A month late on this one but it was 20 years ago last month (Dec. 4th) that the great Frank Zappa passed on from this mortal coil. This obituary is from Stereophile magazine, February 1994. Unfortunately, I don’t know who the author is. It might be Richard Lehnert (that would be my best guess) but I’m not positive. My apologies to the author.
Frank Zappa… never to be forgotten...
Frank Zappa was a unique figure in the worlds of American popular music, international contemporary music, pop culture, politics, civil libertarianism, and, toward the end of his life, international politics and business as well. When he died of prostate cancer on December 4, 1993, at the age of 52, he was mourned not only by musicians and fans, but by such luminaries as NPR’s Daniel Schorr and the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who remembered him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground during the 1970s and ’80s.”
I first heard Zappa’s music in the fall of 1967, just after the Summer of Love, the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the birth of the media hippie. A budding 17-year-old hippie myself, I was shocked and delighted by his just-released album We’re Only in It for the Money, probably his most pointed essay in cultural criticism. That was a clearly polarized time — the unexamined truisms from both sides of the generational fence were spouted with a single-minded sincerity and a naivete that seem almost touching today. Zappa’s voice, on the other hand, was one of clarifying irony and sarcasm, the voice of an experienced, mature adult who took no one’s word for anything.
Money‘s album cover was a black satire of the cover of Sgt. Pepper itself — something that verged on sacrilege at that time of LSD-drenched Beatleolatry. But We’re Only in It for the Money was not only a critique of the vague fatuities of the hippie subculture; it also roasted an establishment that found itself terrified by that subculture and attempted to suppress it by increasingly violent means. The cycle climaxed three years later at Kent State University in shootings eerily foretold by Zappa on this very record.
We were weary even then of the dire pronouncements of our parents and authority figures about the dark side of the strange and contradictory melange of leftist politics, free love, communal living, psychedelics, alternative healing techniques, political theater, Native American lore, exotic diets, and the various occult and spiritual disciplines in which many of us dabbled and which a few of us even studied. Zappa was just as critical, but his was criticism from the inside, from “one of us.” When I first heard him shout “Flower power sucks!” — this was in 1967, remember — my spine stiffened in shock and recognition. The whole gestalt — everything that went with the phrase “flower power” — had never been questioned by anyone my teenaged psyche trusted or respected, and certainly by no one with hair as long as Zappa’s. His derisive shout made me question everything I had refused to question, and permanently derailed my hitherto blithe and paisley train of thought.
Zappa’s call to question authority — no matter how hip — was a constant of his work from the very beginning. He played both political ends against a cultural middle he held in withering contempt, and vice versa. Beginning in 1965 by pillorying (on Freak Out!) greaser and doo-wop music (both of which he loved), along with warning us to “Watch the Nazis run your town,” asking the rhetorical question “Who are the Brain Police?,” and singing the first rock song I know of to attack the media (“Trouble Every Day,” about the Watts Riots), his list of targets eventually grew to include psychedelic music, disco, punk, white blues, Democrats, Republicans, the Christian Right, the extremes of both gays and homophobes, and most important, anything and anyone anywhere who threatened free speech and the Bill of Rights. During his last two tours he set up voter-registration booths in the lobbies and managed to encourage tens of thousands of concert-goers to register. (At least one group of community powers-that-were prohibited him from doing so, grumbling that “we already have enough voters.”) He was about to make a serious bid for the presidency when his long-misdiagnosed cancer finally caught up with him.
Ever a gadfly to the establishment and to his own constituency — the young, the hip, the disaffected — Zappa knew that there’s no one so conservative or conformist as a teenager, regardless of that teenager’s dress or political beliefs. One of the strangest and most revealing moments on any Zappa album comes at the end of the live section of “Little House I Used to Live In” on Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Zappa announces to the crowd that “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don’t you forget it.” What sounds like every single person in the room then bursts into delirious applause.
Why? Zappa had just accused every one of them of being programmed robots marching in a lockstep media army of long hair, drug abuse (contrary to popular belief, Zappa himself never took drugs other than caffeine and nicotine), and a borrowed hip argot. But no one, evidently, was offended. Perhaps all the acclaim was embarrassment, the shock of recognition immediately recycled into laughter at oneself.
I don’t think so. Having been part of other such moments at other Zappa concerts, I think he included these few seconds on his record to make a far more disturbing point: That in a culture in which free speech is taken for granted as a birthright instead of being valued as a precious privilege earned, it loses that value. Anything that anyone might say or write becomes just another glittering fragment in a vast and hypnotizing kaleidoscope of entertainment. With increasing bitterness as the years went on, Zappa made a point of referring to everything he did as “just entertainment” — a way of ensuring that he never took himself too seriously, but also an indicator of his cynicism. I can’t think of any other American rock musician of whose work the word “entertainment” is less descriptive.
But Zappa would’ve been little more than another shrill voice in the vast wasteland had all this exhortation not been supported by a uniquely powerful musical voice. Zappa scavenged the pop music of America and the avant-garde of Europe to create a music of non-sequitur, a shotgun cubist marriage of doo-wop, serialism, fusion, crudely effective Brechtian agit-prop, Varesian electronics, and good ol’ rock’n’roll. He reveled in the jarring juxtaposition, the transition without segue, the 90-degree curve. He shared with Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern an abhorrence of sentiment and a commitment to what he called “statistical density”: ie, a maximum amount of aesthetic information in a minimum amount of time.
Zappa’s orchestral and chamber music could thus sound most chaotic to the majority of his rock fans when it was actually at its most rigorously disciplined. But then, at its best, his rock music could sound similarly incomprehensible to the ear attuned only to the sounds of the conservatory and the recital hall. Zappa was virtually unique in creating not only some of the most rhythmically thorny orchestral scores ever written — as such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Kent Nagano, and Peter Rundel have attested — but also some of the most challenging rock music ever composed and performed. In fact, among serious rock instrumentalists it became the ultimate badge of honor to have played in one of Zappa’s bands. Like Miles Davis, Zappa had an uncanny ability to demand from a player that player’s best — and get it every time.
As if fighting against time — he was — Zappa released recordings at a furious pace in his last few years: over 30 CDs’ worth of previously unreleased material, much of it his best work. His last album, The Yellow Shark, a collection of works for chamber orchestra recorded in concert by the Ensemble Modern and released just weeks before his death, is probably the best thing he ever did — JA and I would’ve picked it for this issue’s “Recording of the Month” whether or not Zappa had died.
The loss of Frank Zappa is a true one. There is no one even remotely close to being able to take his place, whether as an unlikely collection of talents and insights, or as a uniquely intelligent American voice worthy of attention and trust. It saddens me that I will now never see his name on the national ballot. I cast my vote here.
Frank Zappa on CBS Night Watch, Feb. 10, 1988, talking about censorship and the state of the GOP, a lot of which still resonates, more than ever, to this day.
Taken from The Olympia in Paris, Oct. 26, 1968…
Taken from the June 1971 issue of Stereo Review, Zappa’s recounting of first discovering the music of this brilliant composer…
I have been asked to write about Edgard Varèse. I am in no way qualified to. I can’t even pronounce his name right. The only reason I have agreed to is because I love his music very much, and if by some chance this article can influence more people to hear his works, it will have been worthwhile.
I was about thirteen when I read an article in Look about Sam Goody’s Record Store in New York. My memory is not too clear on the details, Read the rest of this entry »
This excerpt (written by Frank Zappa) is taken from a larger story by Arnold Jay Smith and Bob Henschen in Down Beat magazine, Jan. 13, 1977…
I like electronic music, I think it will be around for a long time. I think that the instruments are going to have to be designed so that they’re easier to operate in live performance situations.
