Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Norman Gunston & Frank Zappa

By Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz 

Frank Zappa was no stranger to Australia and its wildlife. Inspired by a monotreme encountered during his 1973 tour, the avant-rock polymath composed a complex jazz-fusion instrumental entitled ‘Echidna’s Arf (Of You)’. Three years later, he came face-to-face with that even rarer antipodean creature, the little Aussie bleeder, Norman Gunston.

Gunston was then at the height of his fame as a no-holds-barred interviewer and multifaceted television variety-show host. His hugely successful program, The Norman Gunston Show, screened weekly on the ABC, and few visiting entertainers escaped being ambushed and subjected to a penetrating interrogation. During the dismissal of Whitlam, Gunston appeared on the steps of Parliament House, where he buttonholed political luminaries.

In January 1976, with a Mothers of Invention tour imminent, Gunston flew to Los Angeles for an on-camera chat with the notoriously abstruse Zappa. Instantly recognisable by his horseshoe moustache, pronounced proboscis and long hair, Zappa had progressed from Dada to doo-wop to big-band fusion, producing music simultaneously esoteric and seminal and collaborating with figures as diverse as Zubin Mehta and Keith Moon.

Initially the 35-year-old ‘mother superior’ was somewhat bemused by Gunston’s digressive interview technique, but when the tissue-plastered Gunston produced a harmonica and suggested they jam together – “or you don’t call it that over here, do you? You call it jelly” – Zappa promptly concurred. As he strummed a guitar, Gunston let rip with a blistering blues riff that deftly incorporated the ABC-News theme.

“The boy has got a promising career,” Gunston concluded of Zappa, urging Australians to give him a break on the upcoming tour. Zappa reciprocated by inviting Gunston to join the Mothers of Invention for the Sydney concert.

The gig took place at the Hordern Pavilion on 20 January. As the intro to ‘The Torture Never Stops’ kicked in, the little bleeder was called onto stage by the plaid-trousered Zappa, introduced as ‘Blind Lemon’ Gunston, and urged to blow.

Blow he did, on a mouth organ that “used to belong to Stevie Wonder”. Two months later, he won a Gold Logie. Tapes of the concert remained in the vaults for more than a quarter of a century until their release as the album FZ:Oz in 2002. Shortly before his death in 1993, Zappa was appointed cultural attaché to his long-time fan Vaclav Havel, then President of Czechoslovakia. The Zappa Family Trust sponsors an echidna at the Los Angeles zoo.

Gunston went on to three more successful seasons before retiring. He has no children named Dweezil or Moon Unit but his progeny are legion.

About the author Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.