Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I-III The Old Masters, Page 1

The Old Masters
Stereophile Vol.12 No.6, June 1989

The Old Masters, Box One Includes Freak Out!,* Absolutely Free,* Lumpy Gravy, We're Only In It for the Money, Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, Mystery Disk I. Barking Pumpkin 77777 (7 LPs). ADA.

The Old Masters, Box Two Includes Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Chunga's Revenge, Fillmore East---June 1971, Just Another Band from L.A., Mystery Disk II. Barking Pumpkin 88888 (9 LPs). ADA.

The Old Masters, Box Three Includes Waka/Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo, Overnite Sensation, Apostrophe ('), Roxy & Elsewhere, One Size Fits All, Bongo Fury, Zoot Allures. Barking Pumpkin 99999 (9 LPs). ADA.

All above available by mail-order only from Barfko-Swill, Box 5418, N. Hollywood, CA 91616-5418, (818) 786-7546. Price is $100/box; library rate, $50/box.

Absolutely Free* Rykodisc RCD 10093 (CD only). AAD. TT: 43:42

Waka/Jawaka Rykodisc RCD 10094 (CD only). AAD. TT: 36:10

One Size Fits All Rykodisc RCD 10095 (CD only). AAD. TT: 42:58

Baby Snakes Barking Pumpkin D2 74219 (CD only). ADD. TT: 36:19

*Tom Wilson, prod. All others: Bob Stone, digital remastering; Frank Zappa, producer.

As readers of the previous installments (footnote 1) and Zappaphiles everywhere already know, FZ has digitally remastered all of his old recordings (with the exception of the 200 Motels soundtrack, contractually tied up at MCA), and has been re-releasing them piecemeal on Rykodisc CDs, Barking Pumpkin/EMI LPs and cassettes, and (fanfare, please) the mail-order-only, non-EMI, deluxe, Barking Pumpkin The Old Masters (hereafter referred to as OM) boxed sets, of which three of the planned four are already released. I finally got my hands on samples of the first three boxes (they go for $100 each, or $50 if you're a library) to see how they match up sonically with the new Ryko CDs and the Verve/Bizarre/DiscReet originals.

"Deluxe" is definitely the word for The Old Masters: The original covers are reproduced, gatefolds and all, in all of designer Cal Schenkel's demented glory. Even the type has been reset to exactly match the original specifications. And yes, collectors, ...Money's cutout insert and the two Cruising instruction sheets (on how to dance the Bop and how to comb a jelly roll) are included. Box I includes a fat booklet containing the lyrics to all of the albums and endless contemporary reviews of Mothers shows and albums from around the world, and some rewriting of history: all references to estranged former Zappa manager Herb Cohen are expunged (footnote 2), and some album dedications are ostentatiously revoked. Both Boxes I and II include a Mystery Disk each: previously unreleased material from the time period covered by that box. (Zappa held out the Mystery Disk from Box III at the last minute, as it wouldn't fit in the box. Here's hoping he includes it in Box IV.)

The sonic results vary wildly. I'd expected the new ADA LPs to follow a pattern I could succinctly describe in a few sweeping generalizations---improved bass, harsher highs, flattened soundstaging, punchier dynamics---but no-o-o-o-o-o-o-o. These tasty little suckers follow no pattern at all: sometimes the original LP sounded better; sometimes the Ryko reissue CD; sometimes the OM version. Nor were the assets or liabilities of any single release series consistent: OM levels were cut much higher, much lower, or just the same as the CDs and/or originals; soundstaging (such as it is) was better or worse on the LPs or CDs of the same digital remastering. Go figure; it's all detailed below---read carefully.

I'll talk about each release in turn, and in chronological order. On recordings already covered in previous installments (footnote 3), I limit myself to a brief discussion of the sonics only, with a reference (X-8, XI-5) to the appropriate back issue for a more in-depth review of the program. Albums not previously covered get fuller discussions.

Okay. Ready? Just hold your honker and jump right in...

The Old Masters, Box One Freak Out! (XI-5): I expected a lot more from the remastered LP version, but it's only a little spiffed-up over the Verve original, and in some ways---high-end glare, unconscionably tizzy brightness---it's much worse. The CD is better in every way, and has what both LP versions only hint at: bass.

Absolutely Free: Comprised of two of "a series of underground oratorios," Absolutely Free was a huge leap forward from the previous year's Freak Out! These recordings grew directly out of the Mothers' extended 1967 stay at the Varick Theatre in NYC, and include such all-out assaults on the status quo as "Status Back Baby" (which quotes Stravinksy), "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" (which quotes Holst), and "Call Any Vegetable" (which quotes the Supremes). All three of these are requested at Zappa concerts to this day. Sometimes he plays them. Sometimes there is trouble.

