Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lumpy Gravy

Zappa’s first official solo venture away from The Mothers of Invention, “Lumpy Gravy,” was always difficult for me to figure out. On one hand, I really enjoy the recording. There are some really nice thematic pieces and motifs on this album. But on the other hand, I am frustrated by the sense I get while listening to it that these pieces are unfinished. Does “Lumpy Gravy” have a beginning, middle and end? Or is it just snippets of material strung together in a manner to appear that they have context and purpose?

And what is it with some of the dialogue on the recording? Are these snippets the lumps in this musical gravy?

Not surprisingly, production and release of “Lumpy Gravy” was marred by legal threats and chest thumping by the record companies involved, as revealed by a Rolling Stone article from April 27, 1968, by Sue C. Clark, and an interview in Melody Maker from January 1974. But the struggles Zappa faced in releasing his material aren’t what the music is all about (although he at times made his music reflect those struggles).

Let’s first examine what others have written about this recording, starting with Jim Miller writing for Rolling Stone in 1968. Miller spends most of his review revealing the recording’s flaws, sharing his feeling that much of the music on the album doesn’t really work and probably could have been executed more effectively by using The Mothers. But in the last paragraph of the review, Miller calls “Lumpy Gravy” an, “important album, if only because Frank Zappa is one of rock’s foremost minds.” That’s like saying we need to forgive an important artist who produces mediocre work because the artist is important. Maybe it wasn’t the artist’s fault the work failed; maybe it was the result of circumstance beyond his or her control.

Then we have Mark Prindle, who gives this album nine of 10 stars. He finds this musical collage of orchestral sound interspersed with rambling dialogue one of Zappa’s best albums. While the various dialogues throughout the album can easily strike the listener as being banal and meaningless, Prindle notes their connection to something larger, and the music plays a role in this interconnectivity as well.

At Kill Ugly Radio, there is Marko J’s comment on the album that much like “Uncle Meat,” “Lumpy Gravy” completely baffled him. Yet he calls it a “stunning piece” in part, perhaps, because of the historical snapshot the piece presents of the era during which is was recorded.

So I’m not the only one that had mixed feelings about this recording. Note the past tense. Because as I was researching this blog entry and re-listening to the album multiple times, I found that my feelings and perceptions regarding “Lumpy Gravy” were shifting from “it sounds nice, but I can’t figure it out, oh well,” to a realization that the album might really have had a focus and purpose. And if that were the case, to use a cliché, the album’s conception and execution was brilliant. Hmmmm.

What began to nudge me in the direction of such a conclusion was a bit I read in an Arf entry on the album where readers submit their ideas on the origins of Zappa’s lyrics. In this discussion, one of the album’s seemingly random conversations makes mention of the “one note.” On the album, the transaction goes like this: “Everything in the universe is, is, is made of one element, which is a note, a single note. Atoms are really vibrations, you know. Which are extensions of the BIG NOTE, everything’s one note. Everything, even the ponies. The note, however, is the ultimate power, but, see, the pigs don’t know that, the ponies don’t know that.”

We could have very long and circuitous discussion on whom or what the pigs and ponies are, but that’s irrelevant for the moment. It’s the “big note” referenced in the transaction, and a couple folks from the Netherlands left comments regarding a television program they had seen during which a German doctor had theorized that the universe didn’t start with a big bang, but with a big note. It appears the posters may have been talking about Hans Jenny, a Swiss physician and natural scientist who pioneered the field of cymantics.

“The more one studies these things, the more one realizes that sound is the creative principle,” Jenny reportedly said. “It must be regarded as primordial. No single phenomenal category can be claimed as the aboriginal principle.” He conducted experiments that showed that sound gave shape to matter, concluding that sound was the creative force in the universe.

Considering that Jenny died in 1971, it is quite possible that Zappa ran across the Swiss scientist’s thesis at some previous time. Considering that Zappa’s musical influence largely came from an obscure composer, Edgar Varese, and he made references to other obscure figures with radical ideas, such as the song on “Guitar” titled, “Who Is Fulcanelli?” which refers to the French alchemist of the same name, it’s safe to conclude, I think, he knew about Jenny and his work.

The conversations recorded in “Lumpy Gravy” were staged by Zappa, who fed the participants topics to begin talking about, letting the conversation take whatever direction it would. So I think it’s safe to presume that Zappa introduced as a topic the idea that the universe began with a “big note” as opposed to a Big Bang, and the comments regarding pigs and ponies might well have been completely spontaneous.

