Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I-III Page 2

We're Only In It for the Money:
When FZ had originally attempted to remaster Money for its first CD issue, the bass and drum master tracks had deteriorated so badly as to be unusable. FZ replaced the mid-'60s rhythm section of Roy Estrada and Jimmy Carl Black with the mid-'80s, post-Jaco Pastorius stylings of Arthur Barrow and Chad Wackerman, and liked the result so much that he also replaced the perfectly usable rhythm tracks of Cruising with Ruben and the Jets. This tampering with an old master---even by The Old Master himself---was greeted by the faithful with imperfect zeal, not least because the new tracks sounded simply wrong, and ate up too much ambience to boot.

The Money master Ryko bought from the Zappa Family Trust is a recently rediscovered two-track analog master mixdown with usable bass and drum sound. Ryko has decided on the safe route of restoring the album to its precise debut status as originally released by MGM/Verve in 1967. This is a mixed blessing. It's great to finally have a CD in which the sounds of Estrada's precise fingering and Black's earnestly foursquare beat are not only sonically and historically "right," however unvirtuosic, but---especially in Estrada's case---are also now fully audible for the first time.

But the verses of "Harry, You're a Beast" and "Mother People" originally censored by MGM/Verve and included only recorded backward---and which were unscrambled on Ryko's original 1986 CD---are censored here once again. I dunno---historical accuracy is one thing, but preserving a censorship misguided in the first place is quite another. It would have been a simple matter for Ryko to reverse those snippets of tape. Also missing: five seconds of whispered bad-mouthing of the Velvet Underground by Gary Kellgren, and the recorder descant in "Mom & Dad"---both added by FZ for the '86 reissue. Hold on to that first CD version.

Recording level is much higher, and there's more depth and bottom, less hash and harshness, than on any other previous version. The simultaneous dialogs in the right and left channels at the end of "Flower Punk" come through more clearly than ever (they were unlistenable on the first CD), and the edits throughout have been reinstated in their original tautness. This is the only title Ryko has also issued on LP---it sounds exactly like the CD, minus some dynamic range. A deluxe boxed edition of Money, still in the works as I write, will include copies of the album on CD and LP, plus "other materials"---FZ goodies, paraphernalia, and artifacts of conceptual continuity yet to be disclosed.

London Symphony Orchestra, Vols.1 & 2:
This two-CD set includes every track released on all three previous editions (two separate LPs, one CD), and has been completely remixed and remastered for this release. The improvement is considerable. The recording level is higher, orchestral timbres are much more natural, and the orchestral sound itself is much more believably cohesive. Spot-miking of featured soloists is not so relentless as before, nor is the string sound nearly as chalky. The ambience, though no less synthetic than before, is now far more convincing---fake reverb has been cut drastically. (To hear the difference, compare the French horn chorale in the third minute of the first movement of Sad Jane.)

In the first movement of Mo'n'Herb's Vacation, the difference in Chad Wackerman's drumkit sound is vast: on the new release, it's full, deep, with lots of bottom. Previous editions sounded flat, with enough fake reverb (courtesy Lexicon's 224-X) to create a slapback effect; the new discs sound much more like a real orchestra with a close-miked drumkit. Still, the best bass sound is on the original LPs.

Bogus Pomp seems to have received most of the remixing attention; the LSO's less-than-perfect ensemble playing has been much tightened in the mix, and inner voicings of winds now come through much more clearly. Orchestral music this challenging and this complex deserves at least this level of TLC. A must-buy.

Does Humor Belong in Music?
Now released for the first time in the US, this UK-only live album from Zappa's 1984 tour was probably the worst-sounding album of his career. Why? When first released on CD in 1986, all EMI apparently did was slap the tape mastered for vinyl onto polycarbonate. The result suffered from digititis so flat and harsh as to be almost unlistenable, and had no bottom at all.

Humor has been completely remixed and remastered for its long-delayed US debut, and boy, does it sound better. Cut at a much higher level, the mix now has depth, breadth, bottom, and highs that will not peel paint at 40 paces. Bass and drums sound like real rock axes now---the difference in the more out-there instrumental sections of "Penguin in Bondage" is night-and-day.

