Frank Zappa – “Läther” (1996)

December 12, 2008 at 2:34 pm (Frank Zappa, Reviews & Articles)

Chris Federico’s article on this classic unreleased-at-the-time meisterwork. Taken from his ongoing e-book, Zappology (which I believe was written in 2002 – not positive though)…


In the spring of 1977, Frank delivered the master tapes for a four-record boxed set called Läther (pronounced “leather,” due to the umlauts over the A) to Warner Bros., who then decided not to pay the amount they contractually owed him, oafishly thinking that he’d frivolously thrown the package together just to speed along his remaining album requirements, thereby freeing himself from his recording contract. He retrieved the tapes and offered the set to EMI instead. Warner, currently being sued by Frank (who wanted the rights to his old albums, plus damages for years of bad bookkeeping and deficient royalties), threatened EMI with a lawsuit, scaring them out of negotiations. Frank then tried Mercury/Phonogram, who was to press and distribute the set as the first release on Zappa Records; but after it had gone through the test-pressing phase and had even been assigned a catalogue number, they suddenly refused to distribute it, as someone there had noticed its “offensive lyrics.”

He resorted to splitting the set into four separate LPs, leaving out all linking transitions, adding a few songs and omitting others. He delivered the first Läther-ette, Zappa in New York, with packaging and liner notes that were preserved when Warner finally released the album on DiscReet. Shortly after providing that live double-disc, he handed over the other three all at once, fulfilling his contractual obligations anyway. Whether he planned to turn in his packaging designs upon being paid for these three, submitted designs that were ignored by Warner, or was shut out of the process as soon as they had the actual tapes, the albums were ultimately issued with sequencing and artwork that he hadn’t approved.

Before Warner could begin these staggered releases, Frank played the orignal Läther in its entirety on KROQ-FM (Burbank-Pasedena, California), encouraging listeners to record it off the radio. The conflicting report that the four separate albums came first, and were rearranged into Läther after Frank learned that Warner wouldn’t pay fairly, is false, according to Gail Zappa’s booklet notes in the CD set: “As originally conceived by Frank, Läther was always a 4-record box set.” The triple-CD package was released in 1996 on Rykodisc. Four bonus songs were added, extending the length to nearly three hours. Included were a 1993 remix of “Regyptian Strut” (spelled without the hyphen this time, as on Sleep Dirt); Frank’s opening and closing comments on the radio at the time of his broadcast; a piece called “Leather Goods,” which was made up of unused Lumpy Gravy dialogue, some Gravy-reminiscent instrumental music, and the original beginning of “Duck Duck Goose” (which included Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” riff before the “Whole Lotta Love” one heard on Läther proper, as well as two solo breaks, tributing Jimmy Page’s in “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker”); “Revenge of the Knick-Knack People,” heard during some of the non-stage segments in the Baby Snakes movie; and the instrumental “Time Is Money” (included on Sleep Dirt but not Läther itself).

Gary Panter, an artist best known for his work in Raw Comix, was responsible for the illustrations on the covers of Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites. Frank hadn’t chosen Gary’s work; one of the titles wasn’t his, either. “I might point out that [Sleep Dirt is] not the name of the album,” he told Record Review in the spring of 1979. “That’s just a further violation of the original contract. The original title of that album, as delivered to them, was Hot Rats III. I presume that’s just another snide attempt to undermine the merchandising of it. If you saw an album sitting in the rack with the title Sleep Dirt on it, you probably wouldn’t be too intrigued by it. And based on the job they did with the cover of Studio Tan, they made [all of the packaging] as unappealing as possible.”

For the 1996 release of Läther, Frank’s longtime engineer Spencer Chrislu mastered the extant mixes. Dweezil Zappa conceived the cover, and Steven Jurgensmeyer turned in the final design: We’re being engaged by a cow (future leather) with Frank’s facial hair and an Italy-shaped spot on its hide.

Considering the spelling of the title rather than its pronunciation for the moment, it connects with the composer’s heritage. “[My father] used to work in his dad’s barbershop on the Maryland waterfront,” he wrote in The Real Frank Zappa Book. “For a penny a day (or a penny a week — I can’t remember), he would stand on a box and lather the sailors’ faces, so his dad could shave them. Nice job.” Sailors and the ocean arise in the album’s lyrics. A lather is also a hubbub, a disquiet; this can be applied to the album’s extreme diversity. Finally, to work oneself into a lather is to become excessively excited.

