Tentative Review #146

Frank Zappa
Uncle Meat

(released 1969)

1. Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme ****
2. The Voice Of Cheese **1/2
3. Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution ****
4. Zolar Czakl ****1/2
5. Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague ****1/2
6. The Legend Of The Golden Arches *****
7. Louie Louie ****
8. The Dog Breath Variations *****
9. Sleeping In A Jar ****1/2
10.Our Bizarre Relationship **1/2
11.The Uncle Meat Variations *****
12.Electric Aunt Jemima ***1/2
13.Prelude To King Kong *****
14.God Bless America ****
15.A Pound For A Brown On The Bus *****
16.Ian Underwood Whips It Out *****
17.Mr. Green Genes ****1/2
18.We Can Shoot Reprise *****
19."If We'd All Been Living In California" ***1/2
20.The Air ***1/2
21.Project X *****
22.Cruising For Burgers ****1/2
23.Uncle Meat Film Excerpts, Part One ***1/2
24.Tengo Na Minchia Tanta *1/2
25.Uncle Meat Film Excerpts, Part Two ***
26.King Kong Itself *****
27.King Kong II *****
28.King Kong III *****
29.King Kong IV *****
30.King Kong V *****
31.King Kong VI *****




Uncle Meat was a watershed in Frank Zappa's career.

In his earlier work, Zappa usually focused on (i) toying around with the standard "pop song" structure, or (ii) combining bizarre in-jokes and spoken-word references with freaky sonic manipulations. There was some maximum-chops musicality -- parts of Lumpy Gravy, for instance -- and some forays into more developed instrumental composition (ditto, plus "The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny"), but there was also a lot of silly novelty material in the mix. For this reason, people who are today introduced to Zappa via We're Only In It For The Money or Freak Out! don't really get an insight into the full range of his skills.

With Uncle Meat, Zappa took a quantum leap into long instrumentals, liberated jazz and jaw-dropping virtuosity. And things were never the same.

Indeed, this album marks so much of a leap forward into the world of progressive jazz-fusion that it's somewhat hard to believe that Cruising For Rueben & The Jets falls immediately before it in Zappa's catalogue. UM is definitely the best album by the more-or-less original Mothers lineup, and belongs in the collection of anyone interested in Zappa's work. (Even those fans who adore the comic stuff won't be entirely confused, given "Electric Aunt Jemima" and the "Dog Breath" lyrics.)

Given that the album was originally intended as a soundtrack, it probably isn't too surprising that an "Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme" kicks off the work. This brief number is ... not that different in concept from the "200 Motels" theme, at least for the first few seconds: "cocktail avant- garde classical" is the best term I can think of to describe it. The horns come in about halfway through, and a feedback outro concludes the good. Melodically decent, and a good way to start the album.

Then we have the even-briefer "The Voice Of Cheese", one of those silly spoken-word + sonic distortion things that I mentioned earlier. This track chronicles Suzy Creamcheese's failure as a groupie and subsequent return to the Mothers. Marginally cute, this becomes a bit tedious after a few listens.

With that out of the way, the album-proper begins with "Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution", a strangely low-key number featuring some interesting jazz/blues guitar over a fairly quiet background. Zappa's performance manages its freakiness without being "in your face" about it. Some multi-tracked keyboards alter the mood of the piece towards the end. Perhaps not essential, but still pretty good.

"Zolar Czakl" is a weird, one-minute avant-classical work -- something of a demented march, with the winds in the foreground (one wonders if it was meant as a Stravinsky tribute, of sorts). The feedback at the end isn't necessary, but it doesn't take anything away from the number either.

"Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague" is a classic illustration of Zappa's demented genius, and the first really essentially track on the album. Beginning as a California-rock/r'n'b number (complete with doo-wop vox in the intro), this track eventually mutates into a thoroughly bizarre instrumental bit (complete with harpsichord and a horn section). The lyrics (revolving around a '39 Chevy) are apparently a band in-joke of some sort; some South Park fans might enjoy the sped-up vocals on the third verse. The track segues directly into "The Legend Of The Golden Arches", taking the musical journey through modern classicalism, Latin horn influences, New Orleans jazz, and baroque development. A work of genius, in toto. [None of this stops me from wishing he'd chosen a different title, but, oh well.] Suzy appears again between tracks.

Then, a surreal moment: a tape of the Mothers at the Royal Albert Hall, playing the opening bit of "Louie Louie" on the famous pipe organ. Some trumpet improvisation occurs as well, along with some amusing commentary by Zappa ("you won't be able to hear the organ once we turn our amps up", or words to that effect). Not essentially musically, but very amusing.

Then we have two more short numbers: "The Dog Breath Variations" (an obvious Bach parody merges with more modern classical themes) and "Sleeping In A Jar". The latter was sometimes stretched out beyond 15 minutes in concert; here, it's about 45 seconds (meaning, unfortunately, that it doesn't really get developed). Whatever the time problems, tho', both tracks are great.

