Many Frank Zappa fans will be familiar with the strange and delightful work of animator Bruce Bickford—his are the claymation sequences in Baby Snakes that you fast-forward through the concert footage to see. Zappa was Bickford’s best-known patron for most of the ‘70s, and his work is featured in the “City of Tiny Lights” and The Dub Room Special videos, but the motherlode of Bickford/Zappa work came in the form of a one-hour VHS compilation released in 1987 called The Amazing Mr. Bickford, which bafflingly has never been released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Bickford’s dizzying stream-of-dementia, anything-can-happen-next, constantly mutating stop-motion animations are scored by Zappa’s orchestral work, culled mostly from Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, though “Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation” from London Symphony Orchestra is present, as well.
Here’s a bit of background from a wonderful piece on Bickford that ran in The Quietus:
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.
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. They are also clearly the product of a single mind (and single-mindedness), despite Zappa nabbing director credits on The Amazing Mr. Bickford compilation and the ‘City of Tiny Lights’ promo. In a way, Bickford is an outsider artist doing his own thing at his own pace, and was simply fortunate enough to have Zappa serve as a momentary sugar daddy.
Such are the working methods and approach to narrative that very little final product has actually been released. The Amazing Mr. Bickford and Baby Snakes made use of snippets with little or no attempt to explain or understand; they unfold beneath Zappa instrumentals and just exist, nothing more. Bickford returned to his Seattle basement in 1980 and has carried on obsessing ever since. MTV commissioned some idents and a half-hour film, Prometheus’ Garden, was completed in 1987, but otherwise he toils away with seemingly little end in sight.
‘The Amazing Mr. Bickford’ and more, after the jump…