On Zoot Allures, most of the electronic events that are taking place are things that were done with studio electronics. There are some synthesizer things that I played on the album, but they’re real simple-minded.
Electronics, for instance the string synthesizer, is the best thing that could happen to pop music because when you consider the attitude of normal string players, even jazz string players, it’s so disgusting doing business with them that it’s great that somebody has finally invented a box (the string synthesizer) that will help you do away with them and their aura. If you can get a better sound by using real musicians I would prefer to do it. But unfortunately the attitude of those kind of musicians toward the work that they do is so moribund, it just adds a cloud…. People are more worried about their pensions than the notes that they’re playing, and I hate to do business with them. Working with many so-called “studio musicians,” all they care about is their pensions, going to their union meetings, and maintaining their position in a musical community that has nothing to do with music, but more to do with, you know, really horrible middle-class, middle-of-the-road lifestyle. It’s depressing for me, in most instances, to deal with them, because they do not have my musical interests at heart, and I doubt if they have anybody’s musical
interests at heart when they come in to do those sessions. All you gotta do is stand in the hallway during one of their little union breaks and listen to their conversation, then you know where it’s at. And it’s the same thing in symphony orchestras. So thank God somebody put together a box that’ll sound like a string section, because in a hockey rink who can tell the difference?
As for where music will be in ten or fifteen years, all the jazz musicians will forget how to improvise and really get good at playing disco music. Each one of them will have three cars and a house in the country.
Taken from a recent compilation of early demos & unreleased ephemera, comes this 1965 version of “Anyway the Wind Blows” featuring future Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine. (Ignore the credits given on youtube for this song).
Another chapter from the online book Zappology: Zappa Observations, Minutiae and Conceptual Continuity Connections, written by Chris Federico (circa 2002 – but recently updated). Here is the link if anyone wants to check out more from him http://chrisfederico.angelfire.com/…
After contacting symphonic session musicians through trombonist Kenneth Shroyer, who’d played on Absolutely Free, Frank formed the one-off Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, made up of the musicians and characters as they appeared piecemeal on the album, rather than in any simultaneously orchestral and vocal performances. The Chorus was actually a speaking cast, its members’ dialogue taking the place of sung lyrics. They were recorded conversing with their heads stuck inside a Steinway grand piano during several sessions at Apostolic Studios in New York City. The chats were improvised, but they followed Frank’s general thematic guidelines. He amassed eight or nine hours of conversation from which to select; further snippets were heard in a few spots on following albums, but the piano characters returned with prominence on Civilization, Phaze III (1994), which clarified and continued the plot (all the way to the end of the world) from where it had left off on Lumpy Gravy, using old characters from that album and new, freshly recorded “piano people.”
The album features three Mothers; Bunk Gardner plays woodwinds and brass, while the others — Roy Estrada and Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, the latter often using the voice of his alter-ego, Larry Fanoga (“Almost Chinese, huh!” and “Drums are too noisy when you got no corners to hide in”) — are listed as members of the Chorus. Other enclosed-perspective piano inhabitants are played by studio staff members, Louie the Turkey from the Garrick Theater audience, and Spider Barbour of Chrysalis, another group recording at Apostolic at the time.
Completed in 1967, this two-sided piece featured the earliest commercial appearance of Frank’s orchestral music. Some of the material was even recorded with a fifty-piece Los Angeles orchestra. The album was commissioned by Nik Venet of Capitol Records, who’d formerly signed the Beach Boys. It had been assumed that Frank was contractually free to compose and conduct, since MGM had only signed him as a musician and vocalist along with the rest of the Mothers. The latter company disagreed, threatened to sue, and finally bought the master tapes. It was just as well; Capitol’s engineers had messed up the countless edits, requiring Frank to reconstruct the album. He and engineer Gary Kellgren labored over this unexpected task at Mayfair Studios in New York City. All in all, the release of the album was delayed for over a year.
The album’s title, originally taken from a television commercial for Aloma Linda Gravy Quick, describes Zappa’s upsetting of the “smooth” textures of popular orchestral music. His congealing of dyed-in-the-wool classical forms is achieved through utter compositional freedom, as well as intrusions of hard reality: the “lumps” of the imperfect real world, much more interesting than the dull familiarities of antiquated musical forms. The lumps are the “meat of the matter,” and also happen to be the tastiest part of the gravy. Frank is opting for meat rather than vegetation: substance, not to mention the variety (and humor) of reality, rather than derivative musical uniformity. Upcoming titles will update this idea (Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich most drastically, but also, a bit less directly, Hot Rats and Weasels Ripped My Flesh).
The front-cover photo, backdropped in gravy brown, features Frank in a non-hip, comfortable outfit, staring proudly up at the spectator from his laboratory like a worker after a long day. He’s wearing a shirt occasionally aired onstage that advertises Pipco, a Santa Barbara, California pipe company that has made shirts to sponsor little-league teams (although Frank won’t learn of the shirt’s origins until long after 1967). The clothing-store dummy inside the gatefold hearkens back to the plastic people on Absolutely Free.
The opening theme will return in “Bwana Dik,” a song about a guy’s fixation on penis size, on Fillmore East, June 1971. Sneaking the theme of an album that partially deals with male hang-ups into a song about genitals is characteristically crafty. The subject is also alluded to beyond Motorhead’s monologue on Lumpy Gravy, when a cigar is brought up during Roy and Louie’s dialogue.
The slow, lovely introduction to the instrumental version of “Oh, No” is a revisited 1962 theme that Frank wrote for the World’s Greatest Sinner soundtrack. The snatch of surf guitar that’s heard after Spider says “A bit o’ nostalgia for the old folks!” comes from the 1963 song “Hurricane,” which Frank produced for Conrad and the Hurricane Strings at his Studio Z.
In light of Motorhead’s car-engine reference “Bored out, 90 over,” All-Night John’s later statement, “Round things are boring,” suggests that the word “boring” can be heard as the less apparent verb, rather than the obvious adjective. Elements on the album — the drum, the merry-go-‘round and the vicious circle — are round things; so is the record itself. These things are perhaps now “boring” into the society Frank wishes to infiltrate and change with his music (this optimism will diminish in time). In his 1968 essay “The New Rock,” Frank will write, “It’s something of a paradox that companies which manufacture and distribute this art form (strictly for profit) might one day be changed or controlled by young people who were motivated to action by the products these companies sell.” The ants (round things, in their own ways) on the back cover of 1975′s One Size Fits All are boring into the crumbling cityscape. “Round things are boring” also appears as one of many messages bordering the circular star map on that back cover; the confinement of such a limitless place that “fits all” as the universe (or music) to a convenient, measureable shape just to accommodate our filtered minds is boring in the dull sense. (See the section on Apostrophe (‘) for more on boring, round stuff.)
The second half’s opening vocal, which sounds like an attempt by a drunk guy to sing along with the mainstream music that’s been darting in and out — something like “ba-BOMP-BODDY!” — will, with the release of The Lost Episodes (1996), be revealed as a fragment of “Ronnie Sings?”, a recording of Frank’s boyhood friend Ronnie Williams (who introduced him to Paul Buff of Pal Studios, which eventually became Studio Z) making rough-throated scat sounds to Frank’s guitar accompaniment in an Ontario living room in 1961 or ‘62. Ronnie’s booger-saving, fart-lighting and accidental urine-creature-making activities will figure among the subjects of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” on the Money album; that song will also cut momentarily to the voice. It figures into the Lumpy Gravy plot as a “little pig with wings” (even though it sounds more like a goat with emphysema).
