[4 June 2013]
Never before available for commercial release A Token of His Extreme isn’t the Holy Grail Frank Zappa release, but it’s one of them.
In August 1974, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention could do no wrong. The maestro had assembled arguably the best lineup of the group since he first disbanded the group in 1969. He’d retire the name entirely in 1975 after Bongo Fury, his final collaboration with Captain Beefheart. For the rest of his career as a live performer he’d move through a series of lineups that offered varying degrees of awesomeness but few could match the unit he’d brought together for this recording on 27 August at KCET in Hollywood.
This is the same lineup featured on 1988’s You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore Vol. 2: The Helsinki Concert and more or less the same one found on Roxy and Elsewhere, most of which was recorded in late 1973 and released just a few weeks after this show took place. These were players—bassist Tom Fowler, percussionist Ruth Underwood, keyboardist George Duke, drummer Chester Thompson and vocalist/saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock—who had an incomparable musical rapport and their tenure with FZ has probably been under-documented in the wide Zappa oeuvre.
There’s a great fluidity to the performances. Brock and Duke offer some jaw-dropping turns and Underwood (who’d retire from music entirely not too long after leaving the FZ camp) plays with a seemingly impossible ease, maneuvering through snaky passages as she were merely batting an eye. Thompson, a gifted drummer who’d later tour extensively with Genesis, and Fowler also sound more than impressive throughout.
Zappa himself was at one of the many peaks in his guitar playing, looking and sounding relaxed with this unit. Here, he’s a member of the band almost more than he is the leader, a balance he didn’t always strike with later lineups. Several of the compositions are specifically associated with this era of the Mothers: “Florentine Pogen” and “Inca Roads” would appear, in slightly different form, on 1975’s One Size Fits All; “Stink-Foot” came from the Apostrophe LP and “Montana” from Over-Nite Sensation. But others, including “The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat” and “More Trouble Every Day”, had been part of the repertoire for nearly a decade by the time FZ and Co. visited KCET in 1974.
According to an interview Zappa granted Mike Douglas in 1976—featured as bonus material here—the television program was “steadfastly rejected by the American television industry”, although it was well received in both Switzerland and France. Nearly 40 years after its recording, it’s evident that Zappa went all-out on this project, delivering not only a performance that warrants repeated listens but creating a visual product worthy of repeated viewings. (The animated segments, courtesy of Bruce Bickford, are splendid.) The audio—the One Size Fits All version of “Inca Roads” draws heavily from this gig—is good enough that a companion audio-only release seems in order.
The extras include a discography and videography, but the Mike Douglas Show performance of “Black Napkins” (while Zappa was promoting 1976’s Zoot Allures) is priceless.