Zappa delighted in breaking new ground in sound

Frank Zappa in 1975. Photo courtesy Ryko/Doug Metzler, 1975

By Todd Whitesel

By the time I got turned onto Frank Zappa’s music in 1985, the guitarist/composer had already released more than three dozen albums.

My first exposure to Zappa was a vinyl copy of “Zappa In New York,” a double-LP of live material recorded in December 1976. I was fascinated by the arrangements of tunes, such as “Manx Needs Women” and “The Purple Lagoon/Approximate.” I found myself giggling like a 10-year-old at “Titties And Beer” and “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” Here was a musician willing to take chances and have fun, all while highlighting the monstrous virtuosity of his band members. It was my first time hearing the likes of Terry Bozzio, Ruth Underwood, Eddie Jobson and Patrick O’Hearn. It also began my serious investigation into Zappa’s back catalog, which was and remains an astonishingly diverse and accomplished body of work.

Zappa was a pioneering artist in many ways. Few of his peers could bring such an often disparate array of genres together, including blues, rock, doo-wop, soul, avant-garde, jazz and fusion, and keep an audience’s attention for long.

He was also a pioneer in sound. Beginning in the late 1960s, Zappa was one of the first artists to use 16-track technology-even before The Beatles. His 1969 release, “Hot Rats,” was a landmark recording in many ways. It was the first record Zappa recorded without The Mothers Of Invention. It was the first that showcased Zappa’s leanings toward jazz-rock, (it’s really a rock and blues record at heart); and it was one of the first to use 16-track recording technology. It’s also one of the best-sounding LPs in Zappa’s oeuvre. (The original pressing, Bizarre RS-6365, is what you want).

“I remember Frank was also as meticulous about sound as he was about his music,” recording engineer Bernie Grundman said.

“A Movie For Your Ears”
By the time Zappa began recording the tracks for “Hot Rats” in mid-1969, he was already a seasoned producer with nearly a decade of experience behind him. The new 16-track technology opened the doors for Zappa to make extensive use of multi-tracking and overdubbing, creating complex compositions that could be realized with just a handful of musicians.

In essence, “Hot Rats” was the work of a two-man band — Zappa and multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood — with additional support from Captain Beefheart, Jean-Luc Ponty, Don “Sugarcane” Harris and a handful of other studio notables. In the original album liners, Zappa described “Hot Rats” as a “Movie For Your Ears.” And the opening instrumental, “Peaches En Regalia,” sets the table for a sumptuous audio feast. Five of the six tracks are instrumentals. Though thick with overdubs, the music doesn’t sound contrived. Instead, it has a loose and improvised vibe that was more characteristic of Zappa’s live shows of the coming decade.

“She said her stereo was four-way”
Even as Zappa was getting a leg up on his peers with 16-track, 2-channel stereo recording, he was also branching out and recording in 4-channel quad. Quadraphonic LPs were a short-lived phenomenon, and only two of Zappa’s albums, “Apostrophe” (’) and “Over-Nite Sensation,” were released as quad versions. However, it was Zappa’s intention to release all his subsequent albums in both 2- and 4-channel discs. In 1973, the year “Apostrophe” (‘) and “Over-Nite Sensation” were both issued, Zappa co-founded DiscReet Records. The name was a play on the word “discrete,” which described one method for encoding quadraphonic sound onto LPs. Two follow-up albums — “Roxy & Elsewhere” and “One Size Fits All” — were each pre-advertised for quad release but only 2-channel versions were ever offered. Zappa’s fascination with quad sound even carried over into his lyrics. One of his most famous lines comes from Over-Nite’s “Camarillo Brillo,” where Zappa sings, “She said her stereo was four-way/And I’d just love it in her room.”

The demise of quadraphonic music was like so many high-res formats that followed. There was no standard. Assuming consumers were willing to plunk down for an additional pair of speakers and a quad-capable receiver — and many were — few were going to carry the practice out to accommodate playing LPs, 8-tracks and reel-to-reel tapes.

Although the quadraphonic craze died long before DiscReet folded in 1979, Zappa continued to experiment with “surround” sound. Little did anyone know he was doing so nearly a decade prior. It wasn’t until his son, Dweezil, found a reel-to-reel tape among the masses in Frank’s home studio, aka The Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, with the name “Dweezil” and “1970” written on the tape box that it all came to light. There it was, from March 1, 1970, a Scotch Magnetic Tape with a diagram of speakers and instruments and 4 tracks labeled, 1-Left, 2-Center, Front, 3-Right and 4-Rear.

In 2004, a collection of 4-channel recordings were released on a DVD-Audio disc titled QuAUDIOPHILIAc. The sampler included previously unreleased material dating back to that “Dweezil” tape and others, recorded before the first quadraphonic albums were even commercially available. Among the earliest goodies are a nascent “Chunga’s Revenge,” here simply called, “Chunga Basement,” and 4-channel quad mix of “Waka/Jawaka” from 1972.

In the liner notes, Dweezil Zappa recalls discovering the tape. “We carefully placed the tape on the tape machine and asked it to play. When it didn’t, we forced it to by pressing play on the machine,” he wrote. “It became obvious that there was something different about what we were hearing. It was three-dimensional… No, it was four-dimensional! That’s when we decided to study the picture on the box. It was a panning map for: Quaudio. This recording was as close to an audio photograph of an event as you could ever get.”

Audio photograph? That sounds very familiar. And very good. Frank knew it all along.


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