Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I-III The Present Day Composer . . .
Stereophile Vol.18 No.9, September 1995, reprinted in Schwann Spectrum Vol.6 No.4
Only in the few years immediately preceding and following his death did Frank Zappa even begin to receive general acknowledgement for his uniquely provocative and prolific life's work, and for how much the moral integrity of his acerbic voice had elevated the level of public discourse---whether in his many recordings, in his many interviews, or, a frequent victim of censorship himself, as an articulate arch-foe of censorship in Tipper Gore's notorious PMRC hearings and elsewhere. Zappa's unbending intent to do and say exactly as he saw fit, without artistic, political, or moral compromise (he would have seen no differences among the three) simultaneously constituted a lifelong critique of the dark side of the American way of life, and a vindication of it at its best: Where else but in the United States could Zappa have for so long fought the moral and musical "authorities" and become a millionaire in the process?
Zappa eventually secured his autonomous position in the marketplace of musical and political ideas by steering clear of entanglements with quick-to-censor record companies altogether. Unlike the vast majority of recording musicians, by the mid-'70s he had regained the rights to all of his master recordings (except for the 200 Motels soundtrack, still tied up at MCA/United Artists). From then on, any contract with a record company would be one of distribution only. Nor could he be called the idol of a fierce but tiny cult following whose recordings lacked sufficient "commercial potential" to be marketable. When Rykodisc first released some of his albums on CD ten years ago, they were astonished to discover that orders exceeded the volume of their initial pressings by a factor of four to one. Far from supporting an interesting but minority taste from whom they had little hope of recouping costs, Ryko's beancounters soon discovered that sales of Zappa titles were actually supporting them.
So by the time he died in December 1993, Zappa (and now the Zappa Family Trust) was the owner and entrepreneur of a veritable one-man industry---Barfko-Swill---that included not only his 53 albums (on 70 CDs) dating from 1965 to the present, but also videos, music publishing, limited LP editions, T-shirts, and paraphernalia of all kinds. The mastermind of this business side of things had long been Gail Zappa, Frank's wife, whose financial acumen had been considered astute enough to earn her a profile in Fortune magazine. Zappa told her, not long before his death, "I want you out of this business. I want you to relax and have a good time." The Zappas began to look for a corporate buyer. Rhino Records seemed a sure bet for a while, but they backed out at the last minute. Rykodisc, the first label to release Zappa's recordings on CD, then stepped in to take up where Rhino had left off.
It's seldom that a record-company press release or flack sheet rises to the heights of noble sentiment, but Rykodisc President Don Rose came mighty close when he announced his company's purchase last fall of the immense Zappa catalog:
"We believe that Frank Zappa will be regarded as the preeminent composer of the late 20th century. His recorded works are testament to that, as well as to his intelligent, uncompromising, and, in many ways, prescient musical vision. The Zappa catalog is nothing less than a national treasure, and its acquisition by Rykodisc signifies the company's ascendance to the top tier of record companies. Since it was Frank who gave us our first 'big break' in the industry, it is with tremendous pride that we will now accept the permission, and indeed the mandate, to maintain this important legacy."
You can almost hear "America, the Beautiful" swelling under these rolling sonorities, but for once I detect not a hint of overstatement amid what FZ was pleased to call "corporate swill." And what a treat to hear such sentiments from the mouth of a record-company exec 30 years after "a very important man at Columbia Records" said, upon hearing the music of Frank Zappa and the original Mothers of Invention, "No commercial potential."
Elsewhere, Rykodisc's marketing department sets a more properly improper Zappa-esque tone in its campaign to simultaneously release and market all 70 CDs in less than a month---this from a company that doesn't release that many discs a year. The dialog balloon on the foldout Zappa mini-catalog included with every copy of every title in the reissue series asks, "Is this Phase One of another greedy record-company ploy to force you to buy these albums one more time?"