The pig will fly around inside the piano again on Civilization, Phaze III. In 1974, Frank will record a long, comical piece called “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” concerning a pig who sits in his office and comes up with trends to sell to the gullible consumers of the world. When talking about the pigs not being able to question any part of their system, lest their livelihoods be threatened (the perspective-clouding “smoke” must remain), Spider mentions “that thing on their neck,” a precursor to the tie markings on Greggery.
“Merry-Go-’Round” was a song by Wild Man Fischer, a discovery of Zappa’s who would eventually record the tune for an album on Frank’s Straight label. A funny-farm alumnus, Fischer wrote simplistic, nursery rhyme-type tunes. Spider’s statement about robotic servitude, presumably to either work or fashion — “The thing is to put a motor in yourself” — refers back to Motorhead’s automobile tales earlier on the album, as well as “Merry-Go-‘Round.”
Louie’s excited recount of ponies trying to kill him ends up as a joke, when he talks about picking up sticks to throw at his assailants, and Roy interrupts with “Pick-Up Sticks?”. Mentioning the childhood game refers back to the groping for innocence in “Merry-Go-‘Round,” as well as Motorhead’s earlier line about getting “another pickup.” (Even this could be double-edged, considering the nature of his recollections; girls are “picked up.”)
Roy’s “Amen” is included as a reference to the name of the studio, Apostolic. The stanza that ends with “Just one more time” features Captain Beefheart’s vocals from Studio Z, circa 1963.
Taken from Rolling Stone, July 3, 1975 – this was the period where Zappa and Beefheart kissed and made up and went on tour together. You can still sense a bit of patronising and condescension though between the two, if you read between the lines…
Captain Beefheart, rock’s sometime genius, had just finished a show with Frank Zappa, with whom he’s touring after the end of their longtime feud. Slumped backstage at the Capitol Theatre, he scratched his shaggy head and slowly related the latest bizarre turn in his odd life.
“I said some silly things,” Beefheart noted, “because I’m a spoiled brat and I don’t understand business to the degree that Frank does. I probably felt neglected. I’ll admit it… and I told him so. I said, ‘I’m sorry Frank and I don’t mean that for an excuse.’ We shook hands and that was that.”
Zappa and Beefheart’s relationship goes back 20 years, to when they attended junior high school together in Lancaster, California. “I was there when he picked up his first guitar,” Beefheart recalled. “It was a funny little brown thing with hardly any strings, but it sure sounded good to me.” The two tried unsuccessfully in 1964 to form a group called the Soots, and then went their separate ways – Zappa to form the Mothers, Beefheart to search for his Magic Band.
The problems began in 1969 when Beefheart did Trout Mask Replica for Zappa’s Straight Records. “I did Lick My Decals Off, Baby right after Trout Mask. The group wanted to be commercial and since they were so nice about doing those two I thought I owed them a moral obligation and I stayed. But I should have gotten rid of them then.”
Beefheart added that his last two albums, Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans and Moonbeants were “horrible and vulgar,” and that he’d “headed for the redwoods to paint and write” as soon as he’d fulfilled his obligation to Mercury.
But other stories have Beefheart accusing Zappa of poor production on Trout Mask and interfering with its creativity. In 1972, Beefheart told the New Musical Express: “Zappa is an oaf. All he wanted to do was make me into a horrible freak . . . Zappa made me look out of the question, and the kids out there on the streets started to take dope because they thought that was the only way they could possibly get into my music. It was disgusting and totally degrading that Zappa should do this to me.”
Evidently, Beefheart had second thoughts in the woods, and he called Zappa to praise Apostrophe and “just to say hello.”
“He apologised for all the garbagio and asked for a job,” Zappa said. “The Captain repented. He had been real confused.”
Beefheart auditioned just before Halloween, Zappa continued. “He flunked. See, he had a problem with rhythm, and we were very rhythm oriented. Things have to happen on the beat. I had him come up on the bandstand at our rehearsal hall and try to sing ‘Willie the Pimp’ and he couldn’t get through it. I figured if he couldn’t get through that, I didn’t stand much of a chance in teaching him the other stuff.”
Zappa and Beefheart tried again this spring. “Although he still has trouble remembering words and making things happen on the beat,” Zappa said, “he’s better. Just before the tour, I tried him again and he squeaked by.”
Beefheart’s major contribution to the present Zappa show involves growling the lead vocals on “Poofter’s Froth, Wyoming” (which Zappa wrote for him), “Orange Claw Hammer” (from Trout Mask) and “Willie the Pimp,” the show stopper. Remembering the lyrics had apparently been a problem for Beefheart – he keeps them written down on a stand located at his feet onstage. Zappa is interested in getting Beefheart “to relax to the point where he can improvise words. He can do really funny stuff when he’s sitting around in a room. But he hasn’t really gotten comfortable enough yet.”
At this point, Zappa plans to remix and reissue Trout Mask, which Beefheart still describes as “my favourite.” Beefheart said he’s “had an extreme amount of fun on this tour. They move awfully fast. I’ve never travelled this fast. With the Magic Band – turtles all the way down. “Frank is probably the most creative person on this planet. He writes things for instruments that haven’t even been invented.” Beefheart paused for a moment and then resumed. “He’s another Harry Partch,” he said, referring to the avant-garde composer, “only he hasn’t dried up yet. Get it?”
This rock-oriented work, credited to just “Zappa,” came out in 1976. Chris Federico examines the album in his e-book “Zappology” (from, I believe, 2002)…
Just before Halloween, 1976, Frank navigated around legal disputes with his former manager Herb Cohen to release this album, which appeared on the regular Warner Bros. label while Frank’s own DiscReet imprint was hung up in the court hassles. Only slightly over a year after wrapping up an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Royal Albert Hall in London over the 200 Motels concert that had been vetoed back in 1971, Frank sued Herb for embezzling money with his attorney brother Martin. (The orchestral-piece title “Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation” refers to the spending of Frank’s money on their own amusements.) Shortly after the suit was filed in the summer of ‘76, work began on Night of the Iron Sausage at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. It was to be a double album, presumably containing some of the 1974-’76 material that would eventually be heard on the four records resulting from the fragmentation of the Läther boxed set. Frank eventually decided that Night should be a single album called Zoot Allures. When it was finished, the Record Plant wouldn’t let him have the master tape unless Warner Bros. idemnified the studio against any lawsuit Herb might decide to file as a byproduct of his battles with Frank. Warner consented to this, but only if Frank idemnified them as well. He threw his hands up and had the album mastered from the half-speed safety copy he’d fortunately brought home.
The album title plays on the French exclamation zut alors! (akin to “goddammit!”). This is a continuation of the trick in the name The Grand Wazoo, which re-spelled the French word for “bird,” oiseau (“Grand Wazoo” = “Big Bird”). Zoot Allures also depicts the first two letters of “Zappa” as the title’s initials. A similar prank will be pulled on the cover of Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (see that section for more).