If that be the case, can we conclude that the collection of sounds in the musical parts of the recording are there to give shape and, perhaps, even meaning to these apparently meaningless dialogues? That might still be a leap, considering what the notes say about the recording on the cover, which described it as “a curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a ballet but probably didn’t make it.”

What do you think?

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Released: May 1968, recorded by Capitol, released by MGM.

LP release:
Side One
Lumpy Gravy - Part I (15:45)
Side Two
Lumpy Gravy - Part II (15:56)

Current CD

Lumpy Gravy Part One (15:51)
The Way I See It, Barry (0:06)
Duodenum (1:32)
Oh No (2:03)
Bit Of Nostalgia (1:35)
It's From Kansas (0:29)
Bored Out 90 Over (0:32)
Almost Chinese (0:25)
Switching Girls (0:29)
Oh No Again (1:12)
At The Gas Station (2:41)
Another Pickup (0:53)
I Don't Know If I Can Go Through This Again (3:52)

Lumpy Gravy Part Two (15:51)
Very Distraughtening (1:34)
White Ugliness (2:21)
Amen (1:33)
Just One More Time (0:58)
A Vicious Circle (1:12)
King Kong (0:42)
Drums Are Too Noisy (0:58)
Kangaroos (0:57)
Envelops The Bath Tub (3:42)
Take Your Clothes Off (1:52)


with maybe even some members of the mothers of invention
PIANO, CELESTE, ELECTRIC HARPSICHORD: Paul Smith, Mike Lang, Lincoln Mayorga, Pete Jolly
DRUMS: Johnny Guerin, Frankie Capp, Shelly Manne
PERCUSSION (Gongs, Bells, Vibes, Marimba, Timpani, Timbales & assorted insanity): Emil Richards, Gene Estes, Alan Estes, Victor Feldman, Kenneth Watson (uncredited), Thomas Poole (uncredited)
WOODWINDS (Flute, Bass Flute, Piccolo, Oboe, English Horn, Eb Clarinet, Bb Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Contrabass Clarinet, Alto Sax, Bass Sax, Bassoon & Contrabassoon): Ted Nash, Jules Jacob, John Rotella, Bunk Gardner, Don Christlieb, Gene Cipriano
FRENCH HORNS: Arthur Maebe, Vincent De Rosa, Richard Perissi, Arthur E. Briegleb (uncredited), David A. Duke (uncredited), George F. Price (uncredited)
TRUMPET: Jimmy Zito
TROMBONE: Kenneth Shroyer, Lew McCreary (uncredited)
GUITARS: Jim Haynes (prob. James Helms), Tommy Tedesco, Tony Rizzi, Al Viola, Dennis Budimir
BASS: Bob West, John Balkin, Jimmy Bond, Lyle Ritz, Chuck Berghofer
STRINGS: Sid Sharp-violin; Alexander Koltun-violin; Tibor Zelig-violin; Ralph Schaeffer-violin; Bernard Kundell-violin; William Kurasch-violin; James Getzoff-violin; Arnold Belnick-violin; Leonard Malarsky-violin; Harold Ayres-violin; Jerome J. Reisler-violin; Phillip Goldberg-viola; Leonard Selic-viola; Harry Hyams-viola; Joseph DiFiore-viola; Jerome A. Kessler-cello; Raymond J. Kelley-cello; Joseph Saxon-cello; Jesse Ehrlich-cello; Harold G. Bemko-cello
CHORUS: Louie The Turkey, Ronnie Williams, Dick Barber "Foon The Younger", Roy Estrada, Spider, Motorhead, J.K. & Tony, Gilly and the girls from Apostolic (Maxine, Becky), All Night John, The other John, Cal, Pumpkin, Larry Fanoga, Monica, Jimmy Carl Black (the Indian of the group)
ALSO: Sammy, Harold, Charlie, Bruce, and the rest of the guys from Atlanta

(Personnel information courtesy of the Zappa wiki jawaka)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

We're Only In It For The Money

By the time Zappa and the Mothers had released “We’re Only In It For The Money,” they were on a rock-n-roll creative roll with accelerating momentum. A target had been identified for Zappa’s satire, and the scathing exposes within the lyrics were being presented more musically, with tunes easier to follow and more effectively matched.

Even the cover more overtly capitalized on the group’s newly gained confidence by making fun of the Beatles with a mock of the cover from “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” By then, the Beatles had achieved super ultra mega stardom and were nearing their zenith.

The Mothers were nearing a zenith as well, and with “We’re Only In It For The Money,” Zappa held no prisoners: the album makes fun of hippies, cops, parents, society, and drugs, but also exhibited sympathy for many, identified within the album as the “other” people.

Despite the fact that this album became such a favorite among fans within the Zappa canon, it has a significant flaw: “We’re Only In It For The Money” is trapped within the period it mocks and was released. Matt P. at Ground and Sky points this out very well in his review of “Absolutely Free,” which he views as the more superior album between the two.

Some more evidence of how the album is inextricably tied to 1968 can be found in the blog post on the release at ChrisGoesRock (essentially, it’s what can be found in the Wikipedia entry for the album). I guess the fact that Paul McCartney went ahead and touted the Sgt. Pepper’s album as the first concept album didn’t quite sit right with Frank, seeing how he had already released two. The blog post also has information about all the censored versions and edits that occurred with the album.

But anyway, even with that limitation inherent in the album, it is, without a doubt, a great album. It is among Mark Prindle’s favorites in his comments on the Zappa catalogue, and even the very harsh critic Robert Christgau gives the recording an “A.” At the All Music Guide, it and “Freak Out!“ are the only two albums to receive all five stars.

All of this, however, is rather irrelevant when you consider Zappa’s words. Speaking about music critics and others in the music industry, Zappa told this to Don Paulsen for a Hit Parader article published in June, 1967, and can be read here:

“Usually they hate music. They love business and just want to make money. Whenever I have to deal with this kind of people (sic), I always tell them that I hate music and I’m only doing this for the money. They slap me on the back and we get along fine. I tell them I wish I could drive a cab instead, but I can’t get a license.” This, of course, was said shortly after “Absolutely Free” was released and before the deal over McCartney’s comment arose. For his next project at the time, Zappa had something else in mind. Obviously, however, the irony of his statement – that the band was only in it for the money – was a heart-felt sentiment, as evidenced by “Money”’s release.

Why did this album gain such a strong following? Why did it leave such an indelible impression on its listeners? I think it has a lot to do with what many have identified as the album’s duality within its content. The narrator in James Michener’s “The Drifters” eventually concludes that the counter-culture generation of the late 60s and early 70s isn’t much different from the older generation that spawned it, yet this conclusion is drawn sympathetically. Zappa, too, paints a picture with “Money” that reveals that the hippie culture isn’t much different from the older generation, but he reveals those similarities in terms of their shared phoniness.

The album begins with the short “Are You Hung Up?” which includes Eric Clapton stuttering like a stoner. This was such a cool thing for me when I first listened to the album, as I’ve always been a major Clapton fan. I bought the album in about 1974 or 1975, just before I graduated high school. I recall wondering at the time what vinyl pressing I had; it had a Verve label on the disc itself, but seeing how I bought it almost 10 years after its initial release, I figured it had to be a reissue.

So imagine my surprise and interest when I read years later about how later releases of the album were censored, such as the verse in “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” I can remember clearly the lyric in question was on the album I had bought: “I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the streets.” That was what was recorded on my album. I have never heard any other version of this song.

The album has been hailed by many as being ahead of its time, particularly in how it sang about cops killing kids (“Pow-pow-pow”) prior to the Kent State shootings in 1970. What makes the song “Mom & Dad” so poignant for me is how it describes the mother going home to drink, rationalizing the notion of police killing “some girls and boys” by lamenting over a drink, “they looked too weird it served them right.” A girl I knew while living in Tucson, Ariz., in about 1980 told me how her mother said the same thing, that the students at Kent State had it coming.

By the way, the song “Mom & Dad,” is probably one of the most heart-felt songs I have ever heard Zappa sing. Leading up to this song, he makes fun of hippies for being frauds, but right after that, he turns around and points his finger at the parents. He does it again at the end of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?”

Then there’s the “phone call” just before “Bow Tie Daddy.” Sound a bit like the phone call bit in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” don’t you think? And that’s not all that surprising since there is recorded evidence of Zappa having jammed with Pink Floyd in 1969 at a rock festival in Belgium (when I finish my research on this, I will be posting on this event).

On “Side B,” Frank gets a bit nostalgic with the songs “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” and with “The Idiot Bastard Son,” both of which are sort of odes to a couple of characters from Zappa’s past. You’ll need to read his autobiography to get the details; it’s a very interesting story. But again, with the latter song, we hear Zappa sing a tragic story of a newborn child abandoned in the trash by the dissociative parents, a hooker and a politician.

Zappa goes deep with the recording, and even suggests in “Mother People” that he’s going deeper than his listeners realize; he mocks them knowing that they think they know what’s going on. Did they? Or was Zappa correct to suggest that they can’t see how they are just like the generation preceding them.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Released: January, 1968, Verve/Bizarre.

