The Zappa Reviews, #4 – Lumpy Gravy

There are two versions of Lumpy Gravy. The first, released very briefly in 1967, was commissioned by Capitol Records. Zappa composed the music and conducted the recording sessions, believing that there would be no infringement upon his contract with Verve, as conducting was not included within its articles. However, Verve did object to this project and had the original twenty-three minute record pulled from shelves. Later Zappa re-edited it for Verve, stripping it down and adding much new material, this new version coming to thirty-two minutes in duration. This second edition is the one most listeners are familiar with, and was the official story for a long time until Zappa’s widow Gail published a three-disc set containing a bunch of previously unavailable material from both Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It for the Money. The 2009 release came out as The Lumpy Money Project/Object, which sounded like some horrendous progressive rock band concept album whose only potential saving grace was that it hopefully didn’t have the screeching falsetto of Geddy Lee throwing razorwire earwards throughout its two-hundred minute runtime. The reality is that it’s probably one of the best posthumous Zappa releases after Civilization Phaze III and Läther, sitting proudly alongside MOFO, Wazoo, and the Road Tapes series. It’s here that many for the first time encountered the original Capitol version, for all intents and purposes a baggy mess which is best described as an interesting historical document and not much else. Like in Wazoo‘s primitive Greggery Peccary movements, it’s fascinating to hear the early version in raw form, but in this case I feel a certain gratitude towards Verve for stepping in and telling them to cut that shit out.

The form of the Lumpy Gravy we got in 1968 was a radical break from the original material, which is still there, but stripped down to the point of it being a totally different work and, in my estimation, a much better one. In many ways it resembles a TV show, its content made up of dialogue scenes, musical interludes, and even some parts that could be considered analogous to a commercial break. Zappa referred to his second solo album Hot Rats as “a movie for your ears,” so it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch — to me, at least — to suggest that Lumpy Gravy is television for your ears. However, the ready associations the mind can make with images mean that the complex artifice of television is easy to follow, not so much when the images are taken away and we are left without the layer of information which signposts the connection between two or more pieces of material for our benefit. This is why radio dramas usually have everyone refer to each other by name at the start of every scene, otherwise it is difficult to remember who is who. That isn’t too much of a problem here, as few characters reappear, are never named to begin with, and each have distinctive voices to the point that it is possible to know who is speaking without actually knowing who they are. Though the Piano People first appear here and would go on to make several appearances throughout Zappa’s body of work, their use here is quite insubstantial compared to the much more dense application in Civilization Phaze III. Interestingly, while We’re Only In It for the Money, Lumpy Gravy, and Civilization Phaze III are rightly considered to be a trilogy, Zappa thought of the first two as part of a series called No Commercial Potential — name derived from a rejection letter in response to his musical compositions sent by a record company some time before his joining The Soul Giants, who would become The Mothers — which also contained Cruising with Ruben and The Jets and Uncle Meat, saying that it would be possible to re-edit in any number of ways the material on each of the four as one big album and still have it make sense. This relates at least in part to the construction of Läther, a quadruple LP which was denied publication as a whole and released with considerable alterations as four separate albums. In any case, we can see here that Zappa intends not only a grand interconnected oeuvre, but also subsets of material linked more directly to and often overlapping each other, like galaxies in a universe, you might say, at least if you enjoy making ridiculous and totally inaccurate comparisons. I certainly do. It is this aspect of his work that makes it so compelling and unified, yet also incredibly vast and varied. While this could easily be seen as oxymoron, it is best summed up in this quote of Walt Whitman: Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

Multitudinous and contradictory in itself is Lumpy Gravy. It seems to live up to its namesake, as any pretence of a smooth flow and continuity is thrown out the window almost from the very beginning. Yet, recalling my comparisons with television programming, we can see that it sets itself up as a “show” quite literally in the opening section, or at least a Piano Person tells announces that it is, then plays its opening theme, the Duodenum, elsewhere known as Theme from Lumpy Gravy, which, despite being closer to surf rock than anything, sounds like the them tune to either some cheesy western or cop show. Worth noting (or not?) that Hawaii Five-O first broadcast in 1968, and its theme shares some similarities with the Duodenum. I would never suggest that either influenced the other, but I do think it’s an amusing coincidence, and also a very cheap way for me to continue to shoehorn my televisual methaphor into everything I say here. The Duodenum is a kind of surf tune, but soon enough it changes gears and introduces the first snippet of the 1967 material in the form of Oh No, which would later appear in many different forms, notably on Weasels Ripped My Flesh, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1, and reworked and combined with The Orange County Lumber Truck as Son of Orange County on Roxy & Elsewhere. The sudden change from upbeat cheesy surf music to a lush big band arrangement is a soft introduction to the nature of the piece, but it soon hits hard and fast with musique concréte! Yes, that French thing is back again with a vengeance. Here samples of The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny are interwoven with new parts and dialogue, and out come the Piano People. From within the piano they discuss a potential vision of the outside world, one specifically of darkness, a character who tells them he has seen the outside tells them it is indeed dark, but his first utterance is also a total scene change, the women who were talking before replaced with two men, having a conversation about psychosympathetic (a neologism the author refuses to define — so avant!) water.