Posing on the front cover like a “normal” rock group — in congruence with the album’s mostly simplex music (for Zappa) — are bassist Patrick O’Hearn, drummer Terry Bozzio, Frank and keyboardist Eddie Jobson. Patrick and Eddie are props; they don’t play on the album. They’re probably in the picture because it was taken around the time Frank was getting his late ‘76 touring band together. To fortify the theme of the contrived sexual presentation of oneself (more on this later), Frank’s pants are incredibly tight; on the back cover, he’s the only one who’s really changed his pose, bending outward at both knees to relieve the pressure. “Later That Night” from the Ruben album is called to mind: “There’s no room to breathe in here!” In “Stuff Up the Cracks” later on that LP, the song’s heartbroken character threatened to asphyxiate himself. Gas and the strange ideals attached to relationships both figure heavily in Zoot Allures’ lyrics. The cover’s pants-bulges can be considered “zoot allures” themselves. Zoot suits were fashionable with black jazz musicians and their fans in the 1940s. A decade later, the free physical expressions and “primal rhythms” of black entertainers were alluring to sexually repressed, white teenagers. As Frank wrote in his 1968 essay “The New Rock,” “From the very beginning, the real reason Mr. & Mrs. Clean White America objected to [early rock and roll] was the fact that it was performed by black people. There was always a danger that one night — maybe in the middle of summer, in a little pink party dress — Janey or Suzy might be overwhelmed by the lewd, pulsating jungle rhythms and do something to make their [sic] parents ashamed.” This fits Zoot Allures’ concept of stifled sexuality escaping in unexpected ways. “Wonderful Wino” even mentions a zoot suit. Terry’s wearing an Angels shirt, advertising the baseball team; it’s perhaps just a funny coincidence that the effeminate Punky Meadows, from the rock group Angel, will be jeered in “Punky’s Whips” during the upcoming tour, observing both confused sexuality and bondage accoutrements. The Japanese text on the cover combines word bits to roughly form “Frank Zappa,” although names in Japan aren’t really written by joining phonetics together in such a straightforward manner; they’re of a more pictorial nature. The writing is Hanko in style, a form used for personal signatures.
Frank, no stranger to promiscuity and its psychologically liberating effects, saw similarities between the media’s product-selling portrayals of ideal sexuality and the propaganda of fascist regimes. While making this album, he certainly couldn’t have been unaware of the implications on it, considering the frequency with which he’d previously compared, for instance, American politicians to Nazis. Two obvious examples are heard in “Plastic People” on Absolutely Free and “The Idiot Bastard Son” on Money; the concentration camp in 200 Motels also comes to mind. In interviews, Frank spoke quite often about the Western World’s unhealthy sexual views; for instance, he was astounded that consumer demand existed for a blow-job machine that looked like a child’s head (“Ms. Pinky”).
“Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station” opens with the line, “This here song might offend you some.” Along with such lyrics as “Don’t you be Tarot-fied/It’s just a lotta nothin’, so what can it mean?” from “A Token of My Extreme” (Joe’s Garage, Acts II & III), it could just as well serve as a characteristically self-effacing but sarcastic introduction for the new listener to Zappa’s music in general. “If it does, it’s because you’re dumb” is the second line, an accusation devoid of his usual, double-edged “character singing.” People in his own background were offended by direct language: “That’s the way it is where I come from/If you’ve been there too, lemme see your thumb [give me an affirmative thumbs-up].” The thumb reference also refers to auto mechanics, who have “greasy thumbs” and often work at gas stations. Recording engineer Davey Moire eventually takes over the lead vocals, occasionally harmonizing with himself. His high voice goes well with the energetic music, conveying the image of a child singing to another about their futures. The lyrics reprise the jabs at Nixon’s recession in “Can’t Afford No Shoes” from One Size Fits All, proclaiming that a college graduate won’t necessarily get a good job. But Davey’s sardonic, growling line “Pumpin’ the gas every night” is a reminder of the Californian concentration camps that Frank mentioned in the Money libretto notes.
Although the composer doesn’t compare his own experiences with those of Jewish World War II prisoners, he seeks to warn about what might transpire if the typical American doesn’t become conscious of the ways in which he’s manipulated, and resist them; the dangers of repeating history are illustrated, demonstrating that things might well come to their logical, tyrannical conclusions. Television, magazines, etc. berate their targets to the point of torture, as men fear their own lack of image fulfillment (“The Torture Never Stops”) and seek unnatural sexual outlets (“Ms. Pinky”). They develop mind-games to get women into bed (“Find Her Finer”), get drunk in order to bury their disappointments (“Wonderful Wino”), and participate in ludicrous, marketed social trends (“Disco Boy”).
With “Be a moron and keep your position,” Davey sings Frank’s sardonically stated encouragement to refuse to be a moron who contemplates no alternative to the prescribed way of life (recalling “Be a jerk/Go to work” from “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” on Absolutely Free). The listener’s told that he “oughta know now, all your education/won’t help ya no-how.” As Davey repeats the title refrain, we hear Frank’s closer, louder vocal. His deep voice is mixed in front of everything else: “Manny de Camper vants to buy some vite [wants to buy some white].” One initially thinks of white gas (propane, which portable lamps and stoves run on), but he actually wants some white fish (a Jewish delicacy): Frank’s line is followed by Davey’s falsetto exclamation, “fish!” (at the same time the backing vocals fall on the word “gas,” from the repeated song title). This is a bit ominous in the context of the German accent, when one remembers that Davey has just gotten through snarling sadistically about the prospect of “pumpin’ the gas every night.”
”Black Napkins” was recorded live in Osaka, Japan on 2/3/76 (which perhaps explains the Japanese stuff on the album cover). The wah-wah pedal’s eventually used in tandem with Frank’s uncanny neck-picking to make the guitar sound like an overheated science-fiction movie computer; the sound will return (as bubbles?) in “Ship Ahoy” on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More. In Ljubliana, Yugoslavia on 11/11/75, Frank introduced an early version of “Black Napkins” to the audience by announcing, “This is an instrumental song. It’s a tender, slow, moving, ‘ballad’ sort of song that carries with it the implied message that the complete woman must also have an asshole.” In the context of the album, the “perfect woman” for whom men are trained to search isn’t real, and they’ll be let down by natural humanity, with all its so-called imperfections. This anticipates “You never go doody/That’s what you think” in the album’s closing song, “Disco Boy”; in spite of seemingly connecting with these ideas by describing toilet paper, the song’s title wasn’t concocted until later in the month, after that spoken introduction. Frank and his band had Thanksgiving dinner in 1975 at a venue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that served hardly edible food, clinching the comical atrocity by providing black napkins (unwittingly making the guys think of death by food poisoning).
The lyrics in “The Torture Never Stops” were originally intended as jokes about Captain Beefheart’s narcissistic mannerisms and lack of consistent sanitary habits. When the song was first performed in the spring of 1975 at Claremont College during the Bongo Fury tour, it was called “Why Doesn’t Somebody Get Him a Pepsi?”. By the time Frank recorded this Zoot Allures vocal, the words had grown to represent much more, in terms of some undefined evil entity, whom one can consider a politician, a music journalist (cf. “The ‘Torchum’ Never Stops” on 1984′s Thing-Fish) or the embodiment of the string-pullers who don’t get on the news, the industrial figures behind this psychosexual concentration camp. The reek that even makes the stones choke is another reference to poisonous air, not to mention Jewish dietary customs (raw pork). “Guns and the likes of every tool of pain” are included among outlets of displaced sexuality, bringing to mind Frank’s past lyrics about phallic extensions, as well as his future “sociological investigation” of New York’s bondage-abundant Mudd Club.
