The Zappa Reviews, #6 – Uncle Meat

The fifth Mothers studio album probably came as quite a surprise even to fans, or at least those fans who had not had the opportunity to see The Mothers in concert. Just going by their studio work from 1966 to 1968, there was nothing really signposting this latest effort. In fact, their previous two albums We’re Only In It for the Money and Cruising with Ruben and The Jets seemed to suggest that a general pop idiom, whether played straight or experimental, would be the order of the day for the group, so, when Uncle Meat hit, any remaining semblance of predictability was emphatically defenestrated. Though Zappa states that, as part of No Commercial Potential, this record and the three others could be cut up and rearranged twenty different ways and still work, Uncle Meat feels like a declaration of independence from any sort of stricture, even that of its claimed interrelativity to its NCP siblings, and indeed seems to stand on its own in the canon.

The plot from Freak Out! to Uncle Meat is one of declining focus on social themes and increasingly elaborate musical constructions. With WOIIFTM it seems as though The Mothers wanted to disassociate from sociopolitical themes while also leaving an impossible act to follow for their contemporaries, freeing themselves to pursue even broader musical horizons than they had looked to before and making a definitive and undeniable stamp on their old haunt at the same time. With the shift from songwriting to composition, from vocal to instrumental pieces, they managed to fuse a warped variation on jazz with the sensibility of chamber music, augmenting both the jazz band and the chamber ensemble with electric guitar, electric bass, synthesiser and analogue signal modification. Also notable when considering Uncle Meat as a breakthrough record are Ian Underwood Whips It Out and King Kong VI, both of which are substantially proportioned live tracks, and this melding of stage and studio creations, though primitive here, would become part of Zappa’s signature sound from the mid 1970s onward, beginning perhaps with 1974’s Roxy and Elsewhere. Yes indeed, folks, the blueprints for the archetypal Zappa record were laid out in rough here.

In form and structure, Uncle Meat casts the assured polish of its predecessors aside and becomes a wild beast, possibly mirroring Don Preston’s transformation into the titular Mr Hyde-like character in the film for which the album was supposed to serve as soundtrack. In what could be the most ludicrous metaphor I have made to date, and one of a manner I particularly hate, that of architectural environs (I’m looking at you, Scheffer), the album replicates the urban sprawl of a Californian city, one we might read about in The Crying of Lot 49 that is compared and contrasted with a circuit board, just like the ones in the synthesisers on this album! Heh heh heh, sigh, brief pause, if anyone has a gun… People who know this album can probably confirm what I’m saying, as clumsily as I’ve said it, that there is a sense of a larger world than had been previously encountered in popular music at the time, as if a smog has lifted and glinting structures stretching far beyond what we could have imagined have been revealed. That’s almost what it feels like, but as usual there is no single means of explaining a Mothers record, they are this, they are that, and at the same time they are something else as well, and that something else is probably beyond comprehension, or at least mine. It would be ridiculous to suggest (but I think I crossed that line in these reviews a while ago) that this is some kind of master plan conceived by a genius whose every thought is beyond us mere mortals, and I certainly do not wish to make a god of Zappa, who was, after all, just a hard working man with ideas that fell some way from the norm, but it is the nature of music to always be beyond true understanding, we can analyse till the cows come home, but we will never really understand, at least not on the level of waking consciousness, and on deeper levels we are left with a kind of understanding that can never be translated into words.

Uncle Meat is the first album in this sojourn through Zappa’s world in which my initial objective, that of developing logical lenses by which I might determine his true musical philosophy, is challenged and even more disturbingly defeated. Here there is no curtain pulling, indeed no curtain to pull, and any sort of narrative or system of allusions I might wish to shoehorn in would appear totally disjointed even when compared with the abstractions of Lumpy Gravy. We are, although I have already compared this to an urban sprawl, entering the lawless wild west that comprises most of Zappa’s releases from here on in. Though we will be heading in one clear direction chronologically, our exploration will be a wandering one. Harrison Birtwistle says that his music is, like all music, a journey, but a journey made with a dog who keeps stopping to have a good sniff around: that is the kind of journey one takes when one follows Zappa. At least in those early few years of output we find some kind of unification and focus, but, in my overstated analogy of “urban sprawl,” here we come to the edge and possibly traverse it.

