Frank Zappa – “Lumpy Gravy” (1967)

September 25, 2009 at 1:09 am (Frank Zappa, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Another chapter from the online book Zappology: Zappa Observations, Minutiae and Conceptual Continuity Connections, written by Chris Federico (circa 2002 – but recently updated). Here is the link if anyone wants to check out more from him


After contacting symphonic session musicians through trombonist Kenneth Shroyer, who’d played on Absolutely Free, Frank formed the one-off Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, made up of the musicians and characters as they appeared piecemeal on the album, rather than in any simultaneously orchestral and vocal performances. The Chorus was actually a speaking cast, its members’ dialogue taking the place of sung lyrics. They were recorded conversing with their heads stuck inside a Steinway grand piano during several sessions at Apostolic Studios in New York City. The chats were improvised, but they followed Frank’s general thematic guidelines. He amassed eight or nine hours of conversation from which to select; further snippets were heard in a few spots on following albums, but the piano characters returned with prominence on Civilization, Phaze III (1994), which clarified and continued the plot (all the way to the end of the world) from where it had left off on Lumpy Gravy, using old characters from that album and new, freshly recorded “piano people.”

The album features three Mothers; Bunk Gardner plays woodwinds and brass, while the others — Roy Estrada and Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, the latter often using the voice of his alter-ego, Larry Fanoga (“Almost Chinese, huh!” and “Drums are too noisy when you got no corners to hide in”) — are listed as members of the Chorus. Other enclosed-perspective piano inhabitants are played by studio staff members, Louie the Turkey from the Garrick Theater audience, and Spider Barbour of Chrysalis, another group recording at Apostolic at the time.

Completed in 1967, this two-sided piece featured the earliest commercial appearance of Frank’s orchestral music. Some of the material was even recorded with a fifty-piece Los Angeles orchestra. The album was commissioned by Nik Venet of Capitol Records, who’d formerly signed the Beach Boys. It had been assumed that Frank was contractually free to compose and conduct, since MGM had only signed him as a musician and vocalist along with the rest of the Mothers. The latter company disagreed, threatened to sue, and finally bought the master tapes. It was just as well; Capitol’s engineers had messed up the countless edits, requiring Frank to reconstruct the album. He and engineer Gary Kellgren labored over this unexpected task at Mayfair Studios in New York City. All in all, the release of the album was delayed for over a year.

The album’s title, originally taken from a television commercial for Aloma Linda Gravy Quick, describes Zappa’s upsetting of the “smooth” textures of popular orchestral music. His congealing of dyed-in-the-wool classical forms is achieved through utter compositional freedom, as well as intrusions of hard reality: the “lumps” of the imperfect real world, much more interesting than the dull familiarities of antiquated musical forms. The lumps are the “meat of the matter,” and also happen to be the tastiest part of the gravy. Frank is opting for meat rather than vegetation: substance, not to mention the variety (and humor) of reality, rather than derivative musical uniformity. Upcoming titles will update this idea (Uncle Meat and Burnt Weeny Sandwich most drastically, but also, a bit less directly, Hot Rats and Weasels Ripped My Flesh).

The front-cover photo, backdropped in gravy brown, features Frank in a non-hip, comfortable outfit, staring proudly up at the spectator from his laboratory like a worker after a long day. He’s wearing a shirt occasionally aired onstage that advertises Pipco, a Santa Barbara, California pipe company that has made shirts to sponsor little-league teams (although Frank won’t learn of the shirt’s origins until long after 1967). The clothing-store dummy inside the gatefold hearkens back to the plastic people on Absolutely Free.

The opening theme will return in “Bwana Dik,” a song about a guy’s fixation on penis size, on Fillmore East, June 1971. Sneaking the theme of an album that partially deals with male hang-ups into a song about genitals is characteristically crafty. The subject is also alluded to beyond Motorhead’s monologue on Lumpy Gravy, when a cigar is brought up during Roy and Louie’s dialogue.

The slow, lovely introduction to the instrumental version of “Oh, No” is a revisited 1962 theme that Frank wrote for the World’s Greatest Sinner soundtrack. The snatch of surf guitar that’s heard after Spider says “A bit o’ nostalgia for the old folks!” comes from the 1963 song “Hurricane,” which Frank produced for Conrad and the Hurricane Strings at his Studio Z.

In light of Motorhead’s car-engine reference “Bored out, 90 over,” All-Night John’s later statement, “Round things are boring,” suggests that the word “boring” can be heard as the less apparent verb, rather than the obvious adjective. Elements on the album — the drum, the merry-go-‘round and the vicious circle — are round things; so is the record itself. These things are perhaps now “boring” into the society Frank wishes to infiltrate and change with his music (this optimism will diminish in time). In his 1968 essay “The New Rock,” Frank will write, “It’s something of a paradox that companies which manufacture and distribute this art form (strictly for profit) might one day be changed or controlled by young people who were motivated to action by the products these companies sell.” The ants (round things, in their own ways) on the back cover of 1975’s One Size Fits All are boring into the crumbling cityscape. “Round things are boring” also appears as one of many messages bordering the circular star map on that back cover; the confinement of such a limitless place that “fits all” as the universe (or music) to a convenient, measureable shape just to accommodate our filtered minds is boring in the dull sense. (See the section on Apostrophe (‘) for more on boring, round stuff.)

The second half’s opening vocal, which sounds like an attempt by a drunk guy to sing along with the mainstream music that’s been darting in and out — something like “ba-BOMP-BODDY!” — will, with the release of The Lost Episodes (1996), be revealed as a fragment of “Ronnie Sings?”, a recording of Frank’s boyhood friend Ronnie Williams (who introduced him to Paul Buff of Pal Studios, which eventually became Studio Z) making rough-throated scat sounds to Frank’s guitar accompaniment in an Ontario living room in 1961 or ‘62. Ronnie’s booger-saving, fart-lighting and accidental urine-creature-making activities will figure among the subjects of “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” on the Money album; that song will also cut momentarily to the voice. It figures into the Lumpy Gravy plot as a “little pig with wings” (even though it sounds more like a goat with emphysema).

The pig will fly around inside the piano again on Civilization, Phaze III. In 1974, Frank will record a long, comical piece called “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” concerning a pig who sits in his office and comes up with trends to sell to the gullible consumers of the world. When talking about the pigs not being able to question any part of their system, lest their livelihoods be threatened (the perspective-clouding “smoke” must remain), Spider mentions “that thing on their neck,” a precursor to the tie markings on Greggery.

“Merry-Go-‘Round” was a song by Wild Man Fischer, a discovery of Zappa’s who would eventually record the tune for an album on Frank’s Straight label. A funny-farm alumnus, Fischer wrote simplistic, nursery rhyme-type tunes. Spider’s statement about robotic servitude, presumably to either work or fashion — “The thing is to put a motor in yourself” — refers back to Motorhead’s automobile tales earlier on the album, as well as “Merry-Go-‘Round.”

Louie’s excited recount of ponies trying to kill him ends up as a joke, when he talks about picking up sticks to throw at his assailants, and Roy interrupts with “Pick-Up Sticks?”. Mentioning the childhood game refers back to the groping for innocence in “Merry-Go-‘Round,” as well as Motorhead’s earlier line about getting “another pickup.” (Even this could be double-edged, considering the nature of his recollections; girls are “picked up.”)

Roy’s “Amen” is included as a reference to the name of the studio, Apostolic. The stanza that ends with “Just one more time” features Captain Beefheart’s vocals from Studio Z, circa 1963.

Chris Federico


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