Originally conceived as a contractually obliged four-record set in 1977, the ill-fated Läther was eventually released posthumously as a triple album on Rykodisc and remains among the artist’s finest work.
Zappa’s career was peppered with conflicts and legal problems with record companies; none more so than the tangled non-release of the sprawling quadruple LP Läther (pronounced “leather”) in 1977. By the mid-70s The Mothers were a thing of the past and Frank was concentrating on his solo career with the release of a wealth of material including the sumptuous live outing Roxy & Elsewhere (1974), the slick One Size Fits All (1975), and the masterpiece of dark, sleazy rock Zoot Allures (1976), among many others. However, the prolific artist was forced to make what amounted to a new career start after his then-record label Warner Bros. prevented the release of his new project before claiming he owed them four more albums.
Warner decided not to pay the amount they contractually owed Zappa, thinking that he’d thrown the package together just to free himself from his recording contract. A lawsuit ensued during which no Zappa material was released for more than a year meanwhile Zappa responded by playing the entire thing on a KROQ-FM radio show in 1977, encouraging fans to: “Don’t buy it, tape it.“
Warner Bros, claiming rights over the material, dismembered Läther and staggered the release of four separate yet very good albums over the next two years via DiscReet Records, without Zappa’s approval or any songwriting and production credits, and commissioned cartoonist Gary Panter best known for his work in Raw Comix to create the rather underwhelming artwork.
The first of these records was the excellent double live album ZAPPA IN NEW YORK (1978) ★★★★★, the only one of the four produced with some Zappa oversight, and the only one with its packaging and liner notes preserved. Serving as a great introduction to his music with a smoking-hot ensemble, including Terry Bozio on drums and percussionist Ruth Underwood, Zappa takes the opportunity to drastically revisit some of his finest work in different arrangements (eg: ‘Sofa’, ‘The Torture Never Stops’), as well as debuting new material such as ‘Honey Don’t You Want a Man Like Me’ which finds Frank at the height of his comic stagecraft, and the outstanding instrumental piece ‘I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth’, later re-named as the title track to Läther.
STUDIO TAN (1978) ★★★½, was released later the same year and consisted of only four tracks featuring the Roxy & Elsewhere band. Side one was taken up by the 20-minute shaggy-dog opera of ‘Greggery Peccary’ which finds Zappa’s juvenile humour and hamfisted parody of rock and roll outshone by some remarkable instrumental passages. The piece was painstakingly assembled in the studio over three years and bridges the comedy of Flo & Eddie with the quirky big-band jazz feel of The Grand Wazoo (1973), while side two’s major highlight is the exhilarating instrumental album closer ‘RDNZL’.
The next album to receive the Warner Bros treatment was SLEEP DIRT (1979) ★★★★★, consisting of a miscellany of seven tracks recorded between 1974 and 1976. Initially released as an entirely instrumental album (later had vocals added on various CD reissues), it remains perhaps Zappa’s most overlooked gem. The album hosts some major career highlights including the menacing ‘Filthy Habits’ and exquisite ‘Re-Gyptian Strut’, two of Zappa’s best songs, as well as the title track which sparkles around a subdued guitar duo of acoustic virtuosity, before the crowning Zappian instrumental achievement, the 13-minute ‘The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution’. The title wasn’t Frank’s either as he told Record Review in 1979:
I might point out that Sleep Dirt is not the name of the album. 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. And based on the job they did with the cover of Studio Tan, they made all of the packaging as unappealing as possible. – FZ
The final album was ORCHESTRAL FAVORITES (1979) ★★★, another entirely instrumental set consisting of five tracks recorded with a 37-piece orchestra at the UCLA campus theatre in 1975. The album includes familiar Zappa numbers such as a marvellous new arrangement of ‘Duke of Prunes’, originally off 1967’s Absolutely Free, and ‘Strictly Genteel’ the finale of 200 Motels (1971).
As for Läther, it had a posthumous 3CD release in 1996 and again in 2012 reinstating the originally intended artwork, and according to Gail Zappa’s booklet notes in the CD set; “As originally conceived by Frank, Läther was always a 4-record box set”. It mixes previously available material, alternate mixes and edits, and previously unissued tracks where only the most serious Zappaphiles fans will have a good grip on exactly what has appeared where, when and how.
While the official CD version of Läther is reportedly identical to the test-pressings of the original quadruple album, four bonus tracks were added to the 1996 release, and the title of the song ‘One More Time for the World’ was changed to ‘The Ocean is the Ultimate Solution’, the title under which the same song appears on Sleep Dirt.
Frank Zappa – Läther (1996)  mp3
- Re-Gyptian Strut – Appears on Sleep Dirt (1979). 4:36
- Naval Aviation in Art? – Appears on Orchestral Favorites (1979). 1:32
- A Little Green Rosetta – Previously unreleased. 2:48
- Duck Duck Goose – Previously unreleased. 3:01
- Down in De Dew – Previously unreleased (The Grand Wazoo/Waka Jawaka sessions outtake). 2:57
- For the Young Sophisticate – Previously unreleased (Overnite Sensation Outtake). 3:14
- Tryin’ to Grow a Chin – Previously unreleased. 3:26
- Broken Hearts Are for Assholes – Previously unreleased. 4:40
- The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit – Appears on Zappa in New York. 12:41
- Lemme Take You to the Beach – Appears on Studio Tan. 2:46
- Revised Music for Guitar & Low Budget Orchestra – Appears on Studio Tan. 7:36
- RDNZL – Appears on Studio Tan. 8:14
- Honey, Don’t You Want a Man Like Me? – Different edit of the version that appears on Zappa in New York. The ZINY version is a single performance while the Läther version is a combination of two different performances. 4:56
- The Black Page Part 1 – A longer take appears on Zappa in New York with a drum solo included. 1:57
- Big Leg Emma – Appears on Zappa in New York. 2:11
- Punky’s Whips – Appears on Zappa in New York with a different mix and alternate guitar solo. 11:06
- Flambé – A longer version appears on Sleep Dirt under the title ‘Flam Bay’. 2:05
- The Purple Lagoon – Appears on Zappa in New York. 16:20
- Pedro’s Dowry – Appears on Orchestral Favorites. 7:45
- Läther – Appears on Zappa in New York under the title ‘I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth’. 3:50
- Spider of Destiny – A longer version appears on Sleep Dirt. 2:40
- The Duke of Orchestral Prunes – Appears on Orchestral Favorites. 4:21
- Filthy Habits – A longer version appears on Sleep Dirt. Outtake from Zoot Allures (1976). 7:12
- Titties & Beer – Appears on Zappa in New York (1978). 5:23
- The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution (Originally entitled “One More Time for the World”) – A longer version appears on Sleep Dirt. 8:31
- The Adventures of Greggery Peccary – Appears on Studio Tan. 21:00
All tracks written by Frank Zappa.