Uncle Meat – Zappa's Tour De Force

By Trev Faull

Outlet, August 1978

Since I first started seriously listening to contemporary music, some fifteen years ago, nothing has impressed me as much as the Uncle Meat album. I first heard it in 1969 and couldn't believe my ears – all that overdubbing and synthetising was quite staggering. I still listen to it occasionally and even now, ten years since its conception, it wears it well.

It was such an innovative album and light years ahead of what was going on in 1968, that there was no real comparison.

Most people who have heard of Frank Zappa, associate his name with the bizarre and outrageous in contemporary popular music – fairly accurate but insufficient. To date Zappa has produced 21 albums and been involved in over a dozen others. His early albums were heavily laced with social satire and comment – It Can't Happen Here, America Drinks and Goes Home, Who Needs The Peace Corps, etc., then by his fourth album he started to diversify. Lumpy Gravy, using a 51 piece orchestra and chorus; Ruben & the Jets, 50's rock and roll parody, and then Uncle Meat.

Uncle Heat was a transitional album, mainly instrumental with only a handful of songs and they were mostly inexplicable. At the time of recording The Mothers were then numbering nine, four of whom could read music – Ian Underwood, Artie Tripp, Bunk Gardner and of course Zappa. Around these four the album evolved, Zappa always in control and exploiting his new members' ability to the full. Artie Tripp had been percussionist with the Cincinnati Symphony and was conversant with the works of Stockhausen and Cage. Ian Underwood had a masters in composition and a bachelors in music, he played 8 different instruments on the album, and finally Bunk Gardner, a very competent player of wind instruments. The band play a total of 27 instruments on the album and that's only the start .....

Zappa recorded the album over a period of 5 months during the winter of 1967/68, and it is quite simply a masterpiece in dubbing, editing and mixing.

The variety of styles is extraordinary – an amazing conglomeration of electronic chamber music, free-form jazz, classical avant-garde, surfing harmonies, crooning, doowop, muzak and pop. With all these whirling around in the maestro's fertile imagination, the access to modern equipment and competent musicians, it was just a matter of time before Uncle Meat was in the can.

Several themes re-occur throughout the double album (those knowledgeable about Zappa's work know that there are certain themes that re-occur throughout his 23 albums), and the whole concept is, as mentioned, unusually eclectic.

Side one opens with the main title theme – the album was to have been the soundtrack to an avant-garde science fiction movie, but that never materialised, followed by some Suzy Creamcheese dialogue and then the remarkable Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution (400 Days Of The Year), featuring in no uncertain terms, Artie Tripp, showing us just what a classical training can do. His technique and ability are extraordinary and here we have a piece sounding very similar to Varese's Ionisation, and Zappa accompanies him with some nifty free-form jazz chords on accoustic guitar. Zolar Czakl follows, a short piece featuring Bunk Gardner on delicately effective and economic woodwind. Then Dog Breath – joyous, full-blooded jazz-rock (before jazz-rock was conceived), complete with exhilarating and neatly tailored horn section, background mumblings from Zappa.

Finally, side four and King Kong. This is given the complete treatment – variations, ramifications and interpretations by Preston, Sherwood and Gardner. The finale is recorded live at the Miami Pop Festival and this probably works best with a great solo from Ian Underwood, and Zappa adds his own little touch to the last few seconds.

I'll sum up my appraisal/review by saying that Uncle Meat is a unique fusion of a very broad spectrum of musical forms, assembled by a certain Frank Zappa who is, unquestionably, a brilliant wizard in the business of editing, mixing and recording. The proof is in the eating, so tuck in.