ANY AUDIENCE that can swallow the North American sasquatch will have little trouble digesting the relatively palatable giant rat of Sumatra.
The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra is the latest disc from the Firesign Theatre. It marks a return to the group's earlier mode: the 40-minute sound drama with crooked cast and treacherous plot line. The protagonist this time is Hemlock Stones, Firesign Theatre's addition to a history of Sherlock Holmes variants. He and his Watson, Dr. Flotsom, live to 99 Bakersfield St. in London, and produce cheap detective novels.
The story involves Jonas Acme, American capitalist, who makes pig-oil beer from smuggled pig-nuts. Acme, with somewhat convoluted logic, explains that as long as the American working man drinks pig-oil beer, he will not rebel.
The magnate's latest discovery is the Zeppelin tube, a vaguely phallic instrument that he calls the universe's greatest source of energy. Acme and his tube are destined for Chicago, a city somewhere west of Baltimore, when "the electrician" steals the tool.
Which brings in Hemlock Stones. Who, in a blundering search from London's piers to Chicago's dailies, finally tracks the electrician in the Windy City's sewers.
The dialogue reaches its dramatic heights in these catacombs. The electrician defiantly claims the tube for himself, as champion of the "clones"--the working class. His nemesis Acme blusters in riposte that without the tube, his visions of "rubber roads that lead nowhere, watches that never melt, and cheap art and compulsive education" will vanish.
In a neat bit of story-line legerdemain Stones contrives that neither deserves the tube, and awards it to the rightful owner--the giant rat of sumatra, which for centuries has watched over the tube in the temple of Ampere-Watt. The English-man is very proper and aesthetically motivated. Class war is avoided, and Jonas Acme continues to grease the proletariat with Pig-oil beer--which doesn't make this record very revolutionary.
But the "four or five crazy guys" who arranged this record are wags, activists, and any picky Harvard lame-brain who's worth his salt will go batty hunting puns. More than any other Firesign Theatre album, the Rat bristles like a hedgehog with mixed metaphors, malapropisms, and plays on words. Its running gag on cocaine is especially amusing. In short, The Giant Rat is diverting, if facile.
Ironically, one of Hemlock Stones's peculiar assertions is the strongest warning against this album. The British crime-stopper says that when a rat stops chewing, his teeth will grow into his brain. Those who drop weightier matters to listen to this flim risk a similar mental fate.