Zappa in New York was released in the UK by Zappa's DiscReet Records label in 1977, then quickly withdrawn. A second version was re-released internationally in March 1978 with changes ordered by DiscReet's distributor, Warner Bros. Records. The 1978 edition reached #57 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in the United States.
Immediately following the 1976 concerts, Zappa spent time in the studio adding a significant number of overdubs to the live recordings. Several of these recordings were originally intended for the shelved album Läther, including "The Illinois Enema Bandit", "The Black Page #1", "Big Leg Emma", "Punky's Whips", "The Purple Lagoon" and "I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth."
The album is notable for the presence of members of the Saturday Night Live band, including Lou Marini and Tom Malone, as well as the Brecker Brothers. In addition, Don Pardo was invited by Zappa to the Palladium concert, and he provides introductory narrations to "Punky's Whips" and "The Illinois Enema Bandit". On the CD version, Pardo also delivers a verse of "I'm the Slime" (he did the same for Zappa's 1976 Saturday Night Live appearance).
The lyrics of "Punky's Whips" were intended as an inside joke regarding drummer Terry Bozzio's purported infatuation with Punky Meadows, lead guitarist of the band Angel. "Titties and Beer" also features Bozzio in the role of the Devil, with whom Zappa tries to negotiate in order to reacquire the titular possessions. The song references "Milhous Nixon" and "Agnew" whose souls are supposedly taken by the Devil. This is a clear re-interpretation of Histoire du soldat by Igor Stravinsky, one of Zappa's favorite classical composers.
The "favorite group" of the girl portrayed in "Honey Don't You Want a Man Like Me?" is said to be Helen Reddy. In concert performances from the 1980s, Zappa would substitute other current bands in this line (mentioning Twisted Sister in two officially released versions, and Echo & the Bunnymen, Missing Persons and The Cars in other versions). The lyrics of "The Illinois Enema Bandit" are based on facts about the criminal actions of Michael H. Kenyon.
Alongside humorous lyrics, Zappa presented many musically complex instrumental passages which stretched the band's skill to the absolute limit. Among the most complicated parts are the instrumentals "The Black Page" and "Manx Needs Women". This title references the 1967 science fiction B-movie Mars Needs Women. "The Purple Lagoon" is an extended instrumental which takes up an entire side of the vinyl disc. It features a complicated opening theme (based on Zappa's earlier composition "Approximate") and jazz-like solos from the Brecker Brothers, bassist Patrick O'Hearn and saxophonist Ronnie Cuber.
Zappa in New York was first released in early 1977 with Zappa's original intended track listing. A small number of LP copies reached stores in England before the album was quickly withdrawn. In 1978, some original cassette copies also appeared in the United States, though, apparently this was by mistake. Before re-issuing the album Warner removed one of the longest songs, "Punky's Whips". This reduced the playing time of side one to a mere ten minutes, moving "Big Leg Emma" from side 2 to the end of side 1; "Titties & Beer" was also edited to remove references to the song "Punky's Whips". The changes made to the album violated Zappa's contract, which gave him complete artistic control over album content.
When Zappa's distribution agreement with Warner ended in 1982, all release rights reverted to him. Zappa re-issued Zappa in New York as a double CD in 1991 with the addition of four bonus tracks ("Cruisin' for Burgers", "Punky's Whips", "I'm the Slime", "The Torture Never Stops"). The CD reissue was remixed to feature guitar overdubs that were recorded at the time of the album's issue but not included on the original vinyl, and contained a different recording of "Punky's Whips" and the full-length "Titties & Beer".