Early in 1977, Frank delivered the master tapes of a four-record boxed set called Läther (pronounced “leather,” due to the double-dotted A) to Warner Bros., who then decided not to pay the amount they contractually owed him, oafishly thinking that he’d frivolously thrown the package together just to speed along his remaining album requirements and free himself from his recording contract. He took the tapes back and offered the set to EMI instead. Warner, currently being sued by Frank (who wanted the rights to his old albums, plus damages for years of bad bookkeeping and deficient royalties), threatened EMI with a lawsuit, scaring them out of negotiations. Frank then tried Mercury/Phonogram, who was to press and distribute the set as the first release on Zappa Records; but after it had gone through the test-pressing phase and had even been assigned a catalogue number, they suddenly refused to distribute it, eliciting the accusation from Frank that Warner had again effected some shifty legalese.
He resorted to splitting Läther into four separate LPs (leaving out some songs and all linking transitions). He delivered the first, Zappa in New York, complete with packaging and liner notes, which were preserved when Warner finally released the album on DiscReet. Shortly after providing that live double-disc, he handed over the other three all at once, fulfilling his contractual obligations anyway. Whether he submitted cover designs for these and they were ignored by Warner, or the label shut him out of the process as soon as they had the actual tapes, the albums were ultimately released with sequencing and artwork that he hadn’t approved.
Before Warner could begin these four records’ staggered releases, Frank played the orignal Läther in its entirety on KROQ-FM (Burbank-Pasedena, California), encouraging listeners to record it off the radio. The conflicting report that the four separate albums came first and were rearranged into Läther after Frank learned that Warner wouldn’t pay fairly is false, according to Gail Zappa’s booklet notes in the CD set: “As originally conceived by Frank, Läther was always a 4-record box set.” The three-CD set was finally released in 1996 on Ryko. Four bonus songs were added, extending the album’s length to nearly three hours. Included were a 1993 remix of “Regyptian Strut” (spelled without the hyphen this time, as on Sleep Dirt), Frank’s introduction and closing comments on the radio at the time of his broadcast of the album, a piece called “Leather Goods” (made up of unused Lumpy Gravy dialogue, some free music and the original beginning of “Duck Duck Goose,” which includes the Led Zeppelin riff played before the “Whole Lotta Love” riff—“Dazed and Confused”—as well as two breaks, one tributing Jimmy Page’s solo bit in “Whole Lotta Love” and the other his guitar-only break in “Heartbreaker”), “Revenge of the Knick-Knack People,” and the instrumental version of “Time Is Money” (included on Sleep Dirt but not Läther).
Gary Panter, an artist best known for his work in Raw Comix, was responsible for the wild illustrations on the covers of Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favorites. Frank didn’t choose Gary’s work. For that matter, one of the titles wasn’t his own. “I might point out that [Sleep Dirt’s] not the name of the album,” he told Record Review in the spring of 1979. “That’s just a further violation of the original contract. The original title of that album, as delivered to them, was Hot Rats III. I presume that’s just another snide attempt to undermine the merchandising of it. If you saw an album sitting in the rack with the title Sleep Dirt on it, you probably wouldn’t be too intrigued by it. Based on the job they did with the cover of Studio Tan, they made [the packaging] as unappealing as possible.”
Frank’s faithful longtime engineer Spencer Chrislu mastered the extant mixes. Dweezil Zappa conceived the cover and Steven Jurgensmeyer turned in the final design: We’re being engaged by a cow with Frank’s facial hair (and a spot on its hide in the shape of Italy).
Considering the spelling of the title rather than its pronunciation for the moment, there exists a link between the name and the composer’s heritage. “[My father] used to work in his dad’s barbershop on the Maryland waterfront,” he writes in The Real Frank Zappa Book. ”For a penny a day (or a penny a week—I can’t remember), he would stand on a box and lather the sailors’ faces so his dad could shave them. Nice job.” Sailors and the ocean arise in the album’s lyrics.
A lather’s a hubbub, a disquiet; this can be applied to the album’s extreme versatility. The lather could also be the spill-over from the metaphorical washing machine in the Lumpy Gravy dialogue; that’s another album with transitional free music and young people developing aberrant sexual perspectives (a prominent connection is the reappearance of Louie the Turkey at the end of “Filthy Habits”). Also, to work oneself into a lather is to become excessively excited.
