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37 Years Ago: Frank Zappa Releases ‘Studio Tan’

If Frank Zappa was still alive, you can bet he’d be the last person who’d want to celebrate the anniversary of Studio Tan, an album he didn’t sanction, sequence, or even approve cover art for. He was caught in a legal battle with Warner Bros. Records and former manager Herb Cohen at the time. On top of that, none of the songs included on Studio Tan were even recorded in 1978, the year in which the album was released. Most of the tracks allegedly date from sessions between 1974 and 1976, with a couple of cuts even going as far back as 1969.

Zappa had hoped to weather his ongoing legal wrangles with Cohen by emptying his vaults into a massive, quadruple-LP set to be released all at once under the eyebrow-arching title of Lather. But when Warner Bros. deemed such a package commercial suicide, the company methodically picked apart the vast trove of recordings delivered by Zappa and pieced together a series of technically unauthorized albums, including Zappa in New York, Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favorites and Studio Tan.

There’s no defense for the label’s greed-motivated tampering, but by thwarting Zappa’s original, typically schizophrenic artistic vision for Lather (a vision that would not be properly realized until its CD release in 1996), Warner Bros. did attempt to group the huge chunk of material into somewhat cohesive smaller slices that fans could more easily digest. Still, it helped to be schooled in Zappa’s vast universe — with its infinite instances of conceptual continuity interconnecting even the furthest reaches of his discography — to fully appreciate the four selections that were shoehorned into Studio Tan.

Kicking it all off is the definitive studio version of “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” a side-long, 20-minute absurdist “Grand Wazoo”-period epic about a nocturnal, gregarious wild swine on his way up the corporate ladder who eventually meets the subject of another notorious Zappa song, “Billy the Mountain.”

Side two of Studio Tan keeps the comedy flowing with the falsetto and synthesizer surf of “Let Me Take You to the Beach” before moving into the persistently playful “serious orchestral piece,” “Revised Music for Guitar & Low-Budget Orchestra” and wrapping up with the instrumentally ornate jazz experiments of “REDUNZL.”

Despite the artist’s misgivings about the edited state in which it was presented, Studio Tan harbors plenty of engaging examples of Zappa’s wide-ranging musical brilliance. We’d like to think, after all these years, that he wouldn’t mind our celebration.

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