The Piano People sections were created by having people talk into a piano with the sustain pedal constantly depressed, the strings of which then resonate in sympathy to the voices. While Zappa is among the classical music crowd often and wrongly thought of as a user of second-hand techniques invented by people from Europe of far greater inventiveness and skill than he could ever possess (they’re an emphatic bunch, those serious music aficionados), this use of piano resonance pre-dates one of its foremost exemplars, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza X of 1984, in which a trumpet is blown into a piano with specific keys depressed without sounding. It’s a great technique for creating atmosphere, and here in the piano it is like a ghostly reflection of the actual dialogue, though one has to listen closely for it given its subtle sonance and its weak dynamic compared to the voices of the Piano People. It is entirely possible, as I did, to completely miss it for the first several listens, or to mistake it for coloured reverb applied after the fact. The fact of the Piano People or at least their heads actually being inside the piano lends a weight to their conversations, which may not make much sense at first, if ever, and are just this side of incredible art house silliness. It’s a Kubrickian touch: you might not be sure what it is, but you know it’s there, and it works.

Following the paranoiac’s telling someone where they can get the “dark water” a jingle starts up, as if advertising the water as product. It is totally contrasted in mood to the introductory dialogue. Zappa’s use of parataxis here and throughout the album is reminiscent of something like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, in which images and ideas are presented in free association and rapid succession, connections more often than not recognisable only with repeat viewings, and Lumpy Gravy is certainly the kind of record that demands revisiting again and again to be properly absorbed. The previous year Zappa had created an advertisement for Luden’s Cough Drops, which, like the water, you can get at your local drug store. In an unexpected approach, at least for the uninitiated, Zappa uses musique concrète to characterise an irritating cough, but this inventiveness earned him a Clio Award for best use of sound. A similar sequence appears in the album, though they do not appear to be from the same source. Like another great American composer, Charles Ives, whose father famously showed him two marching bands moving towards each other from opposite ends of a long road, each playing a different tune in a different key and tempo, the resulting sonic effect of which was replicated in Ives’ brilliant Symphony No. 4, here we can see Zappa’s prior experiences expressed in musical terms.

Bored Out 90 Over, Almost Chinese, and Switching Girls, a short sequence, another kind of triptych. It’s all about the threes, baby, and here’s a triptych inside the second part of a trilogy, but that is also part of a tetralogy. Groovy! And while we’re at it, why not try some numerology? I forget if that’s a period appropriate reference or if we weren’t still stuck in the age of Ouija and astrology back then. Yeah, you know, that age that started in the 1890s and, in the case of the latter, possibly as early as 2000 BCE. Where was I? Oh right: numerology. You see, three times nine equals twenty-seven, and ninety over twenty-seven is three-point-three-three-three-three-three-three-recurring, and three-point-three-three-three-three-three-three-recurring times nine equals thirty which is almost the length of the album in minutes which means that the next track is Oh No Again. It’s a conspiracy! This time around, Oh No gets a more lush and layered orchestration with lots of overdubs, and even perhaps the coolest version of the section that forms the basis for Son of Orange County. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Oh No is one of my favourite Zappa pieces, my favourite version being the one on You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 1. The versions presented here are by no means lacklustre: a laid-back almost smooth jazz maiden outing and later a rich and bold electric-orchestral rendition which paints its lively figures in triumphal colours, both are very fine indeed. In fact, it is not at all inaccurate to suggest that they are among the most confident arrangements of his early career, comparable at least in proficiency to the whirlwind of sound that is Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.