Clarity is the word here---lots of it. Bob Stone's remastering has only added, subtracting nothing. Though the bright light of digital day does remove that ol' analog mystery, that subtle sonic crosshatching, the improved focus is appreciated in this, one of Zappa's most verbal albums (and which was never---until now---issued with a lyric sheet).

Highs, highs, highs...Zappa's music has always been treble-heavy, and seems to grow more so as the years roll on. Much of the background dialog is revealed for the first time here, and Zappa's multi-layered arrangements are as so many transparent overlays. The string and brass charts in "Brown Shoes" are clearly audible at last, disentangled from the HF hash of the original LP. The album breathes freely, free of compression and boxiness, for the first time. The original Verve LP was inferior in every way---muddy bass, vague soundstaging, high-pitched instruments like tambourines as good as inaudible---to the new OM and Ryko versions. Bass is mono'd on the new LP, which plays the usual tricks with soundstaging, but otherwise you might as well flip a coin. The CD does include the Mothers' first---and out of print for 22 years---single, "Big Leg Emma" b/w "Why Don'tcha Do Me Right," but you'll also find these cuts on the OM Mystery Disk I.

Lumpy Gravy (X-8): Of the two new versions, the LP is clearly superior, having fuller bass and freer, more open highs. This high-end liberation is the major advantage over the original Verve edition, but I prefer the latter for its rounder, woodier tones. The CD is the worst sonic pick here.

We're Only In It for the Money (X-8): The OM LP's bass is better, but then it's a totally new track (played by Arthur Barrow), making the point academic. Dick Kunc's echoey whisperings are also much more convincing as the skullpaperings of a nightmarishly self-referential paranoid on this new LP. The CD is flat, 2-D, flimsy-sounding. The original LP sounds boxy and four-square in comparison, making the OM LP the winner. "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" sounds consistently faster on the new versions, but that may be because of the new skintight rhythm section (Barrow on bass, Chad Wackerman on drums) overdubbed on this and Ruben to replace the badly deteriorated original tracks.

Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (XI-5): I ranted on and on in XI-5 about the total botch FZ made of the CD reissue of this; the new LP faithfully clones the fiasco, but you can hear all of FZ's lapses of judgment that much more clearly on the Ryko CD. So buy the little silver thingie, if you must. Comparisons with the original are pointless, as Zappa has created an entirely new---and inferior---album.

Mystery Disk I: This document, or sonic home-movie, of the very early '60s chronicles an LA subworld that few of us ever knew existed, or cared about. Thrown into the pot are themes from Run Home Slow (a grade-Z film FZ scored in '62; the music is surprisingly mature and forceful, but you won't find this flick listed in Leonard Maltin), I Was A Teen-Age Malt Shop (the world's first unwritten "rock opera"), the birth of Don Van Vliet's alter ego, Captain Beefheart, and the original "Duke of Prunes" (also from Run Home Slow, which starred Mercedes McCambridge). Plus various studio jams, demos, live gigs of early Mothers prototypes, selected madnesses, wonderful pachuco doo-wop garbage ("Charva"), and, at long last, the first US LP release of two legendary singles from the Absolutely Free sessions: "Why Don'tcha Do Me Right" and "Big Leg Emma." This is not great music by anyone's standards, Zappa's included (except for a sit-in blues vocal by a lady named Cora on "Steal Away"), and probably would have sold a lot better in '68 if filed between The GTOs' Permanent Damage and An Evening with Wild Man Fischer. But it's absolutely fascinating to anyone who cares about FZ's early years and How He Got That Way.

Footnote 1: In Vol.10 No.8 (November 1987), Vol.11 No.5 (May 1988), and Vol.12 No.1 (January 1989).

Footnote 2: An inappropriately Orwellian gesture for FZ, I originally would have felt. But one I now expected, given his penchant for rerecording tracks and remixing to "improve" on his previous work (see RL's reviews passim).---JA

Footnote 3: There were a few errata in my Vol.12 No.1 "Zappalanche!" survey: Broadway the Hard Way will be released some time this year on a single expanded CD, not as a 2-CD set. Also, the 3-LP boxed set of Vol.2 of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore: The Helsinki Concert turns out not to be abridged; its program is identical to that of the 2-CD set; differences in song titling between the two formats caused the confusion. The sound of the LPs, by the way, is good enough that you might save yourself the extra $15 the CDs would cost.