For a number of reasons, instrumental tunes rarely crack – let alone top – the pop music charts. And it has long been so. Though there have been exceptions both excellent (Edgar Winter‘s “Frankenstein,” Focus‘ “Hocus Pocus,” Marvin Hamlisch‘s “The Entertainer”), soporific (Vangelis‘ “Chariots of Fire”) and downright execrable (Frank Mills‘ “Music Box Dancer,” which I hope you’ll forgive me for even having mentioned), songs without lyrics constitute a tiny fraction of the pop landscape. The quality that all of the exceptions have in common seems to me a uniqueness, a memorability. They pretty much have to stick in your head like chewing gum.
So it was with the left-field hit single “Classical Gas” from Mason Williams. 1968 was the year of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, but Williams’ exciting tune combined classical guitar, uptempo orchestration and arrangement, and a definite pop sensibility. And for it, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour staff musician/writer was rewarded with (in the short term) a monster hit and (in the long term) that dubious status known as one-hit wonder. (“Classical Gas” was also one of the first 45s I ever bought with my own money; I still have the record.)
Williams’ debut album, however, The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, is not filled with a dozen variations on “Classical Gas.” No, this release – originally on the Warner Brothers label (and that’s important here) and reissued in 2013 by Real Gone Music – has more in common with the sort of thing Williams’ labelmates Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman were turning out. This is music influenced more by the Great American Songbook than by rock’n’roll. Artsy MOR, you might call it, though not only would that term be incongrous, but it also sells the music short. Williams wrote all twelve songs himself, and shared arranging credits with Al Capps and producer Mike Post (Those last two names there are some trademarks of quality.).
The Mason Williams Phonograph Record is a shortish affair, at a mere 29 minutes and change. But it’s so full of joys that it’s a prime exemplar of the quality-over-quantity argument. Creating the sort of thing that might well have sounded hopelessly un-hip to fans of, say, Vanilla Fudge, Williams’ songs like “All the Time” would not sound radically out of place alongside some of Paul Revere and the Raiders‘ late-period pop tracks. The musicianship and arrangements are top-notch, and the list of players reads like a Los Angeles who’s who for ’68: Jim Gordon (soon of Derek & the Dominos), Larry Knechtel, James Burton and so on. Williams’ clearly enunciated voice is perfectly suited for these arty pop ditties. “Here Am I” is a delicate madrigal-pop number that could have been well-served by a skit on the Smothers Brothers’ show.
Sure, it would have been nice if the reissue included an outtake or longer edit of “Classical Gas,” but no such tracks exist, so instead we make do with a straight reissue plus insightful modern-day liner notes from Gene Sculatti. Those explain how Williams even managed to get a record deal.
If one can enter into a frame of mind that doesn’t insist upon rocking out, The Mason Williams Phonograph Record can be enjoyed as a beautifully orchestrated collection of tunes that perhaps don’t reach for the aesthetic heights of a Randy Newman, but posses undeniable pop appeal. Full of twangy guitar licks and ba-ba-ba vocalisms, “She’s Gone Away” is as fine a pop number as The Association ever turned in. “Baroque-a-Nova” dispenses with lyrics altogether and goes with the ba-ba-ba full time. “Long Time Blues” is country pop not a million miles from Ray Charles‘ work in that idiom (no, really). With its mincing vocal, “The Prince’s Panties” may make today’s listeners squirm a bit uncomfortably, but let’s give Williams a pass: this was 45 years ago. “Sunflower” nails the Parisian café vibe.
At its worst, the album is a guilty pleasure; at its best, it represents the first order of a sort of late sixties “adult pop” that has worn incredibly well, largely free of the kitsch factor that has (fairly or otherwise) stuck to, say, Herb Alpert‘s catalog.
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