Those Were the Days
April 30, 2013 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Classical Gas was written and publicized by Mason Williams in 1968 - still nimble and able, Mason Williams still performs it (as do many other players), but in addition to being an all-around good player, Williams was a driving force behind the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (and hiring 22 year-old Steve Martin) and he als...well, let him tell you.
posted by plinth (28 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The first time I heard this song, it was a joke in The Simpsons episode about "Lisa Needs Braces" (she plays it for Lenny at the protest). I couldn't believe how beautiful it sounded and had to seek it out, which in 1991 or whatever was kind of tough without YouTube or Wikipedia.

To this day it still sounds like at least two if not three guitars are required to play it, I can't believe that guy plays the whole thing solo, it breaks my brain to think about how one person can play all those notes.
posted by mathowie at 11:59 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:09 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wish "Classical Gas" got played on soft rock stations, instead of whatever crap Jason Mraz has pooped out this time.
posted by pxe2000 at 12:13 PM on April 30, 2013

I knew Mason Williams from the age of three or so, through his Mason Williams Reading Matter. It is a glorious volume, filled with gems. Especially fond of "How to Derive Maximum Enjoyment From Crackers," among other things.

But it also contains my favorite poem of all time: "Them Hors d'Oeuvres" (one of many fine Them Poems, but uniquely elegant).

How about Hors D'oeuvres,
Ain't they sweet?
Little piece of cheese,
Little piece of meat.
posted by Madamina at 12:21 PM on April 30, 2013 [11 favorites]

it breaks my brain to think about how one person can play all those notes.

In terms of classical guitar, it's quite simple. Think of it like typing. It's hard to type a great deal with 1 finger, but you get all of them in play and it makes a big difference. Replacing a pick with five fingers makes a big difference in notes-per-second.

Of course, four hands are better than two.

and then they really show off by crossing the fretting hands....
posted by eriko at 12:21 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of great material in the book Madamina mentions, but my favorite was the part that went "Today I got a 42 pound fountain pen"...written in enormous, super-duper-bold script, across several pages. Even decades later, it makes me chuckle with the sheer exuberant absurdity of it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:31 PM on April 30, 2013

A kid I knew in high school whom I ended up hanging out with a lot in college and who had severe visual problems (his eyes whipped back and forth constantly as if he were stuck forever in a really terrible nightmare-- which of course he was) heard this on a record one of our friends had, was absolutely transfixed by it, insisted on hearing it four more times in a row despite protests from everyone else, then went and got his guitar and played it back note for note.

We were stunned, but he shrugged off all the compliments and proceeded to get really drunk, which I had never seen him do before.

I always think of him when it comes up.
posted by jamjam at 12:33 PM on April 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

My parents had this album so I loved Classical Gas from a very young age. "The Prince's Panties" is a VERY strange song for a small child (or anyone, really) to know.
posted by 41swans at 12:36 PM on April 30, 2013

Mason Williams & Ed Ruscha
posted by neroli at 12:49 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I always thought Classical Gas was a pretty goofy easy listening ditty, probably because I grew up hearing it on (now extinct) easy listening stations, as bumper music, etc. The humor in that Simpsons episode where Lenny makes a request for Classical Gas is that it's a total Classical Gas moment, like playing Stairway at Guitar Center, but for the Lenny and Carl crowd, an indication of its place in popular culture.

The neat thing about the tune is that it's really not a difficult piece, and it can even be faked well enough if you're not a proficient finger picker.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:09 PM on April 30, 2013

it breaks my brain to think about how one person can play all those notes.

In terms of classical guitar, it's quite simple.
posted by eriko at 8:21 PM on April 30

This. I'm a rock/punk/noise guitarist but when I was learning all I had to work with was my sister's classical guitar. I liked "Classical Gas" a lot (I still have the original 45 disc) and my sister did too. She bought the sheet music, worked about half way through it and gave up. I persisted for a few weeks and pretty much nailed it, and I was a much worse guitarist then than I am now, although I wish I could still read music as handily as I did back then.
posted by Decani at 1:24 PM on April 30, 2013

Madamina, my favorite is still Them Tummy Gummers:

How about Them Tummy Gummers ain't they dummies?
Havin' they fun gummin' they tummies.
Gummin them paunches, out o' they mind
Runnin' 'round shoutin' "It's tummy gummin' time"
Look at them Them Tummy Gummers lurkin' in the yard,
Waintin' for a jelly belly, catch it off guard.
Them hell-bent Tummy Gummers, ain't they dumb-ox,
Runnin' through the neighborhood gummin' them stomachs.
How to be a Tummy Gummer, no way to shun it,
Grab an abdomen, haul off and gum it.

