Like millions of American teenagers, once upon a time I had grand aspirations of becoming the next great guitarist. It was not Eric Clapton effortlessly playing “Sunshine of Your Love” or Jimi Hendrix picking the strings with his teeth that made me realize I would never have the talent to reach those heights. No, it was Mason Williams’ version of “Classical Gas” that set the standard I knew I would never reach.
While Mason Williams is best remembered today for that singular hit, he has consistently written for various television programs, published a number of literary/art books, and released over 20 albums.
During the late-1960s, he was penning sketches for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It was through Tommy Smothers that he received a recording contract with Warner Brothers. His first release, The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, propelled by “Classical Gas,” was a commercial success. That album has now been reissued by Real Gone Music.
Even by today’s standards, it is an eclectic album. Serious and amusing songs share space with complex instrumentals. Anyone expecting an album full of “Classical Gas” clones will be disappointed. While many of the songs have a free-form nature, especially the very short epigrams “Dylan Thomas” and “Life Song,” it is the instrumentals that best stand the test of time. “Classical Gas” is a guitar player’s delight, plus it has some orchestration in support. Williams won two 1968 Grammy Awards, including Best Instrumental Performance. It is a track on which he plays both the six and 12-string guitar in unison by splicing them together in the recording studio.
“Sunflower” travels a different instrumental direction as it is a beautiful but technical composition that has a sweeping sound that soars in places. There are also a number of harmony pieces. “She’s Gone Away” is a straight pop song while “Here I Am” is a tad more adventurous. Some of the material, such as the spoken word “The Price’s Panties” and the short connector songs, sounds dated today but they are part of the experimental nature of the album.
The Mason Williams Phonograph Album was somewhat of an oddity in 1968 and remains so today. The combination of pop and some just plain weird material make it a somewhat disjointed affair, which probably comes close to his musical vision and take on life.