The album integrates recordings made from 1973 to ‘76. “Re-gyptian Strut” starts everything, taken into the studio after its appearances in the Grand Wazoo concerts as “Variant Processional March.” This makes it a possible outgrowth of “Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula.” The song’s title is hyphenated here, unlike on Sleep Dirt.
"Naval Aviation in Art?” (the title having come from an old magazine pictorial Frank had seen that featured paintings of various war machines) and everything else that wound up on Orchestral Favorites came from the symphonic 9/17-18/75 performances in Royce Hall at UCLA. Forty musicians were temporarily named the Abnuceals Orchestra, like Frank’s assortment of Lumpy Gravy musicians had been. This piece was redone more slowly by Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain for the 1984 album The Perfect Stranger, without the call-and-response phrases between flute and strings at the beginning (they were played in tandem instead).
The line “God, that was really beautiful” is also heard on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar, after the “Illinois Enema Bandit” section entitled “Hog Heaven” (a title that alludes to “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary”).
The effect on Frank’s voice during “A Little Green Rosetta” resembles that in “Evelyn, a Modified Dog,” making this a probable outtake from the sessions that yielded One Size Fits All. The tune was originally longer; the monologue that actually precedes Frank’s singing can be heard at the beginning of “Muffin Man” on Bongo Fury. The door-slam that starts the second half of the song is actually a double snare hit. We’re suddenly hearing the long finale of an Osaka, Japan performance of “Zoot Allures” (from the same 2/3/76 show that yielded at least “Black Napkins” on the ‘76 album Zoot Allures). This coda’s called “Ship Ahoy” on Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More, which unveils two-thirds more of the solo (with added polyrhythms from Terry Bozzio) prior to what’s heard in the “Little Green Rosetta” splice. The coda’s supposed to end with a double snare hit as well, but that’s replaced with a high piano note and someone being surprised: “What?”
“Duck Duck Goose” features, for some reason, Patrick O’Hearn playing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” bass riff and Ray White sliding down his guitar neck a few times to recount Jimmy Page’s dive-bomber chorus lick. Before the song detonates into free music, a lunatic sniffle that will wind up at the end of “Dancin’ Fool” on Sheik Yerbouti is heard. Roy Estrada, soaked in reverb, sings some ‘50s falsetto lines and the lyric “What ya gonna do when the well runs dry?” from Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.” The priest from the beginning of the album is impressed: “Listen to him go!” This line’s also heard at the beginning of “We’ve Got to Get Into Something Real” on Sheik Yerbouti. There, it comes after a guitar solo rather than high vocals.
The line “Why don’t ya take it down to C-sharp, Ernie?” is also heard just before “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango.”
The only full song on Läther that isn’t also heard elsewhere in Zappa’s catalogue in some version is “Down in de Dew.” It initially appeared on a tape made available to Guitar World subscribers. Jim Gordon’s playing drums, making it a likely outtake from the Apostrophe (‘) sessions; the title’s even taken from the “Uncle Remus” lyrics.
“Fifi Dupree,” mentioned in this version of “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” and in the title of “Dupree’s Paradise,” ran that club on Avalon Boulevard in Watts. “Assholes” ends with the crack of a whip and Patrick saying, “I knew you’d be surprised.” This is also heard at the end of “Bobby Brown” on Sheik Yerbouti.
Ray’s couplet at the end of “The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit” that goes, “Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout Fontana/Ain’t talkin’ ‘bout Potato-Headed Bobby” revisits Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s vocals at the end of “San Ber’dino” on One Size Fits All. Frank interrupts with a ‘50s-style “Wanna, wanna, wan’ an enema,” dedicated to doo-wop expert Roy Estrada; the Zappa in New York liner notes explain that this “postscript” refers to a “statement Roy made occasionally to Jimmy Carl Black in the Garrick Theater days.” We can only wonder. The line “It can’t happen here,” of course, recalls that section of “Help, I’m a Rock” on Freak Out!. As the applause fades, Frank wryly refers to the enema-based lyrics: “That’s it. Sit right down. Make yourselves comfortable.”
