Frank Zappa Discusses Upcoming CD Projects
By Pete Howard
ICE, September & October, 1990
Frank Zappa has taken advantage of the CD format probably more than any other rook artist. An early pioneer of digital recording, Zappa has carefully overseen the CD reissue of much of his catalog on the Rykodisc label, which pretty much got its start by inking Zappa to a deal before most people were familiar with compact discs. A total of 31 Zappa titles have been reissued by Ryko, with the artist often updating the old recordings expressly for the CD reissues. Far from being finished with his archival work, however, Zappa is preparing a number of new CO collections, and he recently took an hour out of his schedule to outline for ICE what lies ahead in the coming months.
Due is November from Rykodisc is volume four of You Cant Do That On Stage Anymore, Zappa’s ongoing series of live recordings from throughout his career. The double-disc release will include live versions of many Zappa classics, plus unusual tracks such as “Stevie’s Spanking” (a guitar duet with Steve Vai) “Smell My Beard,” “Little Girl Of Mine,” “Johnny Darling,” “No No Cherry,” “Booger Man” and, from 1969, “Tiny Sick Tears” – Zappa’s takeoff of Jim Morrison’s slow, tortured delivery of The Doors’ song “The End.” There’s also a zany back-and-forth exchange with a late-60s Fillmore East audience called “Are You Upset?,” in which case they clearly were.
Zappa’s also preparing an ambitious four-CD set drawn from his 1988 world tour, entitled The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life. “That has a couple of major things of interest on it,” Zappa told ICE. “There’s our version of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ which is pretty spectacular, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ which is also pretty amazing, and ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ recorded at a soundcheck in Linz, Austria. And there’s a lot of Jimmy Swaggart material on it – for example, a version of ‘Lonesome Cowboy Burt’ with the words changed to be about Swaggart and his prostitute friend. He was under investigation in the middle of our ‘88 tour, so we would change the words every night to reflect all the stuff that was coming out about him.” Other tidbits include “Theme From The Godfather,” “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue,” “The Orange County Lumber Truck,” Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” and, if room can be made for it, “Strictly Genteel.” “I’m trying to squeeze as much of the good stuff from the 88 tour into this as I can,” Zappa says. “The title is for alt the people in the U.S. who never got to hear the band. The reception overseas was unbelievable; we’ve never had such good reviews.” Thus release, however, will not be issued by Rykodisc, since their deal with Zappa has expired, save for the You Can’t On That On Stage Anymore series. Zappa says that the U.K.-based Music For Nations label will likely issue The Best Band... overseas first, before it comes out in America.
Also being compiled is The Lost Episodes, comprised of studio outtake material daring back to 1969. “There’s a thing I did with Captain Beefheart here at the house, a little jam session in the basement, called ‘Alley Cat,’” Zappa says. “There’s also the original version of ‘Redunzl’ with George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty, and a bunch of stuff with Sugarcane Harris like the original version of ‘Sharleena’ which was ten minutes long, with a fabulous blues violin solo. I also have the original demos we presented to United Artists to get the 200 Motels deal. There’s probably enough for two or three CDs of really interesting material. I’ve built three versions of it, but I haven’t settled on which one to put out yet.”
Phase 3 is another project Zappa’s working on, a complex task combining music and dialogue being assembled, in part, from old Mothers Of Invention master tapes. “The way I put these albums together takes a long time,” Zappa says, “because you build models on how the thing is going to be with rough mixes. And with a project that involves music and dialogue, which is what Phase 3 is, you have to edit in layers.”
As if all those weren’t enough, Zappa’s got other irons in the fire as well. “I’ve put together an album called Ahead Of Their Time,” he says. “It’s the last Mothers Of Invention album, and it has the entire performance from the Royal Festival Hall in 1968 in London, with all the rock music from the show. We were our own opening act for that show. Everybody in the band was in this play, and the music – which I had written – was supplied by 14 members of the BBC symphony. The performance of that play is contained on one of the (vinyl) ‘Mystery Discs,’ but none of the rock music from that show has ever been released. What I’ve done is put together this complete concert, done up as a double LP/single CD. I think there’s a market for this, since its probably the most interesting of all the archival tapes. We did the remix from four-track one-inch masters to digital, and it’s pretty crisp; it was a pretty solid recording. I’m trying to figure out whether the market can stand adding it to the list, because of all the other releases coming out this year.”
