Frank Zappa, “Zappa Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”
Zappa Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
There’s a scene in Alex Winter’s documentary on Frank Zappa—aptly titled Zappa—where the camera pans around the subject’s Laurel Canyon basement. It’s been dubbed “The Vault,” and is “filled floor to ceiling with media from [Zappa’s] birth all the way ’til, like, yesterday,” Winter told The New Yorker. Gail Zappa, Frank’s widow who oversaw his estate until her own death in 2015, was a savvy business person. While her late husband would reinvest his profits from recording back into his live shows—as Frank attests in a snippet of dialogue on the Zappa soundtrack track “FZ on Varèse”—Gail brought in the money through their independent record label she oversaw from the kitchen.
In the more than 25 years since Frank Zappa’s death in 1993, the Zappa Family Trust has raided the vault and attempted to keep the artist as prolific in death as he was in life. These days, Ahmet Zappa appears to be in charge. His mother gave him a majority share in the Trust along with sister Diva, leaving Moon and Dweezil with less control over their father’s legacy. This led to a feud that has apparently since been patched up.
Anyway, let me circle back to my thesis with another movie scene. In 1993’s Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm—played by Jeff Goldblum, who is fully libidinal in the role—tells the park’s owner that, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Listening to Zappa Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, I find myself asking, does anybody need a 68-track, five-LP set that goes on for three hours and fourteen minutes? Does anybody want this chaotically arranged compilation that, yes, true to its copy, contains, “nearly every song heard in the film”? Will even the most extreme Zappa-head (I’d count myself among them; someone fact-check me but I think I interviewed more former Zappa band members than Winter does in the film) want to listen to a quasi-greatest hits that is culled from less than one-fifth of Zappa’s output? Do listeners really want to hear live Zappa songs interspersed with snippets of dialogue, recordings of an orchestra performing Stravinsky, singles from Bizarre Records bands like Alice Cooper and the GTOs, and an entire disc of composer John Frizzell’s score?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding no. In the early years of posthumous releases, perhaps constrained by the eighty-minute playtime of the Compact Disc, the releases would generally cap at sixty minutes. Occasionally, a two-disc set would be marketed toward the freaks who just need more to freak out over. In the last handful of years, we’ve seen these Zappa sets becoming more and more unwieldy: 2018’s The Roxy Performances is seven CDs with almost eight hours of music; 2019’s The Hot Rat Sessions is six CDs that stretch on for seven hours and nineteen minutes; 2020’s Halloween 81 is 86 songs and seven hours long.
If I ever listened to the entirety of The Hat Rat Sessions, it would only be because I was serving on the jury for a plagiarism case brought on by the Mahavishnu Orchestra and not out of my own free will. I tuned in for a bit today during a walk and it’s neat knowing Zappa more or less came up with the drum fill that opens “Peaches En Regalia,” but its rewards are more akin to the edifying nature of an episode of Song Exploder than they are to the jubilant enjoyment of music you’d return to again and again. Not even the most contrary Zappa acolyte would argue on r/Zappa or forum.zappa.com that what could make Freak Out! stronger is more songs.
So much of Zappa’s brand is built around buying the idea that the man was a genius. Genius, as some say, is knowing when to stop. As someone who’s replayed Zappa Original Motion Picture Soundtrack three to four times, I can assure you that listening to it more than once is completely unnecessary. By brushing aside any concern re: curation, whoever controls the Zappa Family Trust is undermining its credibility. Just because you can digitize and release every night Zappa ever committed to tape, doesn’t mean you should.