Davey Moire of “Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station” fame sings lead on “Lemme Take You to the Beach.” Grand Funk Railroad’s drummer Don Brewer plays the bongos.
The beautiful “Revised Music For Guitar & Low-Budget Orchestra” was recorded at the Record Plant in 1974 and expanded with orchestral segments from the following year’s sessions at Royce Hall. It’s a new arrangement of a piece called “Music For Electric Violin & Low-Budget Orchestra” that Frank composed for Jean-Luc Ponty’s 1970 King Kong album. That original version also included a “Duke of Prunes” segment.
“RDNZL” (misspelled “REDUNZL” on the Studio Tan cover and label) was around since 1972; the short, sparse original version was dominated by Jean-Luc’s violin. The letters in the title could stand for “Ruth Doesn’t Need Zappa’s Lyrics,” “Ruth, Duke, Napoleon, Zappa and Lancelotti,” or the standard set of automobile gears, out of sequence: “Reverse, Drive, Neutral, 2 and 1.” The amazing Läther version was recorded in January of 1975.
The snippet of dialogue heard just before “The Black Page #1” (so named because of the thickness of the notes on the score paper) is also the latter majority of Sheik Yerbouti’s ”We’ve Got to Get Into Something Real” (called “Wait a Minute” on the CD reissue).
“Big Leg Emma” was originally heard in its studio incarnation on a 1967 Mothers of Invention single (the A-side of which was “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right?”). After this live version, a terrific bit of free music immediately contests the gaudy swing; it will become the beginning of “What Ever Happened to All the Fun in the World?” on Sheik Yerbouti. There, it will follow another bluesy song about a fat girl: “Jones Crusher.”
During “Punky’s Whips,” Terry sings the name of Läther’s title track as it will appear on Zappa in New York: ”I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth.” He sings off-key to maintain a naive, childish image. He says “One more time for the world!” at 7:42, as he does more zestfully just before “The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution,” the original title of which was “One More Time For the World.”
The title of “Flambe’” is misspelled “Flambay” on the Sleep Dirt cover and label. Suzannah (Thana) Harris originally sang lyrics from Frank’s aborted 1972 musical Hunchentoot to this music, as well as to the “Spider of Destiny” and “Time Is Money” music. Those vocals were left off the original Sleep Dirt record but included on the CD and tape re-releases. In her book Under the Same Moon (©1999, Mastahna Publishing), Thana writes: “Frank told me to think of myself as a late-middle-aged, slightly overweight and out-of-shape lounge singer with a cigarette and a few drinks under her bulgy belt... I found the feel and totally melted into it.”
The Läther version of “Spider of Destiny” exposes a lead guitar line in place of Thana’s opening vocals. It runs into an edit that has the final measure being played on bells rather than by the whole ensemble.
”Flambe’” is twice as long on Sleep Dirt; the middle section (starting at 1:32) is no longer edited out.
The accentuations heard at the beginning and near the end of “The Purple Lagoon” started life as an early ‘70s experiment called “Approximate,” for which Frank’s score specified the rhythms of the notes to be played but not their pitches.
The large-orchestra version of “Pedro’s Dowry” on London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I is quite different from this one, breathing more air and omitting the somewhat cheesy keyboard in favor of string and bass lines. A “disco section” is added to that later version as well.
“Duke of Orchestral Prunes” is simply called “Duke of Prunes” on Orchestral Favorites. The music goes as far back as 1959, when Frank scored Run Home Slow. This version’s quite reminiscent of the music on Hot Rats. Frank’s guitar solo is overdubbed; Tommy Morgan originally played a harmonica part. “I love the idea of screaming feedback guitar backed up by a symphony orchestra,” Frank was quoted as saying in the 4/79 issue of Record Review. He once told his copyist/Synclavier assistant/clarinetist David Ocker that “there really ought to be a ‘Music For Guitar and High-Budget Symphony Orchestra.’”
The onset of free music after “Filthy Habits” (which was originally intended for Night of the Iron Sausage) is also the latter part of “What Ever Happened to All the Fun in the World.” The line “I wish he’d play somethin’ else, ‘cause, uh, they’re just not gonna stand for it” is also heard in the middle of “Easy Meat” on Tinseltown Rebellion.