This high-spirited set---the band is having so much fun it sounds positively euphoric---also contains one of the best-ever extended ensemble improvisations by an FZ band: the 16:43 "Let's Move to Cleveland." The difference on this new edition is that the extremely intelligent (and omnipresent) Chad Wackerman gets to work out on his drumkit a full minute longer---probably the first instance in which a rock album has been improved by lengthening a drum solo. "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" this ain't. Cal Schenkel's new artwork, too, is a vast improvement. Another must-have.

Odds & Ends:
My listening turned up a few other curiosities on various albums in this definitive edition---some good, some bad, some just curious. I'm sure more will be discovered as time goes on (send in those cards and letters). For now, chew on these tasty little suckers:

Cruising with Ruben and the Jets: Nope, sorry, those awful '80s-vintage bass and drum tracks (Barrow and Wackerman) are still there, and the pachuco falsetto quotation of the opening bassoon solo from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring on the fadeout of "Fountain of Love," heard only on the very first Verve LP pressings, is still missing. Someday...

The Grand Wazoo: "For Calvin (and His Next Two Hitchhikers)" and "The Grand Wazoo" have been switched. The album now starts with the title track.

Roxy & Elsewhere: "Cheepnis" has been remixed, revealing many hitherto hidden details in the rhythm-guitar part and horn chart. A definite improvement, though the dial-twisting is anything but subtle.

You Are What You Is: When reissued on CD, this album's "Dumb All Over" found itself lacking 1:47 of FZ guitar solo---virtually the only seconds of instrumental excellence on an otherwise overproduced and almost unlistenable album. Unfortunately, that guitar solo is still missing.

Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention: The original LP of this was released in quite different US and UK versions, the former's long "Porn Wars" replaced on the latter by "I Don't Even Care," "One Man, One Vote," and "H.R. 2911." Ryko's 1986 reissue contained all tracks but the Synclavier instrumental "H.R. 2911," now included on the '95 version. The final result makes Prevention even more the unsung Synclavier sibling of Jazz from Hell.

The present-day composer refuses to die!
Believe it or not, there's still more FZ to come---both from Rykodisc and from the Zappa Family Trust. In the can and ready for 1996 release from Ryko are: The Lost Episodes, a single disc of unreleased studio tracks from the first few editions of the Mothers of Invention; Transfusion, a third set of FZ guitar solos; and Have I Offended Anyone?, a compilation of FZ's most provocative parlor ballads. Ryko is trying to track down the current owners of the masters of the 1971 soundtrack to Zappa's first completed film, 200 Motels; they've reserved catalog numbers (in proper chronological order, of course, between Fillmore '71 and Just Another Band...) for its eventual release on two CDs.

Ryko is also "considering" general release of the two limited-edition Mystery Discs from The Old Masters vinyl reissue boxed sets. Roughly half of this material has already been released on Absolutely Free, Ahead of Their Time, and You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol.6. (A third Mystery Disc was prepared for Box Three of The Old Masters, but had to be left out at the last minute because it wouldn't fit in the box.) Also under consideration is reconstruction of the never-released four-LP Lather set, parts of which eventually wound up on Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites.

Gail Zappa is preparing for release on her own Barking Pumpkin label The Rage and the Fury, FZ's tribute to Edgard Varese, who in 1921 made the original claim to the modern-day composer's refusal of mortality. She's also considering putting together a second disc of Ensemble Modern performances from the tapes of The Yellow Shark concerts, and has already released the long-in-the-works Civilization Phaze III on two CDs.

And, of course, there remain the countless miles of concert tape in the underground Zappa vaults, not to mention the literally hundreds of Synclavier compositions FZ left in various stages of completion at his death. At the current rate of release of this material, the present-day composer may well prove immortal.

All in all, Rykodisc has done a terrific job. Zappa's legacy is, indeed, a national treasure; one can only shake one's head at the care and attention to detail that this smallish company has lavished on the vast body of work of which they are now custodians in perpetuity. Here's hoping Ryko lives a long enough corporate life to continue to support, release, and distribute the work of a composer and bona fide American Original who, prolific as he was while alive, may yet prove even more so in death. And lest we wax maudlin in memory of a man who had little time for such things, remember Zappa's final message to guitarist Steve Vai: "Keep the humor in the music."