Legends of their field, Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd rightly hold icon status among not only their respective fans but with the music world on a wider scope. Both acts worked tirelessly to produce music that was singular and triumphant. They were individuals before much else.
It seems fitting, then, that the two acts, so defiantly unique, could come together to jam at one of the first-ever French rock festivals, The Actuel Rock Festival, in 1969 and make such harmonious music—but it didn’t quite play out like that.
Sponsored by the Parisian fashion magazine Actuel as well as the BYG record company, the festival was heralded as Europe’s very own Woodstock. However, with the police force still reeling from the riots in the capital in the May of that year, the festival was pushed north to Belgium and into a very unassuming turnip field.
The event took place in late October of 1969, and the audience was made up of nearly 20,000 fans who were treated with performances by Pink Floyd, Ten Years After, Colosseum, Aynsley Dunbar, former Yardbird Keith Relf’s new group Renaissance, Alexis Korner, Don Cherry, The Nice, Caravan, Archie Shepp, Yes, The Pretty Things, The Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart and many more.
Zappa, who was there primarily as an MC, was also acting as Captain Beefheart’s tour manager, but with the former being hampered by his inability to speak French, Zappa let go of this role and instead became an occasional guitarist for anyone who’d have him – most notably with Pink Floyd on their song ‘Interstellar Drive’.
It is their harmonious connection, their undoubted chemistry, and their oddly symbiotic performance which really strikes us as unusual. Two entirely mercurial acts melted together to deliver something magical.
Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, discussing this unique meeting of minds years later, had this to say about Zappa in 1973: “Frank Zappa is really one of those rare musicians that can play with us. The little he did in ‘Amougies’ was terribly correct. But he’s the exception. Our music and the way we behave on stage, makes it very hard to improvise with us.”
Years later, somewhat randomly as part of an interview with The Simpsons creator Matt Groening in 1992, Zappa would share his experience: “I was supposed to be MC for the first big rock festival in France, at a time when the French government was very right-wing, and they didn’t want to have large-scale rock and roll in the country. and so at the last minute, this festival was moved from France to Belgium, right across the border, into a turnip field. they constructed a tent, which was held up by these enormous girders. they had 15,000 people in a big circus tent.”
The mercurial musician continues with his story: “This was in November, I think. The weather was really not very nice, it’s cold, and it’s damp, and it was in the middle of a turnip field. I mean mondo turnips. and all the acts, and all the people who wished to see these acts, were urged to find this location in the turnip field, and show up for this festival. and they’d hired me to be the MC and also to bring over Captain Beefheart it was his first appearance over there and it was a nightmare, because nobody could speak English, and I couldn’t speak French, or anything else for that matter.”
Adding: “So my function was really rather limited. I felt a little bit like Linda McCartney,” joked the artist. “I’d stand there and go wave, wave, wave. I sat in with a few of the groups during the three days of the festival. but it was so miserable because all these European hippies had brought their sleeping bags, and they had the bags laid out on the ground in this tent, and they basically froze and slept through the entire festival, which went on 24 hours a day, around the clock. One of the highlights of the event was the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which went on at 5am to an audience of slumbering euro-hippies.”
And that ladies and gentlemen, is why we love Frank Zappa.
You can hear the performance in the recording below and, further down, watch the rare footage.