Besides a “tiny light from a window hole” (making one wonder if “City of Tiny Lites,” a song on Sheik Yerbouti about Los Angeles, might not name the city as a center of the oppression), the atmosphere never gets a break, not a single shaft of sunlight; nor does the Night of the Iron Sausage let up, the era in which America’s denizens are battered by misleadings that snuff their self-esteem and direct their sexual energies toward machines (cf. Joe’s Garage). The “backing vocals” before each verse (and during the guitar solo) are orgasmic, partially pained female moans and squeals. The male listener is asked why these cries sexually frustrate him more than they should; they’re a natural aspect of humanity, after all. We can assume that the screams of the girls — it’s Gail Zappa and a friend; the first grunt is the friend’s — are included to reveal to the listener how uptight his culture’s made him (or her, for that matter): “Why does this torture you? Isn’t it an attractive sound?”. Additional cries from the same “evening’s work” (Frank’s words) in his bedroom will resurface in “Rat Tomago” (“tomago” is “egg” in Japanese) on Sheik Yerbouti. The song will come after “Jones Crusher,” and will be followed by “Bobby Brown”: songs about damaged genitals. On the Baby Snakes soundtrack, “Jones Crusher” will immediately precede “Disco Boy.” (Then again, maybe the revisited shrieks in “Rat Tomago” will just be the cries of a girl who discovers that she’s been eating a rat omelette.)
In 1977, Frank will tell Guitar Player’s Steve Rosen that the “thing that sounds like a slide guitar on ‘The Torture Never Stops’ is actually a fretless… It’s different than a regular guitar. You don’t push the strings to bend them; you move them back and forth like violin-type vibrato, which is a funny movement to get used to. But you can play barre chords on it. It’s fun.”
Frank sings an elongated verse at the end, wondering if the victims are “zeroes someone painted.” This recalls Nanook’s frozen cultural wasteland — each of the first few lines of “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” ended with the “O” sound — and the round, frozen beef pie next to which Billy the Mountain’s (nature’s) enemy was born. Frank sums up his eclectic music, conceptual continuity, lyrical exposing of buried truth, and Dadaistic, break-all-fabricated-artistic-boundaries crossing of genres and media: “Everything that’s ever been/That’s what’s the deal we’re dealin’ in.”
One of the girls shrieks as her death blow is dealt by her being cloned in artificial form — her own packaged “perfect” image — as “Ms. Pinky” stomps in. Frank parodies Van Morrison’s “Gloria” by spelling out “P-i-n-k-y”; then “K-Y” (Jelly; a lubricating agent) is snuck in. This is a song about, according to Frank’s words to Barry Miles in 1976, “a lonely-person device. We have this fan in Finland called Eric… [His favorite porn magazine] had ads for lonely-person devices. It was even worse than I had imagined. Not only is it a head; it’s the size of a child’s head. The throat is sponge rubber, and it’s got a vibrator in it with a battery pack and a two-speed motor. Sticking out of its neck is a nozzle with a squeeze-bulb that makes the throat contract.” (The doll really was priced at $69.95, according to Frank in other interviews.) So the original Sides 1 and 2 both end with masturbation — the “Disco Boy” goes home alone, engaging in “disco love” with himself — book-ending the record with results of frustration. This album’s a Weeny Sandwich of its own.
Donnie Vliet, who’s credited with blowing the harmonica in “Ms. Pinky” and “Find Her Finer,” is of course Captain Beefheart. “Find Her Finer” opens the album’s second half with remarks about how idiocy has become the accepted social norm. The prospective gas attendant at the beginning of the first half is sarcastically being encouraged by Frank to fulfill the “dumb” stereotype laid on him. The occasional vocal (“So you might as well,” etc.) comes from Ruben Ladron de Guevara of the actual Ruben & the Jets, formed a few years after that Mothers album came out, and whose LP For Real was produced by Frank. The line “The universe is nowhere to start” vocalizes the difference between the cover concepts of last year’s One Size Fits All (the idea having been that the universe can hold everyone comfortably) and Zoot Allures (with its restrictive media images and satirical pandering to consumers). The listener’s sardonically encouraged to “rap [talk] like a mummy ‘till you finally unwind her” (“rap” = “wrap,” in the sense of a mummy’s wrapping, which can be unwound). “See who designed her” correlates the human woman with the manufactured rubber head in the last song. “Ground mummy” was the name of a nineteenth-century spice, adding a further pun. After Frank admits that he’s probably offended some listeners (similar to how he opened Side 1), more wordplay’s heard in “wiser fool,” a funny oxymoron.
Xenochronicity (called “experimental re-synchronization” in the Sheik Yerbouti liner notes) makes its debut in “Friendly Little Finger”: The guitar solo has been recorded in a different time, place and musical context than the other instrumental parts. The brass at the end is playing the traditional gospel song “Bringing in the Sheaves,” recalling the Salvation Army’s attempts at helping alcoholics quit. This duly leads into “Wonderful Wino,” co-written with Jeff Simmons in 1970. The macho line “Boy, she looked over at me, and she raised her thumb” revisits the opening song’s lyrics, while “I stink like a hog” recalls the repulsive meal in “The Torture Never Stops.” (Black napkins, indeed.) The showy dancing expression “Watch me, now!” (taken from the Dave Clark Five’s ’60s hit “Do You Love Me”) is humorously used, as it will be in “Bobby Brown” (and before “Baby Snakes” during the 1978 European tour). What’s funny is that the actual lyric has nothing to do with dancing in any of these cases. “Eat the label” will also be sung in “Baby, Take Your Teeth Out,” a song about a gummed blow job on 1984′s Them or Us. (Ms. Pinky’s services undoubtedly feel like gum jobs.) “Eat the label” could also be a sly Zappa expression about his music; any attempt to brand it is swallowed up. The wino pisses on the front lawn of a woman whose hair is up in curlers; the black character in Apostrophe (‘)’s “Uncle Remus” smashed the racist lawn ornaments displayed by white Beverly Hills residents. A different studio version of “Wonderful Wino,” recorded in 1973 and featuring Ricky Lancelotti’s hyperactive vocals, contained the same line about the lawn as this rendition; but the even earlier live rendition from shows with Flo & Eddie had gone, “A roller-headed lady caught me weedling [or wheedling: begging] on her lawn.” The wino could’ve been urinating or loitering.
Originally released by Jeff Simmons on his 1970 solo album Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up on Zappa’s Straight Records, the song was temporarily retitled “Wino Man” when it was performed by the Mothers a year later. The title song from Simmons’ album will also be redone by Frank for Joe’s Garage, Act I. Although prominently depicting a world in which music has been made illegal, that story will concern a character whose life is wrecked in nearly every imaginable way, due to society’s rampant warping of sexuality.
The live instrumental “Zoot Allures,” rumored to have been recorded at the same Japanese concert as “Black Napkins” (although the songs feature different bass players, if one goes by the back-cover credits — assuming that a new part hasn’t been overdubbed for the album), incorporates a striking harp part, played by Lu Ann Neil. The original ending will be heard as “Duck Duck Goose” on Läther and “Ship Ahoy” on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More. A November 1981 performance of “Zoot Allures” will be resynchronized over separately recorded music to render the solo section of “Truck Driver Divorce” on Them or Us.
