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

Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I
Stereophile Vol.10 No.8, November 1987

We're Only In It For The Money/Lumpy Gravy (1967) Rykodisc RCD 40024, AAD, TT: 70:53 Verve V6-5045X (LP, op); Verve V6-8741 (LP, op)

The Grand Wazoo (1972) Rykodisc 10026, AAD, TT: 37:10 Bizarre MS 2093 (LP, op)

Overnite Sensation/Apostrophe' (1973/74) Rykodisc RCD 40025, AAD, TT: 66:33 DiscReet MS 2149 (LP, op); DiscReet DS 2175 (LP, op)

Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1981) Rykodisc RCD 10028/29 (2 CDs), AAD, TT: 107:36 Barking Pumpkin BPR-1111, 1112, 1113 (3 LPs)

The London Symphony Orchestra (1983) Kent Nagano, LSO Rykodisc RCD 10022, DDD, TT: 62:15 Barking Pumpkin FW 38820 (LP)

Them Or Us (1984) Rykodisc RCD 40027 (CD), DDD, TT: 71:05 Barking Pumpkin SVBO 74200 (2 LPs)

Thing-Fish (1984) Rykodisc RCD 10020/10021 (2 CDs), DDD, TT: 91:08 Barking Pumpkin SKCO 74201 (3 LPs)

Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985) Rykodisc RCD 10023 (CD), DDD, TT: 43:52 Barking Pumpkin ST 74203 (LP); EMI EMC 3507 (import LP)

Jazz From Hell (1986) Rykodisc RCD 10030 (CD), DDD, TT: 34:44 Barking Pumpkin ST 74205 (LP) All above produced by FZ, engineered by Bob Stone

Laurie Anderson introduced her film Home of the Brave with the warning "Welcome to Difficult Listening Hour." She then presented an hour and a half of distinctly undifficult music. Frank Zappa, who has taken to his caustic bosom Charles Ives's observation that "Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair," consistently introduces his pieces as "little ditties" or "disco vamps," then proceeds to explode all expectations with his bands' masterful ensemble playings of exhaustingly difficult compositions. Each edition of his many Mothers of Invention touring groups has been more accomplished than the one before, and his studio groups---from '50s doo-wop to hard rock to jazz blowing to chamber orchestras (some conducted by Pierre Boulez) to big bands to full symphony orchestra sessions---have consistently stretched their limits and straddled (though not always gracefully) as many musical boundaries as possible.

In addition, the man's an idealist: from his bitter lyrics and song titles, and hundreds of interviews, it's clear he believes that there is an arena of public discourse out there somewhere, a forum in which issues of music, morality, and political and cultural transformation are discussed in a rational and serious manner. That there is not is hardly his fault. That he continues to beat his head against the wall of the contemporary mass media makes him equal parts visionary and fool. I admire his integrity, and share his conviction that such things must be said, such music written. But, Christ, these kids can't even read.

The relations among Zappa, his own custom labels (Bizarre/Straight, DiscReet, Zappa, Barking Pumpkin), and their distributors (MGM, WEA, PolyGram, CBS, EMI, Rykodisc) have been even more strained. For a year or so, in fact, the only Zappa releases officially available were the first four EMIs---this out of an oeuvre of some 40 releases comprising more than 50 discs. This vacuum, however, was Zappa's own choice. After clearing the deck with court battles that lasted for years, Zappa has retained ownership and control of all of his masters, has remastered his entire back catalog in his own digital studio (one of the first in the world privately owned), and, with archival comprehension, is now re-releasing most of that work on the CD-only Rykodisc label. EMI still distributes new vinyl releases on Barking Pumpkin, and The Perfect Stranger, with Boulez, on Angel.

All of this adds up to a treasure-trove for hard-core Zappists like myself, whose ancient (and often none too good in the first place) pressings are wearing through. There have been some pleasant surprises on some of these reissues, and Rykodisc promises much more. A chronological overview of releases to date follows.

We're Only In It For The Money:
If there is a single classic Zappa/Mothers album, Money is it. Released only months after Sgt. Pepper, to which it directly replies and which is painstakingly parodied in the cover art, this remains Zappa's most biting, well-aimed, and kaleidoscopic assemblage of humor, music, musique concrete, electronics, and remarkable editing. No more dated than Pepper itself, and some of it less so, parts of it are still disturbing. Unfortunately, the four-track master tapes were poorly preserved by MGM, and the oxide on the bass and drum masters had almost entirely flaked off; Zappa decided to re-record the tracks. In this case, however, Zappa the musician overruled Zappa the archivist, and the original mono drum kit and tight, dry, R&B bass were replaced by a multimiked kit and loopy, Marcus Miller-style bass.

The effect is startling and, I think, wrongheaded. Having heard Money a hundred times, I found it wrenching to hear layer after layer of intimately known music supported by a rhythm section anachronistic in both timbre and style. Sort of like opening a closet door in the house you've lived in for years, only to discover a yawning, echoing cellar you never knew existed. Trouble is, somebody forgot to put in the stairs. I would have preferred re-recordings more faithful to the originals. Word is that FZ has used the same technique on '68's Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, due out this fall.

A marvel of editing for its---or any---time, Money, in its new format, is not as lock-step dead-on as the original. Granted, recutting all those hundreds of edits must not have been a picnic; but there are spaces where none were before, split-second gaps and pauses that add up to a somewhat diffuse, loose, and lopsided feel for the whole piece. On the bright side of archivism, the lost verse of "Other People," previously censored on the MGM LP and recorded backwards on the inner groove of side 1, is here reinstated in all its scatological glory. Also, some more paranoid whisperings by Dick Kunc, somehow lost on the cutting-room floor the first time around, are reinserted. And the sound takes full advantage of the digital medium, especially with Don Preston's prepared-tape extravaganzas. On balance, a careful, responsible reissue, though not impeccable. I'm happy enough just to have this masterpiece back on the shelves.

Lumpy Gravy:
Re-released on the same CD as Money, Lumpy Gravy is a musical paraphrase of Money's more didactic sociopolitical commentary. Spliced together from orchestral, rock, and jazz sessions (including Shelly Manne), monologues by crazed auto mechanics, and extended colloquoy by various freaks inside a drum, or piano, or both (out-takes from this last surfaced 20 years later on the US version of Mothers of Prevention---see below), Gravy long held the position of Zappa's most obscure, abstruse composition, a legendary status amplified by its only intermittent availability. The original LP was remarkably well mastered for its time ('68); the CD improves things somewhat, but not remarkably. Zappa has stated elsewhere that "newly overdubbed material" was used on this remastering, but I have yet to hear where.

When even well-worn copies of these two albums go for $40-$60 apiece in used-record shops, they're quite a bargain on a single CD.

The Grand Wazoo:
Between the original Mothers and the Flo & Eddie edition, Zappa assembled a 21-piece big band for a series of sessions that resulted in Wazoo, Waka/Jawaka, and some as-yet unreleased material. The style was new for FZ, and was matched by new thresholds in recording and disc mastering, the latter being about as good as early-'70s WEA discs got. Alias's bass, Bill Byers's trombone, and, again, Don Preston's mini-Moog particularly benefit from the CD version, which is, if anything, warmer and fatter-sounding than the already rich LP. At a total time of 37:10, however, I would certainly have appreciated some of those previously unreleased tracks I keep hearing about. (For that matter, the entirety of the Baby Snakes soundtrack could have been appended.)