When licensing rights to the Rykodisc label for the massive back catalogue of Frank Zappa expired, something curious happened. The music disappeared. Granted, that might not spell the end of the world for your average Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj fan. But for anyone unacquainted with the wildly adventurous music Zappa created during his lifetime (he died in 1993), it meant all means for discovery and exploration were closed.
The Zappa Family Trust retained ownership of the recordings. But until a new licensing agreement could be struck, those albums would remain out-of-print and unavailable.
As of this week, Zappa’s first 12 recordings – solo works along with the formidable experimental pop pieces forged with his band The Mothers of Invention – became available again as part of a new licensing deal with Universal Records. Hardcore fans know this stuff by heart. But for a new generation acquainting itself to Zappa, this is a momentous occasion. A serious adventure awaits you.
This initial set of 12 albums – released in rapid succession between 1966 and 1972 – represents all the innovations and idiosyncrasies that made Zappa a revered pop figure. Early Mothers works like Freak Out!, Absolutely Free and especially We’re Only In It for the Money and Uncle Meat set the pace. All were montages that mixed grand pop tradition (with Zappa’s roots in doo-wop surfacing repeatedly), social commentary (which, more often than not, morphed into bitter satire), neo-classical compositional structure (that regularly spilled over into the avant garde) and, of course, a whale of a guitar voice.
The turning point was 1969’s Hot Rats, the brilliant, predominantly instrumental work (save for a fascinating Captain Beefheart cameo on Willie the Pimp) that highlights a compositional style built around animated – almost to the point of being cartoon-like – melodies and lengthy jams that took Zappa closer to progressive jazz turf.
Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh remain overlooked gems where the Mothers fell in line with Zappa’s post Hot Rats sound. But Fillmore East and Just Another Band from L.A. (both concert recordings from 1971) reshuffled the Mothers lineup into a bawdy carnival act with ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (known then as Flo & Eddie) as ringmasters.
Imaginative, playful and maybe a touch offensive in spots, these were the recordings that introduced and defined Zappa’s masterful pop intellect. How wonderful to have them among the living again.