In 1977, Frank will tell New Music Express that “’Disco Boy’ came about because we were in Denmark and we went to a place there called the Disc Club, and it was really poot. It was so make-believe sophisticated that it was embarrassing. The place was decorated like a playboy-type living room would sort of be like: low-boy chairs and snackettes on the table. And everybody drinks and dances to these robot-beat records…” The masturbation reference at the end of the song casts a curious light on the line “Find her blinder” in this half’s opener; blindness has been superstition’s reprimand for self-stimulation for ages. “Disco Boy” is circular, i.e. repetitious like the average pop song. The fur trapper in “Nanook Rubs It” was blinded by the urine-soaked snow that was rubbed into his eyes with a “vigorous circular motion” (female masturbation). Just before the solo, “The Torture Never Stops” contains the echoing “Well…well…” of “Nanook Rubs It”; the girls’ moans then return. Those who watch the movie Baby Snakes, which occasionally features an inflatable doll with a Ms. Pinky-type head, will discover Frank singing most of “Disco Boy” to a young girl named Angel, tying into the Zoot Allures front cover and, of course, “Punky’s Whips” (not to mention Angel the cross-dresser cited in “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes”).
Part 2 of this long, extremely fascinating article on Zappa’s recording and mixing techniques, comes from the Feb. 1, 2003 issue of Mix magazine. Zappa was a pioneer in the recording field and this article gives great insight into that fact…
The story so far:
By the end of the 1970s, Frank Zappa had released 28 original albums (including seven two-LP releases), either by the Mothers of Invention or under his own name. Deeply distrustful of large record companies, Zappa had set up his own independent record label and, frustrated by the cost and logistical difficulties of scheduling lockouts in commercial studios, had constructed a state-of-the-art personal studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (UMRK). And to ensure the highest-quality live recordings, Zappa purchased the Beach Boys’ remote truck.
The refurbished truck, dubbed the UMRK Mobile, became an integral part of the touring organization and was used to record every show, as well as premix various instruments for the FOH and monitor engineers. “I might have 22 channels on the drums,” says Mark Pinske, then working as Zappa’s recording engineer in the truck and at UMRK. “I would take the combination of all of it and send, for instance, tom toms left and right back out to the house. We might take nine different stereo keyboards, and I would mix them all down to a stereo keyboard mix that could go back to the monitors onstage and back to the house mix. We found that we had a lot more control over the feedback and a lot fewer problems with the recordings, because we had the same sonic tone and the same path pretty much going to each of the locations. I had 85 noise gates in the truck, and we could pretty much control everything. I could hear problems — little buzzes or hums — and we could isolate the problems, and then I could treat them with some of the best outboard gear you could get and send it back to these guys, and it would be all spiced up. And, of course, you’re not going to get the kind of equalization that you have in a Neve console out of a little portable Midas board.”
With two Ampex MM1200s running at 30 ips, the operation soon required bulk shipments of tape to various points on the tour. “On the first three-month tour, we had 946 master tapes, if I remember correctly,” says Pinske. “A huge amount of master reels of tape. Normally, it would take about eight reels a show, overlapping them. A lot of times, we did these small theaters in America, so we would do double shows, and Frank had a habit of not repeating any of the songs from show to show. So we’d have pretty much different tunes through both shows.”
Having played about 825 concerts in the preceding 10 years, Zappa retired from touring in July 1982 and devoted his energies to new studio recordings and mixing the now-enormous backlog of live tapes. Bob Stone, formerly chief engineer at Larrabee, where he had mixed many of Casablanca’s disco hits, including Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” joined the UMRK staff in 1980, and he and Pinske wound up tag-teaming on Zappa’s various remix projects. “Frank liked to work around the clock,” recalls Stone, “so we’d take shifts. I’d leave a setup for mixing on the console and leave any notes that needed to be done.” In fact, the surprise hit “Valley Girl” (from the 1982 Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch album) was mixed while Zappa was asleep. “When he got up the next morning to check out what happened the night before,” Stone says, “he thought maybe one of the vocal raps might have been a little different, from a different track earlier in the tape. But I’d already tried that and knew it wouldn’t work. I demonstrated that to him, so we went back to what I had and moved on. That was about all the attention we gave it.”
“Valley Girl” became Zappa’s highest-charting single and, along with an out-of-court settlement with Warner Bros., provided funding for Zappa’s next recording adventure. In January 1983, Zappa and Pinske traveled to London to record the London Symphony Orchestra performing various “classical” pieces that Zappa had composed since 1968. Unable to secure a good concert hall for the recording date, Zappa wound up recording the 105-piece orchestra on a soundstage at Twickenham Film Studios, using about 40 prototype Crown PZM microphones (supplied by Ken Wahrenbrock) in unusual close-miking configurations. Another technical innovation was the use of Sony’s new PCM-3324 digital recorder, but neither the wide dynamic range of the digital medium nor the separation achieved through close miking could entirely save the performances. “I think we had about 1,000 edits,” Pinske recalls of the remix sessions. “We were counting them at one point — we got up to like 900 — and we decided that counting them was ridiculous. But [Zappa] could edit like nobody could. When I first started with him, I was afraid to pick up a razor blade. Now, I could put a breath into a vocal or take a breath out. I was just privileged to be able to have learned from somebody like that.”
Despite his dissatisfaction with the LSO’s performances, Zappa was extremely impressed by the apparently noiseless digital recording medium and wound up leasing and eventually owning two Sony PCM-3324s, as well as a Sony PCM1610 for 2-track mixdowns. From 1984 on, all of his new recordings, both in the studio and live, were in the digital medium.
HE MADE ME DO IT
Back at UMRK, Zappa, Pinske and Stone busied themselves with an array of recording and remix projects. With various lawsuits finally settled, Zappa had regained the masters for all of his LPs on the Warners-distributed Bizarre and DiscReet labels, along with the MGM/Verve master tapes of the early M.O.I. albums. Most of these records had long been out-of-print, and, as it turned out, several of the master tapes were unplayable and required considerable restoration work before the LPs could be reissued.
Fortunately, a Studer 2-inch 24-track had been included in the purchase of the Beach Boys’ truck. “That was a lot better 24-track, sonically, than the Ampex MM1200s,” says Pinske. “We made homemade guides so I could take the 12-track 1-inch tapes and play them on the bottom 12 tracks of the 24-track 2-inch head. It was a real meticulous thing: You couldn’t rewind them fast, because the tape would creep up and wouldn’t pack right. And, you could really only pass them through one time, because the guide system wasn’t all that great.” Over a three-month period, Pinske managed to transfer all of the various M.O.I. masters to digital and also created digital-clone safety copies.
The first Old Masters box set of M.O.I. LP reissues came out on Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin record label in April 1985; the seven vinyl discs included a Mystery Disc of outtakes and archival oddities. Two more nine-LP volumes were released in 1986 and 1987, the first of these also including a second Mystery Disc. Some of the albums were more or less unchanged transfers of the original album masters, but several had been completely remixed and, in some cases, had new bass and drum tracks added.
DRUMS ARE TOO NOISY
As Zappa wrote in his autobiography, “What qualified as an ‘acceptable drum sound’ on a 1950s recording seems laughable today,” and as technology advanced, he expended considerable time and energy on getting better-than-acceptable drum sounds, both live and in the studio. One of the benefits of owning the UMRK Mobile was that all road tapes were made on the same equipment and tape format, factors that allowed Zappa considerable latitude in editing among different shows. In order to ensure even more consistency, Pinske and drum tech John Goode developed a system to permanently mount microphones in Chad Wackerman’s drum kit. “We would try all kinds of different drum heads and all kinds of different microphones to get the absolute best drum sound we could get,” recalls Pinske. “So when we were done, we would have a really elaborate, great-sounding drum set. I think the ultimate drum sound that we ever had was on the Man from Utopia album . And Frank started really liking this really good drum sound and kind of wanted to start hearing it on just about everything. I was kind of upset about the fact that he wanted to replace the drums [on the older albums], because I had already gotten a pretty good drum sound out of even the mono recordings that were on the original tapes.”
