It’s hard to believe that Frank Zappa really, really thought he could get an hour of his music on American network television in 1974. After all, the Top Ten that year included “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand, “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks, and “The Streak” by Ray Stevens. The charts were full of John Denver, Paul Anka, The Carpenters, The Hues Corporation, Abba, and Helen Reddy. Where would “Stinkfoot” fit into that mix?
In terms of TV rock shows, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was less than a year old, and was pretty much the only game in town beyond the Saturday afternoon dance parties like American Bandstand. The irreverent humor of Saturday Night Live—which later did invite Zappa to its stage—hadn’t yet debuted. In addition, the jazz/rock fusions of Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra weren’t exactly mainstream. That genre didn’t hit its popular stride until Jeff Beck issued Wired in 1976. Even then, it’s hard to imagine another jazz/fusion gang in town, the quirky and bizarre Mothers of Invention, would have been acceptable for programmers of pre-cable fare.
Still, on August 24, 1974, Zappa spent his own money and took his current line-up of the Mothers to the studios of KCET in Hollywood to capture what that astonishingly cohesive unit could do live. After moving away from the orchestral settings he’d been experimenting with and stripping away much of the onstage circus theatrics of the Flo and Eddie era, Zappa was now working with a five-piece ensemble he remained justifiably proud of long after its breakup. It consisted of Zappa (guitar, percussion, vocals), George Duke (keyboards, finger cymbals, tambourine, vocals), Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, vocals, comic repartee), Ruth Underwood (percussion, especially her trademark xylophone and vibraphone), Tom Fowler (bass), and Chester Thompson (drums). This was the same group Zappa recorded the same year for You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 2, which was later released in 1988.
In fact, the songlist for that concert and what was chosen for A Token of His Extreme overlap considerably. Both include “The Dog Breath Variations,” “Uncle Meat,” “Stinkfoot,” “Montana” (from 1973′s highly successful Over-Nite Sensation), “Pygmy Twylyte”/”Room Service,” and “A Token of My Extreme.”
The complex rhythms, percussive interplay, and Zappa’s stretched out guitar solos are also front and center on “Florentine Pogen” (featuring the lead vocals of Brock), “Inca Roads,” “Oh No”, “Son of Orange County,” and one blast from the Mothers of Invention early days, “More Trouble Every Day.” (Several of these numbers also appeared on the same year’s live Roxy & Elsewhere. There were 15 Mothers on those performances and Zappa told the audience not to be uncomfortable around the 16 mm cameras as he was planning a TV special. Didn’t quite work out that way.)
Musically speaking, as one might expect, everything is precise both in performance and the stereo mix production. It’s been some time since I’ve played You Can’t Do That On Stage, but the ambiance of the two recordings seems markedly different. After all, one was a compilation of three edited shows in Helsinki performed before large audiences; the other was filmed in a more controlled and much smaller room. The video, however, shows its age. Still, it’s fun to see Zappa and Brock fooling around with oversize old-style phones while they improvise the silly “Room Service” bit.
In the early numbers, and scattered throughout after, we see the surreal Claymation of Bruce Bickford, a contribution he’d expand for Zappa on the 1979 Baby Snakes project. I must say, while Zappa was a staunch opponent of recreational drug use, such stimulants could be helpful in appreciating these quick-tempo-ed visuals that often sail by too quickly to be understood.
Speaking of visuals, it’s rather surprising this release was issued in such a lackluster package. On the outside, A Token of His Extreme looks like a throwaway, a cheap release of spare material lying around the vaults. On the other hand, beyond the obligatory discography on the disc, we get a nice bonus feature of Zappa appearing on a 1976 Mike Douglas Show. In between rather banal questions, Zappa plugs in his guitar to play “Black Napkins” with the show’s house band. Dare I use the adjective—it was a lovely gig, one more in line with what TV of the era would countenance. Then, Zappa discussed A Token of His Extreme, noting it did well in Europe, was the best video ever made, and he pointedly praised Bickford before showing a two-minute excerpt from the film.
Some of the Claymation material, as well as a handful of the musical selections, also appeared on the 1982 video The Dub Room Special, released on DVD in 2005. However, it’s only now the official, complete A Token of His Extreme is widely available both for Zappa buffs—who can’t possibly miss this one—and perhaps new folks who haven’t yet dug into the works of the master of bizarre. It’s a nice representation of a very solid period for Zappa and a well-chosen Mothers who were more than capable of meeting his exacting standards. Not for everyone, sure enough, but if you like your music challenging and, to paraphrase Frank, without commercial potential, forget the cover and dive on in. There were better things in 1974 than “Having My Baby.”