The album integrates recordings made from 1974 to ‘76. “Re-gyptian Strut” starts everything, having been taken into the studio after its appearances in the 1972 Grand Wazoo concerts as “Variant Processional March.” This makes it a possible outgrowth of “Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula.” The song’s title is hyphenated here, unlike on Sleep Dirt.

“Naval Aviation in Art?” (the title having come from an old magazine pictorial Frank has seen, featuring paintings of various war machines), like everything else that will wind up on Orchestral Favorites, was recorded, before studio overdubs, at the symphonic September 17-18, 1975 sessions in Royce Hall at UCLA. Forty musicians were temporarily named the Abnuceals Orchestra, like Frank’s assortment of Lumpy Gravy musicians had been. This piece will be redone more slowly by Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain for the 1984 Zappa album The Perfect Stranger, without the call-and-response phrases between the flute and strings at the beginning (they’ll be played in tandem instead).

The line “God, that was really beautiful!” is also heard on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, after the “Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit” section entitled “Hog Heaven” (a title that alludes to “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary”).

The effect on Frank’s voice during “A Little Green Rosetta” resembles that in “Evelyn, a Modified Dog,” making this a probable outtake from the sessions that yielded One Size Fits All. The tune was originally longer; the monologue that should precede Frank’s singing can be heard at the beginning of “Muffin Man” on Bongo Fury. (Consider that “muffin” = the verb “muffing,” and that song’s lyrics will make more sense; only “stuffin'” would have elicited the girl’s “cries in the night.”) The door-slam that starts the second half of “A Little Green Rosetta” is actually a double snare-hit; we’re suddenly hearing the long finale of an Osaka, Japan performance of “Zoot Allures” (from the same 2/3/76 show that yielded at least “Black Napkins” on the Zoot Allures album). This coda will be called “Ship Ahoy” on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More, and will contain two-thirds more of the solo (with added polyrhythms from Terry Bozzio) prior to what’s heard in the “Little Green Rosetta” splice. The coda’s supposed to end with a double snare-hit as well, but that’s replaced with a high piano note, which duly surprises someone: “What?”

“Duck Duck Goose” features, for some reason, Patrick O’Hearn playing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” bass riff, and Ray White sliding down his guitar neck to recall Page’s dive-bomber chorus lick. Before the song detonates into some free, instrumental music, a lunatic sniffle also found at the end of “Dancin’ Fool” on Sheik Yerbouti is heard. Roy Estrada, soaked in reverb, sings some ‘50s falsetto lines and the lyric “Whatcha gonna do when the well runs dry?” from Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.” The priest from the beginning of the album is now impressed: “Listen to him go!” This line’s also heard at the beginning of “We’ve Got to Get into Something Real” on Sheik Yerbouti. There, it comes after a guitar solo rather than high vocals. The question “Why don’t ya take it down to C-sharp, Ernie?” is also heard just before “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango.”

The only full song on Läther that isn’t also heard elsewhere in Zappa’s catalogue in some version is “Down in de Dew.” It initially appeared on a tape made available to Guitar World magazine subscribers. Jim Gordon is playing drums, making this a likely outtake from the Apostrophe (‘) sessions; the title’s even taken from the “Uncle Remus” lyrics.

“Fifi Dupree,” mentioned in this version of “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes” and in the title “Dupree’s Paradise,” ran that club on Avalon Boulevard in Watts. “Assholes” ends with the crack of a whip and Patrick saying, “I knew you’d be surprised.” This is also heard at the end of “Bobby Brown” on Sheik Yerbouti.

Ray’s couplet at the end of “The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit” — “Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout Fontana/Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout Potato-Headed Bobby” — revisits Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s vocals at the end of “San Ber’dino” on One Size Fits All. Frank interrupts with a ‘50s-style “Wanna, wanna, wan’ an enema,” dedicated to doo-wop expert Roy Estrada; the Zappa in New York liner notes explain that this “postscript” refers to a “statement Roy made occasionally to Jimmy Carl Black in the Garrick Theater days.” We can only wonder. The line “It can’t happen here,” of course, evokes that section of “Help, I’m a Rock” on Freak Out!. As the applause fades, Frank wryly refers to the enema-based lyrics: “That’s it. Sit right down. Make yourselves comfortable.” The chief reason why over-sensitive types are occasionally bothered by his lyrics is that he offers no personal opinions at the end, no “moral.” Far from wanting to be a preachy singer, he documents modern folk figures he finds interesting, because nobody else will — and he leaves the listener to draw his own conclusions about where such behavior originates from.

