Frank Zappa: Läther

By John Corbett

Down Beat, December 1996

Frank Zappa

Rykodisc 10574/76

Zappaphiles generally choose up sides over the material after 1975. I, for one, found his admittedly adolescent, scatological, puerile, parodic, satirical and sometimes undeniably idiotic lyrics to be a source of guilty pleasure. Indeed, I was with Zappa up to Sheik Yerbouti, at which point the silly verbal drivel seemed to outweigh the brilliant musical corners and I moved elsewhere for my dose of counterculture. Listening back decades later, some of that music still sounds fresh and interesting, while some has aged less gracefully.

Rykodisc has been reissuing the full Zappa catalog with religious fervor, and this threedisc set is the (leather) feather in their cap. The locus of a battle between Zappa and Warner Bros., Läther was originally designed to be a four-LP set of unprecedented proportions setting its sights on the full expanse of his musical purview. The label balked, forcing him to repackage the material (re-editing some of it in the process) as four single records: Zappa In New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites. (All of these are already back in print individually on Ryko.) But the only way listeners could hear Läther as it was first conceived was courtesy of a 1977 broadcast that Zappa arranged – to spite the brothers Warner – on a local radio station, a broadcast that predictably led to bootleg versions.

Remastered from the original two-track tapes, recorded at various different sessions and live concerts in the mid-’70s, the music sounds absolutely fabulous here. In terms of substance, there’s plenty of nutritious instrumental work to chew on, including, for the jazz-centric, “The Purple Lagoon,” with Patrick O’Hearn’s fusion bass and Terry Bozzio’s 7/8 time underpinning strong blowing from the Brecker Brothers and Ronnie Cuber’s bari. Compositionally, Zappa had no firm partisanship – he’d include bits and pieces of anything he could use. Take “Naval Aviation In Art?” with its 20th-century string ensemble meeting a quick percussion flourish (followed by a mocking voice: “God, that was really beautiful!”), or the set’s title track, with its wahwah guitar melody and intriguing changes. Zappa’s intros and outros are loaded with luscious stuff. For instance, the lushly orchestral tune “Regyptian Strut” starts with a snippet of musique concrete (studio patter and other audio gunk transformed into fascinating sound), a genre more fully explored on “Duck Duck Goose.”

“Revised Music For Guitar & Low Budget Orchestra” is one of Zappa’s wonderful polystylistic contraptions (originally recorded by Jean-Luc Ponty on the violinist’s 1970 album King Kong), with quickie-mart genre shifts and trend-setting guitar treatments; this leads directly to “RDNZL.” a showcase for rewarding solos by Zappa and George Duke with plenty of Frank’s patented xylophone (or marimba) unisons. I’d think, given its hip-hoppish beat and Curtis Mayfield chords, that “Duke Of Orchestral Prunes” could be a smash in some trip-hop camps, if it weren’t for that insistent guitar solo. And as for his influence as a guitarist, listen to the super “The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution,” and then compare with some of Henry Kaiser’s most adventurous work.

Läther also has some of Zappa’s best-loved/most-despised songs and stories. The 20-minute epic “The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary” is both musically stunning and full of surreal humor, while the surf-on-speed of “Lemme Take You To The Beach” and Don Pardo’s intro to “Punky’s Whips” have lasting laughs. (Most guiltily, I admit I think “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” is pretty nifty, too!) But the funnies elsewhere are less so – “Titties ’n Beer”, “Tryin’ To Grow A Chin” and especially the interminable narrative of “The Legend Of The Illinois Enema Bandit” all pale in light of Zappa’s other, more interesting subversions of taste. That said, the balance falls decidedly in the positive, and it’s a definite plus to hear Läther as a whole, warts and all.

LätherRegyptian Strut; Naval Aviation In Art?; A Little Green Rosetta; Duck Duck Goose; Down In De Dew; For The Young Sophisticate; Try in’ To Grow A Chin; Broken Hearts Are For Assholes; The Legend Of The Illinois Enema Bandit; Lemme Take You To The Beach; Revised Music For Guitar & Low Budget Orchestra; RDNZL; Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?; The Black Page II; Big Leg Emma; Punky’s Whips; Flambé; The Purple Lagoon; Pedro’s Dowry; Läther; Spider Of Destiny: Duke Of Orchestral Prunes; Filthy Habits; Titties ’n Beer; The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution; The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary; Regyptian Strut (1993); Leather Goods; Revenge Of The Knick Knack People; Time Is Money. (57:41/57:19/ 58:24)

Personnel – Zappa, guitar, vocal, percussion (1, 27), bass (5), keyboards (23), synthesizer (25); Ray White, guitar, vocals (4, 7-9, 13-16, 18, 20, 24, 28); Davey Moire (10), Ricky Lancelotti (6), vocals; Eddie Jobson, violin, keyboards (4, 7-10, 13-16, 18, 20, 24, 28); George Duke (1, 3, 6, 11, 12, 17, 19, 26, 27), Andre Lewis (3), keyboards; Dave Samuels, vibes (9, 13-16, 18, 20, 24); James “Bird Legs” Youman (1, 12, 27, 30), Dave Parlato (2, 19, 22, 23), Roy Estrada (3), Patrick O’Hearn (4, 7-9, 13-18, 20, 21, 24, 25, 28), Tom Fowler (6, 11, 26), Max Bennett (10), bass; Ruth Underwood, percussion, synthesizer (1, 9, 12-18, 20, 21, 24, 27, 30); Emil Richards (1), percussion; Chester Thompson (1, 11, 12, 17, 19, 26, 30), Terry Bozzio (2-4, 7-9, 13-16, 18-20, 22-24, 28), Jim Gordon (5), Ralph Humphrey (6), Paul Humphrey (10), drums; Chad Wackerman, drum overdubs (27); Don Pardo, narration (9, 16); brass sections, including Bruce Fowler, Randy Brecker, Tom Malone; reed sections, including Michael Brecker, Lou Marini, Ronnie Cuber; orchestra conducted by Michael Zearott (2, 19, 22).