Ryko Reissues Zappa
The demand for the continued availability of Zappa's work speaks volumes about its timelessness and merit. That demand, in fact, has prompted the Rykodisc label to undertake a previously unheard-of effort; the nigh-simultaneous re-release of the entire Zappa catalogue (barring one legally tied-up film soundtrack). Fifty-three albums in all have been mass-released over the last few months, some featuring newly restored artwork and improved audio quality, and all remastered to Zappa's specifications in the last year of his life. The mass-reissue is unprecedented, involving albums originally released on several different record labels over a period of 27 years, with a best-of collection and a lot of previously unreleased material to follow.
A great percentage of recent discussion of Zappa's music attempts to divide his work into two basic and seemingly contradictory groups: the instrumental side of progressive, experimental jazz, and the lyrical side of intelligent but often sophomoric and "potty-mouthed," humorous social commentary. As one who felt Frank's presence somewhere off there in the background from the time I was old enough to set foot in a pawn shop full of used records (the stifling atmosphere of my closed-minded little hometown apparently fostered a great deal of interest in Zappa's art among those who couldn't always pay their rent), I look back on what seems to be closer to a few dozen Zappas.
Sure, the FZ ofHot Rats and Burnt Weeny Sandwich both seem like the same guy, an avant-garde jazz composer who was creating music far beyond anything I could appreciate as the 12-year-old I was when I heard those albums, while the creator of Freak Out, Absolutely Free, and We're Only in it for the Money was this fellow who made weird noises and revolutionary statements that I still didn't really understand, but was fascinated with nonetheless. Pretty much all of Zappa's albums up to the late Seventies fell into my hands during that time thanks to the local pawn shops, with my response to the various releases varying greatly; only those that were the most amusing to the pubescent mind remain in my record rack today. There were the "dirty" songs like "Dinah-Moe Hum" (Overnite Sensation) and the then-controversial "Jewish Princess" (Sheik Yerbouti), which he followed with the equally outrageous "Catholic Girls" (Joe's Garage) to show he wasn't ethnically biased; the funny stuff like "Cheepnis" (Roxy and Elsewhere's brilliant ode to cheesy B-movies recorded years before it was "hip" to appreciate them); the stinging, disturbing (to a small-town lad) jabs at the "Plastic People" of the status quo; and of course the sole Top-40 hit "Valley Girl" (on Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch) all colliding at odd angles over a span of oh-so-many records over two and half decades.
Where does one begin, now that Ryko has made all of Zappa's work equally available? Well, starting from the beginning with Freak Out (1966) isn't a bad idea. It gives a clear picture of various grounds that Zappa trod, from dadaist performance art to guiltless, greasy garage rock, while preparing one for the chaotic majesty of 1968's Sgt. Pepper dismemberment We're Only in it for the Money. For the higher-browed, 1970's Hot Rats is the acclaimed full-length foray by Zappa into eclectic instrumental jazz, and a showcase for his guitar skills. For those raised on FM radio and trying to gently break the habit, the faux stadium rock of 1981's You Are What You Is, propelled by the aural pyrotechnics of ace axeman Stevie Vai and some of Zappa's more twisted lyrics ("You is what you am/A cow don't make ham"), is a good jumping-off point.
It's difficult not to be fascinated by the ground covered by this man who started out with little more than determination and a funny name, and left this world a renowned composer and satirist, a man who wittily defended music (and those of us who enjoy it) from censorship at Senate hearings and nearly became a U.S. ambassador. In between, he recorded so much music that, even with all that I've heard over the years, I feel as though I've only encountered the tip of the iceberg. I've aged into appreciation and enjoyment of the jazz elements, and I've only just begun to explore Zappa's more classically-influenced works. (Try 1993's The Yellow Shark for full-blown orchestral Frank.) And yes, I can't help but envision how he might have affected the world, both musically and personally (he came close to running for President in 1988) had he been given another 27 years to work with.
Zappa will be remembered as a man who never backed down from his adversaries, never compromised his music, never allowed his views to be censored. To some, his lyrical low humor may have seemed like little more than an unpleasant trait keeping him from becoming a "popular artist." In fact, perhaps the controversy and the "dirty" aspect of some of his lyrics were intentionally included as an initial draw to young, plasticized college guys, allowing him to slap them in the face with a dose of reality in the form of social comment. Who knows how many listeners were seduced first by silly porn-rockers like "Dirty Love" (from Overnite Sensation), and followed Zappa into a serious interest in jazz and classical music? Hell, even those who only listened to a few minutes of any given Zappa album before giving up and going back to Bad Company ended up a little smarter than they'd started, whether they wanted to or not. And whether it took one album, 53 albums, or a million, that's a hell of a legacy to leave behind. n
Kevin Curtin, Fri., May 17, 2013
Jim Caligiuri, Fri., May 17, 2013
Austin Powell, Fri., May 17, 2013
Jim Caligiuri, Fri., May 17, 2013
Doug Freeman, Fri., May 17, 2013
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