Frank Zappa
A Token Of His Extreme
(Eagle Vision)

The massive re-release program which last year brought the whole, complex entity that's universally known as "The Zappa catalogue" back to the marketplace entailed a question of tremendous importance for all true fans of the mustachioed Maestro: "Will those things we all know exist but which for one reason or another never see the light of day be released, at last?". Of course, if it's Zappa videos we are talking about, the Holy Grail is "The Roxy video": more or less 4hrs. of film shot in December '73, starring a very fine line-up - just check the double album from '74 titled - that's right, you guessed right - Roxy & Elsewhere.

Maybe it would be better for us to abandon all hope: it has been said that production costs would be so high as to make the whole enterprise implausible, due to the enormous quantity of film. "The Roxy video", it seems, just won't be. But it would be wrong to discount what's already there when it comes to Zappa on video: A Token Of His Extreme is an important piece of the puzzle - besides being a fun experience - for both serious fan and neophyte, and a perfect point of entry for those who have been discouraged by the sheer size of Zappa's oeuvre.

A Token Of His Extreme - a pun on A Token Of My Esteem, obviously - is the title of a TV special created by Zappa at a time when he was experiencing his "15 minutes of celebrity" thanks to charting albums such as Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe ('). It was thanks to the liner notes to his album One Size Fits All, released in Summer '75, that his fans got to know that "The basic tracks for Inca Roads and Florentine Pogen were recorded live at KCET TV Los Angeles during the production of our TV special". Now we know the precise date to be August, 27.

The line-up featured here is the one that's typical from this period, which with a certain amount of variations can be listened to on many Zappa albums, and in its "pure" form on the excellent Vol. II from the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series, featuring a whole concert recorded just a few weeks after this video, and released under the title The Helsinki Concert. The cast: Napoleon Murphy Brock on tenor sax, flute, and vocals; George Duke on keyboards and vocals; Tom Fowler on bass; Chester Thompson on drums; Ruth Underwood on percussion. Zappa is on guitar, vocals, and also, sometimes, percussion.

This line-up has sometimes been called "Zappa's best ever", but I don't think it needs such an exaggeration in order to be fully appreciated. It can be said that at this time Zappa goes back to some "Blues"-based climates and topics, with a fine timbral palette from musicians who knew first-hand what they were doing, so that Zappa wears his humour showing he is having fun - besides being funny. Here one can definitely breath an R&B-flavored air, which for someone who was brought up in the 50s definitely means "electric Blues", not "funky" - even if heavy doses of "funk" are here in this music, thanks especially to Chester Thompson's drumming (but beware: he's not a one-trick-pony, as the orchestral tuning of his toms easily shows), and George Duke's "electric" accents on vocals, on Clavinet, and on two electric pianos, a Fender Rhodes and a Wurlitzer, sometimes played both at the same time.

Listeners will easily appreciate Ruth Underwood's versatility and performing skills on marimba, vibes, and assorted drums. Napoleon Murphy Brock is a formidable stage presence, possessing an enormous amount of breath, which makes it possible for him to perform with aplomb and finesse hard stuff on both tenor and flute while dancing. The technically perfect Tom Fowler here works as an anchor. Zappa sings and talks, and plays fine solos - it's the famous Gibson SG with Bigsby off the Roxy & Elsewhere cover.

There's an issue of a "pragmatic" nature one has to deal with here, provided one already owns a DVD-V from a few years ago titled The Dub Room Special: For many years the material off the TV special had a wide illegal circulation on VHS tape, the first official release that a portion of this music had being on The Dub Room Special, where it appears alongside tracks off a Zappa Halloween concert from 1981, which was later included in a more complete form on The Torture Never Stops video.

I have to say that the songs that appear here for the first time are many, and of very fine quality. The recorded sound sounds better to me - but I have to say that my video gear is far from being hi-fi, so added detail could also be ascribed to a skillful use of compression). I won't miss those sonic overdubs that Zappa applied in post-production in those tracks that first appeared on The Dub Room special - check those sounds which appear the moment the gorilla with a clock and a hairbrush approaches the drummer. Unfortunately, those long minutes when guitar solos are visually replaced by Bruce Bickford's animations, a choice I never appreciated, stay the same (but maybe I lack imagination, and so there are people who get more bored watching Frank Zappa play guitar solos than watching animation?).

Quite strange, two tracks which were performed at the concert and were featured on The Dub Room Special - Approximate and Cosmik Debris - are missing here, for which I'm sorry: the former is a quite original piece, the latter features one of the most beautiful solos Zappa played in the course of this concert. Can't help you here, I'm afraid, though I have to say that watching the (now absent) footage when wearing my "analytic hat" I seemed to perceive a definite aroma of studio overdubbing - something which has to do with the envelope, especially the attack, in the second part of the tenor sax solo.

The material - off the band's repertoire from that time - is performed "con brio". I'll mention the funny Stink-Foot, though in a strangely "abbreviated" form. The long Inca Roads, with a fine George Duke solo ARP Odyssey synthesizer, which emits a timbre that's quite Minimoog-like. The fine The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat medley. Sure, Montana is here. There's a fine improvised solo by George Duke which also has a sequenced part and a dance with Napoleon Murphy Brock (which I still remember as being part of the band's Rome concert from... almost forty years ago). Here are Florentine Pogen, Pygmy Twylyte, Oh No/Son Of The Orange County, and More Trouble Every Day. One can't help but notice that George Duke has great ears - check the way that, in the last two tracks I mentioned, he "echoes" on his Fender Rhodes some phrases that Zappa plays in his guitar solos.

There's a fine "bonus": Zappa's apparition on the Mike Douglas Show in 1976, where he talked about the TV special, and his new album Zoot Allures. There's a clear conversation about the history of the Mothers Of Invention, Zappa's non-use of drugs, his musical preferences, and so on, alongside two other persons - I think I recognized US singer Kenny Rogers.

Fantastic surprise, Zappa plugs his SG (a later copy, I think), in a minuscule, two-watt, Pignose amplifier, and with the backing of the house band performs an excellent version of Black Napkins, his hands in close-up (hurrah!), and lotsa thrills for all.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2013 | June 19, 2013