Recording engineer Davey Moire sings lead on “Lemme Take You to the Beach.” Grand Funk Railroad’s drummer Don Brewer plays the bongos.

The beautiful “Revised Music for Guitar & Low-Budget Orchestra” was recorded at the Record Plant in 1974, and expanded with orchestral segments from the following year’s sessions at Royce Hall. It’s a new arrangement of a piece called “Music for Electric Violin & Low-Budget Orchestra,” which Frank composed for Jean-Luc Ponty’s 1970 King Kong album. That original version also included a “Duke of Prunes” segment.

“RDNZL” (misspelled “REDUNZL” on the Studio Tan cover and label) has been around since 1972; the short, sparse original version was dominated by Jean-Luc’s violin. The letters in the title could stand for “Ruth Doesn’t Need Zappa’s Lyrics,” “Ruth, Duke, Napoleon, Zappa and Lancelotti,” or the standard set of automobile gears, out of sequence: “Reverse, Drive, Neutral, 2 and 1.” The astonishing Läther version was recorded in January of 1975, at the Colorado studio owned by James Guercio, who had auditioned to be the Mothers’ guitarist nearly ten years before.

The snippet of dialogue heard just before “The Black Page #1” (so named because of the thickness of the notes on the score paper) is also the latter majority of Sheik Yerbouti’s ”We’ve Got to Get into Something Real” (called “Wait a Minute” on the CD reissue).

“Big-Leg Emma” was originally heard in its studio incarnation on a 1967 Mothers of Invention single (the A-side of which was “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right?”). After this live version, a terrific bit of free music immediately contests the gaudy swing; it also begins “What Ever Happened to All the Fun in the World?” on Sheik Yerbouti. There, it follows “Jones Crusher,” another bluesy song about a fat girl.

During “Punky’s Whips,” Terry sings the name of Läther’s title song as it appears on Zappa in New York: ”I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth.” He sings off-key to maintain a naive, childish image. He yells, “One more time for the world!” at 7:42, as he does more zestfully just before “The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution,” the original title of which was “One More Time for the World.”

The title “Flambe’” was misspelled “Flambay” on the Sleep Dirt cover and label. In the mid-1980s, Suzannah (Thana) Harris sang words from Frank’s aborted 1972 musical Hunchentoot over the music in “Flambe’,” “Spider of Destiny” and “Time Is Money.” The vocals were included on the Barking Pumpkin and Rykodisc reissues of Sleep Dirt (1991 and ’95, respectively). In her book Under the Same Moon (©1999, Mastahna Publishing), Thana wrote: “Frank told me to think of myself as a late-middle-aged, slightly overweight and out-of-shape lounge singer with a cigarette, and a few drinks under her bulgy belt… I found the feel, and totally melted into it.” ”Flambe’” is twice as long on Sleep Dirt than on Läther; the middle section (starting at 1:32) is no longer edited out. The Läther version of “Spider of Destiny” exposes a lead-guitar line in place of Thana’s opening vocals. It runs into an edit, after which the final measure is being played on bells, rather than by the original entire ensemble.

The accentuations heard at the beginning and near the end of “The Purple Lagoon” began life as an early ‘70s experiment called “Approximate,” for which Frank’s score mostly specified the rhythms of the notes to be played, but not their pitches.

The large-orchestra version of “Pedro’s Dowry” on London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I is quite different from this one, breathing a more ambient atmosphere and omitting the somewhat cheesy keyboard in favor of string and bass lines. A “disco section” is added to that later version as well.

“Duke of Orchestral Prunes” is simply called “Duke of Prunes” on Orchestral Favorites. The music goes as far back as 1959, when Frank scored the movie Run Home Slow. This version is reminiscent of the jazz-rock on Hot Rats. Frank’s guitar solo is overdubbed; Tommy Morgan originally played a harmonica part. “I love the idea of screaming feedback guitar backed up by a symphony orchestra,” Frank will remark in the April, 1979 issue of Record Review, separately telling his copyist/clarinetist/Synclavier assistant David Ocker that “there really ought to be a ‘Music for Guitar and High-Budget Symphony Orchestra.’”

The onset of free music after “Filthy Habits” (a Zoot Allures outtake) is also the latter part of “What Ever Happened to All the Fun in the World?”. The line “I wish he’d play somethin’ else, ‘cause, uh, they’re just not gonna stand for it” is also heard in the middle of “Easy Meat” on Tinseltown Rebellion. “Filthy Habits” has a longer solo on Sleep Dirt; the additional few seconds of low guitar begin at 2:58. An extra section of keyboard and low-picked, backward guitar begins at 4:40.

