ON THIS DATE (44 YEARS AGO)
May 13, 1968 – Frank Zappa: Lumpy Gravy (re-edited version) is released by Verve Records.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4.5/5
# allmusic 4/5
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Lumpy Gravy is the debut solo album by Frank Zappa, recorded with the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra. Released on August 7, 1967 on Capitol Records, it was subsequently reedited and reissued by Verve Records on May 13, 1968, and later reissued independently by Zappa.
In its original incarnation, Lumpy Gravy served as an album of orchestral music written by Zappa and performed by an orchestra assembled for the album. Zappa conducted the orchestra’s performance, and did not perform any instrument on the album. However, MGM Records claimed that the album’s production and release violated Zappa’s contract with Verve Records. Lumpy Gravy was subsequently reedited by Zappa as part of a project called No Commercial Potential, which produced three other albums: We’re Only in It for the Money, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets and Uncle Meat.
The reedited Lumpy Gravy, released by Verve on May 13, 1968, consisted of two musique concrète pieces which combined elements from the original orchestral performance with elements of surf music and spoken word dialogue. Produced simultaneously with We’re Only in It for the Money, the reedited Lumpy Gravy served as the second part of a conceptual continuity which later included Zappa’s final album, Civilization Phaze III. The reedited Lumpy Gravy was critically appraised for its unique music and innovative editing techniques.
Capitol released Lumpy Gravy on August 7, 1967. Capitol intended to release a single consisting of the pieces “Gypsy Airs” and “Sink Trap” to promote its release. In response to the album’s release, MGM threatened a lawsuit, claiming that its release violated Zappa’s contract.
During the litigation, Zappa reedited the album while recording in New York City for a project called No Commercial Potential, which ended up producing four albums: We’re Only in It for the Money, the reedited second version of Lumpy Gravy, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets and Uncle Meat, which served as the soundtrack to the film of the same name, which was ultimately not completed until 1987.
Zappa stated, “It’s all one album. All the material in the albums is organically related and if I had all the master tapes and I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order it still would make one piece of music you can listen to. Then I could take that razor blade and cut it apart and reassemble it a different way, and it still would make sense. I could do this twenty ways. The material is definitely related.”
The reedited Lumpy Gravy contained dialogue segments recorded at Apostolic Studios after Zappa discovered that the strings of the studio’s grand piano would resonate if a person spoke near those strings. The “piano people” experiment involved Zappa having various speakers improvise dialogue using topics offered by Zappa.
Most of the dialogue on the reedited Lumpy Gravy, recorded simultaneously with We’re Only in It for the Money, was spoken by a small group which included Motorhead Sherwood, Roy Estrada, Spider Barbour, All-Night John (the manager of the studio) and Louis Cuneo, who was noted for his laugh, which sounded like a “psychotic turkey”. The concept of the reedited album derived from Zappa’s “big note” theory, which states that the universe consists of a single element, and that atoms are vibrations of that element, a “big note”.
The reedited album proved to be very difficult to make, as the master tapes featured many accidental splices. The reedited version also incorporated additional musical content not on the original release of the album, including previously recorded surf music. Some of the editing was done in Zappa’s living room. On the 1967 and 1968 releases of the album, Zappa was credited as “Francis Vincent Zappa”, as Zappa had believed that this was his real name. He later learned that his birth name was Frank Vincent Zappa, and this mistake was subsequently corrected in reissues of the album.
ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
Lumpy Gravy is the most curious album Frank Zappa has been involved in to date, and in many ways the music just doesn’t make it; as it says on the cover, “a curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a ballet but probably didn’t make it.” The record was recorded in February of 1967, and Zappa conducts the “Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus,” which is made of stray Mothers and some of Hollywood’s top studio musicians. On the back of the album we are asked by Zappa, “Is this phase 2 of We’re Only In It For The Money?” but Lumpy Gravy is hardly a sequel in quality or kind to Money, although it does share some thematic material with the later Mothers’ group.
Lumpy Gravy carries to an extreme the protean, fragmented musical approach that Zappa favors, but on the whole the work is rather inert. The composition is liberally garnished with dialogues about everything from living in drums to pigs with wings, but most of these spoken sections seem rather artificially forced. There are several jabs at surfing music, and the record closes with an instrumental version of “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” that could have been arranged by the Ventures. In contrast some sections of Lumpy Gravy are so extremely chromatic that they verge on “atonality;” these passages are usually scored for strings and/or woodwinds, although towards the end of the second side an atonal passage for wind instruments is incongruously accompanied by a studio drummer.
Parts of Lumpy Gravy break down into cliched lush string writing, while other parts abound in burps and bits of electronic music not unlike sections of “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny.”
Yet in spite of its varied tricks, Lumpy Gravy does not come to life; it is a strangely sterile recording, as though all the studio musicians reading their music could not do what a batch of well-rehearsed Mothers can do. Missing are the songs and the energy of the Mothers, with all their casually tossed off mistakes vocally and brilliance instrumentally; furthermore what Zappa has lost by not using the smaller Mothers he has not really gained back by using a huge orchestra. The texture of the music (and the scoring of the instruments, for that matter) is surprisingly conventional and even boring, especially if one is familiar with Zappa’s love of burps, aimless dialogue and certain kinds of electronic music.
Nevertheless Lumpy Gravy is an important album, if only because Frank Zappa is one of rock’s foremost minds. This album, recorded well over a year ago, demonstrates the problems that serious rock as a whole faces, as well as the compositional limitations (as of a year and a half ago) of one of serious rock’s leading voices. Lumpy Gravy can hardly be called successful, yet it points the way towards more integrated, formal protean compositions such as Zappa’s masterpiece We’re Only In It For The Money. It might be said that Zappa makes mistakes other rock composers would be proud to call their own best music; Lumpy Gravy is an idiosyncratic musical faux pas that is worth listening to for that reason alone. (RS 12)
~ JIM MILLER (June 22, 1968)
All songs written and composed by Frank Zappa.
1968 version, part one
1. “The Way I See It, Barry”
3. “Oh No”
4. “Bit Of Nostalgia”
5. “It’s From Kansas”
6. “Bored Out 90 Over”
7. “Almost Chinese”
8. “Switching Girls”
9. “Oh No Again”
10. “At the Gas Station”
11. “Another Pickup”
12. “I Don’t Know If I Can Go Through This Again”
1968 version, part two
1. “Very Distraughtening”
2. “White Ugliness”
4. “Just One More Time”
5. “A Vicious Circle”
6. “King Kong”
7. “Drums Are Too Noisy”
9. “Envelops the Bath Tub”
10. “Take Your Clothes Off”