Lumpy Gravy is the first solo album by Frank Zappa, originally released in 1967, but not generally available until May 1968. Zappa was credited as conductor on the album cover and he described the contents as "a curiously inconsistent piece, which started out to be a BALLET, but probably didn't make it." The album consists of pieces of Zappa's orchestral music interspersed with surreal spoken dialogues and linked with many odd sound effects and musical fragments. The title was inspired by an advertisement for Loma Linda Gravy Mix. In later years Zappa claimed Lumpy Gravy and Joe's Garage among his proudest achievements.
Much of Zappa's orchestral music was strongly influenced by his love of Igor Stravinsky ballets such as The Rite of Spring. Earlier in his career Zappa wrote music for a few independently produced Hollywood films, such as The World's Greatest Sinner (1962) and Run Home Slow, (1965). Lumpy Gravy is closely related to these early soundtrack works. The juxtaposition of highbrow and lowbrow cultural influences was a radical idea at the time. It is also a defining characteristic of Zappa's entire musical output.
The album's conception came about in late 1966 when a Capitol Records producer named Nick Venet offered Zappa the chance to record an album of orchestral music. At this point in his career he was known to the public only as a rock musician. Zappa assembled approximately 40 of the best studio orchestra musicians (including legendary guitarist Tommy Tedesco) at the Capitol Records studio in Hollywood in February and March 1967 to record an album of his instrumental compositions. Though Zappa was credited as conductor the ensemble was actually led by veteran Hollywood musician Sid Sharp under Zappa's supervision. Zappa gave the group an absurd name, the "Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus", to match the music.
There was a long delay between the initial orchestral recording sessions and final release in May 1968. This was caused by a dispute between MGM Records and Capitol Records. As first prepared for Capitol, the album contained music from the studio orchestra only with a total playing time of about 22 minutes. However MGM had already signed Zappa to their Verve Records division in early 1966 as a member of The Mothers of Invention. Zappa believed his MGM/Verve contract allowed him to work on outside projects as long as he did not sing or play. MGM disagreed. It claimed ownership of the recordings and sued to stop all distribution of the Capitol album. Under terms of the settlement MGM/Verve agreed to purchase the recordings.
During the dispute Zappa seized the opportunity to radically re-edit his work. While living in New York City during 1967 and early 1968 he worked at Apostolic Studios and Mayfair Studios, recording new music and spoken dialog for the next Mothers of Invention album We're Only in It for the Money. A series of August 1967 sessions at Apostolic included members of The Mothers of Invention and other friends in conversation under Zappa's direct supervision. Voices of the "Chorus" were recorded inside a piano with a sandbag placed on the pedals. This allowed the piano strings to vibrate in response, giving the spoken voices a rich and resonant quality. Bits of talk were edited into conversations about cars, drums, and pigs. One of the more interesting conversations contains Zappa's thoughts concerning his theory of "the big note".
Many unusual new sounds were also created for the Verve version of Lumpy Gravy through the manipulation of sounds on tape recordings, a process known as Musique concrète. Using a then state of the art 12-track tape recorder, Zappa invented a unique electronic set-up which he named "The Apostolic Blurch Injector". He also worked from his temporary Greenwich Village home in his spare time, spending hundreds of hours manually editing recordings with a razor blade and splicing tape. Music from the original Capitol album was completely restructured and some sections were cut. Some material from the Capitol sessions, but cut from the Capitol album, were added back into the final product. Other important new musical segments were also added including a new introduction and ending. These new musical sections came from Zappa's own tape collection of studio and live performances, which was extensive even at this early stage of his career. The completely reworked Verve version of the album was extended to 31 minutes.
