Frank Zappa: Mystery Disc

By Ben Watson

Hi-Fi News & Record Review, November 1998

By the 1980s, Frank Zappa's back catalogue was in danger of vanishing from view. His first albums – released on Verve between 1996 and 1968 – had been deleted by MGM, and were fast becoming hard-to-find collectors' items (in July 1982, Record Collector priced them at a cool £20 a throw). One day at their studio-home, Zappa's wife Gail was gazing at the boxes of fan-mail. It occurred to her that his famously obsessive fans might like to contribute to the cause. She started up a mail-order service, offering such desirables as t-shirts, videos, vinyl picture-discs and 'doodas' (posters, a book called Them Or Us, postcards by Dweezil Zappa...). Asked to name her company, Zappa came up with 'Barfko Swill'.

Then, after an epic series of lawsuits versus Warner Brothers and his manager Herbie Cohen, Zappa – uniquely for a 1960s legend – emerged as owner of his master-tapes. He used Barfko-Swill to re-release his back-catalogue. They would be sold in multi-LP sets named Old Masters, costing $100 each. Sound was 'digitally re-EQ and remastered'. The only visual change was that original record-company logos were replaced by the elaborate insignium for Barking Pumpkin Records (a Halloween pumpkin barks 'arf' at a cat, who exclaims 'Holy Shit!' – transcribed in Chinese ideograms). These life-size replicas came in lavish silver slip-cases sporting surrealist still-lifes by artist Donald Roller Wilson. To entice second-time buyers, Zappa included a Mystery Disc in each of the first two boxes. Now Rykodisc have combined them to make a single CD.

Should you care? Mystery Disc is unlikely to challenge Hot Rats or Sheik Yerbouti in the affections of straight-ahead rock fans. However, for those who approach Zappa's oeuvre as a modern-art monstrosity, Mystery Disc provides a key to an ark of wonders. At liberty to indulge his fans with scraps and absurdities, Zappa didn't need a front of legitimacy (something undermined by his impatient intelligence and nihilistic humour throughout his 'proper' work anyway). As 'documentary montage', Mystery Disc is a harbinger of such '90s subversives as Negativland, Culturecide, Scanner and Dogbiz.

The disc opens with the theme from Run Home Slow, a Western Zappa scored in 1959. It has the chugging rhythm that signifies cowboys on horseback. Its brass melody evokes the optimism of the filmic sunrise. South-of-the-border guitar (plucked by Zappa himself) contributes another cliché. However, Maurice Ravel's Boléro is not far away either. Poised between functional commercial cliché and fancy high art, Zappa's first 'mystery' item – a mere 1m 23s – broaches the fertile contradiction he would ride for the rest of his life. The tune is also replete with his special lyrical gift: an agitated romanticism both melancholic and humorous.

The theme of 'Original Duke Of Prunes' first appeared on record as a raucous satire on 1950s dating rituals (see Absolutely Free); here, given Run Home Slow's Hollywoodesque arrangement, it sounds cloyingly beautiful. It segues directly into 'Opening Night Party At Studio Z ( Collage)'. There's a typical moment of disorientation as sad woodwinds and strings are interrupted by shrieks and mouthnoises. Connoisseurs of Zappa's Mothers Of Invention will recognise those responsible (Motorhead Sherwood, Ray Collins), but the sarcastic references to mass culture – Pall Mall cigarettes, 'Louie Louie', Bill Haley – and a cinéventé sexual confessional anticipate Zappa's ambivalent art in its entirety. As usual, the listener isn't told how to respond. This pointblank confrontation with social actuality outrages moralists, who quickly find in the audio material every scandalous indecency.

'Steal Away', Jimmy Hughes's R&B hit delivered as a magnificent blues lament by a woman named Corsa, gives an example of the magisterial control of tempo that made Zappa one of the few rock musicians capable of blues gravitas. 'I Was A Teenage Malt Shop' introduces Captain Beefheart as MC. It packs the hysterical absurdism that – whatever the dada duo's technical prowess – invariably alienates the dullards of authenticity.

Participants in what Gail Zappa terms The Loop – the international network of tape-swapping Zappologists – first heard degraded copies of 'I Was A Teenage Maltshop' and 'Metal Man Has Won His Wings' (a prescient name for some pounding proto-metal) after Beefheart and Zappa aired these early-1960s archival gems on Australian radio in 1975. 'Power Trio Segment from The Saints 'n Sinners' demonstrates guitar chops to put Eric Clapton to shame; 'Bossa Nova Pervertamento' features a typical Zappaesque trick with the rhythm, making this most innocuous of Latin beats sound as if the tape is spooling backwards. On the radio broadcast, Beefheart did a voice-over, telling how Jerry Moss of A&M Records had rejected his masterpiece 'Electricity', saying it was 'negative' and that it 'wouldn't be good for his daughter'. Beefheart then recited the words: it was evidently the song's empancipatory message – 'friends don't mind just how you grow' – that scared Herb Alpert's business partner. 'Agency Man' is pantomime burlesque, but also a sinister prediction of the marketing of Richard Nixon to a gullible America.

Ten of these 35 tracks have already appeared on CD: 'Run Home Slow', 'Charva' and 'Wedding Dress Song/Handsome Cabin Boy' (a stunning arrangement of a Ewan MacColl sea shanty) on Lost Episodes; some of 'Black Beauty' on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5 as 'Underground Freakout Music'; twenty minutes (tracks 21-26) were edited down from a Festival Hall concert that was released in its entirety as Ahead Of Their Time. Zappologists will have endless fun unpicking each cut and sourcing each bar. However, such unseemly obsessionalism shouldn't cloud the bizarre and pungent lyricism of these moments, or the fact that they're painstakingly segued into a dada montage glittering with provocations and insights.

As bait for the straightahead rock listener, there's 'The Story Of Willie The Pimp'. This reveals the origins of the song on Hot Rats. The famously outrageous lyrics derived, not from Zappa's sleazy imagination, but from a giggling teenager's comedy routine about her father. Rock legends are forged from the unlikeliest materials.