The next segment is a little story told by Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, whose voice was also excerpted on Switching Girls, about his succession of crappy jobs, two of which his brother somehow steals from him, and the series of cars he uses his earnings to buy after getting a job at an aircraft company. Zappa was very much interested in the musicality of speech, and of the idea that it would be possible and commercially viable to create an album comprised largely of speech. Here speech is mingled in between more conventionally musical moments but still functions as a set of non-submersible units, meaning that it maintains itself as the focal point above the “water level” of the album whenever it appears, though the line becomes blurred as the section progresses. Unlike much of the spoken word throughout the album, this is not part of the Piano People dialogue, seeming to exist in a different world. Zappa liked to write songs concerning the “folklore” of the people in his group and ancillaries (Sherwood was a roadie at the time, but eventually joined the band on baritone sax), so it’s entirely possible that this is a genuine recollection of a personal event. Based on the mention of Sherwood’s being “the last welder on [the XB-70]”, the story can be dated roughly to 1964, which was the launch year of the XB-70 Valkyrie, a prototype of the B-70 bomber, which also means that Sherwood was working for North American Aviation. The story is largely irrelevant to the album thematically, which is exactly what makes it thematically relevant: the album is Zappa’s first real break with the idea of a unifying central thesis, or rather his first foray into the idea of the thesis being that there is no thesis, it’s just stuff happening. This is where the influence of John Cage, the developer of systems of composition based around indeterminacy, comes into play, and it isn’t difficult to compare Lumpy Gravy to Cage works such as Indeterminacy and Roaratorio: An Irish Circus On Finnegans Wake. While Cage sought to remove himself, his ego as a creator, from the music through this indeterminacy — and largely failed to do so, since the resulting creations were so original that they were instantly recognisable as his own and no one else’s — Zappa had no pretence and left his stamp all over the album: two diametrically opposed paths that led to the same result.

Side one ends with an extended section of orchestral music from the original version, re-cut and sequenced in a different manner. The progressions, figures, rhythms, and colours are reminiscent of film scores, and appropriately so as some material was taken from Zappa’s score for The World’s Greatest Sinner which, on The Steve Allen Show, he described as the worst movie ever made, though this was perhaps part of an advertising campaign, as Zappa was no doubt familiar with far worse films from his love of B-movies. He was a big fan especially of monster movies, the score styles of which combine with the developments of the Neue Wiener Schule (i.e.: Schoenberg) to form a conglomeration of idioms that do not particularly lean toward one side or the other, again making it unmistakably Zappa. The reason his orchestral music so often sounds not like orchestral music, or rather the idea of orchestral music as defined by the western concert tradition, is that he has no time for convention: whether writing in C major or in free chromaticism, Zappa simply does what he wants to do, which is why even his simplest works are so idiosyncratic, unpredictable, uncommon, unfamiliar.

Part Two comes as the ungainly sibling of Part One, occupying the space in which it once stood to deliver a Lucky’s monologue of digressions, never once returning to a central conceit, ending with the self-aware statement from Zappa’s frequent visual design collaborator Cal Schenkel that “round things are boring.” It existed then as continuation, exists now as a set-up for a punchline that would take twenty-six years to reach us, like it was sent in 1968 to some far reach of the known universe and bounced back to us changed, elaborated upon, expanded eightfold into a grand preapocalyptic omen. It begins, this set-up, with talk of Pigs and Ponies, of The Big Note, of putting motors in oneself. In fact, the first section of it ends with the very lines that would begin its changed form. There’s plenty of time to discuss Pigs and Ponies in the eventual Civilization Phaze III review, so I won’t waste time and space here, so let’s instead talk about The Big Note. Spider Barbour sez “Everything in the universe is made of one element, which is […] a single note. Atoms are really vibrations […] which are extensions of The Big Note.” So what we essentially have is a loose pseudoscientific theory of everything based somewhat on the overtone series, where everything is either an overtone or a sympathetic resonator which, naturally, would have to be tuned as an overtone. The idea of a note so profound and fundamental that everything else is brought to life by it is an awe-inspiring concept, and somewhat lines up with the idea that music is the contextualisation of vibrations in time and space, its grand example being the universe itself. String Theory was in its very early years in the late ’60s, a framework in which point particles are replaced with string particles (and many other things I do not understand), and an analogy used to explain this (much like Schrödinger’s Cat is used to explain the Uncertainty Principle) is that of notes on a string in place of particles. However, it’s worth mentioning that at this stage it was being developed as a theory of nuclear force rather than a unified theory, it’s also worth mentioning that I have no idea what any of this means and should probably stop talking about it. All this Big Note hooplah is an elaboration on a couple of lines of improvised dialogue, but it is the way in which The Big Note would be used later on in Civilization Phaze III that makes it so vital in retrospect. Like Beckett says of Finnegans Wake in Our Exagmination Round His Factification, The Big Note is not the meaning of the thing, but the thing itself.