Immediately upon placing the all-purpose osmium-tipped needle (thanks for that one, Frank) to the black disc, the Main Title Theme breaks out in excited fanfares. It sounds like a cartoon soundtrack, we can imagine a deranged Bugs Bunny in regal attire sat before marching platoons of dejected Daffy Duck clones wearing forced smiles, but the tone is neither militaristic nor oppressive, so what am I getting at? I suppose it is a roundabout and hamfisted way of signifying the polarised manic fervour and energy of the two things, of the image and of the sound – where one is of oppression and dejectedness, the other is of willingness and joy. We are entering a wacky cartoon landscape with this opening, although we can also say that the album seems to double back on itself, cycling around to a deranged new perspective in the form of Zolar Czakl, for which the Bugs Bunny image may be more directly appropriate. This opening, then, is actually ten minutes long, a formal procession: first fanfare > speech > improvisation > second fanfare, a somewhat worship-like structure, where the organ improvisation on themes of the Mass Ordinary are replaced with guitars and percussion – Hot Rats is in the air here. What church are we in? On Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa’s birth certificate, in the Religion field, “musician” is given, and I guess that’s as good a church as any for Uncle Meat to celebrate. After all, what mysteries of God can match the mysteries of music? Vibrations in time and space, the stuff of the universe, the conscious shaping of the primal force of sound into a construction: that’s what we call music. Why not devote oneself to that? This opening sequence is the closest the album comes to narrative in what is essentially a non-narrative venture, a density of tangents and thematic recall perhaps greater than that of Lumpy Gravy, and unapologetically so.

Working at speed, Dog Breath in the Year of the Plague is next up. It’s one of my favourite Mothers songs, an energetic, upbeat composition with a typical Zappa deconstruction of doo-wop group vocals, a considerable introduction after which Ray’s smooth falsetto delivers lyrics about cars, because for The Mothers cars remain a focal point of teenage desire. The old stuff is lingering, peeking out from behind corners, injecting itself into erstwhile unrelated material, it’s still there but it presents itself in different ways than it did on Freak Out! To express the point, when Roy Estrada tries to hijack the song the music breaks out from underneath him. This can be taken in one of two ways, either we apply the Rejected Mexican Pope Theory (see: Ahead of Their Time (1993)) to the situation or we can more sensibly if equally incorrectly read it as a gesture symbolic and exemplary of The Mothers’ changing focus from the song to the instrumental. Uncle Meat takes the group quite far from their starting point, and this is taken further, or at least to different areas, by Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which reminds me that while this is my personal choice for their best album, it is also in many ways their last. While Ray had already quit of his own accord, unhappy with the direction of the band (seems that Ruben was his swansong), Zappa himself was preparing to sell up shop and go solo. It didn’t quite go according to plan, and after Hot Rats he was back with a new incarnation of The Mothers, the hugely divisive Flo & Eddie band, the crude humour and Vaudeville antics of which garnered a whole new kind of hatred for their live shows from a certain type of concert-goer, and in large part this is perhaps deserved. Even so, Zappa, and I agree with him, didn’t really seem to consider this or other ’70s Mothers line-ups to really be The Mothers, and he switched back and forth between crediting new albums to “The Mothers” or to “Frank Zappa” or even “Zappa / Mothers”, and any number of variations in between, which if nothing else go to show that automatic metadata tagging systems are terrible (and don’t forget that Zappa predicted iTunes; he knew what he was doing when he pulled that shit!), up until 1975, when Bongo Fury, and a personally disastrous tour with Captain Beefheart, put a fin to it all. But that’s a story for another time, a glimpse ahead — no cribbing, kids.