And the crackers bit got me into considerable trouble when I was ten or so and my brother found a garden salad in his bed.
posted by Mooski at 1:42 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

My parents had a copy of the Mason Williams Phonograph Record. It was purchased specifically for Classical Gas, a song that I still strongly associate with long, early childhood car trips to visit my grandparents. It was on a mix tape among a number of songs which I still collectively think of as "driving music."

I've always loved the song, and when I got a little older I decided to check out the rest of the Phonograph Record, figuring there would be more songs like that. There... aren't. I should give it another listen now, but at the time I didn't really know what to make of it. However, the liner notes feature an interesting interview, including some background on the cover photo - the life-sized, foldable Greyhound bus was another project of Williams', who seemed to have a bit of an absurdist streak (viz: The Prince's Panties referenced above.)

He strikes me as a really interesting person who just does his thing, whatever that might be at any given moment. Is there an authoritative collection, written or recorded, of "Them Poems"? I heard this one on Doctor Demento when I was 12 and loved that it could be the same guy who wrote Classical Gas:

Them Dog Kickers
How about Them Dog Kickers, Ain't they crumbs?
Kickin' them doggies, In they bums.
Kickin' them Afghans, Kickin' them mutts,
Kickin' them puppy dogs' Poor little butts.
Look at Them Dog Kickers, Ain't they cute?
Some use a shower-shoe, Some use a boot.
Them dadgum Dog Kickers, Ain't they mean?
Run 'round kickin' Ever dog what's seen.
How to be a Dog Kicker? Don't need a ticket.
Find an old dog, Haul off and kick it!
posted by usonian at 3:03 PM on April 30, 2013

Whoops, I missed Madamina's reference to 'The Reading Matter' above - but it appears there is also an album full of Them Poems called 'The Listening Matter', which is on Spotify. Sweet!
posted by usonian at 3:11 PM on April 30, 2013

I think this is the fifth time I've replayed this song. Send halp.
posted by ersatz at 3:23 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

My father's copies of the Mason Williams Reading Matter and Flavors pretty heavily colored my sense of humor as a young Moofoo.
I should pick myself up some copies of them.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 3:40 PM on April 30, 2013

That first link, to the 1968 performance that I think was on the Smothers Brothers show, changed my life. As a kid I saw that on TV --the man starting in the dark with just the guitar-- then the build of the music, the reveal of the orchestra, the brass, the peaks, the simmering holding-in-place weird 'b' bridge, and knowing that he wrote the song, and arranged it, and was doing it on what was basically his own television show...the idea of what that must feel like to sit dead center in the middle of all this amazing stuff THAT YOU HAD CREATED made me want to do what I do to this very day. It's still powerful; I can still feel the resonance of that epiphany 45 years later: thank you for posting this.
posted by umberto at 3:45 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Actually I think Mike Post did the actual arrangement, but I didn't know that at the time; I was a mere child easily beguiled and swayed by bearded minstrels....

Mike Post has his own awesome resume.
posted by umberto at 4:01 PM on April 30, 2013

As a tween in a household where the consumption of Rock & Roll was restricted, The Smothers Brothers, and by extension, Mason Williams, were a kind of sneaky delight. I owned Williams' first four albums over the end-of-the-60s-start-of-the-70s. I must disagree with the claim that there were no other songs 'like' Classical Gas on his first record. I liked "Baroque-A-Nova" nearly as much, although it was somewhat overproduced (I blame Mike Post, who would go on to be a legendary maker of TV Theme Songs). Williams did also do a 'Classical Gas-like' arrangement of the traditional "Greensleeves" that was pretty good, if obviously derivative. To my personal shame, I prefer the versions of some of his songs when he 'remade' them in 1990 with Muzak Masters Mannheim Steamroller.

When it came to vocals, he was much better when he went Full Country (more Bluegrass than Nashville, if his record producer let him) or just Full Weird: Here's a clip of him guesting on Johnny Cash's variety show (yes, there was one) performing "Them Tummy Gummers" (on network TV!) and one of his unabashedly Country-esque songs "A Major Thang".

