All CDs Great And Small

By Leslie Berman

High Fidelity, October 1988


Rykodisc gets points for introducing the 3-inch pop CD, but there is a sense of randomness to the three Frank Zappa selections on that debut disc, Peaches en Regalia (Rykodisc RCD3 1001). Maybe the disconnected feeling comes from the span of years separating the title tune (off Hots Rats, 1970) and "I'm Not Satisfied" (Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, 1968) from "Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up" (Joe's Garage, 1980). The simple sleeve carries only the bare necessities of titles, playing times, legal info, one credit (Zappa), the Zappa Hotline number, and a photo lifted from the cover of Hot Rats.

With Rykodisc's subsequent CD-3s, this modest beginning gives way to more elaborate artwork, a few more credits, and gate-fold-'em-yourself packages, which require a month under a stack of books before they stay folded. (Zoot allures! At press time, Rykodisc announced it is abandoning this unwieldy sleeve for one that "folds neatly, closes cleanly, and is generally wonderful.") Two more Zappas, Zomby Woof (RCD3 1011) and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (RCD3 1010), feature two live cuts each from, respectively, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1 and the all-instrumental Guitar. Whereas Peaches en Regalia runs 13:15, the two newer discs take two steps backward, to 9:20 and 7:47. Still, the guitar-wailing genius heard on Sexual Harassment is priceless in any format. (For more Frank Zappa, in full-size CD format, turn the pages for "More Frank Zappa.")


More Frank Zappa

I've blown hot and cold over Frank Zappa. In the Sixties, though his music was literate and breezy, his socially satiric lyrics were nearly lost on this budding feminist/hippie conformist. Sometimes I'd have to laugh at his broadly painted groupies, roadies, and love children, but there was a niggling self-consciousness underlying that laughter. Revolution through identification with liberal ideals (and the wearing of tie-dyed gauze clothes) was my M.O., and Zappa's prolific jabs, feints, and thrusts hit too close to home. Then, too, card-carrying N.O.W. members denounced his female foil, Suzy Creamcheese, as a cartoon whose purpose could only be to undermine the movement. I know, I was there, I was them.

In the Seventies, the Zappa I overheard was prolix, his music a masticated wad of flavorless, regurgitated gloop, his humor redundant, sophomoric, limp. During this period, Zappa's need to elude the refinement of labels required ever greater vigilance and self-policing; what I found was an arid, academic canon, overbred in its crabbed, micro-sutured fashion. Just more Zappa to ignore.

Then came the mid-Eighties, and something happened to me: I'd been told so often to get serious that I realized I missed laughing. And one day, listening to vintage Zappa, I suddenly got him: It was al an infectious joke, a backhanded compliment, the dazzling irony and yin-yang of perennial adolescence's doofus-coated, snickering, serious humor. Heard through fresh ears, I began to love that dippy, freespirit bimbo Suzy Creamcheese.

Then Rykodisc began to dip into Zappa's remixed and remastered vaults, releasing a hodgepodge of seminal and so-so nuggets on Compact Disc (the first batch of which we reviewed in our April 1987 issue). Sticklers who loved the sweaty, hairy, crooked-seams-showing LPs may cavil at CD articulation that isolates and brightens individual sounds, or they may decry the revision of (read "tampering with") songs that live in their personal soundtrack, but I don't mind the studious enhancements. Grunge is for live music.

But now let me say, in complete about-face, that my favorite of the current crop of shined-up Zappa CDs was never a record. You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1 (Rykodisc RCD 10081/82) is a live double CD, first in a series of six live double CDs, that flip-flops through the Zappa years with abandon, now drawing on sterling performances from this era, now ofhandedly remixing adequate outtakes from that. When the opus is completed in mid-1989, 13 CD-hours will have been produced, with extensive recording notes ("Yeah!" – technofreaks) but no lyrics ("Boo!" – plebe fans). Though the whole series will be digitally remixed and remastered in Uncle Frank's Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, varied and sometimes rudimentary original formats (from 71/2-ips two-track analog al the way to 24-track digital) ensure an archival undercurrent remains. Vol. 1 includes "Plastic People," complete with commentary on its "Louie Louie" melody. This version – recorded in 1969 at The Factory, an unprepossessing Bronx club whose audience Zappa contends would rather have been listening to Vanilla Fudge – features backing vocals and rhythm guitar from Lowell George. Another great track is "The Torture Never Stops," recorded in 1977 at the Hemmerleinhalle in Nuremberg, West Germany, before a crowd of American soldiers and featuring a young Adrian Belew. Added bonus: Six of the 28 songs have never appeared anywhere before.

Uncle Meat (RCD 10064/65), the soundtrack for a pseudo sci-fi horror flick, was originally recorded in 1967-68. As a double CD, the project includes additional material: 40 minutes of film dialogue / efects and a previously unavailable song, "Tengo Na Minchia Tanta." The music is better than ever – a stew of styles and sounds that is Zappa at his eclectic, inquisitive best – but the dialogue, divorced from the (I presume) slapstick visuals, is reminiscent of a junior-high class's attempt to make a video yearbook.

Much to my surprise, I took a shine to Joe's Garage: Acts I, II, & III (RCD 10060/61). This is the 1980 rock operetta whose prescient plot – the government plans to make music illegal – seems reasonable, now that Zappa has had a highly-publicized clash over First Amendment rights with censorship-crazed Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center. Joe's Garage comes complete with a 24-page libretto indicating between-songs matter. Laugh, I thought I'd never stop. And I found the source of one of my hubby's best lines. Hmmm.

Then we have Freak Out! (RCD 40062), released in 1966, with its spoken / sung vocal layering, chambered-nautilus echo efects, and noise-as-music fills, all as numinous and fresh as the day it was born; Hot Rats (RCD 10066), from 1970, with added material from the original sessions, featuring cameo appearances by Captain Beefheart, Jean-Luc Ponty, and a fifteen-year-old Shuggy Otis; and Cruising with Ruben and the Jets (RCD 10063), recorded in 1968, a stylized doo-wop takeof that's beginning to resemble the oldies tours it parodies (not my favorite CD, it does, however, include both the jelly-roll hairdo instructions and "do the bop" dance diagrams). And for the serious collector: Guitar (RCD 10079/80), another new double-CD creation, with 32 instrumentals recorded live primarily from 1981 to 1984, intended as the follow-up to last year's double-CD-from-three-LP Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar. As with the earlier release, these solos cycle endlessly, at times dismissably, though there is gold to be mined for fanatics with staying power. Actually, that's a fair commentary on toute l'oeuvre.

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