Written by 7:17 am Audiophile Music

Consumer Demand For Hot Rats Escalates : A Zappa Reviewer’s Tale

Mark Smotroff goes on a quest for fresh rats…

What would you do if you woke up one day and found that your favorite record was missing from the universe? Lets say, The Beatles’ White Album or perhaps the first Velvet Underground (VU) album… You know, the one with the Andy Warhol-designed banana on the cover that instructs you to “Peel Slowly and See.” Classic recordings that are near ubiquitous today…

AR-ZappaHotRatsCover225.jpgI mean… It is conceivable that if left to their own devices, some dark soul could snap up a lion’s share of the available copies of a particular record. There is at least one fellow who created an entire store dedicated to The White Album and I’ve read a report of another with more than 800 copies of that first VU album… 

Full disclosure: I own six LP copies of that VU record, but am down to just five White Albums

But I digress…

The conceptual continuity connection behind this introduction and Frank Zappa revolves around Hot Rats, his 1969 release which has been lovingly re-issued on Zappa Records via Universal Music Group, now widely available around the world. You see, I was planning on writing about this reissue many months ago when the label kindly sent me a review copy.  However, circumstance derailed that effort (prompting me to first review other LPs in the reissue program, which you can now find by visiting my Pinterest page archive).

How was I derailed, you ask?

Well… My sad tale-of-woe begins when I went looking for my original LP of Hot Rats to compare/contrast with the new version: I was surprised to find it was missing from my collection. Yikes! Did I accidentally sell it when downsizing when moving several years ago?  Did someone steal it??  (Cue Zappa Audio: “Oh no, I can’t believe it…”)

Undaunted, I set out to find a replacement, thinking it’d be easy. Turns out it no simple a task! To appreciate this, you must understand that Hot Rats was very popular back in the day. LP copies were everywhere. Fast forward to the 21st-century and original pressings are remarkably fairly scarce. And, when you do find a copy it is either (a) very beat up or (b) an extremely expensive collectors item.

Who’d a thunk it?  (Well, I suspect that the folks at Universal and Frank Zappa’s estate might have!)

AR-HotRatsBizarreLabelVignette225.jpgMy search for le insaisissable Rats Chauds continued, including most every music store in San Francisco:  Amoeba Music, 1234 Go Records, Groove Merchant, Western Relics, Green Apple Books and Records and Rasputin RecordsThe Originals Vinyl had one on consignment but it had been sold an hour or so before I’d arrived there.  In Santa Cruz, both Metavinyl and Streetlight Records were Rat-less. At at recent KUSF Rock ‘n Swap meet, only ONE vendor out of the many dozens there had a copy but it was a late 70s Reprise Records reissue and I really wanted a copy on Bizarre. It got to the point where I was getting so desperate I was considering ordering a copy via eBay or Discogs… 


Hot Rats has become Eeeeee-lusive, I tell you! (E-lusive with a capital “E”).

Ever the bargain hunter, I kept my Zen-like head, took many a deep breath while trudging across the rat-less tundra — I do like the treasure hunt aspect of record collecting — until (“Great googly-moogly!”) I found a reasonably priced copy at a garage sale… It is not in mint condition, but for $2 it gave me a clear reminder of the overall character of the original Bizarre Records editions of Hot Rats, something to compare and contrast with when listening to the new pressing.

This new 2016 edition is made from Zappa’s original mix — not his very different sounding “directors cut” like remix from the late 1980s as issued on CD (via the Rykodisc label). This is the real Hot Rats, Zappa’s first solo album, a pioneering jazz-rock fusion landmark. Pressed at Pallas in Germany, the new version sounds pretty tremendous, restoring the album to its analogue grandeur after decades frozen in the 16-bit digital outback.

AR-HotRatsBizarreLogo225.jpgLets take a moment to recount the key versions of Hot Rats the marketplace has seen (on LP and CD), at least here in the United States:

  • 1969 Bizarre Records original, blue-teal label
  • 1970s Reprise Records reissue, tan label
  • 1980s Rykodisc CD, remixed by Zappa
  • 2009 Classic Records 200 gram LP reissue of the original mix, mastered by Bernie Grundman in 2008
  • 2012 Zappa Records CD of the original mix, mastered by Bernie Grundman in 2008
  • 2016 Zappa Records LP pressed at Pallas in Germany, original mix, mastered by Bernie Grundman

There are many more editions globally which you can read about here.

For those of you with eyes glazing over, I received some clarity from Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers to help you fully appreciate this new edition:

“When Bernie mastered the Classic Records version in 2008, he also mastered it for digital,” Joe explained. “The latest vinyl version of Hot Rats is the same exact mastering as the Classic Records version — we used the same exact ‘mother.’ That Classic Records release is no longer in print & we own that master. The Hot Rats 2012 CD is from the 2008 mastering session with Bernie as mentioned above.”

So there you have it:  the new Pallas-pressed Hot Rats is pretty much the definitive article. And it is a steal price wise: you can find it for under $25 new and it should sound basically the same as the now very pricey Classic Records editions (at least they seem to be pricey on Discogs). This new edition sounds like Hot Rats should sound; this is a big deal for those of us who were taken aback by Zappa’s drastic 1980s remix. The new vinyl sounds quite shiny compared to the original and somewhat muted Bizarre Records pressing. The old version sounds fine, don’t get me wrong — Hot Rats has a long history as an audiophile system demo favorite. Yet, you can hear much more detail on the new version: guitar licks are more present, individual instruments are much more distinct and natural.  There seems to be an overall greater sense of air and dynamic range.

AR-ZappaHotRatsPallasLabel225.jpgI wondered if perhaps less compression was used in the making of this new edition?  Considering the constraints imposed upon records pressed in the 60s and early 70s, that is entirely possible. Many artists and record labels had to ride a fine line between commerce and art, creating albums that could be played on a $29.95 discount store stereo system as well as fancy audiophile gear. If the grooves got too hot, the discs would skip and there would be a barrage of returns, so most labels erred on the side of caution. That isn’t so much of an issue today, what with the overall improved quality of modern turntables.

Double checking my theory, I reached out again to Joe Travers who concurred I was on target:  “This version was created in 2008 with Bernie Grundman, cut directly from the original 1969 1/4-inch edit master tape.  Bernie is very faithful to the original master, if it sounds good, which this one does. He generally doesn’t add too much EQ unless it’s really needed. This version is more faithful to what is really on that master. The old master from 1969 would have some slight limitations due to the old technologies and mastering styles of the time.” 

So how do the two versions compare? There really is no contest. The original has its charms, but the new version lets you hear more of what Zappa actually recorded back in the day. If the 2008 CD sounded pretty great, imagine how much warmer and sweeter a nice vinyl LP pressing will sound with that sort of clarity! The new 180-gram pressing is lovely, dark and dead quiet and all that good audiophile stuff we like. My pressing is well centered, which some of you may know is a big nit for me to pick (and I can’t say the same about my original Bizarre LP which wavers, annoyingly warbling the music at the end of side one).  

This new reissue is real good news for Zappa fans, especially for those of you fence sitters pondering whether to buy this new edition or for those of you who, like me, simply have been frustrated by the relative difficulty of finding an original pressings.

Paraphrasing a line from the Hot Rats song “Willie The Pimp”: ‘a twenty dollar bill’l set you straight’ for the cost of entry to this fine reissue.  A great deal for an excellent version of Zappa’s legendary and still fresh jazz-rock fusion classic.

See ya on the corner (at the record store) and don’t be late….

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