Rykodisc (RCD 10574/76)

Läther is the Smile of the Freak Out set: the great lost Uncle Frank album. And as with that legendary missing piece of the Beach Boys' saga, a lot of mythology and misinformation has grown up around Läther, some of it implicitly perpetuated by Zappa himself. In coming to grips with this sprawling, flawed masterpiece, it helps to know the real story.

Sometime in 1977, Frank Zappa presented Warner Brothers with what was to be his next album, Zappa In New York. Alarmed by its lyrical content, Warners balked at releasing the album. A disgruntled Zappa then attempted to sever his ties with Warners by handing over tapes for three further albums, insisting that the label release them all within six weeks of delivery, in accordance with the terms of his contract.

When Warners failed to release any of this material, Zappa claimed breach of contract and sued. Meanwhile, he took most of the music from the albums that Warners refused to issue, edited it together with some newer recordings, linked the tracks with snippets of studio buffoonery, and came up with the four-LP boxed set Läther (Pronounced "Leather"). This set was offered first to EMI and then to Mercury/Phonogram (who got as far as making test pressings and setting a release date), but both times Warner Brothers intervened, claiming rights to the material. In desperation, Zappa carted a Phonogram test pressing of Läther to Los Angeles radio station KROQ, and played the entire eight-sided epic on the air, advising listeners, "You can have it for free. Don't buy it, tape it!"

Meanwhile, in March 1978, Warner Brothers finally issued a bowdlerized and resequenced Zappa In New York, and went on to release the remaining three albums (with minimal packaging, as Zappa had supplied no artwork or credits) over the next 14 months. In 1991, having recovered the rights to his back catalog some years before, Zappa first reissued these albums on CD, not only restoring the "offensive" parts, but also re-editing, adding new overdubs, changing track orders and generally tinkering with history.

Läther itself became a legend among Zappa fans, who purchased bootleg facsimiles, traded taped copies, and coveted the original test pressing. But now, Ryko has finally delivered the goods. Here is the real Läther as Zappa conceived it in 1977, with no latter-day revisions or overdubs, and with a clutch of bonus tracks tacked on for good measure. There is joy in Centerville tonight.

Each of the four albums that provided the bulk of this material had a specific identity, showcasing a particular side of Zappa's protean talent. But Läther presents the big picture version of Frank Zappa: we hear from the serious orchestral composer ("Pedro's Dowry"), the guitar hero ("Filthy Habits"), the scatological humorist ("Titties & Beer"), the jazz-rock innovator ("The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution"), the sexual satirist ("Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me?"), the weaver of intense rhythmic conundrums ("The Black Page"), and most of all, the creator of music that could only have been conceived by Frank Zappa (the entire program). Zappa's sleaziest lyrical conceits (and "The Legend Of The Illinois Enema Bandit," which contrives to find humor in a tale of real-life sexual assault, is surely the single most tasteless item Zappa ever recorded) sit cheek-by-jowl with his most sublime instrumental workouts, such as the breathtaking "Revised Music For Guitar And Low-Budget Orchestra."

Three of the pieces here, "Flambay," "Time Is Money" and "Spider Of Destiny," are tunes originally composed by Zappa for his never-realized 1972 stage musical, Hunchentoot. These tracks first appeared on the all-instrumental LP Sleep Dirt. By the time Sleep Dirt came out on CD, however, Zappa had overdubbed vocals, replaced the drum parts, and drastically changed the mixes of these songs. "Regyptian Strut" was also remixed with new bass and drum parts, although early pressings of the CD on the Barking Pumpkin label retain the original mix of this track. With Läther, all four tunes are now heard on CD for the first time in their original instrumental form, even if "Flambay" has been edited to half its original length. ("Time Is Money" was not part of the original Läther program, but appears here as a bonus track.)

Topping off the original Läther is Zappa's answer to Peter And The Wolf: "The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary," with Zappa's droll multitracked narration set to 21 sumptuously eclectic minutes of cartoon classicism and Tinkertoy jazz. But the CD doesn't end there: Ryko has added the 1993 remix of "Regyptian Strut" (already available on Ryko's Sleep Dirt CD), "Läther Goods" (a live improvisation that is the source of the "Whole Lotta Love" jam in "Duck Duck Goose"), "Revenge Of The Knick Knack People" (an exercise in high-speed tape collage) and the aforementioned "Time Is Money."

[Originally published in Goldmine, October 11, 1996.]
Läther vs. the DiscReet albums

Frank Zappa on Läther

Gail Zappa on Läther

The press on Läther

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