“Titties ‘n Beer” has a relationship to Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier’s Tale), in which Satan accosts a fiddle player. Frank had a reciting part (he played Satan) in the 1972 Hollywood Bowl performance of the Stravinsky piece. (As Frank will write in his book, it was his first “post-wheelchair performance,” following the disastrous conclusion of the Flo & Eddie period.)

A section omitted from “The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution” was the music onto which Frank xenochronized his guitar part to craft “Friendly Little Finger” on Zoot Allures. Patrick got his job with Frank by improvising a bass part for “Ocean,” overdubbing his upright (“Do you play that doghouse?” Frank asked) onto the existing, bass-less recording of the song. (What’s heard in the released song probably isn’t the first take, as the bass’s timing sounds too precise for a mere run-through.) “Ocean” is nearly five minutes longer on Sleep Dirt; it includes a lengthy opening, featuring Zappa playing a synth line.

Greggery Peccary’s name is an embellishment of actor Gregory Peck’s. The song was recorded with a twenty-piece orchestra in December of 1974; some overdubs were added a month later at the same Colorado studio where “RDNZL” was recorded. Greggery is played by a sped-up Frank. Since the pig works at Big Swifty, a couple of slightly transformed measures from that 1972 Waka/Jawaka piece are heard here (at 4:36). The phrase “peccary of destiny” correlates him with Drakma, the Queen of Cosmic Greed, from Hunchentoot (cf. “Spider of Destiny”). A “very hip water-pipe” is a marijuana bong. Greggery’s lines as he invents calendar time hark back to “Billy the Mountain.” Greggery asks, “What hath god wrought?” This was Samuel Morse’s reaction to having sent the first telegraph message (to Baltimore, curiously enough), composed in Morse Code of course; Frank is poking fun at scientists, artists and others who credit a mythical deity for their work.

Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters’ “Chameleon” (the kids in the story change their interests according to trends) are musically quoted while Greggery’s attacked after leaving work. He takes the expressway’s Short Forest exit (alluding to “Toads of the Short Forest,” obviously; that song was named after pubic crabs, so the joke here indicates the probable effects of the kids’ love-in). A reference to hippie buses is wryly accompanied with a synthesized iota of music that likens them to clown cars at the circus. The notes of Flo & Eddie’s lines “Billy was a mountain/Ethel was a tree growing off of his shoulder” are played on a keyboard as Greggery parks inside a cave that’s actually Billy’s mouth.

”Louie Louie” is comically advanced as a “lewd act”; it will become a “terrorist activity” in “Welcome to the United States” on The Yellow Shark (1993). The “six-foot pile of transistor radios, each one tuned to a different station” tributes John Cage, who once composed a piece for six radios tuned thusly. Greggery echoes one of the song-transition characters from earlier on the album: “What?” His funny sigh of relief at his escape is stopped short by Billy’s laughter. The resulting dust forms brown clouds that the pig questions, singing a marching tune that was once an instrumental segment in the Grand Wazoo concerts (it was in fact the first Zappa music learned by that huge band). It can be heard in “For Calvin (and His Next Two Hitch-Hikers).”

Greggery himself becomes a corporate victim by the “Philostopher” Quentin Robert de Nameland (the last name being Spanish wordplay: “from Nameland”), who charges him money after merely announcing that time is an affliction and the eons are closing. The composing of the song goes back to 1972; the philostopher’s entire “lecture” was printed in the first issue of the Hot Raz Times in ‘73. The monlogue’s latter two-thirds are replaced in the song by the trombone part; de Nameland originally went on to suggest that if a “time-delineating apparatus,” like a calendar or clock, were ever to go “on the bum or the fritz, well — it spells trouble!”. (Reliance on technology screws us when the stuff breaks.) Greggery then shouted, “That geek has ripped me off!” The narrator suggested to the pig, “Perhaps it’s a trend.”

The Läther version of “Greggery” contains occasionally opposite stereo from the Studio Tan version, as well as an extra two measures of animate flutes (at 3:28) and a chaotic, melting horn section alongside angry piano trills (at 14:42). The very end of the Studio Tan rendition finishes with a foreseeable percussion note, instead of cutting to a guitar slide. 

Chris Federico


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