Friday, October 12, 2012

Frank Zappa "Lumpy Gravy" (3.5*)

Originally released on Capitol in 1967, re-edited and reissued by Verve shortly thereafter and subsequently independently reissued by Zappa himself, I missed Lumpy Gravy the first three times around so the Universal/Zappa Family Trust reissue gives an opportunity to catch up on something I would have loved to have heard back in the day.

Effectively his solo debut, Lumpy Gravy featured a lineup of session musicians rather than The Mothers of Invention, though the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra did include The Mothers rhythm section (bassist Roy Estrada and drummer Jimmy Carl Black) and woodwind player Bunk Gardner. In its original incarnation it was an album of orchestral music written and conducted by Zappa, whose contract with Verve forbade him from playing on recordings for other labels (the contract apparently said nothing about composing or conducting), commissioned by Capitol Records A&R man Nick Venet, who invested $40,000 in the project.

Venet had signed the Beach Boys to Capitol and produced their early material, as well as working with (among others) Chet Baker, Lord Buckley, Nat King Cole, Ravi Shankar, Glen Campbell, Jim Croce, Bobby Darin, the Kingston Trio, Lothar and the Hand People, Mad River and Linda Ronstadt. That’s a fairly diverse range of artists and styles, suggesting Venet was able to see commercial potential in a variety of genres.

The first version of Lumpy Gravy appeared in August 1967 and Capitol were on the verge of releasing two selections (Gypsy Airs/Sink Trap) as a single(!) when Verve’s parent company MGM claimed the album violated Zappa's contract, threatened to sue, and finally bought the master tapes.

The re-edited Lumpy Gravy formed part of a multi-pronged project labelled No Commercial Potential, which also incorporated We're Only in It for the Money, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets and Uncle Meat.

The second incarnation, released in May 1968, is what we’re looking at here with two side-long fifteen minute pieces of musique concrète with selections from the original orchestral performance interspersed with elements of surf music and “piano people” dialogue segments recorded at Apostolic Studios in New York after Zappa discovered the strings of the studio's grand piano resonated if a person spoke near them.

Bits of those segments turned up elsewhere (including We’re Only In It For The Money, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention and Zappa's final album, Civilization Phaze III). The speakers included Mothers Roy Estrada and Motorhead Sherwood, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Tim Buckley, Spider Barbour from Chrysalis, another group recording at the same studio, studio manager All-Night John and Louie the Turkey from the Garrick Theater audience, whose laugh allegedly sounded like a psychotic turkey, riffing on a variety of topics offered by Zappa as starting points, producing eight or nine hours of conversation covering sixties teen-age concerns (girls and cars), day to day life and ideological discussions of pigs and ponies (police and authority figures versus long-haired kids).

Musically, the album’s two side-long suites (much as I’d have liked to get something broken into individual segments a la the track listing below into my iTunes playlists, Lumpy Gravy works perfectly well as an extended listen) deliver fifteen minute chunks combining classical, jazz and rock (particularly surf music) elements with the spoken word bits holding the thing together.

There are recognizable chunks of tunes that turn up elsewhere in the Zappa catalogue (recurring takes on Oh No from Weasels Ripped My Flesh, a quote from Uncle Meat's King Kong) and the record closes with a Ventures-style instrumental take on Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.

There’s some nice stuff here, part cliche, part parody, part experiment, part sonic weirdness warped together into a collage of sound and dialogue that might have struck people was weird at the time but doesn’t sound particularly extreme forty-something years later.

Sure, in the days of digital rather than analogue media, you could do the editing with a computer rather than a razor blade which would make the whole thing easier (and quite possibly better, I’ve seen a couple of gripes about the crudity of the editing) but when you look back to the context of the time it delivered a package that few other sixties musical visionaries could have matched. Listen to Lumpy Gravy alongside, say Revolution #9 from The Beatles and you may well rate the Zappa performance on top.

It mightn’t be the pinnacle of Zappa’s achievement as far as ‘serious’ music is concerned and beginners are probably better off heading towards Freak Out, Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It For The Money, Lumpy Gravy is worth investigating, an interesting listen that provides a partial blueprint for the works that followed.

As one reviewer put it: The record sounds somewhat like a radio playing. In a circus big top. On the moon. (Source here).

Track listing

1967 version
Sink Trap
Gum Joy
Up and Down
Local Butcher
Gypsy Airs
Hunchy Punchy
Foamy Soaky
Let's Eat Out
Teenage Grand Finale

1968 version, part one
The Way I See It, Barry    
Oh No  
Bit of Nostalgia  
It's from Kansas  
Bored Out 90 Over  
Almost Chinese  
Switching Girls  
Oh No Again  
At the Gas Station  
Another Pickup 
I Don't Know If I Can Go Through This Again

1968 version, part two
Very Distraughtening 
White Ugliness 
Just One More Time    
A Vicious Circle
King Kong 
Drums Are Too Noisy  
Envelops the Bath Tub 
Take Your Clothes Off

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