Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Frank Zappa, ca. 1963

File under: random jazz archives.

This is Frank Zappa on the Steve Allen Show in 1963. Though the Free Jazz movement was well underway by the time this appearance/performance took place, what Zappa was doing here was actually really on the edge as far as live television went -- as Allen's constant joking around and the audience's nervous laughter shows.

Also watch Part 2.

What I like about Zappa is the way he quite unassumingly asks the host of the show, the musicians in the band, and the technician in the control booth to join him in the performance. He's directive the way a scientist performing an experiment might be, and clearly the music has formal planning principles. But the sound that comes out is essentially completely random, almost not worth listening to. At this early point, Zappa himself is utterly nondescript, and it's what he says and the way he talks (which are definitely a part of the "performance") that interests me most.


Anna said...

Great youtube find! Zappa rocks (rocked). But I think you overly deemphisize his own joking around here, and the briliant way in which he treads the line between commercialism and dadaism (two lifelong obsessions, in addition to his music), cultivating his audience enough to get away with satiric murder.

The scientific presentation you point out seems designed, in part, to put the audience at ease, purposely permitting them to laugh at Zappa as a familiar type-- absent minded professor/mad scientist/oblivious geek. A number of his lines are absurd in a way that clearly predicts laughter: he's been playing the bicycle "two weeks" (a planned question, I'd bet, if only because there's no way a staffer hadn't previously asked it); "The World's Greatest Sinner" was shot in El Monte, which an LA audience would recognize as the farthest place immaginable from the glamor of Hollywood (part of the southeast sprawl, then working class and white, now working class and Latino), and involved a "cast of thousands" (showbiz language)...of unsuspecting people on main street. Notice that Zappa loses the deadpan there for a second and cracks himself up.

At the same time, Zappa's both "directive," rather than fully playing along, and alienating in his oddness and in the dissonance of the performance. The ultimate joke is on the audience, rather than with them, via comedic Trojan Horse. For example, TWGS, the movie he references, and from which he plays music, is about a disgruntled insurance clerk who goes on the road to become a rock star/preacher/politician; through his radical preaching, he causes mass hysteria and garners a following that calls him God.

What do you think the 1963 George Allen show audience would have thought about that?

Also, through his outsider persona, Zappa can avoid compromising his own values. His geeky enthusiasm for the dissonant music he's playing is genuine. I actually kind of dig it, too, in doses. (The Brazilian Tom Ze, in both commercial and less commercial stuff, also does great avante sound stuff using found junk and sculptures of his own creation).

I guess my point is that it's only by playing to the audience that Zappa gets away with this absurdist coup.

5:08 PM  
Jonathan said...

Thanks for this introduction to Zappa. I am not aware of ever having heard his music before and now I am kind of curious.

6:02 PM  

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