The main sequence from Dog Breath to Cruising for Burgers can be seen as the album proper, buffered on both sides by suites. If we take this model for the album, Zappa was already thinking well beyond the constraints of the LP side. Where previously they might have been things to play with, limitations to inform structure, here they are out of the question entirely, minor obstacles to be ignored without consequence. In addition to the sheer variety — both in source and in nature — of material explored throughout the four disimplied sides, the disimplication itself is a key factor in establishing the album’s status as The Mothers’ most ambitious studio effort. The sequence is continuous, despite side breaks, but I must of course admit that listening to it on a computer, an environment where side breaks are the somewhat equivalent of ghost stories about a girl who died at your school twenty years ago and still roams the halls at night, allows a significantly different reading of the structure than if I were listening to it on vinyl, a luxury(?) in which I do indulge once in a while. The experience is certainly different, and yet there is never the sense, unlike in Absolutely Free, that I have hit the end of a suite when the needle has finally worked its way to the middle, not until the end of Side 3, or at least not until the start of Side 4. King Kong is the album’s ultimate destination, but is for its self unity a separate entity all the same, marking itself out not by its differences from the main sequence but by its similarities to the opening sequence. After all, do we not end up at a pop festival, and is that not a kind of church?

The main sequence is a bridge between these two outer parts, not just in the literal sequence of events that makes up the album, but in thematic content. The Legend of the Golden Arches is the first direct link between parts One and Two, associating in no uncertain terms the Uncle Meat melody and that of A Pound for a Brown on the Bus, and the two are even more strongly related by a cheeky reference in Pound to the quick fade-out of Golden Arches, wherein someone, possibly a piano person (they also appear in Prelude to King Kong), is heard saying “fade.” What is the Golden Arches? The McDonald’s logo? The version we all know from countless advertising campaigns and, worse still, actually finding ourselves inside or within the vicinity of one of their outlets, was developed in 1968, a gigantic thrice-bent French fry in the shape of an M, not so much golden as jaundice yellow, a stylised approximation of a sideways glance at their San Ber’dino restaurant, which had arches built into its design, along with several other early McDonald’s outlets in California. And since we are Cruising for Burgers (oh boy, the ridiculous links we are amassing) we have a kind of closure to the middle section, as Uncle Meat, the film of which this album serves as a soundtrack, is about a guy who turns into a monster and his girlfriend who loves burger meat, and what Californian urban sprawl is complete without a McDonald’s or two? Indeed, what urban area in any part of the world these days is without its complement of purveyors of fine American cuisine? Uncle Meat, then, is “about” the rise of globalisation post World War II, you heard it here first! And I say it again: oh boy, the ridiculous links we are amassing. To remedy this wackiness, I shall proceed in the same vein for a while longer, at least until the end of the review.

Now that the thematic ties, both seriously and non-seriously stated, have been established for a good 50 minutes of the album, and the structural links are accounted for from start to finish, it’s time to look into the odd corners of town, where strange shops selling things you never knew you wanted until you saw them abound. We might think Ian Underwood Whips It Out to be one such item, but it is in fact as much prologue to King Kong as the Prelude to King Kong itself, an all out jam with Underwood on rapid fire saxophone. How about Mr Green Genes? An attack on consumerism, perhaps in line with the potential McDonald’s Takes Over the World theory? That is, at least in part, accounted for. Or how about Electric Aunt Jemima? Another brand name, another dollar, and also a reference to Zappa’s guitar amplifier of the same name (spurious info, it should be noted, sirs and madams), but most of all a black stereotype from the minstrel shows of the Reconstruction era, a female Uncle Ben, a black Aunt Bessie. Meanwhile, other tracks such as Louie Louie, God Bless America, Our Bizarre Relationship, and If We’d All Been Living In California speak to Zappa’s ever present interest in band life and folklore, which would later expand into full-blownness with 200 Motels, and individual songs like Punky’s Whips, Jumbo Go Away, The Jazz Discharge Party Hats more glimpses ahead, more stories for other times, but relevant, seeing as we are at the end of an era here.

