Biffy the Elephant Shrew looks at

"Biffy's version of events REALLY MAKES SENSE if you give it a decent amount of thought."--Mike Keneally, September 1996

On September 24, 1996, Rykodisc finally released Frank Zappa's Läther. Originally intended for release as a four-LP boxed set in 1977, Läther became one of the legendary lost albums of rock, comparable to the Beatles' Get Back or the Beach Boys' Smile. A great deal of mythology, confusion and disinformation has always surrounded this album. The purpose of this study is to examine the history and chronology of the Läther recordings (as well as an outsider can) and hopefully to clear away some of the confusion that has grown up around this remarkable collection over the past 20 years.

Läther is closely associated with four LPs that came out on the DiscReet label (distributed by Warner Brothers) between March 1978 and May 1979, and which contain many of the same tracks. These albums are Zappa In New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites. The commonly accepted story in the late '70s was that Warner Brothers, without Zappa's permission, compiled four separate albums from the Läther tapes. This account has appeared in innumerable articles and even books about Zappa, but it clearly is not true. Here's why this story is full of holes:

Hole #1: Three of the four individual albums contain tracks that are not on Läther, as well as longer versions of some tracks and an alternate take of another. Studio Tan is the only one of these albums that even could have been produced from the Läther tapes.

Hole #2: Zappa In New York boasts Zappa-approved artwork (including photography by wife Gail and son Dweezil) as well as Zappa's own liner notes. It is obviously a project that Zappa put together himself.

Hole #3: Each of the four individual albums has a stylistic cohesiveness that contrasts strikingly with the eclecticism of Läther. Deriving thematically unified albums like Zappa In New York, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites from Läther is a little bit like turning an omelet back into eggs. All of the songs that went into these albums were scattered around Läther and mixed in with other material. If Warners had had Läther to carve up, we would surely have gotten four discs at most (instead of five when you consider that Zappa In New York was a double) sequenced the same as the sides on Läther. (In fact we would probably have gotten less, as WB would presumably still decline to release the epic "Punky's Whips"--see below.)

No, the four separate albums were clearly compiled by Zappa himself. In the liner notes to the Rykodisc CD, Gail Zappa herself says that this is the case. According to Gail, Frank "reluctantly" edited the Läther tapes into four separate albums after Warners flatly refused to release Läther as a four-LP boxed set.

"As originally conceived by Frank, Läther was always a 4-record box set. One more time for the world: Läther was always a 4-record box set."--Gail Zappa, July 1996

The Biffy Hypothesis

The following is my own take on the sequence of events as best I have been able to reconstruct it:

Zappa presented the finished Zappa In New York LP to Warners sometime in early 1977. (Probably in March. The album was recorded during the last week of December 1976, studio overdubs were probably recorded in early January, and Zappa was on tour in Europe from the second half of January through February. Warner Brothers originally intended to release Zappa In New York in mid-1977; its release was announced as "imminent" in a "Dateline Burbank" advertisement in the June 30, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone.) Warners refused to issue the album in its original form because they considered the homoerotic references to Angel guitarist Punky Meadows in "Titties And Beer" and especially "Punky's Whips" to be libelous. Zappa claimed breach of contract and sued. He delivered masters for three further albums--Studio Tan, Hot Rats III (later retitled Sleep Dirt) and Orchestral Favorites--to fulfill his contract, but Warners also refused to issue these at the time. Since Zappa's contract with Warners stipulated that albums were to be released in the USA within six weeks of delivery of masters (six months in Europe), and Warners was just sitting on these four albums, Zappa considered himself free to shop the tapes to another label. ONLY THEN did he reconfigure most of the material from these albums (plus a few other items) into the four-LP Läther set.

Zappa first tried to release Läther via EMI, and after that fell through due to interference from Warners, he made a deal for a 10/31/77 release on Mercury/Phonogram. Warners' lawyers put a stop to that deal too, claiming that Warners had first rights to the material, but Mercury did get as far as making test pressings. Warners eventually put out the original albums, starting in March 1978 with a butchered version of Zappa In New York, with "Titties And Beer" censored and "Punky's Whips" deleted entirely, leaving the album conspicuously short on playing time. Although Warner Brothers had been sitting on this album for a year, when they finally released it they may have done so hastily (perhaps for reasons of firmly establishing their legal right to the material), as some copies escaped that included "Punky's Whips"--the main bone of contention that started this whole mess.

Zappa In New York has a "real," Zappa-approved cover and liner notes, but Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites do not. Zappa delivered only tapes of those three albums, no covers or liner notes, so Warners hired comic artist Gary Panter to slap together the packaging. Neil Slaven, in his book Electric Don Quixote, claims that all four of these albums were originally presented to Warner Brothers in March 1977. I don't think that can be right; all evidence suggests that Zappa In New York was submitted to the label earlier than the other three.

