The long-awaited video release of Frank Zappa's 1974 TV special, called A Token of His Extreme, is a fine encapsulation of pretty much everything that Zappa was about in terms of sheer musical brilliance. And, it is a lot of fun.
Sure there's weird animation and some of Zappa's video editing choices may be overused. Token... is chockful of caffeinated, fast-cut editing years before MTV, including trippy overlay video effects and strobe-like switching between different camera angles in time with the music. Add to that some wonderfully challenging music and one can understand why American TV turned down the opportunity to show this back in they day.
As Zappa said during his 1976 appearance on the Mike Douglas Show: "This was put together with my own money and my own time and it's been offered to television networks and to syndication and it has been steadfastly rejected by the American television industry. It has been shown in primetime in France and Switzerland, with marvelous results. It's probably one of the finest pieces of video work that any human being has ever done. I did it myself. And the animation that you're gonna see in this was done by a guy named Bruce Bickford, and I hope he is watching the show, because it's probably the first time that a lot of people in America got a chance to see it."
Frank was ahead of his time in many ways and it would be years -- Halloween 1981 on MTV, actually -- until we got to see Frank and his band of merry music makers on fairly mainstream American Television in a full concert experience. Before that could happen, he made several appearances on Saturday Night Live and even was a judge on a disco dance program once (I think it was Dance Fever). But this was 1974 and perhaps America just wasn't ready yet.
Fast forward and now nearly 40 years later we finally get to see this snapshot of a man simply driven with the joy of making new sounds. Hardcore Zappa fans will want to get this for the exemplary "Inca Roads" and a very different version of "Pygmy Twylyte" (slower and funkier than the faster version on the Roxy & Elsewhere album) -- its almost a completely diffent tune in many ways. Casual fans will get a kick out of the fun comedy songs such as "Montana," "Stink-Foot" and the "Room Service" schtick routine. Throughout you get some fine fine guitar soloing by Zappa.
Then there is the band: this is peak, Roxy and Elsewhere-era Mothers of Invention, featuring the great George Duke on keyboards, Chester Thompson on drums, the amazing Ruth Underwood on vibes and percussion, Napoleon Murphy Brock on flute, saxophone and lead vocals and Tom Fowler on bass. An utterly amazing assemblage, they are arguably one of Zappa's best bands and most beloved by many fans. It's a joy to watch these people play this incredibly complex music with such free-fall abandon. Some of the distinctive camera angles are wonderful, letting you (for example) watch Ruth Underwood weave intricate melodies from her vibes and then in an instant flip over to the drums behind her to bang out precision beats before switching back to the vibes.
While at first I was disappointed that the video is only available on DVD, my guess is that this decision was made due to the limitations inherent to video production of the period. There's only so much information one can glean from the available tapes. Bumping the original two-inch Quad master video tapes -- as in Quadraplex which boasts about 400 lines of video resolution according to the Wiki -- to Blu-ray would probably not be of much benefit to the viewer.
So, you get some digitial video graininess when watching this on your hi def TVs, especially in some of the darker scenes. But overall the video is remarkably crisp and at times you can see details that no one ever probably considered (such as finger prints on the pick guard to Frank's Gibson SG guitar).
Also we only got a stereo mix. Spoiled as we are in these days of multiple audio options being offered on some discs, this one is simply stereo and that is a big deal if you stop and think about it. In 1974, TV was still pretty much a Monophonic affair and the whole home video Betamax/VHS tape phenomenon would not exist for several years. It is quite wonderful that Frank had the foresight to mix in stereo for posterity. This is a genuine Zappa recording that sounds great in all its 48 kHz 24-bit PCM stereo glory.
If you are a hardcore Zappa fan you'll be miffed that this is not the complete performance from the original concert taped at KCET TV in Los Angeles. Several tracks which appeared on a mail-order only release called The Dub Room Special (available from www.zappa.com) are not on this release. But, most of us already have that DVD so this issue completes the picture.
There is a fun bonus on this disc which is especially personal for me: the complete 1976 appearance of Frank Zappa on The Mike Douglas Show. You see, this popular afternoon talk show -- along with Merv Griffin's similar program that ran after it -- was watched religiously by my mother. I was in junior high when this aired and I was getting heavily into Zappa's music. Mom took an interest in what I was doing -- mostly in a good way, she wanted to understand what I was getting into -- this Zappa appearance was really a wonderful common ground moment for us, watching one of my music favorites on one of her favorite TV programs. I vividly remember sitting there with Mom and her being impressed with Zappa's eloquence in the interviews and surprised at the music he played (an instrumental, "Black Napkins," backed by the Douglas house band, who are clearly grooving on the music). I also remember at this moment I reveling at how just a couple years prior Mom sat me down and had me play her all of Zappa's Freak Out album for her -- I guess she was relieved that at least I wasn't listening to Black Sabbath. ;-)
That said, it is a great interview and really fascinating to see Frank on the same stage with mainstream icons like Jimmy Walker and Kenny Rogers. You get to see it in full color and in remarkably good sound -- way better than our little Sharp color TV that we had back in the day.
Ok on last thing about this DVD : the price. This thing is going for about $10 on Amazon. Just $10? Yeah, that's what I said. My guess is that the powers that be finally decided to release this -- without much fanfare -- because of gray market copies selling in Europe. Zappa was a pioneer with his Beat The Boots series of releases so one would guess that they wanted to counter those unofficial releases.
Whatever the case, I'm super happy this thing is out. You should get it.
Mark Smotroff is a
freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in
marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video
games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T
and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine,
Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine
and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a
musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville
and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling
out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com