Frank Zappa’s “Inca Roads”: the “danger and weirdness” of Bruce Bickford’s gnarly animation

By on June 12, 2015

In 1976, Frank Zappa, appearing as a guest on “The Mike Douglas Show,” told the host about A Token Of His Extreme, saying “It’s probably one of the finest pieces of video work that any human being has ever done. I did it myself,” but it was, in Zappa’s words, “steadfastly rejected by the American television industry.” A two-minute segment aired during Zappa’s appearance on the show, and later aired on Night Flight, back in the 80s.

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Zappa had recorded the live performances of his band for the show on August 27, 1974 at KCET in Hollywood. Zappa was on guitar, percussion, vocals, and the rest of his band featured: George Duke—keyboards, finger cymbals, tambourine, vocals; Napoleon Murphy Brock—sax, vocals; Ruth Underwood—percussion; Tom Fowler—bass; Chester Thompson—drums. Combined with the live performances by Zappa’s band was a lot of stop-motion clay animation by legendary underground animator Bruce Bickford.

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The song titles: “The Dog Breath Variations/ Uncle Meat”, “Montana”, “Earl Of Duke” (George Duke), “Florentine Pogen”, “Stink-Foot”, “Pygmy Twylyte”, “Room Service”, “Inca Roads”, “Oh No”, “Son Of Orange County”, “More Trouble Every Day”, and “A Token Of My Extreme.”

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Zappa told Mike Douglas: “It was put together with my own money and my own time and it’s been offered to television networks and to syndication and it has been steadfastly rejected by the American television industry. It has been shown in primetime in France and Switzerland, with marvelous results. It’s probably one of the finest pieces of video work that any human being has ever done. I did it myself. And the animation that you’re gonna see in this was done by a guy named Bruce Bickford, and I hope he is watching the show, because it’s probably the first time that a lot of people in America got a chance to see it.”

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Zappa talks about it, beginning at 13:40 in this clip:

Bickford was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1947, and had begun animating in 1962 at the age of fifteen. He then served three years in the U.S. Marines, beginning In 1966, including eleven months in Vietnam.

After returning to the states, Bickford resumed animating, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1973, where he became friends with Zappa, and from 1973 to 1980, he worked exclusively for Zappa, creating animations for Zappa’s concert films, in particular for “Inca Roads” and “Baby Snakes,” which featured some of Bickford’s best work.

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Zappa seems to have been the only one who understood and stood by Bickford, who had also shown his work to the people at Disney animation, but they thought it was too “gnarly.” Bickford’s work was described by Toni L. Querol at this website as showing, “pitched battles, landscapes that devour people (and viceversa), monsters sprouting from the most inconspicuous of places, eyeballs that explode, exotic plants that mutate into aliens, scenes of autocannibalism, mutant sexuality and preciously detailed violence with knives, swords, vikings, Spanish conquistadors, gladiators, Vietnam war mercenaries…” (You can see other examples of Bickword’s work at this link).

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Zappa had already shown that he was interested in animation and had snuck a 10-minute short into 200 Motels, entitled Dental Hygiene Dilemma,” which was later spun-off into Down And Dirty Duck, which we told you about right here.

Zappa later scored and released a couple of compilations of Bickford’s animation, including The Dub Room Special (1982), and one entitled The Amazing Mr. Bickford, in 1987.

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After he and Zappa parted ways in 1980, Bickford returned to Seattle to began working on Prometheus’ Garden, a clay animated film he completed in 1988. Since then, he has completed several line animations and another large-scale clay animated film.

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In an article, “Films for Music: Frank Zappa’s Cinematic Legacy,” published on The Quietus blog in August of 2013, writer Anthony Nield told us all about Bickford:

“Bickford was a Vietnam veteran whose love for animation sprung out his crude home movies. His earliest experiments involved toy cars, but a need to populate these rough little films led to the creation of tiny clay figures. Soon enough he was letting his imagination spill out with strange, ever-morphing stream of consciousness tales that seemed to revolve around demons and animal heads, hamburgers and pizzas, treacherous landscapes and excessive violence – ‘danger and weirdness’, in Bickford’s own words. Audiences were given an early taste when The Old Grey Whistle Test aired a portion of ‘City Of Tiny Lights’ with animated accompaniment in 1979. Baby Snakes made its debut during the Christmas of that year, containing more examples and a peak of behind-the-scenes amidst the concert footage.”

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Here’s an excerpt from underground animator Bruce Bickford’s original 28-minute masterpiece of stop-motion, Prometheus’s Garden, loosely based upon the Greek myth of Prometheus, a Titan who stole fire from the gods and made the first mortals out of clay.

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More from The Quietus:

“I can’t explain it right off-hand,” Bickford offers when pressed by Zappa as to what a particular film is all about. His work tends to mutate rather than progress, more often than not resembling a made-up-on-the-spot children’s story (and then this happened… and then this happened… and then this happened…).

One of the Baby Snakes snippets involves a castle that “would make a great disco” but leads to the creation of monsters. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, though maybe that’s missing the point. The immediacy is what matters, and the fact that these films have the potential to go absolutely anywhere from one moment to the next.

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MTV commissioned some idents and a half-hour film, Prometheus’ Garden, was completed in 1987 [1988, actually], but otherwise he toils away with seemingly little end in sight. Documentary portrait Monster Road (from 2004) showed him working on the stroke of midnight one New Year’s Eve, seemingly happiest in his own company. “I’m afraid of life,” he admits in Baby Snakes, preferring to find an outlet in his animation instead.”

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Here’s the full-length 28-minute animated film, Prometheus’s Garden, the only completed film over which Bickford maintained 100% creative control:

The first official release of A Token Of His Extreme was released by Eagle Rock Entertainment and the Zappa Family Trust, and you can pick up a copy here.

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About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.