The final two volumes of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore – numbers five and six – will likely come out on Rykodisc next year, containing a glut of unusual Zappa tracks along with the standard fare. Among the selections Zappa promises are “Here Lies Love” sung by Lowell George on the final Mothers tour in 1969, a 1971 version of “Sleeping In A Jar” with Flo & Eddie, an unreleased medley of cowboy movie themes that Zappa scored in the early 60’s as performed by the Mothers, “The Story Of Dupree’s Paradise,” “The Madison Panty-Sniffing Festival,” “The Story Of Ms. Pinky,” “A Pound For A Brown On The Bus” and “The Black Page #2” (both from 1982), and “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” from UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion with Jimmy Carl Black on vocals – the only time he ever sang it live on stage.
We asked Zappa about the albums from his catalog which aren’t available on CD yet, such as Burnt Weenie Sandwich and Roxy & Elsewhere. “I have prepared CD masters for one hundred percent of the catalog,” he said.“The goal is to have all of that stuff out by the end of this year as part of the 25th anniversary celebration. Live In New York will be a double CD, and has three cuts added to it – ‘Punky’s Whips,’ another version of ‘The Torture Never Stops’ and ‘Cruising For Burgers,’ which has got a really great guitar solo in it. But these are not coming out through Rykodisc. I haven’t decided what label is going to release them is the United States, but Music For Nations will rare these things available for the entire rest of the world. Since I’m living in a country where they won’t even let me have Jazz From Hell in certain record stores, I’m wondering how the fuck a m going to bring my music to the public when you have major chains, owned in some instances by religious fanatics, systematically trying to keep me out of the marketplace. It’s a matter of free trade. I don’t have any way legally that I can force someone to carry my product. I smell a rat here. So until I figure out what to do about the U.S. release on (the missing titles), they may be available as imports only, because Music For Nations wants to move right ahead and get these things out.”
Music For Nations may also release Zappa’s “Dead Boys Of London” track with Van Morrison on lead vocals, a release which Warner Bros. allegedly nixed the first time around. “You should also tell your readers that the Perfect Stranger album, which has been remixed, is going to be re-released on CD,” Zappa adds. “When Angel first put it out they only printed 5,000 copies and those vanished, and I think there’s still an audience for that. That’s the album that was conducted by Pierre Boulez; I don’t play on it, these are just compositions that I wrote. Music For Nations should be getting it out this year.”
We asked Zappa how he felt about EMI releasing some of his CDs in England without his authorization, such as Zoot Allures. “They just didn’t do a good job,” he said. “Basically what they did was take vinyl masters, transfer them to digital tape and put them out. Vinyl masters are EQ’d differently (than CDs are), and sliced into 18-minute sections (for album sides). When I put a CD together, I want it to be a non-stop listening experience. I pay attention to how much space there is between the tunes, so that it’s psychologically right for the next thing to come in, so you can keep tapping your foot. Or, if they’re segued together, you balance the levels cut to cut. There’s extra work that goes into assembling masters for CD, and it pisses me off when a third party just dumps stuff out there without caring for any of the quality aspects.”
Is the Zappa vault a bottomless pit, as it seems to be? “I think there’s a saturation point for archival-type releases,” Zappa says. “I’m trying to bring that phase of my release schedule to an end as soon as possible, to get the best of all the archival stuff into some kind of release form and move on to concentrating on the new stuff I’m working on today. Also, because I don’t have any plans to tour again, I’d like to bring to an end this whole phase of live band tapes. You can always release something, but I want to release just the best of what is there. At the same time that I’m putting these together, I’m still composing new pieces; there’s all kinds of different work in progress. I’ve been offered a couple of commissions for large-scale orchestral things, so I think there is probably going to be more of that in the future.”
“Just to assure those people who think that I’m sitting around here doing nothing, the work goes on in the studio seven days a week, holidays included, anywhere from 10 to 14 hours a day. So everybody who’s waiting for the stuff to come out, it’s here, it’s just (a matter of) how it’s going to come out and how difficult it’s going to be for you to purchase this stuff in a country that has the kind of censorship that we have. Those are the questions that remain to be answered.”
We asked Zappa, who has a top-flight studio in his home that he does all his work in, a self-evident question: Do you consider yourself a workaholic? “You’re a workaholic if you have to force yourself to work,” he says. “I really love doing this. And the commute’s pretty easy...just down the stairs.”
(Special thanks to Bill Camarata, Paul Hill and Jim Nagle for their help in preparing this story.)
