Billy the Mountain
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|"Billy the Mountain"|
|Song by The Mothers from the album Just Another Band from L.A.|
|Released||March 26, 1972|
|Recorded||August 7, 1971|
|Just Another Band from L.A. track listing|
"Billy the Mountain" is a Frank Zappa song first made available on the album Just Another Band from L.A. in 1972. The original recording of this song, which took more than a half-hour to perform, was from a live tour performance on August 7, 1971 in Los Angeles, performed by Zappa with his band The Mothers and prominently featuring the musical duo Flo & Eddie. The album recording had to be edited in order to fit on one side of the record. An alternate version of the song was featured on the 1992 album Playground Psychotics, and a third version of the song was posthumously released in 2011 by the Zappa Family Trust on the album Carnegie Hall.
The song is an intricate and absurd story in a parody of the rock opera style about a talking mountain named Billy and his wife Ethell, who was "a tree growing off of his shoulder." The lyrics are a satirical myriad of imagery of popular culture, the city of Los Angeles, the demise of urban America, and overall absurd juxtapositions of situations. While many of the details were improvised as the song was performed from town to town, the general structure of the song remained the same.
Billy is a typical mountain who poses for postcards, living with his wife Ethell, a tree, between the cities of Rosamund and Gorman, California. The main features on his mountain edifice are two large caves, resembling eyes, and a cliff for a jaw, which moves up and down when he talks, puffing up dust and boulders.
The story begins when a man in a checkered suit drives up in a Cadillac Eldorado to deliver Billy's royalty checks from posing for postcards. Billy the Mountain becomes very excited by his wealth and accidentally drops a boulder on the man's car, crushing it. The man in the suit then goes to a bar, looking for a ride back to the San Fernando Valley. When Billy breaks the news to Ethell, she also becomes excited, and they immediately plan on taking a well-deserved vacation to New York City, first stopping in Las Vegas.
They set off, moving across the Mojave Desert looking for a Howard Johnson's, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. As they cross the desert they destroy Edwards Air Force Base, Glendale, California, and create a fissure in the earth's crust unleashing gas and germ bombs from an underground dump which are then dispersed over Watts by a freak tornado.
The media quickly alerts the public of these phenomena and starts generating false tabloid stories about Billy the Mountain and Ethell's past lives, claiming them to be involved in a San Joaquin Valley smut ring (a reference to a police entrapment which resulted in Zappa's conviction on charges of producing pornography). When Billy is drafted by the US military, he does not report for his induction physical, leading the media to go wild, reporting that Ethell is a communist and that she practices witchcraft.
Finally, a "fantastic new superhero" named Studebacher Hoch, named after the Studebaker Silver Hawk automobile, is contacted via telephone by an unnamed caller and is asked to defeat Billy the Mountain. Hoch is at first somewhat in disbelief and uninterested in the reports and, in the Just Another Band from L.A. recording, briefly goes into casual discussion about family matters, asking if the unnamed caller has received the albums he sent him with "the pencil on the front" (referring to the Zappa album Fillmore East, June 1971). He soon starts taking notes about Billy's path of destruction, and when he finds out that he's being offered an expense account and per diem to pursue the case he becomes much more enthusiastic.
It is noted that little is known about Studebacher Hoch, although his personality is said to be "mysterious", and his powers are said to be dancing, flying, swimming, singing like Neil Sedaka, and being able to write the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin. The widely accepted origins of Studebacher are that he was born next to the frozen beef pies in a supermarket, possibly underneath Joni Mitchell's autographed picture, next to Elliot Roberts' bank book, and next to a boat in which David Crosby was arrested while throwing away his "stash." Despite the other details, the beef pies are said to have been the main influence on Studebacher Hoch.
Now with a plan, Studebacher Hoch gathers cardboard boxes, Aunt Jemima syrup, Kaiser broiler foil, and a pair of scissors, with which he constructs a pair of makeshift wings. He walks to a telephone booth, where he spreads the syrup onto his legs, attracting a swarm of flies. On his command, the flies lift him and the telephone booth into the sky, and fly him to New York, accompanied by a grand musical fanfare.
Studebacher Hoch arrives on the cliff which is Billy the Mountain's jaw and attempts to reason with him. At first he is friendly, but after Ethell protests, he aggressively threatens Billy and Ethell. Billy laughs at his threats, and in doing so, causes Hoch to lose his balance and fall 200 feet to his own injury and defeat.
Finally, the moral of the story is sung: "a mountain is something you don't want to fuck with."
Like most of Frank Zappa's longer compositions, Billy the Mountain relies less on predictable song structure with repeated sections and instead continually introduces new musical ideas and material similar to an opera or oratorio. Nonetheless, there are a few recurring themes, including the repeated melody set to the lyrics "Billy was a mountain, Ethell was a tree growing off of his shoulder." This theme later introduces Billy and Ethell in The Adventures of Greggery Peccary, a similar composition in which the characters make a cameo appearance.
There is also a recurring "chorus" to the song, which appears four times. It is first sung as a lament of the man in the double-knit checkered suit when his car is destroyed. Moments later it is sung by Billy to announce his intentions of taking Ethell to Las Vegas. Just a few moments later it is sung again by Billy summing up the trip to Las Vegas using nearly the same lyrics as the previous chorus but in past tense. The chorus makes its final appearance at the end of the song as a third-person statement of the moral whereupon it is developed further and concludes with a reprise of the song's introduction.
While there are several sections of Billy the Mountain that are sung, much of the lyrical content is spoken-word based and many sections are ad-libbed with jokes and references pertaining to the specific locale in which the piece was performed. Because of this, a few portions of the piece are almost entirely atonal and are more reminiscent of a radio play than a musical piece in their performance.
Zappa and his band repeatedly quote various other songs throughout the lengthy composition, mostly in the spirit of parody.
The theme from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is quoted several times throughout the song, first as a cue when Billy announces his interest in visiting New York City. At the time that the piece was first performed in 1971, NBC’s The Tonight Show was still produced at the GE Building in Rockefeller Center in New York. The next year, the show moved to Burbank.
In the Just Another Band from L.A. recording, during the tornado sequence, the song alludes to The Wizard of Oz and the musical number "Over the Rainbow", which is sung by Howard Kaylan's character, while Mark Volman calls out for "Toto." Towards the middle of the recording, the band breaks out into a parody of the coda of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", substituting the original Spanish lyrics with a series of rumors about the life of Studebacher Hoch. The famous "doot doot" backing vocals remain intact.
- Ulrich, Charles. "The Planet of My Dreams". The Planet of My Dreams. Retrieved 2011-04-19.
- Albertos, Román García. "Billy the Mountain". Information is Not Knowledge. Retrieved 2011-04-19.
- "Zappa Plays Zappa plays Billy the Mountain". Radio Dupree. October 9, 2008. Retrieved 2011-04-19.
- The proper spelling of his name can be seen on the album liner of Just Another Band from L.A. (1972).
- Billy the Mountain Lyrics
- Changes and Improvisation in the Billy the Mountain Script between live performances
- Full lyrics of this song at MetroLyrics