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.