LP Release
Side one
Are You Hung Up? (1:23)
Who Needs the Peace Corps? (2:34)
Concentration Moon (2:42)
Mom & Dad (2:16)
Bow Tie Daddy (1:22)
Harry, You're a Beast (1:22)
What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (1:03)
Absolutely Free (3:26)
Flower Punk (3:57)
Hot Poop (0:26)

Side two
Nasal Retentive Calliope Music (2:00)
Let's Make the Water Turn Black (1:54)
The Idiot Bastard Son (3:27)
Lonely Little Girl (1:10)
Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance (1:33)
What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (Reprise)(1:03)
Mother People (2:30)
The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny (6:30)

Current CD
Are You Hung Up? (1:24)
Who Needs the Peace Corps?(2:34)
Concentration Moon (2:22)
Mom & Dad (2:16)
Telephone Conversation (0:49)
Bow Tie Daddy (0:33)
Harry, You're a Beast (1:21)
What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (1:03)
Absolutely Free (3:24)
Flower Punk (3:03)
Hot Poop (0:27)
Nasal Retentive Calliope Music (2:03)
Let's Make the Water Turn Black (2:01)
The Idiot Bastard Son (3:19)
Lonely Little Girl (1:10)
Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance (1:33)
What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (Reprise) (1:02)
Mother People (2:26)
The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny (6:25)


The Mothers of Invention
Frank Zappa – guitar, piano, Vocals, voices
Dick Barber – vocals
Jimmy Carl Black – trumpet, drums, vocals, indian
Roy Estrada – electric bass, vocals
Bunk Gardner – woodwind
Billy Mundi – drums, vocals
Don Preston – keyboards
Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood – baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone, voices
Suzy Creamcheese – telephone voice
Ian Underwood – piano, keyboards, voices, woodwind
Pamela Zarubica – vocals

Session musicians
Eric Clapton – Male speaking part in “Are You Hung Up?” and “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music.”
Gary Kellgren – “the one doing all the creepy whispering” (i.e., interstitial spoken segments)
Spider Barbour – vocals
Dick Kunc – “cheerful interruptions” vocal
Vicki Kellgren – additional telephone vocals
Sid Sharp – orchestral arrangements on “Absolutely Free”, “Mother People” and “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny”

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Absolutely Free

Imagine for a moment a 10-year-old boy finding one of his older brother’s albums, and being curious, he put it on the family’s stereo to give it a listen. This boy was already familiar with a considerable bit of pop music from the time (we’re talking circa 1968). He was very familiar with The Beatles, The Monkees, and The Rolling Stones. There was a Young Rascals album. There were The Bee Gees, plus a plethora of 45 r.p.m. singles that included a vast array of pop tunes from the time in this boy’s home as well.

But it wasn’t just pop music this boy had a yen for. He was brought up listening to the recordings in the collection “The Golden Treasury of Classical Music,” as well as the Latin jazz sounds of Herb Alpert and Xavier Cougat. This boy was also taking up the saxophone, having given up on the piano.

Now you know my musical state of mind when I first listened to my brother’s copy of “Absolutely Free.” Not only did the lyrics captivate me with their absurdity as well as their perspicuity, but the rhythmic flow of the music, its pacing and the way it all sounded connected, also hypnotized me. There was something intense going on with this music from a structural point of view that intrigued me.

It was my first moment of hearing The Mothers of Invention. I was hooked.

There were so many things about this album that captivated me. First, there was the album cover itself. There was so much going on with the cover art that I could peruse it time after time and still see something new that I had missed before. And, of course, with each repeated listen of the album, some of the cryptic messages on the cover began to make sense.

Musically, Zappa’s thematic structural style was strengthened in this release over what he had accomplished with “Freak Out!” Each side presents its own theme: Side A with “Absolutely Free: 1st in a series of underground oratorios,” and Side B with “The M.O.I. American Pageant: 2nd in a series of underground oratorios.”

Kasper Sloots provides some very interesting musical analysis of much of Zappa’s repertoire, but his comments regarding “Absolutely Free” are very interesting. The album has some very basic pop tunes, such as “Status Back Baby,” (a jab at the mindless pop of the Beach Boys?) but even that, as Sloots points out, had a structure more complex than most pop songs of the time.

“Plastic People” contained hints of recognizable music from “Louie Louie,” which Zappa used for live shows. But the studio release is uniquely Zappa with time changes and key changes, as well as singing style changes throughout the song that draws a listener in. And the theme is so simple to get that even my 10-year-old mind at the time knew what he was singing about.

Despite this musical progression with “Absolutely Free,” Zappa explains in his autobiography how challenging it was to complete because of all the constraints placed on him by the record company.

