Friend and colleague Jeff Vaca highlighted this uniquely ’60s musical gem almost three years ago. Another instrumental from a decade dotted with them, Mason Williams‘ Classical Gas. As he noted in his 95 More Songs of Summer series post:
“When I was 8 years old, I didn’t think it was possible to get any cooler than this song, and can even remember watching The Smothers Brothers on occasion. It was years before I learned that Williams was also a writer for the show.
This has to qualify as a one-hit wonder – I certainly don’t remember Williams ever having another hit.
“Classical Gas,” Mason Williams, from the summer of 1968.”
Anyone anywhere near our age group should recognize the tune on a subconscious level. A one-hit wonder the music charts correctly categorized, but a song singularly imprinted upon the youth then coming to terms with the upheaval reaching its zenith. The Vietnam War, civil and women’s rights, and those straining at the bonds then holding back diversity and creativity, generating even more anger on both sides as a result. Such were the times.
In this, a classic acoustic guitar instrumentation was brought to the forefront of Pop music that hadn’t been heard before.
With all that going on, the piece stood out with a counter-culture debut on network television1. The song’s curiously sedate preamble leading to a surge of tempo and the unexpected, vigorous orchestral accompaniment2 before easing back down so the adults could catch their breath to what they’d witnessed. Famously arranged by Mike Post, who would go on to his own composing career by writing TV theme songs3 that charted regularly.
In essence, Classical Gas became the archetypical musical backing to the tempestuous leap year of 1968 by virtue of its newfangled instrumentality, perhaps offering a befitting preview for the tumultuous “Seventies” that followed.
Comes as quite the shock when even a shared musical happening — not to mention our attitudes at variance with the prevailing social norms that linger today in this very leap year — get refreshed anew. Heard most of the cover songs of Classical Gas4 in the intervening years since its Smothers Bros. premiere, which blew this teenager’s mind almost forty-eight years ago. Smiled at the rival versions in the intervening years, pleasantly enough.
Then this happened.
For the first time in a long time, and clearly I didn’t think it possible now that I was an adult like those in ’68, I’d be enthralled. Like a kid again feeling those same shivers down my spine, purely by the sounds entering my head by way of my ears. Vanessa-Mae, the British violinist who was born ten years after Classical Gas hit the airwaves5, with her stirring cover, did exactly that. That it came from her string instrument, an electrified violin, made it doubly so.
Maybe, shouldn’t be surprised since I clearly do enjoy dynamic jazz violinists. The Singapore-born artist (full name Vanessa-Mae Vanakorn Nicholson) inspired this via the techno-acoustic fusion she’s come to be known for and offered an interpretation I yearned to hear. The above 1995 rendering at the Royal Albert Hall took Mason Williams’ lone hit to a new height and direction. Yet eerily in keeping with the song’s contesting spirit a few of us still remember.
In bringing the venerable counter-culture song new listeners, a fresh life via a jazzed-up classical instrument, and care of a vibrant virtuoso…I say in heartfelt admiration, “You’ve come a long way.”
- “Williams was the head writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at the time of the piece’s release and premiered the composition on the show. Williams performed it several times over several episodes. After the piece had reached the Top Ten, Williams asked an experimental filmmaker named Dan McLaughlin to adjust a student video montage that he had created of classical art works using Beethoven‘s 5th Symphony and edit it in time to “Classical Gas”, using the visual effect now known as kinestasis. The work, 3000 Years of Art, premiered in 1968 on the Smothers Brothers.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- Another song The Wrecking Crew laid down more of their stealth instrumental backing on, as well. ↩
- These would include classics like The Rockford Files, L.A. Law, Quantum Leap, Magnum, P.I., The A-Team, and Hill Street Blues to later multi-season hits Law & Order, Law & Order SVU, and NYPD Blue. ↩
- From Ronnie Aldrich’s classical arrangement to the Scottish progressive rock of Beggars Opera to Chet Atkins’ distinctive take. Even the ’80s rendition by Mannheim Steamroller and the stellar one Mason Williams’ friend and former Wrecking Crew member Glen Campbell performed. ↩
- Classical Gas would peak at #2 in 1968, and win three Grammy Awards: Best Instrumental Composition, Best Contemporary-Pop Performance, Instrumental, and Best Instrumental Arrangement. ↩