Transcript 73–Classical Gas

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! Try as you might to avoid it, you still managed to find the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and I’m behind my theme music!

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Here is some fun trivia for ye today: What does the band KISS have in common with the television show Happy Days? There’s a definite connection between the two. What could it be? I’ll have an answer for you later on in the show.

Mason Williams was born in Abilene, Texas in the summer of 1938. When his parents split up, he spent a lot of his childhood going back and forth between his parents. By that time his dad was in Oklahoma and his mother was in Oregon, so there was a lot of traveling involved. But he did manage to graduate from high school in Oklahoma City in 1956, and he attended Oklahoma City University for a few years before enlisting in the Navy until 1963.

But even while he was in college and in the Navy, Williams was recording and releasing material, and his usual bit was to take a humorous poem and set it to music, or to a beat. So it went with his first album, titled Them Poems, which was a live album where he reads “Them poems about them people,” with titles such as Them Lunch Toters,”, “Them Duck Pluckers” or this one, “Them Toad Suckers.”


So you see: light, almost extemporaneous-sounding verse, set to a beat. And at heart, Williams was a comedian rather than a musician, but he frequently combined those talents in writing musical comedy bits for television.


In fact, he was one of the main writers for the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour, where even co-wrote the show’s theme music with Nancy Ames. That’s what you’re hearing now. What’s more, Mason Williams was the guy responsible for launching the “Pat Paulsen for President” routine on that show. And, he’s the man who hired an unknown performer named Steve Martin to write for the show. He had so much confidence in Martin’s talent, in fact, that he paid Martin’s first few weeks of salary himself. And it all paid off, because in 1968 Williams received an Emmy Award for his work on the show.

And just to round out Williams’ television resume, I’ll add that he was also briefly the head writer over at Saturday Night Live in 1980, which was the season that Lorne Michaels wasn’t running the show. He didn’t make it through the entire season because of a dispute with producer Jean Doumanian, but then again Jean Doumanian didn’t make it through the entire season, either.


But as a musician living in that part of the country, Williams was often asked to just play something, so in 1967 he composed a tune specifically so he’d have something to play for people who wanted to hear him. Now, I should point out just in the name of accuracy that what you’re listening to right now isn’t Mason Williams but rather Michael Lucarelli, because I wanted you to hear a guitar-only version of the piece.

Anyway, because it was meant to be a kind of “fuel,” or standby tune that he wanted to just have on tap, his original title for the piece was “Classical Gasoline”. At some point, however, a music copyist inadvertently abbreviated the song’s name to “Classical Gas,” and that’s the name that stuck.

At some point Williams produced the song for release so that it could be used on the Smothers Brothers’ show. It was recorded in February of 1968 and became a hit by that summer. The song was used to accompany a film clip, and here’s the interesting part about that. Williams had seen a film titled GOD IS DOG SPELLED BACKWARDS, which was about 2500 classical works of art flashing by over the space of three minutes. We’re talking no more than a couple of frames for each picture, so the viewer got about a dozen images each second. And at the end of the film, the viewer was pronounced “cultural”, because they’d just covered 3000 years of art in three minutes. And all this imagery was set to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The person who’d produced the film was a UCLA student by the name of Dan McLaughlin. He wanted to use the film as a visual for “Classical Gas”, to air on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. According to Williams, the show offered him money to finance another film that he wanted to make, in exchange for replacing the Beethoven with “Classical Gas” and airing it on the show. So what we have is one of the first legitimate music videos made specifically for TV, and it managed to air around the time the record was climbing the charts. So, a nice piece of synergy, there. If you watch the clip—and I’ll link it on the webpage—I think you’ll agree that “Classical Gas” probably works better than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would have.


The album that “Classical Gas” appears on, incidentally, was called The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, and it was produced by Mike Post, whose name you might recognize as the composer of the theme for the shows Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files, Quantum Leap, a couple of the incarnations of Law and Order, and many others. According to an interview Post did with the Archive of American Television, Williams just wanted to add in a couple of instruments, like bass, drums and piano. Post told him that since some of the other songs on the needed an orchestra, they could do a big, aggressive instrumental thing for this track. Post wrote the bridge part of the song and he conducted the orchestra, which included some unusual instruments. For instance, the horns that open up the bridge are kind of rare as far as orchestral instruments go. They’re called Wagnerian Tuben Horns, or sometimes just Wagner Tubas, and they’re sort of a cross between a trumpet and a French horn. Now, as a result, Mike Post caught a little hassle from Tommy Smothers after the recording session ended. Smothers told him that it was over-arranged. Post, being a scared 22 year-old, covered up his nervousness by refusing to back down and telling Smothers to get out. He said the next day, Smothers came back and apologized, saying he was completely wrong and that it was a great record. And it appears that the public agreed in many ways: the piece won three Grammy awards the next year, for Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Contemporary-Pop Performance, and Mike Post took one for Best Instrumental Arrangement. It allowed Post to make the jump into television, when he became the musical director for the Andy Williams Show, and so onward and upward.

As far as the record charts, “Classical Gas” made it to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100, but it topped the Easy Listening chart for two weeks.


It was Top Ten in Australia, Canada, and the UK, and a cover version of the track by Vanessa Mae played on the violin made it to Number 41 on the UK charts in 1995. If you get a chance, listen to it all the way through, because it’s pretty good. You can find it on YouTube. Vanessa Mae’s version is the only cover to chart, although there have been several cover versions recorded, and Glen Campbell played it pretty regularly in his concerts.

Oh! and I have one more cover to tell you about. Back in 1993, during Season Four of The Simpsons, the episode “Last Exit to Springfield” featured striking nuclear power plant workers marching outside the plant’s gates, while Lisa Simpson provides some Joan Baez-style singing. The first tune you hear is titled, aptly enough, “Union Strike Folk Song,” and it’s been adapted a few times for real-life protests since then:


Simpsons producer Al Jean has said that he met Mason Williams once, and Williams was very happy that the song was used in that show.

Speaking of Happy, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question.


Back on Page Two I asked what the TV show Happy Days had in common with the band KISS. While I’m sure some of the meaner people among you guessed that they both peaked in the 1970s, the answer I was looking for is Vinnie Vincent.

Late in the run for Happy Days, and then for its spinoff show Joanie Loves Chachi, Vincent was a staff songwriter.


But then in 1982, when Ace Frehley left KISS, songwriter Alan Mitchell introduced him to the band, and they took him on for a couple of years, during the band’s transition out of the period where they wore makeup whenever they were in public. Vincent wrote and played on several tracks for the Creatures of the Night album, even though he wasn’t yet an official member of the band, and he did a ton of work on the Lick It Up album.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when you’re up until a Quarter to Three.

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