Läther1 is the name of an eight sided album - eight sided in archaic, vinyl-record-days' terms that is - produced, composed and arranged by musical genius Frank Zappa (1940-1993). The recordings on the album - various ensembles and bands, studio and live-material - date from between 1969 and 1977. The material on the album is stylistically broad-ranged, going from classic compositions to jazz and rock, all with the very peculiar and hard-to-describe Zappa attitude. Although the album was not intended by Frank to be or to function as a wrapped up summary, compilation or collection, of his works up to that time2, it does, however, provide a fair sample of Frank's musical work from that period. It is considered by many to be a good starting point for people to start exploring Frank's music.
The album appears publicly for the first time in 1977 - via a radio broadcast, during which Zappa himself had all eight sides played back to back. He invited the interested listeners to record the album on tape: I have taken it upon myself to come down here and advise anybody interested in the stuff that I do to get a cassette machine, and tape this album - you can have it for free, just take it right off the radio. Y'know, don't buy it - tape it. This, of course, gave rise to a first - but kind-of-unofficial, sort-of-bootleg - version of Läther (and a shorter version called Leatherette). In the course of the two years following the radio broadcast, four 'official' Frank Zappa albums were released, which contained almost exactly the same material that was on Läther: Zappa in New York (from 1978), Studio Tan (released in 1978), Sleep Dirt (from 1979) and Orchestral Favourites (also from 1979). A detailed, no, very detailed analysis of Läther versus these albums is given at ARF-society's Läther Review Page. Until it's official release in 1996, Läther could only be obtained with some difficulty in a black-market kind-of way.
A series of questions surround Läther. Could it be that the official 1996 Läther is just a posthumous repackaging of the four officially released albums? While this notion is easily refuted, by looking at the history of how the album came to be, on the other hand the 'conceptual originality' of Läther is sometimes ferociously debated among hard-core Zappa fans. The next question is, why would Zappa have his own work bootlegged? Why was this material then released in four separate albums? More on that after a brief description of the album contents.
Läther contains roughly 2:40 hours worth of some of Frank Zappa's finest musical moments. People who are not familiar with Zappa's music will tend to overemphasize the comic aspect that is found on some of the songs on Läther. Under this surface the listener will also hear very rich and intricate music. Zappa's music is considered by some a genre in itself, hard to describe or to categorize. Below the reader will find the track list and an attempt to succintly describe the songs.
Disk one: The opening track, carefully chosen by Frank Zappa, is Re-gyptian Strut, recorded in 1974. The track can be considered an ouverture for Läther3. It sets the frame for the entire album and is aptly described, in the liner notes, as a mixture of tack, charm, cheese and bombast. The next track Naval Aviation in Art?, recorded in 1975, is Zappa's musical comment on such oil paintings that have the romantic atmosphere of a WWII fighter starting from the deck of an aircraft carrier at sunset. Track three is A Little Green Rosetta4, which breaks with the 'seriousness' of the previous tracks. Duck Duck Goose, the next track, is a collage starting with a live performance based on Led Zeppelin's famous Whole Lotta Love riff followed by diverse studio outtakes. Track 5, Down in De Dew, is an interesting guitar-oriented instrumental piece5. This song is the only full song on Läther that is not featured on any other release. The following track, For the Young and Sophisticate, is a more straightforward pop/rock/blues song dealing with the growth of armpit-hair and its implications in a romantic relationship. Tracks 7 and 8 Tryin' to Grow a Chin and Broken Hearts are for Censor-holes commonly appeared as a tandem in live concerts and can be considered to be a caricature of typical 70's rock-type songs6. 12 minute long track 9 is entitled The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit - an all-time Zappa live-performance favourite. This version features the powerful lead vocals of Ray White (from the 1976 tour) along with a great Frank Zappa guitar solo. It is a raunchy blues revolving around the story of Michael Kenyon, the so-called 'Illinois Enema Bandit'7. Lemme take you to the Beach, track 10, is another one of the pieces that can be described as 'cheese'. It is a beefed-up do-wop-ish song (recorded around 1969) spiked with all kinds of ridiculous electronic effects (added around 1975). The next track, the beautiful instrumental Revised Music for Guitar and low Budget Orchestra from 19708, stands in strong contrast to the previous song, bringing the listener beack to the more 'serious' compositions on Läther. This version was recorded in 1974 and had the orchestral segments added in 1975. The last track, RDNZL9, is another one of the more elaborate instrumental pieces, from circa 1972. The version on Läther is from a 1974 studio session.
Disk two: In the first track, Honey, Don't You Want a Man Like Me?, Zappa sings about the stereotype boy-meets-girl situation. The track ends with a collage of studio cuts10. The next track is entitled The Black Page #1, describing the density of the notes on the staves making the page look 'black'. This two-minute instrumental is one of Zappa's most difficult-to-play songs, and was originally conceived as a drum solo for drum-virtuoso Terry Bozzio. Track 3 returns to the 'simpler' side of rock'n roll, Big Leg Emma is a straightforward, bluesy, rock'n roll piece. Punky's Whips follows, and is a more elaborate or multi-facetted, 12 minute-long song - another famous all-time audience live-favourite. The 'plot' of this song revolves around the semi-homossexual adoration of glam-rock guitarist Punky Meadows (of the band Angel) by a teenage drummer (played by drummer Terry Bozzio). This song is also one of the origins of the problems around the release of Läther (see below). Things return to 'seriousness' on track 5, Flambé11. This song is a short and sweet Jazz-bar-lounge type song. The following track, The Purple Lagoon, continues in this vein and is a more complicated Jazz-ish piece. Things finally get orchestral on Pedro's Dowry, track 8, which is followed by Läther, another elaborate instrumental piece featuring Jazz-giants Randy and Michael Brecker (trumpet and tenor sax) as well as 'blues brothers' Lou Marini (alto sax) and Tom Malone (trombone), who were playing in Zappa's 1976 band. Track 10, Spider of Destiny, is (like Re-gyptian strut) another composition (ca. 1972) for an "opera" project that never came to be called Hunchentoot. Disk two closes with the song Duke of Orchestral Prunes an orchestral song with band.
Disk three: The opening track, Filthy Habits, is an impressive guitar oriented masterpiece, illuminating Zappa's guitar play from the more 'serious' side. As is obvious from the title of the next track, Titties 'n Beer, the listener is brought back to the lighter side of entertainment. The song, another live-concert favourite, revolves around a 'Faust' type deal between a stereotype american motorbiker (Zappa's role), with very simple desires in life (see title), and the devil (sung by drummer Terry Bozzio), who is not sure if the biker is bad enough to join hell. The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution, the next piece, is another instrumental piece for virtuoso players, with emphasis on the acoustic bass. The last piece on disk three is the 20 minute long, pseudo-cartoon-radio-play The Adventures of Greggery Peccary. It is a sweet little story about a turbulent day in the life of a peccary12 named Greggery, who invents the calendar for a big sinister company13.
Bonus tracks are, technically, a part of disk 3, and were included in the 1996 CD release. The bonus tracks are: Regyptian Strut (1993) which has Chester Thompson's original drums overdubbed by Chad Wackerman (Zappa was not entirely satisfied with the recording quality of the original drums). Leather Goods, an instrumental piece with a great guitar solo, Revenge of the Knick Knack People, which is put together from parts of the 'Baby Snakes' movie soundtrack14, and finally Time is Money in its original instrumental form.
Läther and 'Those Other Albums'
Is Läther just a beefed-up compilation or re-release of the four 'officially' released albums? Is it a by-product of the legal hassle between Zappa and Warner Brothers? Neither Frank Zappa nor Warner Brothers made any clear statement about this topic at the time (since 'anything you say can be used against you in a court of law'). Among fans, there are basically two stances on the 'conceptual originality' of Läther, which can be roughly summarized as follows:
a) Läther appeared first and existed in that specific format, even if it was 'just' in the form of test-pressings. Moreover, the author of the work himself presented it as a package - thus it is what he intended originally, and that's end of the story.
b) While a) is true as seen from the outside, it is a known that Zappa was at legal loggerheads with his label. It does not seem improbable that Zappa compiled Läther with the same material as the other albums, as a sidesweep against DiscReet. In that case Läther was not conceived as a package from the beginning and for the sake of its contents, but much rather put together (some even say in a hurry) to force a legal battle with the record company.
From the chronological order of events, Läther appeared publicly before the other albums in december 1977 - via a radio broadcast on the legendary KROQ-FM, in Pasadena. On this radio show Zappa himself had the entire album, his own vinyl test-pressings, played back to back and suggested that the listeners record the album on tape: I have taken it upon myself to come down here and advise anybody interested in the stuff that I do to get a cassette machine, and tape this album - you can have it for free, just take it right off the radio. Y'know, don't buy it - tape it. Naturally, the fans recorded the material and shortly thereafter a first - but kind-of-inofficial, sort-of-bootleg - version of Läther (and a shorter version called Leatherette) became available. These albums were, obviously, not very easily obtainable until 1996 when Läther was finally released officially.
Shortly after that radio broadcast the albums Zappa in New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favourites were released officially through one of Warner Brother's subsidiary labels called DiscReet15.
From the perspective of contents...
From the perspective of contents...
These albums contain much (but not all) of the material on Läther.
Note that Läther, in this sense, is the more complete package. Also noteworthy is the fact that the songs were pressed from different master tapes. In 1993 Frank Zappa finished remastering, editing, enhancing and improving Läther, which was finally, released officially in 1996. The CD version comes as a three disk package.
Keeping the small differences between Läther and the DiscReet releases in mind, it is possible to state that Läther is the most complete, yet eclectic, package - regardless if it was conceived before, after or during the period of legal turmoil. A detailed analysis of Läther, it's origins and the differences between the songs are given on Biffy's Läther Page.
Final Remarks and Links
Many interviews and articles, some of them also concerning Läther and the legal trouble with Warners, have been transcribed and a collection of links to these transcriptions can be found in Corneliussen's Zappa Interviews Page.