There is unfortunately little corroborative evidence for the above in Zappa's own words. At the time this was happening, Zappa may have been advised not to discuss the details for legal reasons. In general, the quotes I have found in which Zappa discusses Läther are maddeningly ambiguous. Although most versions of the Läther story have Zappa at some point delivering the album as a four-disc entity to Warner Brothers, who refused to issue it in that format, I have been unable to find any statement in Zappa's own words to indicate unambiguously that he ever offered a four-disc set to Warner Brothers. It is my conclusion that Läther was not compiled until after Zappa's split from Warner Brothers.

The Peccary Problem!

"The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary" fades out on Studio Tan only a few seconds before the piece's end. Could this have been done to eliminate the "L-l-l-leather!" exclamation at the end? If so, this would imply that Läther, with its various little before-and-after-track links, was the source for Studio Tan and not (as I have maintained) the other way around. Although it's hard to see why this was necessary, it is conceivable that either Zappa or Warners wanted to suppress the connection between Studio Tan and the unreleased Läther. (It is also unclear why it should be necessary to fade the track to eliminate the link--it could simply have been snipped.)

There is a very short instrumental link between "Lemme Take You To The Beach" and "Revised Music For Guitar And Low-Budget Orchestra" on Läther. Even if there were a rationale for eliminating the "leather" reference on side one, I can think of no earthly reason for deleting this passage if it were already there.

Lä Zappa intended it?

Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites hit the cutout bins shortly after their release, and Zappa's Warner Brothers catalog (comprising most of his vinyl output from 1969-79; the earlier MGM material was out of print already) was deleted entirely in the early '80s. Starting in 1985, Zappa released a series of Old Masters box sets containing reissues of his back catalog, but the series stopped short just before reaching the Läther period. This material remained out of print until September 24, 1991, when Zappa's own Barking Pumpkin label reissued Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites on compact disc and cassette, followed four weeks later by Zappa In New York.

It is highly suggestive that, given the opportunity to reissue this material, Zappa opted for the individual albums, complete with the "unauthorized" Gary Panter artwork, rather than finally releasing Läther. However, the reissues were not the albums as they were issued in 1978-79! Zappa In New York was expanded and remixed, with new guitar overdubs added to "Punky's Whips." Studio Tan was remixed and resequenced. Sleep Dirt received the most drastic alteration of all, as, among other changes, the formerly all-instrumental album (Zappa's first) acquired vocals on three of its seven cuts! Only Orchestral Favorites remained relatively unscathed...although Zappa managed to reverse the stereo image in the remastering process.

[Two different versions of the Barking Pumpkin Sleep Dirt CD exist. "Regyptian Strut" retains Chester Thompson's original drum part on early copies, while later pressings feature a remix of this cut with the drums replaced by an uncredited Chad Wackerman. The 1995 reissue on Rykodisc also contains the remix. This version, listed as "Regyptian Strut (1993)," was added to the Läther CD as a bonus track.]

Another Läther ?

The CD issue of Läther raises a new mystery or two--or three. Included in the booklet are illustrations of the "original" stereo master tapes from the Record Plant in Hollywood. These are not dated, although a semi-legible notation on one of the reels bears the date 8/21/77 (as best I can make out, anyway). The client listed on reels one, two and four is Arista--never previously mentioned in conjunction with Läther. Reel three shows EMI as the client. More puzzling than this, however, is that the song sequence--at least on that third reel--is different from Läther as it exists on the Mercury/Phonogram test pressings, as it was played on the radio by Zappa in December 1977, and as it appears on the Rykodisc CD. Specifically, the tracks on sides five and six have been reshuffled and "Baby Snakes" added. Apparently Zappa prepared an otherwise undocumented alternate version of Läther somewhere along the way. Why, when and for whom?

[The released version of "Baby Snakes" was recorded in 1978, so this is presumably not it. It could well be a completely different piece of music with a working title that Zappa reused later for the Sheik Yerbouti song. It wouldn't have been the first time Zappa used the same title for more than one composition.]

Engineer Spencer Chrislu has explained that the actual tape inside this box does not match the track list on the label, but contains the expected running order for disc three of Läther as it has always been known. This suggests that the alternate running order may never have existed--but it only deepens the mystery of why Zappa labelled the tape this way in the first place.

Another Läther-related puzzler is this comment made by bassist Patrick O'Hearn from the April 1994 issue of Keyboard magazine. He's talking about the first recording he made with Zappa: "The cut was finally released as 'The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution,' on an album called Naval Aviation." "Naval Aviation"???

Thanks to Andy Hollinden, Bill Lantz and Brian Zavitz for contributions to the cause of Läther scholarship.

Läther Links

Läther vs. the DiscReet albums

Frank Zappa on Läther

Gail Zappa on Läther

The press on Läther

A review of Läther

Back to the top of the page

The Rykodisc Frank Zappa Subsection includes info on Läther and a trivia quiz.

Mr. "Zoot Suit" has compiled a detailed track-by-track comparison of the Läther tracks (including between-song links) with their appearances elsewhere on the CD version of the Zappa catalog.

Seconds magazine talks with Gary Panter about his work, including his cover art for the DiscReet LPs.
Return to The Biffy Page