En route to… well, where exactly? We do not know, but let’s say Take Your Clothes Off is where we’re headed. Don’t look at me like that. On our way there it becomes clear that the approach taken in looking at Part One just don’t cut it here, the free association is on a much less superficial level, most of it is not readily understood even with many listens, many dissections, minute fragments of time played over and over. The transition from “the thing is to put a motor in yourself” to Louis the Turkey growling (which initially sounds like someone doing an imitation of a car engine) is about as obvious it gets, so where to go from here? I could take the cop-out bullshit route and excuse myself: “hey man, the only way to understand is to experience it for yourself!” But that’s not true, I know because I have experienced it for myself many more times than most people would consider healthy and I still don’t understand it, so fuck that noise, as the kids say. Do the kids say that? I heard Marc Maron say it once and he’s at least fifty years old. Anyway, lest I digress via concentric circles to a point so far removed from the subject that the whole article fizzles out: we have our destination and a starting point, but how do we get there?

First, Louis the Turkey relates to Roy Estrada an account of a run-in with the Ponies, who are apparently not too fond of Piano People, and may in fact, it is later suggested, eat them alive. So the Ponies and Pigs may be two breeds of monster, paying homage to Zappa’s beloved monster movies, but also, we may infer from Civilization Phaze III, that they may also be two political parties mirroring the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans in the US. Given Zappa’s constant interest in politics it is not so far fetched to think so. The Ponies are also associated with the phrase “white ugliness”, which may indicate them as stand-ins for the political establishment in itself, recalling the line “I’m not black but there’s a whole lot of times I wish I could say I’m not white,” from Trouble Every Day. Louis’s telling of the story is very incomplete, almost as if he doesn’t remember the specifics but only the general flow of events: he was attacked, he fought back. A digression relating to the game Pick Up Sticks suddenly halts the narrative, and when the subject of Ponies is reintroduced the conversation does not return to the confrontation, but rather becomes a general musing about their nature. President and Pope are mentioned, and then a cigar, all three responses to the question of what’s “out there”, possibly outside the piano? All three responses are either authority figures or related accessories, the cigar is an essential feature of the stereotypical corporate businessman, the kind of person who would have significant links to the other two. Whether intentional or not in primo, Zappa may well have picked up on this when editing the piece together.

Transitioning then in abstract modes, several instrumental pieces, some of which may be improvised, are edited together in sequence that goes something like: ABCBAB. A is a musique concrete made entirely percussion instruments, except for a double bass — and yes, piano is a percussion instrument because of the mechanics of its common tone production. B is orchestra music taken straight from the 1967 version. C is some kind of jazz trio of piano, arco bass, and drums, whether or not it is actually part of B is difficult to tell, since the edits, if they are there, are quite smooth. Given its character and instrumentation I tend to believe that it is something separate, and so note it as B. But this has actually given me pause, and sent me back to the 1967 version to find out. As it turns out, the order is closer to this: ABCDEAF. Difficult to tell given that both the ’67 and ’68 versions are constructed more through editing than anything else, so parts that may seem to be the same thing might be edits, and parts that seem like edits might really be contiguous sections as recorded. Oh boy! Editing things from multiple sources together seamlessly is something Zappa would master very quickly, such that later on in his career it would reach an extreme level of difficulty to tell by ear alone what was done on stage versus what was done in the studio, not to mention the things that were done with tape and later digital editing. This segment’s climax turns into perhaps the most bizarre tonal contrast on the album, as the voice of Ronnie Williams, a former member of The Blackouts (see the Freak Out! review for more on them) who has one of the weirdest voices I’ve ever heard. It’s like the voice is so deep and gravelly that it goes below the human hearing range and what you actually hear are the overtones some octaves higher than the root.

“Come on, boys,” he says. “Just one more time.” And, as if rallied by this strange imploring voice, the Piano People reemerge from whatever string-canopied darkness they were hiding under to resume their discussion out where we can hear them. Or have we gone into one of Larry Fanoga’s corners to find them? Who knows. Now they’re talking about Pigs, and specifically their music, which has something to do with light and smoke, and may also be used as a weapon against the Ponies. This interspecies combat is all very confusing stuff, and that’s to be expected from improvised dialogue cobbled together to just vaguely have a continuity. It’s kind of like the Richard Linklater film Slacker, nothing in any one scene really has much of anything to do with anything in any other scene, but taken as a whole they paint a picture of the world of the setting and the people in it. It seems like the Ponies are in deference to the smoke, which the Pigs’ music has the power to cause to move, and when that happens the Ponies get split-ends in their manes. Yeah. Readers will recall what I said about The Duke of Prunes on Absolutely Free, that there are some songs that are practically designed to make people look stupid by attempting to understand them. Lumpy Gravy is one big example, and so there are things in it that we simply have to take for granted. Even so, this may be an allusion to the political campaigns are fought, usually less time is spent on making oneself look good than is spent on making one’s opponents look bad.

