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The Tale Of The Giant Rat Of Sumatra


1974 - The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra: Columbia C 32730

This is, to me, the least understood Firesign album, which is ironic since it is, in many ways, their most accessable. The problems are twofold and one at the same time. That is, the breakneck pace, which stems from Hemlock Stone's fascination with certain cocoa products, makes the album a challenge on first listening. Give it 30 or 40 spins, however, and things slow down and become much clearer.

The theme of this interesting and subtly complex album is environmentalist in nature. (So to speak.) The slogan "Where there's smoke, there's work!" sums up the politcal position which is put forth. The American Ruling Class, personified by Mr. Acme Sr., rapes the planet, exploits the uncomplicated peoples (such as Willard) and steals their treasure--unspoiled nature itself. Careful listening reveals Firesign in all their glory: poetic ("blackening peasant's houses" "me and the doc on the dock with the dog--the deadly dog"), silly ("I sat on my pipe!"), strange (the hole in Lake Acme), and filled with meaning and non-meaning alike.

It is well worth repeated listenings--it rivals "Bozos" and "Dwarf" for me in number of listenings--and pays dividends of laughter and insight.

Len Not Clem


 "Giant Rat" is the first "comeback album" for the Firesign Theatre. They had just re-grouped after a short break to relieve inter-group tensions and produce some solo projects (the latter helping to acheive the former). "Rat" was a piece they had previously enjoyed performing onstage, so it was decided to flesh it out into the next album after the fairly-disastrous "Not Insane." It is a solid piece, very funny but decidedly less lofty in it's concerns than perhaps any other album the group produced. It's a straight Sherlock Holmes parody, though not a satire on any particular book. The silly plot is basically an excuse for a ton of puns, jokes, homonyms, non-sequitirs, and any other form of outrageous verbal humor one can squeeze in under an hour. There's little commentary on the state of the world, universe, media, culture, or anything else, making the whole enterprise seem a tad frivolous and empty. This is probably the primary reason this album is never included on anyone's favorite Firesign album list, which is a shame as it's such a fun, coherent, and lively piece. It moves at a lightning pace yet is not confusing, like "Shaespeare's Lost Comedie."
It's also interesting to hear the Boys undertaking an extended period piece apart from "Nick Danger" (the story is set in the '20s). The characters are all cardboard cut-outs (hero, sidekick, supervillan, damsel-in-distress, mogul), but the four voice them with elan (David Ossman is clearly having fun portraying Mob Rat "Willard," yet another faux-Peter Lorre charcter). There is not much in the way of criticism one could give the plot - it's just joke after joke after joke. But what's wrong with that?

-- Phil Buchbinder