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Music

Watch Frank Zappa on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1971

@TomTaylorFO

In 1971 Frank Zappa was asked by journalist Howard Smith, what he made of audiences becoming increasingly political, Zappa replied in trademark fashion, “It’s superficial, it’s as superficial as their music consciousness. It’s just another aspect of being involved in the actions of their peer group.” When pressed for more details and whether he hadn’t noticed any changes coming from the political movements that began to entwine with his music he replied, “Sure, I’ve noticed a lot of changes, but I think they’re temporary changes. Any change for the good is always subject to cancellation, upon the arrival of the next fad.”

That dialogue, in a nutshell, encapsulates large swathes of what Zappa’s persona was all about. He never seemed to be in the music business, merely playing with its participants whilst masquerading as a rock star. He was shrewd, erudite and often inscrutably ironic. In that same interview where he dismisses political movements as a ‘fad’ he’s asked whether a woman could ever be part of his band, “I don’t think there’s a girl around,” he says, “that could fit in with what we do,” unbeknownst to the interviewer multi-instrumentalist Ruth Underwood was pretty much a fully-fledged member at that stage. 

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While all this might be revealing of his inscrutable character, it is notable of his artistic narrative that he began being asked these questions in 1971. When he first emerged with The Mothers of Invention in 1966, their work struggled to escape the clutches of cult success. They were weird, but in the sort of a borderline sense that mainstream struggles to deal with. However, Zappa simply seemed to cut loose thereafter, and it could’ve gone one of two ways. As it happens, he slowly began developing a devout legion of fans and kept them constantly guessing by following his own wondering muses. 

It was this same year that he made a defining appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. The show itself would go on to be a British institution and yet another thing that the world has Sir David Attenborough to be thankful for as the championed hero of planet Earth commissioned the show. During the seventies, The Old Grey Whistle Test was where adoring music fans would go for a dose of the best new rock ‘n’ roll curtesy of famed for its presenter, ‘Whispering Bob Harris’.

While the footage of Frank Zappa on the show seemingly disappeared for a while, it was apparently unearthed and is now available once more. According to the BBC, the show was first broadcast back on November 16th, 1971 on BBC Two (despite the footage stating 1968).

Zappa introduces the performance by stating: “I would like to thank the people at the BBC for giving us the chance to do some of the things on television here that they would never let us do in the United States.” Thereafter, along with The Mothers of Invention, he embarks on a manic jazzy version of ‘King Kong’ complete with plenty of dancing, smoking, flourishes of epic musicianship and much total madness. Although it appears it may have been filmed on a potato, the sound remains for all Zappa fans to enjoy.