Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I-III Part 2, Page 1
Stereophile Vol.11 No.5, May 1988
Freak Out! (1965) Rykodisc RCD 40062 (CD). AAD. TT: 60:34 Verve V6-5005-2X (2 LPs, op). Tom Wilson, orig. prod.
Cruising With Ruben & The Jets (1968) Rykodisc RCD 10063 (CD). ADD. TT: 41:28 Verve V6 5055-X (LP, op)
Uncle Meat (1968) Rykodisc RCD 10064/65 (2 CDs). ADD. TT: 120:49 Bizarre 2MS 2024 (2 LPs, op). TT: 70:35
Hot Rats (1969) Rykodisc RCD 10066 (CD). ADD. TT: 47:16 Bizarre RS6356 (LP, op) TT: 43:41
Joe's Garage (1979) Rykodisc RCD 10060/61 (2 CDs). AAD. TT: 115:28 Barking Pumpkin SWCL 74206 (3 LPs) Act I: Zappa SRZ-1-1603 (LP, op) Acts II & III: Zappa SRZ-2-1502 (2 LPs, op)
The Perfect Stranger (1984) Pierre Boulez, Ensemble InterContemporain; Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort Angel CDC 7 47125 2 (CD). Didier Arditi, eng. DDD. TT: 37:32 Angel DS-38170 (LP)
London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. II (1987) Kent Nagano, LSO Barking Pumpkin SI 74207 (LP). Mark Pinske, eng. DDA. TT: 43:47
All above produced by FZ, engineered by Bob Stone, except as indicated.
Rykodisc, the distributor of all but two of these releases, should be commended for their commitment to Frank Zappa's back catalog. Throughout, they have made efforts to provide sumptuous packaging and full annotation. In fact, in the case of the 2-CD releases, each has not only one, but two booklets. Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar included a long, illuminating essay/review, and in all cases all song lyrics have been printed in full, along with most, if not all, of the original album-cover art and gatefold spreads. Connoisseurs of Zappa's Conceptual Continuity should be thankful.
During my listening and writing for Part I of this survey (Vol.10 No.8, Nov. '87), I found few nuggets of new or reinstated material, and those almost exclusively in the remastered CD edition of We're Only In It For The Money; in only some cases were there substantial differences in sound between the original releases and the reissues.
Not so in this batch. Cruising With Ruben & The Jets and Hot Rats are virtually different albums entirely from those to which Zappists have listened for 20 years. Unfortunately, this is not all good news. But let's take things in chronological order...
Parts of this, Zappa's first album, are still scary 23 years after its initial release. "Hungry Freaks, Daddy," "Brain Police," "Trouble Every Day," and "Help I'm A Rock" remain as discomfiting as they were intended to be. I remember sitting in Billy Jagust's living room (his folks were out for the evening) hearing this for the first time, watching that blue Verve label going 'round on Billy's teenage record player, scared to death that his parents would find out what we'd been listening to, and totally delighted that somebody was making music with words that I could believe in; that sounded true. Freak Out! was a studied, concerted assault on American middle-class complacency that still sounds fresh and angry. In fact, "Trouble Every Day" is probably the first pop song to directly attack the media's handling of a major "news event"---in this case, the 1965 Los Angeles Watts riots.
The remastering to CD has been handled well. Bass! From the first chord, full, rich, solid bass where it was only hinted at before. The electric bass's doubling of the kazoo part in "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here" is a new delight. But the treble is harsh and strident, consistent with my experience that the harshest CDs are those made from analog masters. Twenty-three years on, Zappa's mixes are still appropriately, baroquely impenetrable---hear "Who Are the Brain Police?" In fact, throughout this release, the background arrangements for strings, brass, and cocktail piano are a consistent revelation: I've been listening to this album on all sorts of equipment for 20 years, and have heard very little of this music before. The brass and string chart on "You Didn't Try To Call Me" is no longer lost in HF glare, and a similar orchestration on "I'm Not Satisfied" is revealed in all its Rubber Soul-like astringency. Also note piano and vibes on "Wowie Zowie" and "Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder."
"Help I'm A Rock" has some subtle kick-drum that simply never made it out of Verve's grooves, but the moaning bass vocal is not half as present as on the LP. "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" is notable for kick drum, again, and theremin that is mixed very much farther forward than on the LP.
Overall, this reissue's sound is much more deep, full, and rich than the LP's, which now sounds quite flat and dry (besides which, it's unavailable). Recommended.