“When it came time for us to do our second album, Absolutely Free, MGM proclaimed that we couldn't spend more than eleven thousand dollars on it. The recording schedules were ridiculous, making it impossible to perfect anything on the album. It was typical of the kind of bullshit we had to put up with until I got my own studio.”

Nonetheless, there were fun moments in the album’s production as well, such as when Ray Collins ad-libbed his lyrics during “The Duke of Prunes.” And the delightful “Call Any Vegetable” is followed with the frenetic and fantastic “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin,” a brilliant instrumental that amazes me every time I listen to it. Yes, “what a pumpkin!”

My favorite, however, has always been “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” and though Zappa played it often during concerts, the studio version on this album remains my favorite. Despite there being some clear sexual content in the song, when I was 10 I was more enamored by the song’s structure and its melody.

Accurately describing the album can be a challenge as there are so many musical motifs and lyrical themes working all at once. But Joe McGinchey writing at Ground and Sky sums it up rather well, even if his description borders on the verbose:

“Basically, take the impressionistic sociopolitical satire of the Firesign Theatre on their most classic albums - words at a distance seemingly random, at close range deadly precise - and set it to an equally hallucinogenic fabric of music that wouldn't be afraid to reference anyone from Gustav Holst to The Archies. Alternatively, imagine if Edward Albee, Stanley Kubrick, and Andy Kaufman got together and wrote a musical. The thematic territory here always seemed to me the single most natural target for Zappa's crosshairs, examining the neuroses of an American middle class (the "Plastic People") navel gazing their lives away in a complacent world of tv dinners and swimming pools, all under the upstanding shadow of city hall.”

Interestingly, quite a few reviewers (including those at Ground and Sky) of the album rate this one higher than “We’re Only In It For the Money,” an album consistently rated by both fans and others as the best one of the entire catalog. Matt P’s review at Ground and Sky says it best:

“Recorded in November of 1966, (“Absolutely Free”) had no precedent in popular music other than for a couple of songs on the flip side of the band’s own debut album, “Freak Out.” … “Absolutely Free” combined greater musical sophistication with studio technology experimentation to an extent that was well beyond what the Beatles and Beach Boys were doing, and while the socially-conscious lyrics weren’t as eloquent, subtle or imagistic as Dylan’s, their messages were just pertinent and they worked with the music on a level of wit and intelligence that I think was the equal of Dylan's. Were it not for the overwhelming influence that King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King” cast over 1970s progressive rock, I would probably consider “Absolutely Free” to be the first progressive rock album. Secondly, the album is striking in that it was written as a social protest for a particular time and place, yet addressed its themes on a general enough level that it now transcends that time and place — unlike the much ballyhooed follow-up, 1968’s “We’re Only In It For the Money,” which is so immutably set in 1967 Southern California that it’s difficult to get much out of the album without first prepping one’s self on its many period references.”

I apologize for that length extrapolation, but he does it so well. And given what is currently going on in the world, the album’s theme is just as relevant today as when it was released. The CD release included two other songs sandwiched into the middle that were omitted from the vinyl release: “Big Leg Emma,” and “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right?” I prefer the original vinyl line up.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album release date: May 26, 1967, Verve Records.

Track listings:

Side one
Suite No. 1: "Absolutely Free" (1st in a Series of Underground Oratorios)

"Plastic People" – 3:42
"The Duke of Prunes" – 2:13
"Amnesia Vivace" – 1:01
"The Duke Regains His Chops" – 1:52
"Call Any Vegetable" – 2:15
"Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin" – 7:00
"Soft-Sell Conclusion" – 1:40
1967 Mothers of Invention single, bonus tracks for the 1995 Rykodisc CD reissue:
"Big Leg Emma" – 2:31
"Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?" – 2:37

Side two
Suite No. 2: "The M.O.I. American Pageant" (2nd in a Series of Underground Oratorios)

"America Drinks" – 1:52
"Status Back Baby" – 2:54
"Uncle Bernie's Farm" – 2:10
"Son of Suzy Creamcheese" – 1:34
"Brown Shoes Don't Make It" – 7:30
"America Drinks and Goes Home" – 2:46


Frank Zappa – guitar, conductor, vocals
Jimmy Carl Black – drums, vocals
Ray Collins – vocals, tambourine
Don Ellis – trumpet on "Brown Shoes Don't Make It"
Roy Estrada – bass, vocals
Bunk Gardner – woodwinds
Billy Mundi – drums, percussion
Don Preston – keyboards
John Rotella – percussion
Jim Fielder – guitar, piano
Pamela Zarubica – vocals
Herb Cohen
Lisa Cohen
Kurt Retar