FRANK ZAPPA -- Lather (Rykodisc)

There's exciting news for Zappa fans this month - Lather, the 'long lost Zappa album', has just been released by Rykodisc. For those who may not know the whole story behind the album, let me fill you in. Zappa originally conceived Lather as a 4-record box set. FZ's record company at the time (Discreet - a now defunct subsidiary of Warner Brothers), didn't want to release it. Zappa then tried to release it with another record company (Polygram) as a 'special project'. Polygram briefly agreed to release the box set, then reneged on the deal, due to legal complications with Discreet.

Discreet told Zappa that he owed them four more records under his present contract. It was almost as if Zappa was married to Discreet palladium rings and all. In an attempt to fulfill his contractual obligation, Zappa reformatted Lather and delivered the remaining four albums all at once. They wouldn't pay him, nor would they release him from his contract. Never one to be pushed around by the record labels, Zappa took Lather to a local radio station in December of 1977 and asked them to play the entire thing. Frank assumed the role of "temporary bogus disc jockey" for this special broadcast. After asking listeners to get their tape decks set up, he delivered Lather to the radio audience for free.

Soon after the radio broadcast, Lather saw it's first release as a bootleg 4LP box set. There was also a double-LP bootleg called Leatherette. It featured songs from Lather, plus tracks alleged to be from the same sessions (including the still-unreleased studio version of "Dead Girls of London" with Van Morrison on vocals). Commercially, the material ended up being spread out over a number of albums. The final four Zappa releases on Discreet all had tracks from Lather, as did the excellent Shut Up and Play Your Guitar series. Sheik Yerbouti and Tinseltown Rebellion both featured cuts as well.

Some of you may be wondering why this whole thing is such a big deal in the first place. The answer is simple. It's the music. Recorded between 1973 and 1977, Lather contains some of Zappa's most diverse and best loved material. All the material from the original box set is here (now on three CDs), plus four bonus tracks. The only problem with the CD version (surprisingly) is the sound quality. The vinyl bootleg actually has better sound. Not that Lather on CD sounds bad, it just doesn't sound as good as you'd expect - especially considering Ryko's recent overhaul of the entire Zappa catalog. Some of the tracks appear in edited form, (the unedited versions can be found on the individual releases) and several versions of the songs are exclusive to Lather itself.

So what's on these CDs, anyway? The material ranges from orchestral excursions (like "Pedro's Dowry" and "Duke of Orchestral Prunes"), to instrumental workouts ("The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution" and "The Purple Lagoon"), to the so-called 'comedy songs' like "Broken Hearts are for Assholes" and "Titties and Beer". Overall, disc one is the best of the three discs. With classic Zappa tunes like "Tryin' to Grow a Chin", "RDNZL", and "The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit" (featuring a scorching solo by FZ) all on the same disc, you just can't go wrong.

Disc two isn't quite as good as the first one, but there are still a lot of great tunes on it. It starts with the unedited version of "Honey, Don't You Want a Man Like Me?" (complete with the "fuck you very much" response from FZ to the heckler in the audience), then goes into concert favorites "The Black Page #1" and "Big Leg Emma". Up next is the controversial "Punky's Whips", a song written about Punky Meadows - guitarist for the 70's glam band, Angel. Due to lyrics regarding Meadows, Jeff Beck and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, FZ ended up being sued over this track (and "Titties and Beer") when it appeared on the Zappa in New York album. Zappa removed the song, and edited "Titties and Beer" following the legal frenzy.

The most interesting cuts on Lather appear on the last disc. In addition to the 'cleaned up' version of "Titties and Beer" and "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary" (Lather's original side-long finale), there are four bonus tracks - sandwiched between excerpts of the actual radio broadcast where Zappa debuted Lather. The first bonus track is a 1993 remix of "Regyptian Strut". The sound quality is much better than the original version. The next cut, "Leather Goods", features an excellent Zappa guitar solo and sound bites used in various places on Lather. "Revenge of the Knick Knack People" is an assortment of outtakes from the Baby Snakes soundtrack. The last bonus track is the original instrumental version of "Time is Money".

Lather includes a 32-page booklet with liner notes on all the songs, plus an insight into the legal complications FZ had to deal with when he tried to release it. This is prime Zappa material, all edited and arranged by FZ himself. Though the sound quality may not be perfect, Lather is essential for all Zappa fans.

© 1997 Steve Marshall