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ICE has received a lot of mail over the years from Frank Zappa fans, complaining that his catalog CDs often differ from their vinyl counterparts. We printed a letter here in July from Stephen Usery of Nashville, TN, for example, who complained that two full minutes of You Are What You Is was missing from the Rykodisc CD. Zappa’s Ruben & The Jets and We’re Only In It For The Money CDs are also cited often as being significantly different from the original LPs. And Paul Hill of Pasadena, CA, writes in, “The CD version of Zappa’s Zoot Allures is the worst reissue disc I’ve ever heard, replacing Yes’ Relayer on my list. It sounds like it was mastered from a cassette! The drums, bass and vocals have all lost their presence, and the dynamic range and frequency response sound incredibly narrow. The LP is so superior that I recommend that any Zappa fan rush to their local used record shop to find (an LP), before it’s too late.”
As a follow-up to our cover story on Zappa last month, we asked him to address the criticisms different for each case,. Zappa told ICE. “On We’re Only In It For The Money, I basically had to rebuild it from scratch because the master tapes were badly stored. The oxide had fallen off; you could see right through them. The same thing was true of Lumpy Gravy, so I had no choice but to rebuild it. I thought adding the bass and drums would enhance them for the digital domain.
“The master tapes for Ruben & The Jets were in better shape, but since I liked the results on We’re Only In It For The Money, I decided to do it on Ruben, too. But those are the only two albums in which the original performances were replaced. I thought the important thing was the material itself. I’m not necessarily enthralled with the level of musicianship or technical capability of my recordings done in 1967.
“Some of my other albums, like Hot Rats, Freak Out!, and Absolutely Free, have some cuts that were released. On Freak Out! we didn’t have the original four-track masters on some of the tunes, so they re just equalized from the original two-tracks.”
But why such radical differences when you did remix. “CD is a less-forgiving medium than vinyl. If the original master tapes were fucked up in any way, it’s going to show on CD. And because of the budget that we were straddled with when we did things originally, nobody was very careful about watching levels, so a lot of those early tapes have distortion. So you’ve got to find a way to make it CD-worthy, and at the same time hide all technical anomalies of the original recording.
“There’s no perfect way to rebuild something like that. First of all, the original tapes are full of edits, and I mean hundreds of them. All you have do is listen to some of those electronic pieces try to imagine how many edits were done to accomplish that. One of the things that was completely unsalvageable, and I think still sounds like shit. is ‘The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny’. We had to use the original two-track master, we couldn’t really put any top end on it and make it sound hi-fi. The same thing with some of these little talking parts between the musical parts, we tried to EQ those and fix them up as much as possible, but it doesn’t sound right.
“If I were to go back in and rebuild We’re Only In It For The Money today, I might do it differently. We didn’t have the all-digital editing equipment that we have today for putting CDs together. All the original razor-blade edits that were done on the two-track masters in 1967, had to remake on digital tape! I’ll be the first one to admit that We’re Only In It For The Money is probably the least satisfactory of all the reissues that have come out. I listen to that and I still cringe, but you can’t do anything about it.”
We asked Zappa about the missing guitar part on “Willie The Pimp” from Fillmore East, and the shorter version of “I’m so Cute” from the Sheik Yerbouti CD. About the former, he said, “I think it’s more important that you have continuity on the CD. The way that Fillmore East was constructed on vinyl, one side faded out and the other side faded in. The effect on the CD would be the guitar fading out and then back in, so why not just have it fade down to the start of the next song?” Why didn’t he go back to the multi-tracks and fuse the two parts together seamlessly? “The two parts were not from the same performance”, Zappa said, “so there would have been a tempo discrepancy right in the middle of a guitar solo. I’ve also had complaints about the guitar solo on ‘Dumb All Over’ (on the You Are What You Is CD). That’s also unmeshable because it, too, was not a continuous performance. I didn’t like that guitar solo to begin with, but I think what’s important is the lyrics, getting from one topic to another. And in the case of ‘I’m So Cute’ – I had to shorten it just to get the whole album on one CD. Better that than something more interesting musically, like ‘Yo Mama.’”
Finally, what about the Zoot Allures complaints? “I wouldn’t willingly send something out the door that I thought was worse than the original,” Zappa says. “I’ve got no explanation for that, but I’ll certainly get the CD and try to figure out what he’s complaining about. And if it’s really horrible I’ll make another master. I’m actually flattered that people are listening that closely to the albums, but what’s disturbing me is that they’re listening to the production more than the music.”
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net