After spending years in bootleg circulation, an official release of Frank Zappa’s A Token of his Extreme DVD is here! So what is this, you might ask? Well, it is a television special produced by Zappa in 1974 featuring the Roxy and Elsewhere version of the Mothers of Invention in all of its glory. The band documented here is quite possibly the finest group of musicians the man ever assembled – Napoleon Murphy Brock (tenor sax, flute, vocals), George Duke (keyboards, finger cymbal, tambourine, vocals), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), and the always sensational Ruth Underwood (percussion); to many fans, the ultimate Mothers lineup. So what makes this band so special? Well, read on…
A Token of his Extreme was filmed at KCET Studios, Los Angeles, on August 27th, 1974 and was initially envisioned as a 90 minute TV special that, in addition to highlights from the Mothers performance, would also showcase the claymation talents of “The Amazing” Bruce Bickford. The program was then offered to various television networks in the US, but was (in Frank’s own words), “steadfastly rejected by the American television industry”, but “shown in primetime in France and Switzerland, with marvelous results.” Unfortunately due to this, it has never appeared on US TV and has been widely bootlegged since the advent of the VHS tape. Though much of it did show up on the mail-order only The Dub Room Special! (1985, with a wider release on DVD in 2005), it was largely edited for the Laser Disc format and jarringly intercut with footage from Zappa’s 1981 Halloween performances – much of which has been commercially released on The Torture Never Stops (2008). Adding even further to it’s value, two of the recordings presented here were used as ‘basic tracks’ for One Size Fits All (1975), “Inca Roads” and “Florentine Pogen”, furthering the special’s importance in Zappa’s catalog. Due to this, A Token of his Extreme is one of the most sought after programs in the entire Zappa canon.
So the question that remains is, is this release worthwhile to someone who owns The Dub Room Special!? I’d say so. The performances here are astounding and the songs that were included on The Dub Room Special! take on an entirely new life in context of the program. In addition to this, there is roughly 30-35 minutes of footage that didn’t make it to The Dub Room Special!, including longer versions of “Montana” and “Room Service” and a George Duke keyboard solo, “Earl of Duke”. For the first time on video, we get to see one of Zappa’s improvised pieces where band members respond to pre-rehearsed visual cues, all of which accompanies a hilarious story told by Duke which is played out aurally on his synthesizers. In addition to this, we also get to see “Pygmy Twylyte”, “Oh No / Son of Orange County” and “More Trouble Everyday”, all of which feature amazing, acrobatic fretwork from Zappa and great jamming from all around. The sound is also improved over The Dub Room Special!; I noticed immediately that the recording had more punch and clarity and a slightly different mix, with some background vocals poking through once in awhile where I hadn’t heard them before.
With the good, comes the bad and I must admit that this DVD collection does have it’s share of faults. For one, there are three KCET performances on The Dub Room Special! that didn’t make it to A Token of his Extreme – “Approximate”, “Cosmik Debris”, and the opening version of “A Token of my Extreme”. A second version does appear at the end of this DVD, but I’d like to have seen these three tracks at least provided as bonus material if nothing else. Another point of contention I have is the epileptic nature of Zappa’s video editing style. It seems like every time the music becomes exciting, complex, or Zappa takes a guitar solo, the video takes to rapidly switching from one angle to the next, making it impossible to tell what is going on. Also, he has a habit of switching to Bruce Bickford’s claymation whenever there’s a guitar solo, which is equally as frustrating. It’s as if he thought that people would be bored watching musicians play, but it’s quite the opposite, in my mind. I could excuse this, but the biggest, most inexcusable crime of editing in the entire program is when Zappa cuts to claymation right in the middle of the “Inca Roads” guitar solo. To me, this is one of the best solos by anyone, and to have to look at claymation instead of the master delivering a piece of musical perfection is criminal. However, he makes up for it when we get to see George Duke deliver one of my other favorite solos, so close to where we can actually see his fingers striking the keys. Though I’m not a fan of the dizzying jumpcuts, they were an artistic choice by Zappa and by many ways a precursor to a similar MTV fad. Ahead of his time, as always.
Along with the 90 minute special, we also get 17 minutes of Zappa’s appearance on the Mike Douglas Show in 1976 in which he promoted the Token of his Extreme special. I found this to be a highly enjoyable bonus to the regular program, and along with the excellent interview, which covers the beginnings of the Mothers as well as some history of the program, we also get a performance of “Black Napkins” from Zoot Allures (1976), accompanied by the house band. I found this to be quite an unexpected treat and I was very pleased with its inclusion.
Though by no means a perfect release, A Token of his Extreme is still a release worthy of your music DVD collection. At its core, it is 90 minutes of footage (some of which is quite rare) of the 1974 Mothers at the height of their creativity, playing Frank’s fiendishly challenging pieces with energy, spontaneity, and enthusiasm. What made this lineup special is the way they could strike a healthy balance of humor and undeniable skill, something that not all of Zappa’s bands could accomplish. I truly commend the Zappa Family Trust and Eagle Rock Entertainment for finally getting a legitimate release of this to Zappa’s fans and I wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone who appreciates challenging music performed by top shelf players, but isn’t afraid to have a little fun in their music once in awhile.
You can purchase your very own copy of this DVD here: