The CD Software Parade - Frank Zappa

By Richard C. Walls

High Fidelity, April 1987

Rykodisc, a CD-only outfit, and Frank Zappa, the maestro of offense, have entered into a deal wherein the former will issue eight discs per year (including the occasional double set) drawn from the latter's vast catalog of recordings. This arrangement will continue for two or more years, contingent on options renewed.

Of all the releases in the first batch, We're Only In It for the Money/Lumpy Gravy (Rykodisc RCD 40024), originally two separate albums recorded in 1967 and now on one 70-minute disc, will likely be the most controversial in terms of what the transfer to CD has wrought. Most notably, new bass and drums have been digitally recorded for Money, though there are also less glaring alterations (e.g. a saxophone part now accompanies the closing monologue on "Who Needs the Peace Corps?"). Those listeners familiar with the cheesy ambience of the original Money may find this aural enrichment distressing – the phonographic equivalent of film colorization. I found that the new deeper-textured mix grows on you. It helps that this is peak early Zappa, a succinct tweaking of both hippies and the Establishment, certainly a novel concept during that period of Us vs. Them. As for Lumpy Gravy, Zappa's mixture of avant-garde orchestral music, amateur theatrics, and surreal sociology is an ambitious collage that is hopelessly fragmented. In any format.

Recorded in 1972, The Grand Wazoo (RCD 10026) is Zappa's one sustained jazz/rock effort. Trumpeter Sal Marquez, trombonist Bill Byers, and keyboardist George Duke offer solid if rather conventional solos, frolicking amid a variety of Zappa-esque compositions. The CD sound increases one's appreciation of how the composer keeps his arrangement a moving landscape.

The double-CD set Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar (RCD 10028/29), recorded from 1977 to 1980 and originally released on three LPs, is one hour and 40 minutes of Zappa the prolific picker. Many of these cuts are from concert recordings, so the sound is a little rough and guitar-heavy at times; also, during what amounts to a string of climactic highlights, you may start to burn out. Taken in the proper doses, however, one can't help but agree with the consensus that Zappa is a superior rock guitarist – and that on this instrument, he achieves an eloquence and a depth of feeling found nowhere else in his music.

Apostrophe/Overnight Sensation (RCD 40025) is one disc combining the two albums (from '74 and '73, respectively) that represent Zappa's commercial peak until the early-Eighties fluke of "Valley Girl." Apparently, the happy vulgarity, pretentiousness, and aggressive guitar featured here fit perfectly into the early-Seventies AOR format. And there is much to enjoy, with special mention going to the "Yellow Snow" suite and "Montana"; the non-ax-grinding, whimsical Zappa is always less problematic and usually more fun than the social satirist one.

The London Symphony Orchestra (RCD 10022), from 1983, is gorgeously recorded and contains the 24-minute previously unreleased "Bogus Pomp." To call this the serious Zappa would be misleading: The ratio of funny to not-funny is about the same as always. Anyway, much of this sounds like film music to me – but then I've always gotten my Varèse and much of my Stravinsky second-hand, by way of soundtracks.

The 1984 Them or Us (RCD 40027) is typical of the early-Eighties Zappa albums: a grab bag of authoritative and intelligent rock guitar solos, naughty sex, alienation, and yucks. All this and Dweezil, too, the little show-off. Less variegated is the same year's Thing-Fish (RCD 10020/21), a double-CD operetta than runs a very long 90 minutes. It's musically indifferent and lyrically heavy-handed, but how you respond to it may well depend on how you feel about the targets under attack. I found the jibes at Broadway shows and TV evangelists amusing and the "jokes" about gays and women business executives embarrassingly reactionary.

Finally, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (RCD 10023), keeping a date he only fantasized about in 1967. The centerpiece of this '86 release, "Porn Wars," depicts the infamous Senate hearings on rock lyrics and obscenity as a babble of foolish voices; how much creativity this took on Zappa's part is debatable. For the rest, there are two not-on-the-LP cuts, plus a glimpse of the future via some synclavier-generated arrangements – sprightly, metallic pieces that leave this reviewer a little cold. More gratifying are the blasts from the past, in the form of a few grand-manner guitar solos and a clever satirical song about, believe it or not, hippies. Which is where we came in.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)