No, it’s Project X and We Can Shoot You that catch my attention as being conspicuously outside the “norms” established here, holding as they do no connective materials or structural similarities to anything on the album but each other, two outsiders standing defiant down a seldom chanced upon street out on the very margins of the city, bountiful in their superfluity of techniques instrumental and editorial. We Can Shoot You is more precursor to Burnt Weeny Sandwich than anything, a hard edged percussion introduction matching that of Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich, which in itself is a kind of callback to Nine Types of Industrial Pollution, that was actually sourced from an outtake for Lonely Little Girl. The links run deep, my friends, and perhaps we shall only reach the tip of the iceberg, but we’re getting there. The percussion dissipates suddenly into a flurry of synthesisers and woodwinds, plus piano(?) and guitar(??), which morphs seamlessly into layers of pitch-bent woodwinds that seem to go around each other in a kind of vertical dance. Project X meanwhile begins in a much more lyrical mode: a static guitar chord is gradually encumbered with layered woodwinds, which bursts out then with percussion and drums as a superimposed fanfare, this continues in near enough ternary form for another round, then seems to take We Can Shoot You‘s progression of materials in reverse, with the pitch-bent woodwinds this time texturally applied in a slow glissando which leads into the synth/wind ensemble playing, but stops before the percussion can arrive. For some reason this last part reminds me of the music one would hear accompanying a haunted house/castle level in Super Mario World, but in a completely deranged form, as though it were actually a track from EarthBound modified by the… blue blue… blue blue. Or was that the haunted hotel in Threed? Nonetheless, blue blue. This “WorldBound” tune is broken into by overblown reeds out of nowhere, then returns to its normal state, the intrusion and its defeat are handled rather seamlessly, making Project X one of Zappa’s more accomplished constructions in tape of the early years.

There are of course tracks we have not yet discussed. Sleeping in a Jar is lyrically incongruous, and there does not appear to be any real basis for linking it to the rest of the album in that way, at best it might be formed of some youth anecdote, but is that the correct way to look at it? As it turns out, maybe not. The internet is a wonderful thing, and you can find new theories about all sorts of stuff in the most unlikely of places. For instance, in the comments section for a YouTube video titled Sleeping in A Jar TV ad. 1969, I encountered TheButcherClan*, who sees it as a commentary on the conflict between progressive and conservative values. “[The parents are] sleeping in a jar, meaning, they are preserving themselves whilst being unconscious […] It’s common for people to store things that are important to them or things that are good memories underneath the bed […] the jarred up sleeping parents are being placed under the bed for safe keeping when you deconstruct it literally. Or figuratively, they are preserving their old world values and ideals in a jar under their bed and refusing to hear new ideas.” I certainly could not have come up with such an astute analysis myself, for all these years having thought it was just some weird song about tiny parents sleeping in a jar, and maybe there is a weak parent à la Mom and Dad analogy in there somewhere, but this new explanation, true or not, goes a long way to explaining where it fits in the Mothers tradition of social commentary. On a musical note, the end of the song clearly features a heavily up-pitched snippet from the Nine Types of Industrial Pollution guitar solo, a neat tie to the first part of the album.

So, and I mean I have to tell you, I love Uncle Meat, but this review, which I actually got burned out on, even though it’s certainly not the longest I’ve done here, was one long headache to write. It seems to slip through the fingers like sand picked up from an amorphous blob of desert, dunes shifting perpetually, no oases in sight, mirages of realisation as soon forgotten as reached, yet it also contains the hand, and the rest of the body, and forces it to wander in a maze of allusion and interconnected references to something over here, something over there, a little something elsewhere entirely, always twisting and turning before you have the chance to get to wherever those things really are. It speaks volumes, the realisation I had while writing this review, that it was such an easy, breezy listen before I actually started to think about how it all fit together musically, lyrically, structurally, and hell, none of what I’ve said here is even correct, how could it be? This is the joy of music, it is anything to anyone at any time, and different things to the same person at different times, in different places, different moods. AAFNRAAA indeed: Uncle Meat is the motto’s very embodiment on record.

*Thanks to TheButcherClan for their analysis of Sleeping in a Jar (source)

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