In some cases, reassembling the original album proved impossible. “I always liked the Fillmore East – June 1971 album, because I laughed at that album a lot,” says Pinske. “But Frank couldn’t even remember where he got all of the edits from to put that together; he had edited that thing, silly. So when we tried to reconstruct that album, it was damn near impossible, because he couldn’t even remember where he got what cut from. So, we’d have to hunt around and say, ‘Jesus, where’s this next section?’ And sometimes, we just didn’t find them.”
Another problem with archival tapes was due to the different aging characteristics of the two tape stocks used for live recordings. “We cut a deal with Ampex to drop hundreds of rolls of tapes at different cities, like Chicago, New York, wherever,” says Pinske. “Well, Agfa started bidding for the business, and we started using Agfa 468. We switched in the middle of the tour, and when we got off of the tour, we started razor-blade editing a lot of the songs together from different shows, and you couldn’t even tell the difference in the cymbals across the edits. That’s what Frank liked about the consistency we did in the recording. Well, some of the tapes that we meant to mix for an album we didn’t get to mix, because we edited way more songs than we were able to have time to mix, so we put them in the tape vault. When we pulled them out a year later, the edits didn’t work. The cymbals would drop as much as 3 or 4 dB at the high frequencies when they went to the Ampex 456, and then when we went back to the Agfa tape, it would get bright again. This was very frustrating from an engineering standpoint. When I remixed the whole Baby Snakes movie , we would have tapes that maybe the first 20 seconds would sound right, and then all of a sudden, it would get dull and everything would change. We’d have to strike the board and reset everything just to make the edit work. And you might strike the board maybe eight, 10, 12 times through one song, just to try to make the sonics match on edits that originally ran across like butter.”
THAT’S NOT REALLY REGGAE
These problems did not, of course, affect digital recordings. By 1984, Zappa not only had an all-digital setup at UMRK, but he had also started working on the Synclavier DMS, an all-digital sampling computer that allowed him to compose and reproduce music that would stump even the most capable human musician. Zappa’s first project with the device was an all-Synclavier rendition of chamber music by the obscure 18th-century Italian cellist — and possible ancestor — Francesco Zappa. More sophisticated Synclavier tracks showed up on The Perfect Stranger – Boulez Conducts Zappa, a 1984 recording by the Ensemble InterContemporain, and Synclavier tracks and samples also began to appear in Zappa’s band-based recordings.
At this point, Zappa’s recording universe was complete: He owned a state-of-the-art digital recording facility and the ultimate sampling synthesizer, both maintained by a skilled technical staff available around the clock; he had regained control of his back catalog; and also had access to a cadre of superb musicians who could play pretty much anything he put in front of them. Distribution of Zappa’s records continued to be problematic, but having paid all of the recording costs up front, he was in a position to demand exceptionally profitable royalty rates. “He would give the record company 15 percent,” recalls Pinske. “So Frank ended up making, in those days, like $2.25 off each record sold. And that was unheard of compared to somebody like Dylan, who would make 18 cents a copy. By having that kind of control, he was able to take more money in and not have to have all Platinum albums. Because he knew his music was off-the-wall enough and wouldn’t be played on the radio — that he couldn’t get that kind of volume — he set up his business accordingly. The bulk of his money still came from live performances — he got paid well for performing — and also, he sold a heck of a lot of memorabilia, whatever you could put in the mail: T-shirts, you name it.”
I DON’T KNOW IF I CAN GO THROUGH THIS AGAIN
One segment of Zappa’s business, however, remained stubbornly unprofitable. Despite the apparent success of his “classical” outings — The Perfect Stranger had reached Number 7 on the Billboard Classical chart and also garnered a Grammy nomination — the costs associated with orchestral performances proved prohibitive. Exasperated by the world of “serious music,” Zappa returned to the road in July of 1984. Again, most of the 130 or so shows on the six-month 20th-Anniversary World Tour were recorded, this time in the 24-track digital format. At the end of the tour, Zappa again announced his retirement from the road, though he kept several bandmembers busy overdubbing on various current and archival projects and recording sample libraries for the Synclavier.
For the next three years, Zappa hunkered down at UMRK. Only one new band-based album appeared during this period — the 1985 Frank Zappa Meets the Mother of Prevention — and it seems likely that Zappa spent much of his time working with the Synclavier. In 1986, he released Jazz From Hell, which, apart from a live guitar solo from the 1982 tour, was entirely created on the Synclavier; the record was nominated for two 1987 Grammys, winning one for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
Zappa was always interested in achieving the best quality possible on vinyl; for better fidelity, most of his LPs clocked in at less than 20 minutes per side, and his past experiences with inferior pressings, unauthorized MGM compilations and bootlegs made him extremely wary of sending out master tapes. Eventually, he went so far as to prepare metal parts for foreign pressings and would typically cut multiple lacquers for each release.
“I still have a collection of studio lacquers, because Frank had me pretty much do all of the mastering runs,” says Pinske. “We started doing a lot of mastering over at Capitol, and eventually, we ended up with a guy named John Matousek over at Hitsville, Motown. I would run down at two or three o’clock in the morning, we’d run off a lacquer, I’d bring it back up to the studio, and Frank and I would listen to it. Frank would say, ‘Okay, go down and have them take off one-half of a dB at 800 Hz.’ And I’d go down there, and most of the guys would laugh. One-half dB? Some of them didn’t even have one-half-dB increments. But we would do it. And Frank could hear the difference. I would even put the wrong one on, just to see whether or not he would hear the difference, and he would hear it right away.”
THE CHROME-PLATED MEGAPHONE OF DESTINY
By the mid-’80s, it was clear that the CD format would soon overtake LPs and cassettes. But Zappa, whose distribution arrangements seemed to be in a constant state of flux, had only two CDs on the market: The Perfect Stranger on the Angel label and a live album from the 1984 tour, Does Humor Belong in Music?, released by EMI in Europe only. After making a deal with Rykodisc to reissue 24 albums on CD over a three-year period, Zappa again went back to the master tapes. According to Stone, “Frank’s concept was, if there’s a new gadget that might improve the sound or make a technical difference, he’d say, ‘Well, let’s try it. We’ll just remix it or remaster it with the new goody.’”
Not all of the new goodies proved useful. “Somebody once showed up with a box that was supposed to do something wonderful,” recalls Stone. “I’m not sure I can even remember, or should remember, who it was, but it had a bypass position, which was supposed to be direct. So I set up to A/B from our source and pointed out to him, ‘How come it sounds different in the bypass position?’ They couldn’t quite explain that one to me, so they went away.”
There were some hiccups in the CD-reissue program: Rykodisc inadvertently pressed from a wrong or truncated master tape and several excellent-sounding European CDs were replaced with obviously inferior versions. (The two most egregious examples, Tinsel Town Rebellion and You Are What You Is, have since been remastered by UMRK engineer Spencer Chrislu.)
By 1988, Zappa was itching to perform again and put together an 11-piece band for a projected six-month tour, Broadway the Hard Way. The tour unexpectedly ground to a halt due to personnel differences, but Zappa was able to salvage three live albums — two of them two-CD sets — from the 48-track digital tapes. And, as the tour got under way, he introduced his biggest project to date: the career-spanning You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series.
