Frank Zappa – Lumpy Gravy
Released August 7th, 1967 on Capitol Records
The front cover of Lumpy Gravy states that it’s a “curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a ballet but probably didn’t make it.” The back cover asks “is this phase 2 of We’re Only In It For The Money?”, a bizarre question given that said album didn’t come out until 1968. It was, in fact, an orchestral piece commissioned by Capitol Records’ Nick Venet; to get around his contract with MGM and Verve, Zappa positioned himself as merely the conductor of the orchestra he cobbled together for the recording. This cutesy bit of manouvering didn’t stop MGM from threatening to sue, but as subsequent history would show, label heads going after Zappa would prove to be an exercise in futility. In fact, while waiting for MGM to come to that conclusion, Zappa plowed ahead on a project he called No Commercial Potential (which would make a great name for a retrospective of his career) that would eventually give birth to four albums: We’re Only In It For The Money, a reedited second edition of Lumpy Gravy, Cruising With Ruben And The Jets, and the gloriously bizarre “soundtrack” album Uncle Meat. The second edition of Lumpy Gravy would be released in 1968 by Verve Records; it would contain pieces of the original orchestral recordings as well as dialogue that was recorded near the studio’s grand piano, which would vibrate with resonance whenever someone spoke near it. The result is willfully bizarre musique concrete, the sort of thing you can only fully enjoy if you’ve completely disconnected yourself from society and human contact, as shown in the following chart:
As you can see, Lumpy Gravy falls somewhere close to the bottom level, where light no longer actually shines and the sounds of pan-dimensional click-beats can be heard from the wall. Patrician approved.
It’s worth noting that many of the performers Zappa gathered together for the original recordings thought at first that he was a total chump, just a guitarist from a joke rock band with no real experience composing. By the end, he won all of them over to his peculiarly cracked genius.
The Mothers Of Invention – Absolutely Free
Released May 26th, 1967 on Verve Records
Of the first three Mothers Of Invention albums, Absolutely Free tends to be the forgotten middle child, stuck between the white-hot innovations of Freak Out! and the balls-out satire of We’re Only In It For The Money. It’s a little more free-wheeling than either (if you want to split hairs) and lacks the conceptual focus that either of it’s flanking albums have. What Absolutely Free does have, however, is internal cohesion. It’s an album made up of two mini-suites, with call-backs to themes throughout. Musically it’s an early Frank Zappa album, meaning that it’s continuously balancing on the edge of free-form jazz, skipping from idea to idea with the impetuousness of the creatively uninhibited. There are references to Stravinsky and Holst; there are callbacks to previous soundtrack work Zappa had done; there is an admonishment to eat one’s vegetables because they’re good for you. “America Drinks” and “America Drinks and Goes Home”, the bookend tracks of side two, are tongue-in-cheek references to Zappa’s days playing lounge music; “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” paid homage to President Johnson’s fashion faux pas of the day, matching brown shoes to a grey suit. The most impressive part of the album is the opening, where Zappa goes fifty years forward in time to find a President Of The United States who can only communicate by bleating the main riff to “Louie Louie” in a cracked, off-key voice. NATO heads of state can probably relate.