Music Review: Frank Zappa – A Token of His Extreme (Honker Home Video/ Eagle Rock, DVD)

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Frank Zappa – A Token of His Extreme DVD

Frank Zappa – A Token of His Extreme DVD

Frank Zappa wasn’t just ahead of his time—I don’t think time has caught up to him yet. Even in 2013, this 1974 concert, recorded for a TV special that never aired, still seems innovative and creative. Frank Zappa was one of a kind, and while his influence is deeply present in the work of many artists, as evidenced by this show, now out for the first time on DVD, he remains an unmatched talent.

As this show proves, he was an uncompromising talent, too. Zappa did what he did, take it or leave it. He certainly didn’t tone down his act for television—maybe that’s why he failed to sell to it any of the networks at the time it was produced. Perhaps Zappa felt this was palatable family entertainment suitable for any household, and while this set dialed down the bathroom humor and sexual content present on much of his work, it certainly wouldn’t have been a good follow-up to The Brady Bunch. More suited to midnight airing, this was still, apparently, considered too wild for TV at the time.

It still seems pretty wild now. Backed by a stellar band that included fusion giants George Duke (keyboards) and Chester Thompson (drums, who subsequently became Genesis’ touring drummer), Zappa was arguably at a musical peak with the 1974 lineup of his ever-changing band The Mothers. Percussionist Ruth Underwood and saxophonist/singer Napoleon Murphy Brock also brought a great deal to this diverse band. Brock often took the role of front man, and he was a crazed one, dancing, prancing and inhabiting the characters of Zappa’s music, as Zappa himself was often pretty subdued onstage, functioning more as musical director and lead guitarist than dominant center of attention.

Speaking of guitar, this DVD makes a good case for the appreciation of Zappa as the master guitarist he was. Beyond the bizarre musical constructions and goofy humor, Zappa was a truly innovative guitar soloist. Rather than playing licks or “shredding”, he was actually doing spontaneous composition on his guitar—his lead lines were bold new melodies, not necessarily fast or tricky but consistently interesting and diverse. His guitar work was as original as every other facet of his music.

As this show was intended for TV broadcast, it was created as a true multimedia experience—but this is a Zappa production, so nothing is “normal” or conventional. Rather, Zappa fortified the program with crazed clay animation by Bruce Bickford. A perfect visual accompaniment for Zappa’s music, Bickford’s segments were free-form pieces in which seemingly ordinary things morphed into strange things—often snakelike things. (It seems like Bickford really had a thing for snakes—no wonder a later Zappa production that featured his work was titled Baby Snakes). In one segment, a finger on a hand morphs into a human head and takes a bite out of another finger. A third finger then grows arms that put a Band-aid on the bit one. It’s like that. While Zappa didn’t use recreational drugs, his work certainly was trippy, and these visuals even more so.

If you like Zappa, there’s a great set list at play in this show—including pieces of “Uncle Meat”, “Stink-Foot”, “Inca Roads” and “Montana.” If you’re not familiar with his work, this is a good sampler. If you’re not a fan, this won’t convince you to be one.

Surprisingly, the audio and video are very good, especially considering this was produced in 1974. Zappa was always about good sound, and the mix here is full and clear, and blows away most of the music video produced in this era. Visually, this show was shot like many concerts were in those days for programs like “The Midnight Special” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” (ah, memories …). There are plenty of psychedelic color treatments and rapid camera pulling-in-and-out to create a groovy visual experience to go with the cool sounds. It’s dated, but when this becomes a more conventional concert film, we can focus on what Zappa and the band are doing onstage, which is consistently impressive and compelling.

This DVD features one key bonus feature: an interview with Zappa on The Mike Douglas Show done to promote this program, even though it never aired. (For those unfamiliar with the show, Mike Douglas was an afternoon talk show that usually was conventional showbiz but occasionally veered off the path, such as in famous interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.) It’s truly bizarre to see Zappa onstage with Douglas and Jimmie “JJ” Walker, but Douglas actually did a good interview, taking Frank and his music seriously and doing his best to make it palatable to middle America. Zappa even got up and played some ripping guitar, backed by the Douglas stage band. Something to behold.

Not for all tastes, but if you appreciate the adventurous and slightly bent in your music and video, this token of Zappa’s extreme could be right up your bizarre alley.

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  • Therefore

    What a wonderfully insightful well written piece. Thanks for making this a good day!

  • Trevor

    Great review bang on the money.