”Filthy Habits” has a longer solo on Sleep Dirt; the extra few seconds of low guitar begin at 2:58. An extra section of low-picked backwards guitar and keyboard exploration begins at 4:40.
“Titties ‘n Beer” has a relationship to Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier’s Tale), in which Satan accosts a fiddle player. Frank had a reciting part (he played Satan) in the 1972 Hollywood Bowl performance of the Stravinsky piece. (As Frank writes in his book, it was his first “post-wheelchair performance,” following the disastrous end of the Flo & Eddie period.)
A left-out section of “The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution” was the backing music onto which Frank xenochronized his guitar part to craft “Friendly Little Finger” on Zoot Allures. Patrick got his job with Frank by improvising a bass part for “Ocean,” overdubbing his upright (“Do you play that doghouse?” Frank asked) onto the existing, bassless recording of the song. (What’s heard in the released song probably isn’t the first take, as the bass’s timing seems too precise for a mere run-through.)
”Ocean” is nearly five minutes longer on Sleep Dirt; it has an extended beginning, featuring Zappa playing a synth line.
Greggery Peccary’s name is an embellishment of actor Gregory Peck’s. The song was recorded with a twenty-piece orchestra in December of 1974. Greggery is played by a sped-up Frank. Since the pig works at Big Swifty, a couple of slightly transformed measures from that Waka/Jawaka piece are heard here (at 4:36). The phrase “peccary of destiny” correlates him with Drakma (the Queen of Cosmic Greed) from Hunchentoot (cf. “Spider of Destiny”). A “very hip water pipe” is a marijuana bong. Greggery’s lines as he invents calendar time hark back to “Billy the Mountain.” Greggery asks, “What hath God wrought?” This was Samuel Morse’s reaction once he’d sent the first telegraph message (to Baltimore, curiously enough), composed in Morse Code of course; Frank’s poking fun at scientists, artists and others who give a mythical deity credit for their work.
Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters’ “Chameleon” (the kids in the story change their interests according to trends) are musically quoted as Greggery’s attacked when he leaves work. He takes the expressway’s Short Forest exit (alluding to “Toads of the Short Forest,” obviously; that song was named after pubic crabs, so the joke here indicates the probable effects of the kids’ love-in). A reference to hippie buses is wryly accompanied by a synthesized iota of music that likens them to clown cars at the circus. The notes of Flo & Eddie’s lines “Billy was a mountain/Ethel was a tree growing off of his shoulder” are played on a keyboard as Greggery parks inside a cave that’s actually Billy’s mouth.
”Louie Louie” is jocularly advanced as a “lewd act”; it will become a “terrorist activity” in “Welcome to the United States” on The Yellow Shark. The “six-foot pile of transistor radios, each one tuned to a different station” tributes John Cage, who once composed a piece for six radios tuned thusly. Greggery echoes one of the song-transition speakers from earlier on the album: “What?” His funny sigh of relief at his escape is stopped short by Billy’s laughter. The resulting dust forms brown clouds that the pig questions, singing a marching tune that was once an instrumental segment in the Grand Wazoo concerts (it was in fact the first Zappa music learned by that huge band). It can be heard in “For Calvin (and His Next Two Hitch-Hikers).”
Greggery himself becomes a corporate victim by the “Philostopher” Quentin Robert de Nameland (the last name being Spanish wordplay: “from Nameland”), who charges him after merely announcing that time is an affliction and the eons are closing. The composing of the song goes back to 1972; the philostopher’s entire “lecture” was printed in the first issue of the Hot Raz Times in ‘73. The monlogue’s latter two-thirds are replaced in the song by the trombone part; de Nameland originally went on to suggest that if a “time-delineating apparatus” like a calendar or clock were ever to go “on the bum or the fritz, well—it spells trouble!” (Reliance on technology screws us when the stuff breaks.) Greggery then shouted, “That geek has ripped me off!” The narrator confidentially suggested to the pig, “Perhaps it’s a trend.”
The Läther version of “Greggery” contains occasionally opposite stereo from the Studio Tan version, as well as an extra two measures of animate flutes (at 3:28) and a chaotic, melting horn section alongside angry piano trills (at 14:42). Also, the very end of the Studio Tan version stops on a foreseeable percussion note instead of cutting to a guitar slide.