It’s a madeleine for the ear. In its day, “Classical Gas” was the most performed piece of instrumental music ever heard on the radio. It’s an unforgettable composition of orchestrated guitar that gleefully carries us along, evoking an era—the 1960s of Vidal Sassoon, the Summer of Love, Pop art, Mondrian-inspired miniskirts, the Smothers Brothers, VW Beetles, the burgeoning of the sexual revolution. With unmitigated joy, it put the nail in the coffin of the prim 50s.
Which is why, most recently, it was the perfect music selection for “Fork,” Episode Five of the Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit. The heroine, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), plays her scruffy competitor, Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), in a crucial match in the 1967 U.S. Chess Championships. To meet the challenge of making spectator chess thrilling, the show’s creators played a montage of six matches at rapid speed to Mason Williams’s “Classical Gas.”
Composed in 1967 by a soft-spoken Oklahoman (though Texas-born), “Classical Gas” is still a widely recognized piece of music. “I wrote it in, I think it was, August of 1967, and I recorded it for Warner Bros. in the fall of 1968 … in L.A. at Western Studios,” Mason recalled recently from his home in Eugene, Oregon. “It was a huge orchestra. A lot of strings and all the woodwinds and trumpets, and the brass sounded in the bridge part of it, that da da da da da da. (That part was a Tuben, a Wagnerian version of the French horn … it really punched.)”
Which is why, most recently, it was the perfect music selection for “Fork,” Episode Five of the Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit.
Mason recalls how it was recorded on four tracks, but he had to overdub his part on classical guitar “to cut through all that orchestra … the classical just couldn’t compete with all the strings, brass, woodwinds.... We kept the first take. Sometimes those are the ones that are most exciting.” It was released in 1968 on his solo album The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, and Williams would win Grammys for best instrumental theme and best contemporary pop performance, instrumental. It sold more than a million copies, earning Mason a gold record.
Since then, it’s been recorded hundreds of times by “all kinds of major talent. I would say I’ve heard every one of them.… Chet Atkins added a little classical thing in the middle. It’s amazing how inspired people are to play it on piano, on harp, on bagpipes, string orchestras, and everything you can imagine.” Mason describes the instrumental as “more folk-oriented than jazz … a classical hybrid, because it’s folk-inspired, but it uses those classical techniques that I learned in music school.”
Mason felt lucky to be surrounded by “great musicians. Steve LaFever was Dean Martin’s bass player for a long time. Denny Vaughn came from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The drummer was Jimmy Gordon, who, unfortunately, went to prison. He killed his mother, of all weird things. I tried to write him and tell him how great I thought his drumming was on that…. I managed to get a letter to him, thanking him for the great job he did.”
You could say it was the laziness of the long-distance copyist that gave the piece its unforgettable name. It actually began life as “Classical Gasoline”—meant as “fuel for the classical guitar”—but a copyist shortened the title to “Classical Gas.” Mason liked it, and that was that.
“Classical Gas” debuted nationally on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and has since popped up on a number of beloved TV shows, from The Simpsons (in “Last Exit to Springfield,” when Lisa is asked to play it on her acoustic guitar) to The Sopranos, when it comes over the radio in the opening scene of the “Marco Polo” episode, to Frasier, in “The Great Crane Robbery,” in which Frasier tries redecorating and the song is heard over a montage of outlandish décor styles.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
Early on, Mason wrote for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, winning an Emmy for “Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy, Variety or Music.” It ran on CBS and was, at its high point, the No. 1 show in America. A controversial program during the Vietnam era, it had a liberal political tilt, which may have contributed to the show’s being canceled in 1969 after just three seasons and an epic battle with the censors. Tommy and Dick Smothers were real-life brothers who, as folk singers and comedians, had developed a unique act. They would interrupt their folk harmonies with sibling arguments, which inevitably ended in an exasperated Tommy crying, “Mom always liked you best.”
It actually began life as “Classical Gasoline”—meant as “fuel for the classical guitar”—but a copyist shortened the title to “Classical Gas.”
In its heyday, the comedy show was an almost unimaginable mix of show-business eras, the end of one and the beginning of another—Tallulah Bankhead appearing with the Temptations; Lana Turner with the Electric Prunes; Janet Leigh with Simon and Garfunkel; Bette Davis and Buffalo Springfield. It was also an incubator for some of the most inventive comedy writers and performers to come out of the 1960s: Steve Martin, Don Novello (“Father Guido Sarducci”), Rob Reiner, and Bob Einstein (“Super Dave Osborne”).
It was Williams’s music that first brought him to the attention of Tommy Smothers. “I used to play the Troubadour a lot, where Tommy’s sister, Sherry was her name, was a waitress. Tommy would ask her, ‘Any acts come through there with funny stuff, goofy stuff, off the wall, any kind of stuff like that?,’ and she said, ‘Well, there’s one guy, Mason Williams, that has these poems and funny songs that he does.’”
He took a handful of demos of original songs and played them for Tommy Smothers.
He was hired to write parody lyrics for the two brothers, along with Mason’s creative partner at the time, Alan Bligh. Mason not only wound up writing for the show; he and Tommy Smothers were briefly roommates, living in an apartment above the Sunset Strip. “One of the reasons I was good for The Smothers Brothers,” he says, “was that I’d been a folk singer, and I had learned about 300 folk songs,” mostly from Alan Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America. “I learned to appreciate just how wonderful those melodies are,” he recalled. “They’re simple, but they’re beautifully constructed. Christmas carols are the same way. There’s great melodies in them.”
“3,000 Years of Art”
Early on, “Classical Gas” found its niche as a sound score for thrilling montages. In 1967, a U.C.L.A. film student named Dan McLaughlin produced a film short that compressed the visual images of 3,000 years of art masterpieces into three minutes, ending with the legend: “You have just had all of the Great Art of the World indelibly etched in your brain. You are now cultured.” It pioneered the rapid-image concept (kinestasis) now used widely in television, film, and commercials.
One of the many admirers of “3,000 Years of Art” is the artist Ed Ruscha, a boyhood chum of Mason’s. (“We’ve been friends since fourth grade, 1947, in Oklahoma City.”) He first saw the film with another friend, with whom he would often take in avant-garde and foreign films—“Jules and Jim and all of those Italian movies. Man, I was so impressed with the fact you get 12 images a second,” he recalled. (Mason is also a visual artist, who has sometimes collaborated with Ruscha and who has work in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.)
Mason told Tommy Smothers about the film short, and it was aired on their summer show, hosted by Glen Campbell. That’s when Mason had the inspired idea of replacing the original music with “Classical Gas” (with McLaughlin’s permission). “That’s what made the thing really cook, because [its] energy helped that amount of information move right along, so it was just a perfect marriage of visual and music.” As it is on The Queen’s Gambit, compressing three days of chess into two minutes, in a head-spinning montage.
So, with apologies to Mason Williams and the Rolling Stones, “Classical Gas” is a gas, gas, gas.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. He is the co-author of The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends