The Plateful Dead

By Gary Steel

Real Groove, September 1995

Now he's gone, Frank Zappa might just sell some albums

The late Frank Zappa's work is mind-boggling in both its artistic scope and sheer amount. Gary Steel talks to those with keeping the late composer-guitarist's legacy alive and expanding it to new audiences with a massive 53 album reissue and recommends ten essential Zappa CDs for the curious convert.

When I spoke to Frank Zappa a couple of years before his premature demise (from cancer at the age of 52), he was adamant he didn't care what happened to his music after his death. He felt that we would be lucky to have a living planet left in a hundred years, let alone any time for the appreciation of dead composers.

But this was coming from a career-long advocate of supporting living composers, not those dead guys from Europe. Many Of Zappa's album covers included a statement adapted from avant-garde composer Edgard Varese: "The present-day composer refuses to die."

Currently, however, the world's biggest specialist CD label, Rykodisc, are engaged in a massive campaign• to keep Zappa's name alive, and spread his musical legacy further than it ever did in his lifetime.

I spoke to Jill Christensen , who has been appointed to devote her attentions exclusively to the "catalogue development" of Frank Zappa. So why promote a dead man? "Six months ago I would have said the same thing," says Christensen, who hadn't heard so much as a note of Zappa's music until she was recruited by Rykodisc.

"I think [Rykodisc president] Don Rose always recognised Frank's genius," she says. "I remember reading quotes about Frank after he died, and Don had a quote about how in America we don't appreciate our geniuses until they're dead. And then I read quotes from people like [former Zappa guitarists] Steve Vai and Adrian Belew where they always use the word genius. They used the word 'immortal' and said that the music was going to live on, and I thought 'really?' But the music isn't like anything else I've ever heard, and because it's so unique and such an original voice, I think it's immortal too. So that's why such a big campaign: he deserves it."

What was Frank's involvement in the new reconfigurations of his catalogue? "Frank wanted to sell the catalogue as part of his estate planning. He wanted his wife Gall, Who had run the business all these years, to have a nice life, and not have to deal with all this business. And so knowing he was going to sell the catalogue, Frank went for a review process where he listened to every title and made decisions about what needed or didn't need to be done." The big decision for the fan is whether it's necessary to biff out all the old CDs and reinvest in the new ones.

"Obviously it's a huge financial investment, and we do stand by the first ones Rykodisc put out in the eighties, but the artwork had suffered in going from LP format to CD. The whole intention was to restore them to the original as much as we could." Apart from a small fortune for the Zappa fan in purchasing these albums all over again, there's the usual plethora of gripes.

Several albums were originally issued as two albums on one CD. These are now back as separate single CDs at around the 30- minute mark. Superior packaging or value for money? I guess the fans can now decide for themselves.

Ultimately, Rykodisc are simply having a stab at the thing that only Zappa could really make a fist of - marketing himself. Wouldn't Zappa fall between all the cracks in conventional marketing strategies? "It really is difficult because he was such a nonconformist. He was the best marketing guy of all, that he not only survived but succeeded in this music business in unconventional ways without radio play. He only had three top 40 radio hits in the States, and the videos were not played by MTV. He really had quite a lot of celebrity and fame and success via his own message.


Frank Zappa's recorded work spanned rock, doo-wop, experimental, jazz, modern classical, rhythm and blues and world music, sometimes all together on one album (or song!) and almost always with a healthy dose of humour. His music was often complex, and verging on the incomprehensible for a rock audience that had been versed on one-dimensional oratorios of rock gods who almost demanded brain bypass surgery in their fans. The point, Zappa seemed to say, was that it is possible to enjoy all of these different things simultaneously; that music didn't always have to be heart on sleeve stuff, it could have an emotional complexity that didn't preclude its value as pure entertainment. And that it is possible to make emotionally powerful music behind lyrics which are dead funny. The following examples of Fl's recorded output aren't supposed to be the 10 best, but a door through which the curious can walk, and hopefully find abundant musical entertainment.

We're Only in it for the Money (1967)

Considered THE essential Zappa by many, it's often earmarked for its rude take-off of the Sergeant Pepper's cover artwork, and it's admirably acerbic put-downs of hippy culture. Yep, it's one of the very first concept albums, but what's really special is the way Zappa got his scalpel on the tapes and fucked round with it, making it a triumph of editing and primitive sound collage. The original Ryko CD is doubled up with Lumpy Gravy, and features eighties drums and bass re-recordings, with the bonus of some reinstituted dialogue that was originally censored. This reissue goes back to the sixties rhythm section, but unfortunately, the censored portions are back too.

Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970)

A brilliant roundup of otherwise unissued stuff by Zappa's band, the Mothers of Invention, recorded live and in the studio between '67 and '70. Some of this should take your breath away: from the out there wahwah guitar of Get a Little to the seriously deranged jazz of The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue to the melodic beauty of Oh No and The Orange Country Lumber Truck. Staunch.

Hot Rats (1970)

One of Zappa's biggest hits, and one of the few albums which ditches the overt humour and goes mostly instrumental. The CD of this early 16-track recording fully reveals the complexity of this prototype mix of chamber jazz arrangements and delightfully easy listening pastiche. Too smooth for some rock fans but it's truly one-of-a-kind, and at times eye-wateringly beautiful.

Grand Wazoo (1972)

Another jazz oriented release, this often overlooked Zappa album is a unique and exceptional combination of rock power and big band jazz with an almost orchestral lushness. Recorded during the six months Zappa spent in crutches after having been pushed offstage by a mad fan, it created a new jazz sub-genre which is still waiting to be fully explored.

Overnite Sensation (1973)

Zappa gets back into the realms of sociology here, but he's exploring the world of seventies rock sleaze. To a greasy jazz-funk backing, he narrates these tales of sex, sex and mostly more sex. This album seriously dented his credibility with some of his more anally retentive fans; now, it's rightly regarded as a soft-porn classic, a perfect soundtrack to, and comment on, the decadence of the early seventies.

Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)

Here we get seriously funky, a live double CD which fully utilises the exceptional musical skills of a grouping many consider Zappa's best-ever lineup, including the keyboardist George Duke, and polyrhythmic percussionist Ruth Underwood.

One Size Fits All (1975)

Phenomenally unsuccessful when first issued, this is one of the real gems in the Zappa catalogue. Again harnessing the skills of many of the group used on Roxy, it's essentially live in the studio, and includes some of the man's most startling guitar work. Consistently inventive, its weird mix of maximum rock energy and jazz improvisation somehow left it out in the cold in the freeze-dried climate of conventional jazz fusion. Also the first example of a technique Zappa was to fully develop as the years went on: grafting a live take of a guitar improvisation from an older song onto a new song, spontaneous composition.

Joe's Garage (1979)

Want easy? Here's easy! This double CD is a kind of rock opera, in which a group is formed, and all sorts of naughty rock'n'roll behaviour goes on. Ultimately rock'n'roll is banned and Joe is put in prison where he plays imaginary guitar solos till the cows come home. The humour is audacious and bawdy, the social commentary as astute as anything on the early, more acclaimed Zappa works, and musically it's about as 'rock' as Zappa ever got.

The Man From Utopia (1983)

Another fine, underrated, if patchy, album, this one features several killers: The Dangerous Kitchen (FZ's personal fave of his own songs) is very funny and musically unique, Sex is a wonderfully non-PC account from a male perspective, and The Jazz Discharge Party Hats takes the on-the-road documentary bit to new heights of gross-out obscenity. And in between there's some beautifully realised instrumental pieces.

Jazz From Hell (1986)

Completely composed and programmed on the Synclavier (a very expensive sampler cum compositional tool) this is what happened when lappa got tired of trying to get real musicians to play his music properly. Because Zappa sampled real instruments, it's not a synthetic- sounding album, but complex compositions using unusual sound palettes played with unbelievable precision. It won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Album, which didn't stop it from getting banned in many American record stores under the premise that with a title like that, it must contain offensive material.