Monday, November 11, 2013


From Open Culture, courtesy of one of my favorite college professors, on facebook:

Frank Zappa bringing his own brand of offbeat music to the American airwaves in 1963. Only 22 years old and not yet famous, Zappa appeared on The Steve Allen Show and made music with some drumsticks, a bass bow, and two garden-variety bicycles — and nothing more.

Click here for more, and to see the videos.

Here's the comment I left.

Okay, I haven't watched this for a while, but viewing it again just now drives home a few ideas that hadn't occurred to me before.

As goofy and pedantic as Steve Allen could be in those days, he was no idiot. As an accomplished jazz pianist, in the era when the free jazz experiments of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane were starting to challenge the critics' concept of what music is, Allen had to have known exactly what Zappa was doing--I mean, it's quite possible that he hated the stuff, but he definitely understood it. He, and his house orchestra, also had to have been completely at home with the improvisational nature of Zappa's performance--at this point in television history, all these in-studio bands were coming out of a jazz tradition, which is all about improvisation.

So if this was all to be taken as something of a joke by the audience, it's a joke that everybody there was in on.

It's also really interesting to me that, as young as Zappa was at that point, the creative template for the rest of his career had already been set. One of the reasons FZ was always so weird is that he was very much about fusing his three major musical influences, doo-wop music, early 60s California surf music, and hardcore twentieth century avant-garde composition. That is, he put stuff together well that doesn't really go well together. He must have been an extraordinarily interesting kid--he begged his mother on his fifteenth birthday for the opportunity to make a long distance phone call to composer Edgard Varese.

We don't get to see the surf or doo-wop influences in these clips, but we definitely see the influence of Varese, and we also get to see where FZ would be heading with his own efforts in only a few short years. The improv concerto here could have come straight off of We're Only in It for the Money, released in 1968.

We also get to see how comfortable FZ already was in his capacity as a bandleader, even in the face of the totally overbearing Steve Allen, who a few years earlier had Elvis on the show singing "Hound Dog" to an actual hound dog, one of the more infamous moments in rock and roll history. That is, Allen could be a majorly condescending dick, but Zappa, while managing to keep his dignity intact, was able to take over the studio for a few minutes, and get everybody to create music the way he wanted it done.

So while his appearance on the show, at first glance, comes off as a schlocky and weird manifestation of early 60s junk television, you really can kind of see it all there when you dig into it a bit. Zappa was Zappa from almost the very beginning, it seems. And this artifact video is something of a treasure because of that. Thanks for posting.