Cruising With Ruben & The Jets:
When first released, Cruising was "an album of greasy love songs and cretin simplicity," as Zappa wrote in the liner notes. After digital remixing in 1984, however, the grease and simplicity were thrown out with the analog bathwater.
I wish they hadn't been. Zappa has said in print that, after the pleasing (to him) results of the newly recorded bass and drum parts for We're Only In It For The Money, he decided to do the same for Ruben. It remains unclear to me whether the latter's rhythm tracks were in the same unusable state as Money's, but Zappa has attacked these old masters with revisionist vengeance. From the first chord, the newly recorded (and uncredited) acoustic (?) bass fairly leaps out of the speakers. The multimiked drum kit is so different in every way from the original mono drums in relative volume, style, and sound that the entire album is hopelessly skewed toward the present. In the process, whatever '50s spirit that the original attained---and it was considerable---is undermined and lost.
"How Could I Be Such A Fool" illustrates this: the first verse sounds much like the LP version, the drums and bass light and dry; then, for the chorus, heavy, overbearing bass riffs enter, making the song a different performance altogether. "Deseri": as with so many other songs here, the background vocals are now mixed very far forward, at least equal in weight to the lead. This may make for a rich, fascinating mix, but it's not the album I grew up with. The funny little vocalizations over rhythm track in "Jelly Roll Gum Drop" are so buried as to be effectively absent. And it gets worse. Entirely gone are: the guitar glissandos in "I'm Not Satisfied"; the last four spoken lines of "Later That Night," in which the back-door man hiding in the closet is given the all-clear; and, unkindest cut of all, Roy Estrada's pachuco falsetto singing the opening bassoon passage of Rite of Spring in the fade of "Fountain of Love." (But then, this last was cut off of late-edition LPs as well.)
I have notepages full of more peccadillos, but it's too depressing to go on. Let this last suffice for all: There is---rather, was---a wonderfully dramatic moment at the end of "Stuff Up The Cracks," the last song on the album, in which, after an entire LP's worth of '50s doo-wop, a state-of-the-art (ca 1968) electric guitar wah-wah solo of dead seriousness suddenly shoots the whole enterprise up to the (then) present. It's a beautiful entrance, but it's now history; on the CD, Zappa starts fading in the guitar solo halfway through the last chorus, undermining the total effect. What can he have been thinking of?
I said that the original is history, but it's not even that: the original has been out of print for years; the present essay in revisionism is the only edition we have, or are likely to have. I go on at such tortured length here because the issues implied are large. To wit:
No pop/rock artist has done more to maintain his own artistic freedom and integrity and yet remain within the dull gaze of the mass media than Frank Zappa. He has, from the beginning, retained rights and ownership to all of his master tapes. They belong to him, and he has earned that right. The nine-tenths of the law that is possession guarantee that one can do with one's possessions as one wills. However, in an age in which we are all too used to callous negligence of artists' works by large multinational corporations, I don't think it ever occurred to anyone that the artist him- or herself would end up perpetrating such abominations. There is some truth to the notion that, after a work has lived in the public eye for a time (in this case, 20 years), the artist owes some respect to the independent life of that work in its original, now public, form. After all, some of these albums sold in the hundreds of thousands; one assumes that people bought and listened to them because they liked them that way. But those recordings are now old, out of print, and will not be replaced. The precedent is disturbing: Zappa is not an old man yet; 20 years from now, will he decide to revamp these recordings again, to keep them in step with whatever he's doing in 2008? For an artist to go to such lengths to retain control of his work, only to subvert it, is wrongheaded in the extreme. Surely, of all American musicians, Frank Zappa has better things to do than the dead-end exercise of rewriting the musical past.
With old-style analog mixing to LP, hard choices were required: because of the inherent limitations of the playback medium, one had to choose which line was most important, which track was to be highlighted at the expense of the others. With the unlimited capabilities of digital master tapes, the result can easily be what Ruben examples: a horrendously democratic mix, with all instruments and voices seeming of equal weight, resulting in an indiscriminate wall of sound.
Ruben may now hold its own sonically with music being recorded today, but it is no longer true to the spirit of the crudely recorded pop music of the '50s to which, at one time, it paid such loving tribute. What was once a fine rock'n'roll album is now just another rock CD. Take very good care of your old Verve pressings; they're the real thing.