Zappa's Rules on Ryko

By Bill Milkowski

Audio, October 1995

Last October, Rykodisc announced its worldwide acquisition of the entire Frank Zappa catalog, purchased from Gail Zappa and the Zappa Family Trust for an undisclosed sum. In April of 1995, the Salem, Massachusetts-based label launched its motherlode of newly remastered FZ CDs, all approved by the late genius who died of cancer in 1993 at nearly 52.

Assessing Frank Zappa's massive catalog is a task as intimidating as interviewing the irascible maestro himself. The sheer bulk of it alone is daunting – 53 separate titles, 15 of which are two-CD sets. That's nearly three consecutive days of non-stop "difficult listening." And considering that any one disc in this imposing collection contains enough information to innundate your brain cells for a week, you would have to set aside roughly one full year of uninterrupted listening time to fully absorb and appreciate the genius of FZ. Not having that luxury, I crammed it all into a week by selecting key recordings from Zappa's oeuvre.

Freak Out!, his audacious, ground-breaking debut from 1966, sets the tone for his prolific output over three decades. Recorded one year before the fabled "Summer of Love," its pointed social commentary ("Who Are The Brain Police?") and stinging parodies ("Any Way The Wind Blows") are aimed primarily at the then burgeoning nation of authority-questioning freaks. "Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder" establishes Zappa's love of street corner doowop harmonies (a quality that would continue to appear in his music), while his nasty guitar rave-up on "Trouble Every Day," introduced the public to a guitar hero in the making. The conceptual pieces, "Help I'm A Rock/It Can't Happen Here" may have opened a door to performance art and his extended "surf-cha-cha-freakout" jam. "The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet" predates other expansive conceptual pieces like Cream's "Toad," Blind Faith's "Do What You Like," Hendrix's "Third Stone From The Sun," and The Beatles "Revolution No. 9."

Zappa even hints at some commercial potential with the catchy "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here," which paved the way for Top-40 hits like "Valley Girl" (from 1982's Ship Arriving Too Late), "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" (from 1974's Apostrophe (')), and "Dancin' Fool" (from 1979's Sheik Yerbouti).

With his second album, Absolutely Free, Zappa continued to thumb his nose at authority with tunes like "Plastic People," which many consider the theme song of an entire dissident movement in Czechoslovakia. He comes out with more biting social commentary on his third outing, We're Only In It For The Money, which includes two stinging indictments of phony, trend-seeking hippies on the title track and "Who Needs The Peace Corps?," as well as a devilishly brilliant parody of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. This reissue is notable for retaining the original rhythm tracks by drummer Jimmy Carl Black and bassist Roy Estrada.

From that point on, various personalities begin to emerge. Zappa "The Serious Composer" makes his entrance with 1967's orchestral offering, Lumpy Gravy, setting the precedent for future collaborations with conductor Kent Nagano and the London Symphony Orchestra. Zappa "The Guitar Hero" begins to make his presence felt on 1969's Hot Rats, pointing the way to virtuosic all-guitar showcases like Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar and Guitar. And of course, Zappa "The Political Humorist and Social Commentator" is a guise he wore proudly right up until the end.

As the years progressed, Zappa's music became more demanding of both his band and his listeners. Consequently, the standard of musicianship was continually upgradedfrom the first rag-tag Mothers Of Invention band to the more technically proficient band of the mid-'70s featuring keyboardist George Duke and drummer Chester Thompson, to the slick juggernauts of the '80s featuring guitar acrobats Adrian Belew and Steve Vai, and crack drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Chad Wackerman.

The logical extension of this drive toward perfection was finally met with Zappa's 1986 Grammy-winning Jazz From Hell album, a computer-driven masterwork; one man with one machine (the Synclavier digital music system) and a whole lot of impossible notes played in absolutely perfect sequence. The maestro, who always demanded near perfection from his musicians, certainly must have been pleased with the machine's flawless performance.

Ryko's current batch of releases also includes Does Humor Belong in Music?, a 1986 live album previously unavailable in the States which has been remixed and remastered for this release. Other works slated for release in coming months include The Lost Episodes, a collection of early rarities, and Have I offended Anyone?, a coyly-titled compilation of sexually explicit and politically incorrect material from Zappa performances. Ryko is also hoping to acquire the rights to Zappa's experimental movie soundtrack for 200 Motels.

This sudden flood of Zappa product on the market is likely to reach a whole new audience that missed out on Mothermania the first time around. Woof woof!