From there, interludes, which may or may not, on the basis of the album’s intended form of a ballet, be meant to accompany scenes of moving smoke, lead us into into a very laid-back version of King Kong in full regalia. The melody is there but most everything else changed between this version and live performances of the piece from the even same year, and not just owing to the massively reduced instrumentation The Mothers had at their disposal. Before that, however, and very worth noting, is the appearance of a short stretch of music linking a string and marimba construction to aforementioned big jam number which, quite unexpectedly, sounds a heck of a lot like something from the late Synclavier period. Is this prototype Civilization Phaze III? The similarities are too numerous to dismiss the idea, yet the vast time period in between the two albums, not to mention the great many directions Zappa had followed in the interim, would suggest it is a little far-fetched. However, he had made some mentions of a major project that he had been working on for some twenty years, and it is reasonable to conclude that this project is indeed Civilization Phaze III, and with the whole conceptual continuity idea that is always in the air when considering Zappa it is also reasonable to say that this final work had indeed been around in those early years.

The proto-Civ narrative becomes more fragmented in the second half, if that is even possible, of Part Two. Plans to attack a Pig while somehow disguised as a Pony seem to be in the air, but even that is doubtful, being followed by the exclamation “oh no, man, kangaroos!” And once again I don’t know what to make of it. This seems to be the point and purpose of Lumpy Gravy, to make you wonder as you wander down the rabbit hole, going down as far as you can go before reaching the critical point when you are spat back out by the flurry of information textual and musical that lines the soil walls of its at once cavernous and claustrophobic being. A sense of this wandering crawl is engendered by a three/four ostinato figure reminiscent of a more sprightly Webern, hobbling along in dense harmony at a foreboding mechanical pace into a four/four(?) wind tutti, hard to make out due to its ritardando or rallentando character, making an operatic lead-in to some revelatory moment. Zappa subverts expectation by using it as a set-up to an absurd punchline, a sentence fragment never contextualised by anything concrete, but it also performs the standardised structural role of introducing the finale. The Teen-Age Grand Finale, in fact, or at least that is its name in the original “oratorio” form; here it is instead called Envelops the Bath Tub. It seems to come alive in fits and starts: a desolate brass duo with restrained gong hits and scrapes lead into disjointed bass pizzicati, building then with rigid drums, possibly serialised vertical figures in piano, brass, bass, flute, clarinet, snowballing into a devastating full orchestra which drops out almost as soon as it has begun, to leave only a rough gypsy violin playing harshly intoned harmonies against rolling timpani, tremolo castanets and fast sforzati crescendi in the brass, hurling themselves at the audience, always coming back at the last second as if strung like yo-yos, eventually revealing all three to be plates of sound layered one atop the other, sliding apart from each other in shifting tempi till a kind of centrifugal inertia breaks their ties indefinitely and the whole thing collapses in on itself. This culminative blow-out is a classically Zappian (yikes, man, are you really going to do that?) pulling back of the curtain, revealing the central thesis, which, as we have discussed, is that there is no thesis. Now it should be stressed that this does not mean there is nothing binding it together, but rather the idea that there is nothing is what is there, an open invitation to deconstruction with a notice to beware: here be ridiculously verbose analyses with higher word counts than are healthy.

And so we come at last to exhale in relief with Take Your Clothes Off, an instrumental rendition of Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance, recorded back in 1963 in Studio Z, one of the few remaining tapes of that era after a police entrapment scheme caused the place to be closed, many of its tapes destroyed. Historically important not only for those reasons but for its inclusion of the complete tune, which is missing in most all other versions, this early incarnation is gleefully surf-esque and banal with a decidedly sunny disposition, but even from this bright vantage point it’s hard to divorce oneself from the thinking that Zappa is making another joke, that sinkholes lie in wait just beneath the surface of this all-too-easy paradise ending. It is a closing theme, playing as we sit out on a long empty stretch of white sanded beach, magnifying the afternoon glare of a brennschluss sun refracted in the foams of the roaring surf, as credits superimposed on our otherwise spotless vision scroll up into infinity, returning us once again to the idea of the television programme that we began with. “Well,” we imagine Cal admitting, “it turns out round things might not be so boring after all.”

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