I heard this familiar piece on the radio just the other day. In fact we've all been hearing it on the radio since 1968. It has been aired over 5 million times making it the most played instrumental piece in the history of radio broadcasting.
Here's composer Mason Williams' account of how the piece came to be:
Writing "Classical Gas"
by Mason Williams
I had just finished my first season as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS, and was taking the summer off to work on a couple of art projects; a life-sized photographic poster of a Greyhound Bus, and the world's largest Sunflower (seeArt Projects by Mason Williams
). I hadn't been playing the guitar very much because I had to concentrate on writing comedy for the show. After a wild, two week gig with Tom and Dick in Las Vegas (... I don't think we slept at all.... I remember virtually living in my sunglasses), I came back to L.A., slept for a couple of days, got up and spent an entire weekend alone with the guitar. It felt so good to get back to my old friend that I decided to compose something. I didn't really have any big plans for it, other than maybe to have a piece to play at parties when they passed the guitar around. I envisioned it as simply repertoire or "fuel" for the classical guitar, so I called it Classical Gasoline.
During the second season of The Comedy Hour, which began in the fall of 1967, I worked on the piece off and on for a couple of months in between writing comedy bits. There was a lot going on in those days... In addition to writing for the show, I was also writing my own songs, poems, and books.
The influence The Comedy Hour had on me was enormous. I was like a chameleon, constantly changing with the ebb and flow of the cultural revolution. The show featured a wide variety of musical guests, including many of the big names of pop music and rock and roll, each with a unique artistic style and creative philosophy. It was one hell of an education!
In addition to being a regular variety show, The Comedy Hour endeavored to provide a platform for the artistic expressions of counterculture. They engaged in a censorship battle with CBS and in doing so developed a reputation for being "controversial". As a consequence, the show became so popular that America plugged into our weekly battles with the network censors. One of the major battles we won early in the game was the right to present new groups and their music on prime-time variety TV. The network's position up until this time had been that music presented on variety shows should be established Americana, pop hits, or songs from Broadway shows.
Because the show had succeeded in creating a place for artists to present new songs to a large audience before became hits, instead of after, the show attracted the attention of some major record companies. Warner Bros. Records told Tom Smothers that they wanted to add ten new artists to their label. Since my music and ideas had been an integral part of the Comedy Hour's success, Tom suggested, "Why not give Mason a shot." Warner Bros. agreed, so I became one of the ten, along with Jimi Hendrix, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and others.
I began to record my first album for Warner Bros. " The Mason Williams Phonograph Record"
and Classical Gasoline was one of the tunes to be included. On the charts for the session the music copyist inadvertently abbreviated "Gasoline" to "Gas" and so that's how it actually got its title. It wasn't until sometime later that I realized most people were thinking "Gas" as in "Hey man, it's a gas!"
The single was released from the album in February of 1968 and it hit the top of the charts in August. It won three Grammy awards: two for me, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Performance; and one for Mike Post, Best Instrumental Arrangement.