Lumpy Gravy

By Neil Spencer

Arrows, #96 1968


Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention have never received much credit on this side of the Atlantic, and even Zappa's return to these shores this October seems to have attracted scant attention in his grotesque personage. It's always been easier to ignore his music than to try to assess it; a situation which is unlikely to change with the release of LUMPY GRAVY, the most bizarre of his works to date, and one which we get eighteen months after recording. Thus Michael Wood, writing in New Society apparently after hearing and reading the cover notes of only two of Zappa's albums, can dismiss him and the Mothers as having great illusions about their musical ability.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as simply consulting the list of musicians who play on Lumpy Gravy would have shown him – Victor Feldman and Shelley Manne figure amongst those who do not doubt Zappa's musicianship. Musically, he is streets ahead of most of his contemporaries, and although primarily a rock musician, he admits to having a strong taste for the classics, a taste which is apparent on this L. P. Attempts to bring popular and classical music together are not, of course, new; Stravinsky tried it, and later Gershwin and Co. attempted the same feat from the opposite direction. More recently the Beatles, the Stones, and others like the United States of America have turned to the classics for inspiration.

This album which the cover tells us "started out as a ballet but probably didn't make it" is a strange mixture of pop and classical elements. It moves between rock, electronics, classical, jazz and garbled conversations about pigs, ponies and automobiles. At first it's confusing, but then the orchestral theme, repeated in varying forms throughout the record, becomes discernible, and the conversations are strangely intelligible. Traces of Stravinsky's Rites of Spring are in the music, which is a complex of subtly overlaid rhythms and riffs, and which never continues uninterrupted for lone. The whole thing is a sort of musical collage, and the totality of its effect rises out of the blending and interaction of the various musical textures present, resulting in a psychological control over the listener. Zappa has a great ability to juxtapose two elements seemingly at odds and come up with an unexpected and devastating effect. The skill with which he can do this is more apparent on the Mother's We're Only In It For The Money (the one with the take-off of the Sergeant Pepper cover) which was recorded about six months after this album although released before it in this country. Indeed, pieces of Lumpy Gravy's score are used in the later record, and Zappa's attempts at electronics and weird stereo effects are brought to a higher pitch of perfection.

On all his records Zappa quotes Edgar Varèse: "The present day composer refuses to die." This brings to mind certain parallels between the two. Like the Dadaist composer who led in the experimentation with electronics, Zappa started off destroying an art form – doing parodies of 1950's rock numbers with his own hilarious words added – but in destroying one art form he couldn't help but create another which was valid in its own right, thus completing the circle of destruction creation. Zappa's habit of taking a parody to the point where it transcends the original and becomes an original itself is never more evident than at the start and finish of Lumpy Gravy. The opening tune sounds like a cross between surf music and the theme music for a western, but it soon proves exhilarating in its rapid movement and catchy riff. The closing number is a piece of mock 'wallpaper music' – the sort of thing you hear at the cinema – and in fact turns out to be a bongo and organ version of 'Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance', from We're Only In It For The Money.

Amazing in that it treads exactly on the line between parody and serious original, and again instantly groovable. Lumpy Gravy is an odd record, and listened to with rock expectations it is bound to disappoint. Zappa's attempts at creating a hybrid musical form compounded of pop and classical vary in their success. Many of the ideas here are better used on We're Only In It For The Money interspersed between tracks as before 'The Chrome Plated Megaphone'.

The later album certainly shows Zappa's real strength as a musician, composer, satirist, and sound engineer far better than Lumpy Gravy. That he is one of the foremost pop musicians in the business, whether in it for the money or not, is something that hasn't been recognized enough yet, at least not in Britain. Who else could, without pretence, compose a piece of music to go with a Kafka short story? ("Do not read and listen at the same time".) Happily, we are soon to have more Mother's albums: 'Ruben and the Jets' and 'Uncle Meat', as well as artists released on Zappa's own label, Bizarre. Like the Beatles Zappa has become his own boss in order not to be hamstrung by record companies etc. in his artistic growth. (Then there's the money ... )

Neil Spencer