Lumpy Gravy uses sound effects and dialogue to link highly dissimilar musical themes. Some orchestral parts have a jazz-like feel while other sections show tonal and atonal classical music influences. On first listening, the album may appear to have no musical structure. But after repeated listening the album's unique flow begins to make more sense. Zappa's first instrument was drums. Through careful attention to rhythm, dynamics, pacing, and technology, he was able to bring sound elements together in a way that was almost without precedent. The closest parallels would be cartoon music soundtrack recordings of the 1930s-1950's, such as the work of Carl Stalling, and the music of Zappa's favorite classical composer, Edgard Varèse. Other Zappa albums such as Läther use these types of musical elements in a similar way. But the radical nature of Zappa's musical structures are at their most extreme on this album because Lumpy Gravy is composed of many short segments.
Duodenum, also known as "Lumpy Gravy Main Theme", dates from an April 1966 recording session at TTG Studios in Hollywood. This tune was originally written as the theme for Zappa's unfinished 1964 film project Captain Beefheart vs. The Grunt People. The 'surf music' style ending of the album was recorded by a rock ensemble at Zappa's own Studio Z circa 1963. The blues harmonica fragment, "Another Pickup", comes from a 1966 live recording of The Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Sounds of bells, coughing and "snorks", recorded in New York City, were leftovers from an animated television commercial for Luden's cough drops. This advertisement, called "The Big Squeeze", won Zappa a Clio Award for sound in 1967. Though Zappa was not credited as a performer on the disc, he probably did play guitar and percussion on some of these additional recordings.
There are several thematic and musical links between Lumpy Gravy and We're Only in It for the Money. Both have extensive use of dialog, editing and musique concrète. On the back cover of Lumpy Gravy, Frank says in a speech bubble, "Is this phase 2 of We're Only in It for the Money?" The 'surf music' instrumental finale appears in a vocal version on We're Only in It for the Money under the title "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance". One short orchestral section of Lumpy Gravy was also used in the song "Mother People" on We're Only in It for the Money.
The Capitol version was released briefly in the 4-track cartridge tape format in 1967 before MGM threatened legal action. The 4-track cartridge system was an early competitor to the more successful 8-track tape format. According to Zappa himself, the Capitol 4-track of Lumpy Gravy is one of the rarest official Zappa releases - if not the rarest. Capitol had also begun preparation of the vinyl LP record as well as a 7" single from the album ("Sink Trap" b/w "Gypsy Airs") but these did not get past the test pressing stage.
The MGM/Verve version of the album was released on LP record and 4-track cartridge in 1968 and later in an 8-track cartridge version also. This was the only Zappa project to appear on the black Verve label in the U.S. At that time Verve's black label was used only for jazz and other "serious" works, while Verve's pop and rock releases used a blue label. There was a mono Verve LP version, though there is still some debate among collectors about whether this is a special mono mix, or simply a reduction of the stereo with equalization and dynamic range compression applied during mastering. An alternate stereo remix of the album was prepared in 1984, with drum overdubs by Chad Wackerman, and bass overdubs by Arthur Barrow. An excerpt appeared on the sampler for the first Old Masters box set, but this remix is otherwise unreleased. The album was combined with We're Only in It for the Money for the first CD release on Ryko in 1988. This CD version most closely matches the original stereo vinyl, though the sound is of only average quality by CD standards.
The 1995 CD was reconstructed from various source tapes in an attempt to improve the sound. It was not until the 1995 CD version that "Part 1" and "Part 2" were subdivided into sections with titles. Some of these new titles come from the spoken dialog, while others are names of instrumental pieces. The 1995 version features a few differences in the mix and segment segues. One section of "Oh No" on the 1995 CD used the mono version instead of stereo. These changes were later revealed by remastering engineer Spencer Chrislu to have occurred by mistake. The engineer expressed his regret and had hoped to fix this. However a corrected version now appears to be highly unlikely since this remastered version was approved by Frank himself.
Early versions of the album were credited to "Francis Vincent Zappa" on the front cover. For much of his life Frank thought he shared the legal name "Francis" with his father. Re-issues of the album since 1985 were changed to "Frank Vincent Zappa" after he saw his birth certificate for the first time.
The Capitol album had these titles: