0:00 to 0:03: This is the finest performance of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” you will ever experience on a computer. Now, it’s possible that sentence means nothing to you, and perhaps the very idea of watching a nine-minute instrumental from 1973 strikes you as ridiculous and irrelevant and weird. If so, that’s a totally reasonable thing to think and feel, and I have no interest in persuading you otherwise.
0:04 to 0:14: This performance is from the defunct late-night BBC2 program The Old Grey Whistle Test, a show seen as the antithesis of the hit-oriented Top of the Pops on BBC1. We are supposed to comprehend the program’s seriousness of purpose from its lack of a studio audience; what we are seeing, in theory, is the band in a vacuum, exhibiting its prowess with no outside influences. It’s a philosophical notion that implies two things: (a) whatever we hear from a band on an album isn’t truly “real,” because the artist might be overdubbing everything and fixing all the mistakes and using technological tricks, but also (b) a traditional live album is “so real” it’s undesirable, since the audience disrupts the recording and causes the band to play and behave differently than they normally would. If you’re an aesthetic fascist, one could even argue that showing this performance on TV takes away from the “realness” of the experience, especially since all the guys in the band are so clearly aware they’re being observed by a multiple cameras. This, I suppose, is why arguing about authenticity in rock ‘n’ roll is such a timeless problem — if we really get down to the bone marrow of reality, the most authentic musical performance any band could manufacture would require them to play in an empty studio and never allow anyone else to hear what they’ve created, which isn’t that different than arguing that the only way to produce a totally uncompromised novel is to bury it in your backyard on the same day you finish writing it. Which might actually be true, but that’s a hard way to pay the rent.
0:15 to 0:55: The central riff of “Frankenstein” is a transportable pachyderm — a living, loving, lumbering leviathan that instantaneously transports your living room back to the suburban ’70s (if you play it through partially blown speakers, the sound waves will literally install wood paneling in your basement). I believe that’s Rick Derringer on lead axe, best known to mainstream society for the song “Rock & Roll, Hoochie Koo” and best known to me as the uncredited guitarist on the 1985 KISS song “Exciter.” Derringer (26 at the time of this telecast and looking a lot like Luke Skywalker) did the production work on “Frankenstein” and seems totally jacked to be playing it in front of no one; on the original album (1972′s They Only Come Out at Night), the lead guitar parts were played by Ronnie Montrose, just in case you’re keeping track of 1970s guitarists who are impossible to keep track of. The reason Ronnie left the Edgar Winter Group was to join Sammy Hagar in creating Montrose, an underrated band who consistently used the word “rock” as both a verb and an adjective (although — as far as I can tell — never a noun). In his autobiography, Red, Hagar describes Ronnie Montrose as an unyieldingly serious person: He tells a story about sharing a hotel room with Montrose and trying to convince the guitarist that their band needed to put on a glitzy, high-production show (“like Alice Cooper”) to get famous. Mr. Montrose silently listened to Sammy for an hour, wordlessly clicked off the bedroom light, and pretty much stopped talking to Hagar for the next 25 years. I bet Ronnie’s still jealous he didn’t get to fly to England and play “Frankenstein” in a totally empty room.
0:56 to 2:05: Lonely1 lives2 the keytarist,3 hard rock’s least-respected instrument. It’s somehow fitting that Edgar Winter is the most famous keytarist of all time, especially since he’s not actually playing a keytar — a keytar has a neck, and what Winter’s using is just a regular keyboard with a shoulder strap. At the 1:45 mark, Edgar starts dancing like Sweet Dee4 from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is to say he dances like a giant inflatable balloon typically used to advertise low APR mortgage rates. The bass player remains deep in the proverbial pocket (he goes extra deep at the 1:59 mark, judging by the aperture of his cookie hole), as does Mr. Derringer, who seems to be wearing tear-away NBA pants (just in case someone decides he needs to quit playing “Frankenstein” to shut down Pete Maravich on the perimeter). Clearly, these fellows don’t mind showing up for work in the morning. Watching this footage actually makes me envious. How awesome it must be to be awesome!
2:06 to 3:40: Having grown weary of his non-keytar virtuosity, Edgar arbitrarily picks up the saxophone and auditions for Chicago. This is definitely the part of the song I like least, which can be said for just about every song featuring a saxophone that doesn’t involve Gerry Rafferty. It’s certainly impressive that Edgar can just grab a saxophone and blow his own mind, but it’s difficult to imagine a listener who would like “Frankenstein” less if he deleted the sax solo. I guess I’m just anti-saxophone; I feel like there were better options available. Certain extraneous instruments add more to rock songs than others, most notably the cello and the bagpipes. Has anyone ever said, “I really love AC/DC’s ‘It’s a Long Way To the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll),’ but I wish there were fewer bagpipes”? No. No one has ever said that. If they did, someone would kill them.
