Frank Zappa, innovation and ridicule

FZ as we knew him

YouTube is a wonderful thing if you like to be distracted by random stuff from people that you like. Whilst rehearsing a choir part from a YouTube track by my local community choir the other night the  suggested videos list threw up a thoroughly cringeworthy appearance by Frank Zappa on the Steve Allen Show on 4 March 1963. Cringeworthy it may be but it illustrates the way genuine innovators can often come up against ridicule when their ideas first appear.

As an admirer of his work since the mid-70s I was curious to see the early Zappa in action and slightly disappointed to see a somewhat dorky twentysomething with a sharp suit and clean cut hair-do – a long way from the long-haired hipster with the trademark moustache and goatee (see photo). However, once I’d got over than and thought myself back to the early sixties and the days of corny black and white US TV it still struck me as a surprisingly radical appearance on a mainstream TV show.

Zappa’s appearing on the show as ‘a man who plays the bicycle’ which he proceeds to do with both drumstick and violin bow. So far so normal – anyone left in a room alone with a bike, drumsticks and bow would do the same (or is that just me?) – and Zappa plays along with the joshing tone of the host. The radical part comes when he leads an improvised piece for the house band, pre-recorded tape and two bicycles. It’s played for laughs so prefigures much of Zappa’s later work which would combine broad comedy with serious musicianship. The use of atonality, improvisation and non-musical sounds were already part and parcel of the avant-garde in 1962 but I think – and at the age of 5 I admit my scope would have been limited – not widely present on mainstream TV.

What resonated with me was the balance of ridicule and radicalism which Zappa sustained throughout his career and I wondered how often it is that someone genuinely innovative gets discouraged by ridicule early on in their careers. Zappa’s story is one that should offer encouragement to people to ride the laughs and keep going. Oh, and never eat yellow snow

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