Essays on Technology and Culture

Hearing an Album for the First Time, a Second Time

I’ve been a Frank Zappa fan for a decade, and I’m incredibly glad to find his music is being given a comprehensive remastering and re-release job for a current generation. Like any artist with a long discography, and various remasters, there’s debates over the “superior version” of various albums. We’re talking stuff that puts the Beatles’s “Mono versus Stereo” debates to shame. [1] This is especially difficult in the world of Zappa recordings. Not only are there multiple remasters, but Zappa also developed an odd fetish for re-recording parts of various old recordings with modern technology such the bass and drums as on Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, his pastiche of 50s Doo-Wop music. [2]

Hot Rats, Zappa’s 1969 album of mostly instrumental Jazz-Rock fusion, is considered by many as his most accessible album, and regularly touted as a good entry point for Zappa neophytes. I, respectfully, disagree. I think 1974’s Apostrophe(’) is a better introduction. Still, I love Hot Rats, and I’ve listened to it countless times over the years. The drum fill at the start of “Peaches en Regalia” never fails to get my heart racing. As part of the reissue campaign, The Zappa Family Trust has released on CD and digital download, the original vinyl mix of the album. All previous CD versions come from a 1987 remastering job by Zappa, which added a huge layer of reverb and other crap on the top—while also adding four extra minutes to “The Gumbo Variations”

Putting the new remaster on, I didn’t know what to expect. What happened was almost like a religious experience. There were melodies that I never knew were playing. There were instruments I heard that I never knew were playing. This is a revelation, as Hot Rats was as much a study in the power of multi-track recording as it was in combining Jazz and Rock music. The ’87 remaster muddied everything so much that whole melody lines got lost in the mix. The worst part is that, since every official version of the album that’s come out since 1987 is based on Zappa’s own remastering job, I had no clue what I was missing. It’s a testament to Zappa’s skills as a composer and the musicianship of his band at the time that even with the remixing, reverb and brickwalling of the previous, canonical version, that Hot Rats stands up as a classic album.

I didn’t even finish listening to the 2012 remaster before tossing my previous version of Hot Rats aside, permanently. I’ll give up an extra four minutes of “The Gumbo Variations” for hearing all of Ian Underwood’s keyboard parts, [3] cleanly, and having all the panning percussion. In recent years, the Zappa Family Trust has put out a few original mixes, such as the mono version of Freak Out! and the original mix of Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (as Greasy Love Songs). Hearing those versions changed my impression of the records, but neither was as transformative an experience as listening to the original vinyl mix of Hot Rats. It was truly like listening for the first time all over again.

If you want to hear me wax on further about Frank Zappa, check out Episode 26 of Crush On Radio, titled “Undergraduate Studies in Frank Zappa”. You can get Hot Rats on Amazon MP3 as well.

  1. For what it’s worth, I go with mono for all albums up to Sgt. Pepper, and stereo for the rest. The mono White Album is an interesting curiosity, but not essential.  ↩

  2. Or, his “lost” 1984 remastering of the epic Lumpy Gravy that came out on the recent Lumpy Money box set. It should have stayed lost.  ↩

  3. For Pete’s sake, I heard an acoustic piano part on “Peaches en Regalia” that I’d never heard before. I only thought there was organ and Rhodes for keyboard parts.  ↩