Monday, July 11, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On #158 - Frank Zappa - Lumpy Gravy

Prepare yourself for one of the most complicated and interesting stories in the history of modern popular music. In 1967 an executive from Capitol Records, impressed with The Mothers Of Invention’s first two albums, approached head Mother Frank Zappa about writing and conducting a piece of classical music for Capitol Records. The thinking was, if Zappa just conducted but didn’t play on the album he would not be in violation of his existing recording contract with MGM Records. This was extremely optimistic thinking on their part and presaged a professional life marked by almost constant lawsuits for Zappa. But I get ahead of myself. Back in 1967, Zappa took the challenge and wrote a complicated, dense, brilliant, highly listenable piece of modern classical music. He entered Capitol’s studios with a group of over 30 of the finest jazz, classical and session musicians in Los Angeles (dubbed “Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus”) and in short order recorded and edited the music down to about 23 minutes of masterpiece. It is arguably the greatest piece ever realized by Zappa. It has so many signature Zappa moments - wild leaps of time ala John Cage, matterhorns of percussion inspired by his hero Edgard Varese, jazzy interludes, soundtrack music for films never made - all edited together by Zappa with his patented disregard for standard measures of song. It simply flows from idea to idea, yet it all feels wonderfully a part of some cosmic whole. Capitol released it as a promotional 4-track tape to reviewers and industry insiders and were, of course, immediately slapped with a cease and desist order from MGM Records. (Now you want to talk about a REAL collectible - something the top Zappa collectors in the world drool over -that original 4-track tape is RARE! Hardly any of them exist and it is next to impossible to find.) So, to avoid a protracted lawsuit, Zappa takes the tapes of his masterwork and begins to reassemble them into a new and different work. He edits in some surf music, sound effects and the results of an experiment he conducted whereby various friends (including Eric Clapton and Tim Buckley) stuck their heads inside a piano and spoke closely enough to the strings that they vibrated in a strange and sympathetic way. Different parts of these weird, echo-y recordings would appear on Zappa records until the end of his life, but this is their first and most effective use. The new, re-edited version is released to the world in 1968 as Lumpy Gravy, while the original classical piece becomes the subject of rumor and desire.

Throughout the years, I have found Lumpy Gravy to be the most interesting and confounding of all Zappa releases. Re-edited, his original work is wildly audacious. He changed it from a classical piece with avant-garde leanings to an avant-garde suite that nods to classical. It is no less great. Lumpy Gravy stands alongside the most ambitious albums produced in the 1960’s in any genre. As it was released in 1968, it makes perfect sense in the arc of Zappa’s career; it is a completely weird exercise in musique concrète, but with a hip edge brought by the spoken word parts, which link the album clearly to the first Mothers Of Invention releases. In a strange way, the legal restraint of the original classical piece may have saved Zappa’s career (such as it was). If that primal composition had been given wide release, it might have been too confusing for the record buying public and in some way changed the course Zappa took moving forward. He was forced to recast the music in a more Mothers-friendly fashion, and thus, though the album is still incredibly weird, it fits in with other releases of the day.

Why have I expended so much ink discussing a project you can’t hear? Well, thanks to the Zappa family archives you can hear it now. With the release of Lumpy Money we can now hear that original piece, alongside hours of other Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For The Money related materials from the sessions. In addition to that groundbreaking original classical piece, there are hard to find mixes of both albums, interviews, live cuts, extra session work - it is literally a treasure trove of prime-era Zappa goods. I believe this release is the most essential purchase in the entire Zappa catalog (now numbering 103 official releases). It shows Zappa as a completely self-possessed artist at only 26. He had vaulting ambition and, unbelievably, the talent and drive to see his vision come to reality (twice in this case). If however, this seems like too much to digest at once, I suggest just picking up Lumpy Gravy. It has much of what makes Frank Zappa great in the rock and roll universe, but it also shows very clearly why he simultaneously ruled other universes at the same time. He was, quite simply a one-of-a-kind musical genius with no peer, and Lumpy Gravy is ample proof.

-         Paul Epstein

No comments: