Young Frank Zappa Plays the Bicycle on The Steven Allen Show (1963)

Artists in tur­bu­lent times often must resort to extreme mea­sures to com­pen­sate for the gen­er­al state of cul­tur­al dis­or­der. How can one be heard over the sounds of civ­il unrest? Dada and sur­re­al­ist artists adopt­ed an arch­ly gib­ber­ish music hall idiom dur­ing World War I. Amidst the tumult of the 60s, some avant-gardists like Frank Zap­pa used more pop­ulist means, an osten­si­bly rock and roll for­mat and image, as a vehi­cle for his influ­en­tial clas­si­cal-prog-jazz.

Like the first Dadaists, how­ev­er, Zap­pa was a phys­i­cal artist. He start­ed small in the ear­ly six­ties, if you can call an appear­ance on the Steve Allen Show small. The act cer­tain­ly seems so at first. A young Zap­pa, clean-shaven with a well-tai­lored suit and dap­per hair­cut, appears solo on Allen’s show. He’s tac­i­turn at first dur­ing the inter­view, admit­ting that he can play gui­tar, vibes, bass, and drums. He has cho­sen, how­ev­er, to help the audi­ence recov­er what he sug­gests is a child­hood delight, play­ing the bicy­cle. “How long have you been play­ing bike, Frank?” Allen asks. “About two weeks,” says Zap­pa, get­ting his first big laugh.

Zap­pa also talks about an ear­ly, pre-Moth­ers of Inven­tion project, scor­ing the 1962 film The World’s Great­est Sin­ner, which he calls “the world’s worst movie.” The film, it turned out, didn’t air until 50 years lat­er (Mar­tin Scors­ese names it as a favorite). But the men­tion gives Zap­pa a chance to show off how much he knows about com­pos­ing for a 55-piece orches­tra. Allen seems unim­pressed, and remains so when Zap­pa begins his per­for­mance art. Then the gag strays into a Sal­vador Dali spoof via a John Cage per­for­mance, with Zap­pa as the weird, debonair straight man to Allen’s mouthy com­ic.

Zap­pa plays both the right-side-up and the upside-down bike, which involve dif­fer­ent tech­niques. Though it all, he keeps up the pat­ter of a sea­soned show­man, the direct­ness of a deter­mined band­leader, and a straight face. And per­haps that’s real­ly what’s on dis­play here—not the bicy­cle as a musi­cal instru­ment, but the phys­i­cal act of play­ing and con­duct­ing, using pre­cise move­ments and sequences to elic­it spe­cif­ic effects. For all the humor, there’s no rea­son not to think Zap­pa isn’t com­plete­ly seri­ous about all of this, as it expands into the kind of orga­nized chaos only he could so mas­ter­ly orches­trate.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Frank Zappa’s Exper­i­men­tal Adver­tise­ments For Luden’s Cough Drops, Rem­ing­ton Razors & Port­land Gen­er­al Elec­tric

The Bizarre Time When Frank Zappa’s Entire­ly Instru­men­tal Album Received an “Explic­it Lyrics” Stick­er

Hear the Musi­cal Evo­lu­tion of Frank Zap­pa in 401 Songs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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