"Our Bizarre Relationship" is another "Voice Of Cheese"-esque in-joke, and is not particularly notable at any other level.

We are then presented with "The Uncle Meat Variations", a longer instrumental piece which features some amazingly good music (keyboard- dominated at first, guitar-oriented by the end). Some hints of "Pound For A Brown" appear in passing. After that, "Electric Aunt Jemima" fulfills the silliness quota for the album, with its bizarre lyrics, doo-wop vocals and fairly basic music (albeit with some tape weirdness in the middle). Hearing Zappa mutter "Caress me Aunt Jemima" has some comic appeal, but no one would mistake this for an album highlight.

"Prelude To King Kong" is a great jazz number, suggesting the musical theme which would be given extensive development later in the album (the horns/bass/drums intro is just perfect, with the horns subsequently going off in all number of directions). Then, its a silly version of "God Bless America" played live at the Whiskey-a-go-go, on what appear to have been kazoos; everyone in the band forgets the words after the second line, and a bit of studio percussion fills the remaining time.

Then, its a rare studio version of "A Pound For A Brown On The Bus", a staple of live Mothers shows at the time. The track gets solid treatment here, though the groove is a bit underemphasized (and the high notes tend to dominate a bit). As per "Sleeping In A Jar", the live versions were often much longer.

Following this, we're treated to "Ian Underwood Whips It Out", a live alto sax solo from Mr. I.U. taken from a Copenhagen show. The music isn't unlike contemporary Soft Machine (or even Coltrane or Mingus), which is to say that it's quite good. As a bonus, Ian explains his entry into the Mothers at the beginning of the track.

"Mr. Green Genes" is a curious, psychedelic-drone number with some classical touches. Zappa, naturally, uses some parodic dietary lyrics to accompany the music (advocating the consumption of one's greens, one's shoes, garbage trucks, etc). It's not the most subtle take on consumer culture ever waxed, but it's still good.

"We Can Shoot You" is a fairly brief avant-classical bit, featuring percussion, horns & keys (an in-joke interrupts the track, which then reprises). This is followed by "If We'd All Been Living In California ...", a spoken-word number chronicling the financial woes of the group (and their erratic gigging schedule). That leads to "The Air", which catches up with the Chevy story in a tale of drugs + sex stupidity. If the lyrics aren't entirely profound, the arrangement makes up for it.

The beginning of "Project X" is ... different: a pleasant acoustic guitar bit which might terrify those who regard Zappa as antithetical to "art" as commonly defined. This doesn't last, however, and the track "sounds like Zappa" after the full band joins in amid some dissonant jostlings. The winds, horns and keys get their turns in the spotlight, and the end result is another really good classical-fusion piece. No complaints here.

The "Uncle Meat" lyrical saga then concludes with "Cruising For Burgers", a jazzy number with some typically silly lyrics. It's a fitting end for the concept, I suppose. A brief guitar solo appears at the end.

The original vinyl version proceeded directly to "King Kong" at this stage, but the CD reissue adds about 45 minutes of, um, "bonus tracks" from the abortive "Uncle Meat" film project. The first, and by far the longest, is primarily a series of spoken word in-jokes regarding hit singles, buns, showers, burgers, chickens, monsters, the Acquarian age, and other such concerns; the second track is a shorter version of the same. Hardcore Zappa fans will undoubtedly marvel at the witticisms crammed within (not to mention an early appearance of some Aynsley Dunbar material later used in "200 Motels), but even they might tremble at the prospect of hearing it more than once. These tracks are linked by the deliberately awful "Tengo Na Minchia Tanta" (loose translation: "My phallus is so large"). The riff, lyrics and vocals of this song battle it out to determine which aspect is the most inane (I'd give it to the vocals, personally). If any band were to record anything this bad without parodic intent, they wouldn't get the additional half-star.

Fortunately, the "King Kong" suite ends the album on a much stronger note. The first five tracks flow into each other, and are essentially different aspects of the same piece: "Itself" gets the process going (as with "Pound For A Brown", the studio version is a bit different from the live recordings); "II" shifts to a quiet jazz setting; "III" goes for some crazy, louder jazz (Anthony Braxton would approve); "IV", the only long section, uses a bizarre saxophone tone to maximum effect; "V" is a brief, demented number simulating what the melody might sound like on a number of psychedelic ice-cream trucks. Then, we shift to "Part VI" (recorded live), continued much the same improvisational tendencies in a marginally more concise manner. Some might note a few superficial similarities to King Crimson's "The Sailor's Tale" (well ... a former housemate and I did, in any event). Some rather bizarre horn bits appear towards the end (a Tibetan influence), ending the album in a most bizarre manner.

If you like Zappa, you should get this album. It's that simple.

[Point to ponder: was Uncle Meat a necessary precursor to Hot Rats?]

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 23 Oct 1999)

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