It is not surprising that during the mid-1970s Frank Zappa decided to fund his own television special. It is also not surprising that given the conservative nature of the TV networks during that era, none of them would air the special. Zappa had an eccentric brilliance that was outside the mainstream and the networks at the time were all about mainstream, so the special sat in the vaults. Now A Token of His Extreme has returned in all its bizarre glory.
Given that the film is close to 40 years old, they have done a good job of cleaning it up as the sound and picture are very clear. The problem is the way it was filmed, as the camera angles move very fast at times and for no apparent reason. During some of the performances, Zappa is not the center of attention even when playing a solo and Frank Zappa’s guitar solos are to be treasured.
The band backing Zappa’s guitar and vocals is tight. It centers around keyboardist George Duke, for whom I have new respect, plus sax player Napoleon Murphy Brock, percussionist Ruth Underwood, bassist Tom Fowler, and drummer Chester Thompson. Songs such as “The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat,” Stink-Foot,” “Pygmy Twylyte,” “Inca Roads,” and “More Trouble Every Day” will never come close to the Billboard Hot 100 but they are wonderful excisions into the mind and music of Frank Zappa. They are good connecters to a specific period of his career. Five of the performances clock in at between seven and 12 minutes, which allows the musicians to stretch out and explore his visions.
You can’t have a Zappa television special without some animation interspersed among the music. Bruce Bickford created the characters. I’m sort of split on the effectiveness of the approach but to Frank Zappa it all made sense and, at the least, it is an interesting ride.
The best of the bonus material is his 17 minute appearance on The Mike Douglas Show, which was done to promote the special. Also on hand as guests were Kenny Rogers and Jimmy Walker, which form a very odd threesome.
A Token of His Extreme is a welcome addition to his vast catalog of releases. It will no doubt please his many fans and hopefully add a few new ones along the way. So sit back, let you mind wander, and enjoy the world and music of Frank Zappa.