"The Prince's Panties" was a part of a suite of five songs he called "The Dada Trilogy"* that also included "The Tomato Vendetta", "The Exciting Accident", "J. Edgar Swoop"(I think, I couldn't recall that one, and even Williams' own website is unclear) and "The Last Great Waltz", a tour-de-farce in which a hopeless romantic lover of the waltz discovers his true love: a woman with three legs (yet, the final chorus is done in 5/4 time to represent their ultimate imbalance). The three-legger was portrayed by future 'queen of movie soundtrack duets' Jennifer Warnes, both on the record and in a sketch on the Smothers Brothers show that I WISH were saved somewhere we could see it. But there is another interesting Mason Williams novelty duet, "Cinderella/Rockefella" performed by Tom Smothers and Kate Smith(!), complete with a mention of Mason.

One more factoid: as a writer on the Smothers Show, Mason is credited for coming up with and writing much of the material for the "Pat Paulsen for President" campaign.

In the words of one of Mason Williams' shortest musical compositions:
"Isn't life beautiful,
Isn't life gay,
Isn't life the perfect thing
To pass the time away?"

*PLEASE note that he came up with the concept of a 'five-part-trilogy' almost 20 years before Douglas Adams. When you get your ideas 'borrowed' by Adams, THAT'S serious funny.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:32 PM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Awesome song. I always end up stumbling through the first minute or so of it when I pick up my guitar. Cause that's all I know.

A few Mason Williams-related moments from my life:

1. My parents had The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, (along with albums by people like Herb Alpert, The Village Stompers and Ivan Rebroff),
in the enormous credenza-sized piece of furniture that was the stereo in our living room in the '70's.
I still have that record. It still has some yellowing shrink-wrap on it and a $3.99 price sticker from the now-defunct EATON's department store (just took those pictures now!)

2. I used the song "Sunflower" for the soundtrack of a Super8 movie I made in Grade 13.

3. Last year I was painting our bedroom with the radio on and they played a few seconds of "Classical Gas" as a contest to see who could identify it and I was reluctant but called in...I felt compelled because that song is etched in my brain...and won tickets to see Jackson Browne at Massey Hall. I don't even like Jackson Browne. Strangely, my brother was listening to the same station in his car and called me immediately after and asked, "were you just on the radio?" We went to the concert and left at the halfway intermission because it was so boring. We went across the street to the Imperial Pub and got drunk with a hilarious old man.
posted by chococat at 4:45 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

For a while in the 1970s Classical Gas was adapted as a TV news theme song.
posted by evilcolonel at 5:14 PM on April 30, 2013

In terms of classical guitar, it's quite simple.

Classical Gas is one of those rare etudes which is easier to play than it actually sounds. It's a swell student study piece, and a decent intro to Classical Guitar.
posted by ovvl at 6:49 PM on April 30, 2013

It's a swell student study piece, and a decent intro to Classical Guitar.

So is Bach.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:12 PM on April 30, 2013

A world of "culture" that I was heretofore unaware of. Thanks, thanks a heap, usonian.

Them Moose Goosers
How about them Moose goosers, Ain't they cluse?
Up in them boondocks, goosin' them moose
Goosin' them huge moose, goosin' them tiny,
Goosin them medlin' moose in they hinny!
Look at them Moose goosers, Ain't they dumb?
Some use an umbrella, some use they thumb.
Them obtuse Moose goosers, sneakin' through the woods,
pokin' they snoozey moose in they goods,
How to be a Moose gooser? It'll turn you puce;
Get your gooser loose, and rouse a drowsy moose!

Now that I think on it, I vaguely recall Glen Campbell doing this on television, before the world and everything. Huh.
posted by SPrintF at 8:01 PM on April 30, 2013

I hadn't heard Classical Gas in years. Just downloaded the transcription, worked pretty well on my tenor viola da gamba. Next - on the ukulele!
posted by Dreidl at 8:21 PM on April 30, 2013

Same here, I haven't listened to this in ages. Thanks, plinth.
posted by homunculus at 12:45 AM on May 1, 2013

This just reminded me of Sky, a whole band built around this rock-up-classical-music gimmick. I had not known that John Williams was in the band.

It seems like there's not much space anymore for this kind of novelty hit to break through. Back in the day, you could make a million dollars with something like "Convoy" or "A Fifth of Beethoven".
posted by thelonius at 1:51 AM on May 1, 2013

Back in the day, you could make a million dollars with something like "Convoy" or "A Fifth of Beethoven".

Haha, of course the trucker-CB-radio mega-hit 'Convoy' was cooked up by those classical-music nerds in Mannheim Steamroller...
posted by ovvl at 6:43 AM on May 2, 2013

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