Though superficially straightforward, being nothing more or less than a record of Zappa’s various groups in performance captured over a 20-year period, the You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series incorporates a slew of mind-boggling edits and demonstrates a total mastery of sequencing — no trivial accomplishment in the context of 12 concert-length CDs. And, for the first few YCDTOSA volumes, matching ambiences from one track to the next required considerable skill. “Frank loved to edit things himself, like the multitracks,” says Stone, who is credited with engineering supervision for the entire YCDTOSA Series. “So he’d take the road tape 24-track and do brute-force edits from one show to another. Now, you can imagine the acoustic and sonic differences from a small club to an open field, not to mention the difference in performances. His idea of editing was to edit for musical accuracy. So it was my job at that point to transform those edits into something that sounded like a natural EQ change. We had some programmable equalizers that I could preprogram for different EQs, and sometimes I’d make the EQ changes on-the-fly as the thing was going. Some of it was done in the mix; some of it was done in the mastering. I ultimately got him away from editing the multitrack and developed a system where I could mix and match to an EQ or a venue.”
By the time Zappa and Stone worked their way through to YCDTOSA Volumes 5 and 6 (released in 1992), they were able to use Sonic Solutions, which allowed for more or less seamless edits between performances recorded as long as 17 years apart. Zappa also made extensive use of Sonic Solutions’ ambience-matching capabilities in his final Synclavier masterwork, Civilization Phaze III, which blended under-the-piano dialogs from the original Lumpy Gravy sessions with new characters and conversations recorded two decades later.
BEAT THE REAPER
Zappa had been experiencing health problems for some time when, in late 1989, he discovered that he had advanced prostate cancer. Despite the rigors of chemotherapy and his steadily declining condition, Zappa continued to update and tweeze his catalog and, in addition to the YCDTOSA set, managed to prepare for release of at least another nine CD collections, including five two-CD sets. One of these projects resulted from a collaboration with the Ensemble Modern, an 18-piece cooperative of highly skilled classical musicians who sought Zappa out and demonstrated their commitment to perfecting a complete program of new and rearranged Zappa compositions. After extensive and grueling rehearsals, the finished 90-minute program was presented — through an innovative 6-channel surround P.A. — at the 1992 Frankfurt Festival and at other concert venues in Germany and Austria. A concert recording named The Yellow Shark was released only weeks before Zappa’s death in December 1993 and reached as high as Number 2 on Billboard’s Classical charts.
Zappa’s entire catalog (70 CD releases and counting) is available from Rykodisc and Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin label. Further, the Zappa Family Trust has recently established the Vaulternative label as a conduit for further releases from the massive archives. Of course, the sheer volume of Zappa’s output makes it difficult for all but the most determined (or obsessive) listeners to digest and appreciate his wide-ranging oeuvre. But, as implied at the beginning of this article, even those Mix readers who are indifferent to Zappa’s music cannot fail to be impressed by his technical expertise and dogged pursuit of sonic excellence. Even hardcore Zappa fans would admit that not every release is essential, but, as with any serious artist, unfinished sketches and imperfect realizations often illuminate the main body of work. Anyone with an interest in the recent tumultuous history of recording technology, a curious mind, tolerant housemates and enough time to spare should attempt to climb this Mount Everest of the critical-listening landscape.
Though Frank Zappa’s personal studio, Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, was a state-of-the-art facility throughout the 1980s, it was more or less mothballed after Zappa’s death. However, in 2002, the Zappa Family Trust decided to finance a complete refurbishment, including architectural changes.
“For the last eight years, nothing has been done in that room,” explains Dweezil Zappa, himself an accomplished musician. “The last major change to the studio was to accommodate the change of console from the Harrison to a Neve VR 62; that was in about 1990.” In fact, Dweezil tried using the studio during the 1990s but, unhappy with the sound of the control room, instead built a project studio in the vocal booth. “I had done some projects with that Neve, and there were always some things that seemed questionable,” recalls Dweezil. “I have some old Neve modules — 1073s and 1272s — and I like the old stuff. But for some reason, anything I did with that console and in the old room didn’t work out, so I didn’t feel confident with it. The monitoring were these giant JBL speakers, and I thought the room sounded a bit strange.”
The impetus to update the control room came from the Zappa family’s decision to continue releasing archival material on the recently formed Vaulternative label. (The first release, a two-CD volume that documents a 1976 live show in Sydney, Australia, became available in summer 2002.) “Our hands have been tied while the studio has been nonoperational,” explains Dweezil. “It’s only now that we’re going to be able to pick up the pace and deliver things that people have been asking for and also discover things we didn’t know existed.” One much-anticipated release will likely be a selection of live recordings by the so-called Petit Wazoo band, a 10-piece M.O.I. that played a score of dates in late 1972.
The acoustic redesign of the UMRK control room, a collaborative effort between Dweezil and Zappa’s wife Gail and Art Kelm, features a full 5.1 monitoring setup. Though only a couple of Frank Zappa’s mid-’70s records were mixed in the quadraphonic format, the composer specified a six-point surround P.A. system for the 1991 Yellow Shark concerts and would undoubtedly have remixed much of his catalog for surround had he lived. “We recently did a 5.1 project with one of the concerts from 1978 in New York at the Palladium,” notes Dweezil. “It was originally recorded by Joe Chicarelli, and we got in touch with him to do the 5.1 mix on it: We thought it would be fun for him to revisit the material all these years later. So that release effectively recreates the concert and adds so much depth to the music. 5.1 is a different format that works really well, I think, for Frank’s music, because there are so many textures involved and they’re constantly changing. It’s not necessarily the best format for all types of pop music, but it works for people whose music stands the test of repeat listening.” The 5.1 Palladium remixes in DTS are scheduled for a January 2003 release on Vaulternative.
To properly accommodate a 5.1 surround-monitoring system, the control room was expanded in the rear and a new machine room was added to house two digital Sony 3324s and various analog tape machines. “The ceiling is now much higher, and it’s a more open-sounding room,” notes Dweezil.
Another major change is that the analog Neve VR 60 has been replaced with a digital Sony DMX-R100. “I had been working with the Sony and found it to be a much better tool for me,” says Dweezil. New or remixed recordings will be stored in either a Euphonix R1 hard disk recorder or workstation-based Steinberg Nuendo. “The Synclavier we’re keeping because there are probably over 2,000 compositions in it in various stages of completion,” adds Dweezil. “Even though it’s an archaic setup, there’s nothing else we can use to get those things out. Ultimately, over time, we’re planning on making a sound effects library out of the samples that Frank made and trimmed himself.”
Though some of the original studio equipment has gone missing — Dweezil especially regrets losing track of the Pultec equalizers — the vintage mic collection is still choice. “There’s a nice collection of Neumanns: some M49s, some M50s, some U47s. I believe there’s one Telefunken U47,” notes Dweezil.
Staffing the newly revived facility will likely be on an as-needed basis. “I’m going to be the main engineer on my projects, and if there are other things that we decide to bring in, we will hire some other people we enjoy working with,” says Dweezil. “Vaultmeister” Joe Travers, whose full-time job is to identify the many hundreds of tapes in the vault, will no doubt be involved in some of the archiving. “As it relates to projects of Frank’s, it’ll most likely be the two of us,” says Dweezil. “I’ve also talked to other engineers, like Bob Clearmountain, and I’d like to get some other engineers’ takes on Frank’s music. I hope to do some high-end 5.1 or detailed audiophile special projects that involve great mixers. We’re also working on putting together some DVDs and finishing the Roxy and Elsewhere movie that Frank started to make. There’s all kinds of stuff in the vaults that Frank did on 2-track or in apartments. There’s easily another 30 years of releases — it’s that crazy.”