By David Fricke
Frank Zappa has been unusually ubiquitous of late. The controversial singer, guitarist and composer hasn't toured in two years, and his last hit was 1982's "Valley Girl," his "gag me with a spoon" duet with teenage daughter Moon Unit. But his acid wit and familiar Dutch Masters goatee and mustache have been much in evidence over the past year and a half — on radio and television, in print and, most dramatically, in federal and state congressional hearings, where he has pressed his counter offensive against the PMRC drive for pop-music censorship.
Somehow, Zappa, who's now 45, has also found time to oversee the burgeoning careers of his offspring (the latest to achieve success is his son Dweezil, who has a part-time job as a VJ on MTV and has just released his first LP). And he's continued to write and record new music at an astonishingly prolific rate. Night School, his upcoming album, was performed entirely on a Synclavier computer synthesizer. Three albums of his classical pieces are also in the works, along with a fourth album, London Symphony Orchestra Volume II, which will consist of previously unreleased material from the recording sessions for his 1983 collection of original compositions performed by the LSO.
For many Zappa fans, however, the big news is the recent release of ten titles from the Zappa catalog, including vintage Mothers of Invention albums, on eight compact discs. The albums range from the 1967 classics We're Only in It for the Money and Lumpy Gravy to such recordings as the 1972 big-band record The Grand Wazoo, Zappa's 1984 Off-Off-Off-Broadway-style opera, Thing-Fish, and the 1986 Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention. The CDs were issued by Rykodisc, a Massachusetts-based firm whose agreement with Zappa calls for the release on CD of two dozen Zappa albums over the next three years.
Pre-release response to the first set of Zappa CDs has been extraordinary; according to Rykodisc, initial orders quadrupled in two months. "I always believed there was truly a market for this material," Zappa says bluntly. "I think sales figures will bear that out."
Your album catalog totals over fifty titles. How did you and Rykodisc decide which LPs to reissue on CD?
There was actually quite a bit of arguing about what this initial release would consist of, because Don [Don Rose, president of Rykodisc] was adamant about certain albums being a part of it, like The Grand Wazoo. He wanted something from each of the eras, kind of a retrospective exhibition.
What I pitched him on was releasing material that was digital in origin or archival stuff that had never been released. The problem with CDs now, as I see it, is that people on the manufacturing end don't want to take a chance on brand-new digital product. Most CDs are repackages of old stuff. I'm happy that those old albums are available in digitized form for those people who want to hear them minus the scratches. But it's difficult to get interest in digital projects that start from scratch. And until you have things that are digital all the way through, the true possibilities of sound on CD won't come out. Most of the people who have CDs now are listening to analog material that has been digitized. The interesting part about this Rykodisc package is that there are a few selections in there that are completely digital, right from the original recordings. That includes London Symphony Orchestra, Them or Us and Thing-Fish.
What kind of digital repair did you do to master tapes of the older records? We're Only In It for the Money, for example, has new digital bass and drum tracks.
The original two-track masters — they're almost 20 years old now — didn't survive the storage at MGM. They were stored so badly that the oxide had flaked off the tape. You couldn't listen to it anymore. So the thing had to be remixed. I had to go back and find all the original elements. You listen to We're Only in It for the Money and go, "My God, there's a million edits in this thing." And they all had to be redone.
The London Symphony Orchestra CD includes a previously unreleased 25-minute composition called "Bogus Pomp." Is it from the original sessions?
Yeah. "Bogus Pomp" is like a symphonic suite of themes from 200 Motels. It's also a parody. There's a whole story that goes along with it. I should have stuck it in the liner notes, but I was too lazy to type it up.
Do you have other unreleased material you plan to issue on CD?
What's coming out in the next release is a double CD called You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore that takes live performances going back as far as 1968. The basic idea of that album is that today in live performance there are very few bands that are actually playing anything. They go onstage with a freeze-dried show, and in many cases at least 50 percent of the show is coming out of a sequencer or is lip-synced. Audiences have missed out on the golden age, when people went onstage and took a chance, which was probably the main forte of the bands that I had.
One of the great recordings on that CD is from London in 1978. We were playing a matinee, doing "St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast" and "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," and there was this guy in the audience, completely out of his mind, who wanted to recite poetry. He came up to the stage and kept interrupting the songs. So we worked him into the set, and the result is very strange — mass-audience poetry reading.
You've been very active counterattacking the rock-censorship drive over the past year and a half. Are you still sending out packages of information and press clippings from your Barking Pumpkin Records office?
I've spent up to $70,000 of my own money that I've put into a combination of my travel, printing costs and phone bills just to keep pressure on the other side. I've done maybe 300 talk shows and interviews. And those Z-Pacs are still going out the door. I will continue to do it as long as people call up. [Call 818-PUM-PKIN for information on how to get one.]
How do you feel about your son Dweezil's success as an MTV VJ?
If his fan mail is any indication, they got the right guy for the job. The thing that's cool about Dweezil is he's just turned seventeen. He is a kid. He's not a guy pretending to be a kid. He's the age of the audience, and he's a genuine music fan. He knows something about the groups he's putting on. And he also knows them as individuals. The little stories he tells don't come off like showbiz stories. I'd like to see him do some specials.
Actually, Ahmet [Zappa's youngest son] auditioned for a television series yesterday, to play a character named Stinky in a Showtime sitcom. He's twelve years old, and he's not afraid to say anything to anybody. He was reading in this room for the producers, and there were these howls of laughter. Ahmet came out, and my wife asked what happened. "Well," he said, "they liked me. They said they were going to bring me back to read again. I told them, 'I hope to God it's not written by the guy who wrote this crap.'"
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net