A Zappa campaign weighs in

The 5-CD set of Zappa in New York, with its manhole cover packaging (at left), is just one of the many unique things planned by the Zappa Campaign. Goldmine speaks to longtime Zappa archivist Joe Travers and Frank’s third child, Ahmet,to get the full story.
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 Frank Zappa performs on stage in 1978 with band members (L-R) Denny Walley, Arthur Barrow, Ike Willis (patially hidden) and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. (Photo by Pete Still/Redferns)

Frank Zappa performs on stage in 1978 with band members (L-R) Denny Walley, Arthur Barrow, Ike Willis (patially hidden) and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. (Photo by Pete Still/Redferns)

By Dave Thompson

Of all the reissue and archive projects that are currently, or have recently, been underway, few have proven so reliable, with regular releases and a truly fan-pleasing dynamic, as the Frank Zappa campaign.

Of course, it’s scarcely new; there have been releases pumping out at such a rate that there’s been almost as many “official” Zappa albums released since his death as there were throughout his entire career. But from box sets preserving entire concert runs (the Halloween ’77 package two years ago, the 7-disc Roxy box last year), to the Object series of beyond-definitive LP exhumations, odd live shows and sundry studio doings, it’s hard to think of any estate that has given so much thought not to what stands the best chance of selling, but what has the highest hope of pleasing the hardcore fans.

Sprawling across five CDs, Zappa in New York is the latest in these deluxe restorations, a tin manhole-cover shaped box that celebrates the 40th anniversary of 1978’s Live in New York double album by remastering both the original LPs and three further discs worth of unheard music from the same run of shows.

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Masterminded by long time Zappa archivist Joe Travers and Frank’s third child, Ahmet, Live in New York is just one of two major projects in store this spring. The other is the Bizarre World of Frank Zappa tour, in which a hologram of Zappa not only plays, and interacts with, a stage full of former bandmates, but which also promises to debut even more previously unheard archive performances.

“It’s gong to be a mindblower for people,” says Ahmet. “The concept really started with Frank, many years ago, he wanted to have a hologram business, he writes about it in his book, and we talked a lot about it when I was a kid, what was possible, the reasons behind why he wanted to do it.

“Over the years, after his passing, people would approach us to do multimedia experiences, but it really wasn’t until I hooked up with the Eyellusion hologram company, and Wendy Dio, who was one of the first people to jump into this space with Ronnie James Dio... that’s what really started the creative inspiration. Without Frank being alive, it’s the closest thing to having the experience of seeing him live. We wanted something that will grab you, pull you in and first and foremost, give you a really good time. And we’ve got it.”

We’re talking before the tour starts, so Ahmet is reluctant to reveal any of the surprises in store. He does, however, concede that it will, in some way, play into the contents of the box set, while Travers is happy to tell us why those contents aren’t, perhaps, exactly what people were hoping for. Past boxes offering us the full run of shows from specific venues have maybe spoiled us—the first thing one notices with New York is, even the bonus tracks have been cherry-picked from different performances.

He explains: “The shows were very demanding for the musicians and, because of that, not all the performances are releasable. The number of edits on the original mastertapes showed us how much work was required to create something Frank felt was worth releasing.

“There were a lot of mistakes that were removed, so when we went back to the tapes, we were looking for the best alternate takes that we could find. Instead of releasing all the shows in their entirety, and releasing subpar versions of some of the songs, which would be detrimental to the legacy, we decided to get the best we could find that wasn’t on the album, and give the best possible representation of every composition that was played over the four nights, that hadn’t been included on the original album. Every song that was played, including the ones that didn’t make the record. It’s totally great, but this was one project where we weren’t able to release the shows in their entirety.”

He admits, in many ways, it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” approach. Keeping music back leaves the fans demanding everything; releasing everything leaves them complaining that there’s a lot they won’t be listening to again.

Ahmet: “Collectively, we’re all pretty much completists. It’s not like we say ‘Oh, let’s hold things back.’ The discovery process is like archaeology, there’s so many tapes, so much to cull through, and there are times... last week we were working on some future releases, and the machines don’t even exist to play back the music.

“Or, ‘Oh sh*t, this thing’s going to blow up and cause a fire.’ It’s really not a matter of ‘Oh, let’s just put something out.’ None of us operate from that perspective. We get really excited, we try and listen to what people want. We have a very vocal fan base, and we go into everything knowing that. We operate from a place of what’s exciting to us, and what sounds really good.”

The calendar does play some part in their deliberations. With Hot Rats about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, that looks odds on for some kind of deluxe repackaging later this year, while the Flo and Eddie era, too, is just around the corner, even if Travers admits that remaining pickings are slim for that phase. “There’s a lot of material that you would describe as folkloric, the Playground Psychotics music-and-documentary sort of stuff. Actual shows, there’s not as many as I wish there was for those years.”

But there are also the “one-off releases” that have likewise pocked the release schedule—the Road Tapes series, for example.

Travers: “That’s a lovely series. We wanted to create an outlet for the tapes that we couldn’t do much with, things you can’t mix, you can’t change what’s there, you can only try and clean the tape up and make it sound great. I knew historically that there were shows people wanted to hear, and a lot of them were like that, so Road Tapes was what we came up with.”

Ahmet continues, “The thing that’s remarkable about all of Frank’s bands, and you can hear it in the Road Tapes, from night to night you’d get different shows. So we have all these extraordinary performances in the vault, and what we try to do is, pick the best performances we have.”

But it’s not only the existing fans whom they are trying to reach. Ahmet: “The existing fans are the ones with many, many opinions, but if I have a conversation with someone who’s 20, I ask if they know my father’s music, and they say no, but they’re interested—where do I suggest they start? From a business point of view, that’s an important question.”

So, where do you start?

“I don’t know. If I want you to dive into Frank, I want you to explore everything. But some people are more interested in the classical music, some want the rock... my sweet spot is the music he was making when I was born, the band he had at the time, the ones who can tell me the stories about when I was little. About how I stopped breathing, and how Frank saved my life. All of that stuff. It’s emotional for me. But someone else is going to feel just as strongly about another period, and again, where do you start? I’m still educating myself about some aspects of my father’s music, and I grew up with it!”

The Bizarre World might be the answer to that question, with its promise of a wide ranging sweep through great swathes of Zappa’s career. But a close eye kept on the release schedule is certainly another. To repeat what we said at the beginning of this piece, there’s very few archives out there that even the die-hard fans admit are being treated as well as they ought to be... King Crimson for sure, Elvis to an extent, Dylan maybe.

Zappa fans, however, have never had it so good. And that’s exactly how it should be.