NIN’s mostly young audience. And of course this boosted Reznor’s standing in the music word.

Before this, though, Bowie helped get luminaries such as Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Tony Visconti, Luther Vandross, Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew (poached from Frank Zappa’s band!) and Stevie Ray Vaughn a foothold in the industry.

Zappa’s list of bandmates is another impressive who’s who: George Duke, Terry Bozzio, Steve Vai, Vinnie Coliuta, Warren Cuccurullo, Adrian Belew, Patrick O’Hearn, not to mention acts he recorded and promoted like Alice Cooper and his childhood friend Captain Beefheart.

And everybody knows Prince’s stable of young talent: Apollonia, Morris Day and the Time, Sheena Easton, Sheila E., Jimmy Jam, Vanity 6, 3rdeyegirl, in addition to the many acts he produced and wrote music for.

I like young energy. If there’s a big mess, you can bet an old person did it. An old person or a lawyer. Or an accountant.

–Prince

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people more talented than you. They will push you to heights you never thought possible. And always give those starting out a helping hand. Being a mentor is just as valuable as being a mentee.

Boring personal lives and crazy art. Not that these three men were “ordinary,” but hear me out. Zappa was a married family man who didn’t so drugs and was surprisingly conservative in how he lived his personal life and raised his kids.

The same with Bowie. After a wild 70s and 80s, he got clean, married the supermodel Iman, and became downright domestic.

And then there’s Prince. He loved sex, but did you know he was also an incredibly devout Christian?

Here’s anther thing: All three were prodigious workaholics. They couldn’t have done what they did if all they did was party. They put in the work and never stopped trying to improve their craft.

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

–Gustave Flaubert

Lesson: All the talent in the world means nothing if you’re a drug-addled party person screwing around and putting no effort into your work. If you want to succeed, you need to put in the time no matter your God-given abilities.

Conclusion

Lessons can be learned from almost anybody, and it’s great to look at those who succeeded and trace the breadcrumb trail back to find out why. As a musician, my idols tend to be musicians, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned from statesmen or athletes or Titans of industry and technology. Even if you aren’t a fan of Prince or David Bowie or Frank Zappa, you might learn something from the way they lived their lives and conducted their business.

My Recommendations: Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Prince all created their own musical world’s and invited us to join. If you are unfamiliar with the music of these three and would like a good starting point, here are my picks:

Frank Zappa: Everybody says Hot Rats or Over-Nite Sensation, but I’m actually going to recommend 1976’s Zoot Allures. It has punk piss-takes, instrumental guitar showcases, snarky hard-rock, and experimental oddities. It’s not too long, it’s not that weird, and if you dig his albino can amidst guarantee you’ll enjoy the bulk of his other work.

Prince: Confession time: I think 1999 is a highly overrated album. I think 1987’s Sign o’ the Times is a much better starting point. It’s covers almost every facet of Prince’s stylistic bag of tricks and better showcases how eclectic and unconventional Prince was. Exciting stuff! I’m also quite fond of Diamonds and Pearls, Lovesexy and The Gold Experience.

David Bowie: As much as I’d love to recommend Station to Station or “Heroes” or Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, if you’re a Bowie neophyte, check out Diamond Dogs from 1974. Diamond Dogs was Bowie’s first album without his band The Hype–he played all the guitar on it himself–and represents his last real foray into “glam rock.” And what a foray it is. Weird sci-fi imagery and hard rock collide with proto-disco and piano-driven balladry and serves as a great introduction to the man’s musical world. And it has “Rebel Rebel” on it.

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6 thoughts on “Bowie, Zappa, and Prince: What We Can Learn From Music’s Wonderful Weirdos

  1. Dude, 1999 is SO GOOD! You’re crazy! You know what Prince album is super underrated? Around the World in a Day. Totally overlooked.

    Anyway, I love this post. I have never listened to Zappa and I don’t listen to Bowie or Prince anymore, but dang, they were three of the craziest, most talented, ambitious, and fearless musical artists we’ll see for a long time. There’s nobody like them anymore, and that’s just sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Daytime Renegade says:

      I know I’m crazy for not totally digging 1999. Been told many times before. I just find most songs overlong and–gulp–kind of boring. I give it a Prince 6/10, which for anybody else would be a 7 or 8. Then again, I also really like Lovesexy, which most people don’t…

      Agreed about Around the World in a Day. Really underrated. Also underrated: Grafitti Bridge.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Daytime Renegade says:

        “…but I like most of it.” I can say that about much of Prince’s output from the mid-90s on: On the whole good, but not as consistent as his 80s and early 90s stuff.

        Still awesome, but he had set himself such a high bar.

        Liked by 1 person

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