In the summer of 1968, in the middle of that strange, historic and literally mind-boggling year, the most popular summer replacement TV show was "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."
This was the era of the primetime variety revue; Westerns (except for "Bonanza") were essentially gone from television, as had the brief run of superhero/monster shows ("Batman," "The Munsterss," etc.) and the networks – there were only three of them – were now casting about for low-cost productions that would fill an hour and attract a wide demographic audience.
The result was the late '60s equivalent of today's endless run "reality" shows: a single host (Johnny Cash, Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett, Dean Martin) or duo (Sonny and Cher, Rowan and Martin) presiding over a series of skits, stand-up comics, musical performances, jugglers, just about anything that might attract viewers. These revues had begun in the 1950s with the likes of Milton Berle and most famously, Ed Sullivan, virally spread across primetime in the late '60s and early '70s, then faded into history with the forgettable likes of Pink Lady and Shields & Yarnell (mimes!).
Unlike most viewers, and despite the fact that I was just 14 in a watershed year, I knew who the Smothers Brothers were. They had built their folk music/standup comedy act in San Jose, Calif., and San Francisco, so they were pretty hard to miss around my neighborhood. And, in fact, they hardly changed their increasingly anachronistic act when they hosted their new series.
But what was the most important about the Smothers Brothers show was not what they did, but who they brought on as guests. The music acts, as an example, were astounding: It was the first time most of us actually saw Eric Clapton and Cream. And Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and notoriously, the Who (Keith Moon used too much explosive on his drum kit and both injured himself and damaged Pete Townsend's hearing). Even that old Stalinist Pete Seeger came on and sang, to the network's fury, his anti-military song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." The comedy acts were perhaps even more amazing: the first appearance for most of us of Steve Martin, George Carlin and Rob Reiner, among others.
It was all very countercultural and anti-establishment and, for the time, quite daring – and if you were young, in those pre-Tivo days, you didn't dare miss it each week for fear of being out of the conversation in the days that followed. So great was the cultural influence of the Smothers Brothers show during its short run that Jimi Hendrix even gave it a shout-out during one of his concerts (I have the bootleg) and the Beatles let them premiere the videos for "Hey Jude" and "Revolution."
And then one night, the Brothers introduced a home-grown video – some have called it the first modern music video – from the most unlikely source. Mason Williams, the show's head writer, also happened to be a musician, and he composed an instrumental piece that he called "Classic Gasoline," meaning a piece to "fuel" the fun at a party. The name accidentally got cut down during the recording session to "Classical Gas", a name that seemed a lot less dumb then than it does now. Williams put the piece on an album he recorded in February 1968, and it did moderately well.
But then Williams performed the piece, with an orchestra, on the Smothers Brothers show and the world started to notice. The record climbed the charts. The Brothers asked Williams to perform it again – and this time, he decided to try something different. He hooked up with an experimental filmmaker named Dan McLaughlin who had developed a technique (called kinestasis) that created a montage of images, edited flash on and off with the notes and beats of the music. McLauglin bolted a student film of his, "3,000 Years of Art," to the song – and the rest was history.
Anyone who saw the video that night never forgot it. It seemed to contain everything the '60s was supposed to be about: highbrow and lowbrow, pop and classical, erudition and whimsy, a respect for the past and a poke in its eye. Even the video's eye-popping stroboscopic technique seemed appropriate for the age (and incredibly hard to do, as I learned trying to copy it a few years later).
And then it disappeared, never to be seen again – indeed, it being 1968 and all, we couldn't even be sure if we'd actually seen the thing, or if it was just one more hallucination of the era. And perhaps that was appropriate, because by the time the video appeared, the clouds were already turning dark. Vietnam, assassinations, bad trips … late 1968 was nothing like the summer before, and it was only going to get worse. Fittingly, the last time "Classical Gas" was performed on the show, it was accompanied by a montage of violent images from the previous year. Within months, the Smothers Brothers Show was canceled, largely over disputes about content and censorship. "Classical Gas" would go on to become one of the most successful pop instrumentals of the century, and win four Grammys. But that was the last most of us heard of Mason Williams.
That was a long, long time ago. So why am I bringing it up in a technology column, the story of a 40-year-old song and music video?
Well, for one thing, this is one of the earliest examples of what we now call a "mash-up," which is the use of technology to bring together two or more diverse media. And it is a lesson on just what can be done when real talent comes together to create something.
In addition, this story also tells us something profound about the digital age. You see, that isn't the original video that I sent you to. Rather, it was re-created by a gentleman named Bill Rosen, who took the original student film and duplicated McLaughlin's work by bolting its imagery to "Classical Gas." Not only is this an exact re-creation, but arguably, because it is in HD, it is actually better than the original. And using the Web as source material for the paintings, I'm sure it took Rosen a lot of less time to build it.
And there's more to it than that: Because Rosen put his video on YouTube it is now available to everyone, everywhere, forever, not just for two minutes on Saturday night in 1968. Some budding filmmaker of today can now store it, deconstruct it and perhaps create something even greater.
As for the rest of it, a quick tour of YouTube will show you that "Classical Gas" never died either, but has been recorded by many artists, including Eric Clapton, over the years, as well as by an increasing number of amateurs. Williams himself has enjoyed this revival, even creating a Web site, http://www.classicalgas.com/home.html to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the song.
Finally, and not least, my rediscovery of this video, four decades after I first saw it, is a reminder of one of the most uncelebrated features of the Internet age: the unprecedented ability to explore our own past; the thousands of little epiphanies we experience when we stumble upon old episodes of Captain Kangaroo, or see commercials for Easy-Bake Ovens or see an old 8mm film some long-lost high school classmate has posted of our common childhoods. For generations, this was a very rare event, that one-time visit to grandma's attic or the discovery of a box in the back of the closet. Now, it can happen several times in a single day, even in an hour's worth of surfing on the Web. You click on a link and suddenly you're 14 years old, sitting on the living room floor in your parent's house, watching an old RCA color TV, and about to have your mind blown …
This is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the ABCNEWS.com "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.