3:41 to 5:09: For years, I assumed this song was titled “Frankenstein” because it sounded like a bipedal monster walking around rural Texas, but that assumption was completely wrong. The song was named by the drummer (Chuck Ruff) because the recording was spliced together from various jams and turned into one composite superjam — the working title was “Double Drum Solo,” which you’d think a percussionist would actually prefer (but perhaps Ruff was distracted by the lush thickness of his own hair). In Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, the monster is cobbled together from various human and animal parts, but he still ends up being intelligent and self-aware (he even teaches himself how to read). Of course, as time has passed, the pejorative portrait of Frankenstein’s monster is that of a mute, dim-witted troglodyte with a square skull and an inexplicably green complexion. In this sense, the song and the monster have a lot in common: Originally perceived as a highly technical, Zappa-esque power boogie, “Frankenstein” has become more associated with the kind of aging beardo who shotguns Natty Light in the front seat of a Subaru BRAT while skimming back issues of Beaver Hunt. It’s not even considered cool by the type of bozo who makes AT&T commercials.5 There’s no reason why “Frankenstein” should be taken less seriously than other songs from its era, but it almost always is; in general, it’s absurd how the value of music is so often viewed through the lens of whomever we imagine its audience is supposed to be.
5:10 to 5:22: Unless you’re employed by Rolling Stone magazine,6 you likely perceive Edgar Winter as the most important albino in rock history. But how do albinos feel about this? By chance, I went to college with a 6-foot, 5-inch albino who has a black belt in karate. His name is Darrin Pagnac,7 and he’s now a paleontologist in Rapid City, S.D. I asked Pagnac if he’d viewed Winter as a role model during his teen years. He did not. But he did toss in this Winter-y bon mot: “‘Frankenstein’ takes me back to being a young kid on the farm in Minnesota, when everyone was wearing plaid polyester with huge tortoise-shell glasses and kept a cigarette permanently affixed between their index and middle finger. However, if you’re looking for an ‘albino specific’ quote, I suppose I could say, ‘Frankenstein’ takes me back to the ’70s, a time when a lack of effective sunblock, breathable fabrics, and thin plastic lenses made life as a visually impaired, pigmentally challenged youngster a real challenge.” What this teaches us is that people with albinism are not only highly musical, but also wonderfully self-deprecating.
5:23 to 6:20: Winter’s keyboard exploration sounds a lot like the second half of Eddie Van Halen’s 1977 guitar solo “Eruption,” although I suppose it’s more accurate to say EVH’s guitar solo resembles Edgar Winter’s keyboard playing. It’s always so paradoxical — part of the reason people think Van Halen is a genius is for his ability to make a guitar sound like something that’s not a guitar. This being the case, we should be giving Edgar Winter a little more credit — he’s able to make his keyboard sound like a UFO, returning to whatever planet Edgar originally came from (probably the ice planet Hoth).
6:21 to 6:26: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
6:27 to 6:52: “I am a grizzly bear who believes a salmon is inside this ARP 2600 keyboard.”
6:53 to 7:50: “The best Jodie Foster movie is Contact.”
7:51 to 8:00: “Frankenstein” hit no. 1 on the Billboard singles chart, which is extremely rare for an instrumental track. Since 1963, there have been only 11 instrumental no. 1s — most were disco songs (like Van McCoy’s “The Hustle”) or theme songs from superpopular TV shows and movies (Jan Hammer’s “ Miami Vice Theme” climbed to no. 1 in 1985, the last instrumental to reach the apex). There’s always been a strange bias against instrumentals in pop music, and nobody really knows why; there continues to be this industry idea that audiences need lyrics to understand what a song is “about” even though (a) people are continually attracted to pop songs for nonlyrical reasons, and (b) what a singer literally describes in any song is often not what the song is “about,” anyway. Try this experiment: Take the lyrics of any random pop hit — James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful,” or maybe Alphaville’s “Forever Young” — and turn them into the lyrics to “Frankenstein.” Pretend that “Frankenstein” is merely the preexisting music track, and your job is to shoehorn those vocals over the music that lies underneath. Would this new version of “(Frankenstein) Forever Young” have any relationship to the Alphaville original? No. Would your new relationship to the music of Edgar Winter feel wholly different than the way it did before? Only if you hired a singer who was unusually annoying or spectacularly talented. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if a major star (someone like Adele, for instance, or even Katy Perry) were to craft a truly memorable pop hook and then fill the vocal melody with absolute nonsense — just a continual string of nonexistent words and verbalized pauses, but delivered with a real intensity of purpose and a reservoir of unclear emotion. It would essentially turn her voice into an abstract instrument, and we’d suddenly have an “instrumental” hit that still (technically) included vox. People could still sing along with the song while they drove to work, but they’d have no idea what it was supposedly “about” (and could therefore create whatever message they organically lifted from the listening experience). But I suspect this experiment would fail, and for roughly the same reason that songs without English lyrics rarely chart in America: If you can’t directly tell someone what something is supposed to mean, it seems like art. And that’s not what people want when they turn on the radio, even though it actually is.
8:01 to 9:15: Here we have the song’s second two-person drum solo, which means “Frankenstein” technically has four separate drum solos. Too bad Edgar couldn’t somehow involve Sheila E. with this number. Wait … what?8
9:16 to 9:19: Amazing.
Chuck Klosterman is the author of six books. His novel The Visible Man will be released in October.