Well, of course it is, and Ryko doesn't waste much breath denying it. After all, they put themselves through a $44 million corporate restructuring just to buy these master tapes from the Zappa Family Trust. Jill Christiansen, Ryko's mistress of all things Zappa, swears that though, contrary to rumors, the actual purchase price was nowhere near $44 million, "it was still a lot."
Nor can Ryko be faulted for the archival quality of this "definitive" edition---work they've carried out with true fan-boy zeal. Original Zappa art director Cal Schenkel was hired to oversee the redesign of all cover art and CD booklets. In most cases this has meant reinstatement of virtually all original LP art omitted from the first CD editions, and not just jewelbox-sized reproductions, either: many booklets fold out to reveal the original album covers at near-LP size.
Schenkel has taken advantage of transparent tray cards to include images and photos from his original design workups that didn't make it into any previous edition, and has created entirely new cover art for Does Humor Belong in Music? and The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life---probably the two Zappa albums with the worst and least distinctive covers.
Typos and incorrect track timings have been corrected throughout. (Though Ryko missed a trick by not incorporating the corrections to Vol.1 of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore that were printed in Vol.2.) Except for Uncle Meat, Joe's Garage, and Thing Fish, whose bulky booklets precluded such treatment, all two-CD sets are now shipped in slimline double-jewelcases. Completists who buy the entire set will experience a net gain in shelf space of 6". (I measured.)
Apostrophe (') includes printed lyrics for the first time. Lumpy Gravy, originally released as two untitled 15-minute tracks corresponding to the original LP sides, is now fully indexed. Joe's Garage now includes a separate "portfolio" in which are reprinted all of John Williams's obsessively detailed images from the original gatefold LP. And though you now have to buy three CDs instead of two (as on Ryko's original 1986 reissue) to get all of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, the new deluxe box beautifully replicates the original mail-order-only LPs. This is the single serious disadvantage of Ryko's reissue series: The four albums originally reissued in pairs on well-packed "twofer" CDs---We're Only In It for the Money and Lumpy Gravy, Over-nite Sensation and Apostrophe (')---have been divorced again and are now available only as separate, full-priced releases. Ah, well---Phase Two of another greedy record-company ploy...
But all that's just window-dressing. What all Zappa fanatics---and by now we know that there are a lot of you out there---really want to know is, Do they sound any different? Are there any extra tracks?
The short answer is yes...and no. Yes, some of these discs sound very different from their previous versions. Yes, one of them has never before been released in the US. Yes, there is an extra track. But unless you're a compulsive completist who derives as much satisfaction from gazing at the orderly march of catalog numbers across three feet of CD shelves as you do from listening to the music, do you need to buy all these albums again? No.
The long answer takes up the rest of this article.
There have been a good many rumors flying around since last October, when Ryko first announced their purchase of the FZ masters: rumors of deathbed re-remasterings for this new definitive edition of albums---many of which, in their first CD incarnations in the mid-'80s, exemplified digital at its worst. Ryko has been understandably reluctant to squelch such rumors (and the tasty possibility of the populous FZ hardcore buying most of these titles for the third time), but the truth of the cryptic "FZ approved master, 1993" announcement sported by all but a few of these discs (see starred items in sidebar) is as follows:
On most of these discs, Zappa wanted to correct little areas of distortion, digital dropouts, and random clicks---in general, to tweak'n'tweeze them up to snuff. Most of this cleanup work was done under his supervision during the last year or so of his life. Fanatics will uncover these minutiae on repeated listenings in the months and years to come, but really---most of these minor differences are of interest only to readers of Society Pages and other FZ fanzines. A few titles had been mastered or remastered so recently that they were considered to have taken full advantage of the latest technology and have been reissued as-were. More important is the fact that fully a third of these sets have been cut at slightly higher (see asterisked items in sidebar) or much higher levels (double asterisks).
Then there are those few titles that have been completely remixed and remastered...
Slightly increased level, better dynamics, tighter editing, soundstage not so flat.