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)

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