A half-century later, Frank Zappa’s tales of The Voice of Cheese, King Kong and Electric Aunt Jemima haven’t lost an ounce of inspiration and oddity
To call the late rock ‘n’ roll legend Frank Zappa (who passed away in 1993) “prolific” would be to do the artist an immense disservice.
While not reaching the rarified heights of cult heroes like Dr. Eugene Chadbourne (some 200+ albums) or Nashville’s favorite son, R. Stevie Moore (an estimated 400 albums), Zappa nevertheless released an impressive 62 albums during his 52 years on the planet. Throw in the 49 posthumous recordings released over the past 25 years by the Zappa Family Trust (and still counting), and Zappa easily breaks 100 original works, placing him on the upper tier of artistry run amok.
Zappa began his musical career around the age of twelve as a drummer, as he states in his excellent 1990 biography The Real Frank Zappa Book, not because he wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll drummer (since the music had yet to be invented), but because he “was just interested in the sounds of things a person could beat on.” After high school, a brief spell at junior college and a short marriage, Zappa kicked around at several jobs, working as a copywriter, a jewelry salesman, and a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman while he pursued his musical career. In 1964 he got a gig with a local bar band the Soul Giants, which would evolve into the Mothers and, after they were signed by MGM/Verve, renamed as the Mothers of Invention.
VIDEO: Frank Zappa – Hungry Freaks, Daddy
If the release of the band’s 1966 debut, Freak Out – rock’s first concept album and the genre’s first double album – was a commercial failure, it was significant nonetheless. Zappa mixed rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities with a satirical edge and a sense of avant-garde experimentalism into a formula no one had ever seen (or heard) before. Subsequent Mothers albums broke similar ground, as Zappa continuously expanded the horizons of rock ‘n’ roll while he bringing elements of jazz and classical music into his work. Much of that which we currently take for granted in the “alternative” rock of the ‘90s and beyond – diversity, conceptual themes, samples, found vocals, odd instrumentation – had originated with Zappa.
By the end of the 1960s, with four albums under their belts (as well as Lumpy Gravy, Zappa’s orchestral 1968 solo debut), the Mothers of Invention were running on fumes as a band. Zappa was keeping ten musicians on the payroll at $250 a week each, whether the band was playing live or not, which left him $10,000 in debt. The bandleader also chafed at what he perceived as MGM Records’ interference with his music so, with manager Herb Cohen, they formed a pair of labels that would be distributed by Warner Bros. Records – Bizarre, which would release albums by Zappa, the Mothers of Invention, and Wild Man Fischer and Straight Records, which would release music by artists like Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper and Tim Buckley.
The first album delivered to Warner Bros. to be released under the Bizarre Records banner was the Mothers of Invention’s Uncle Meat, an ambitious two-LP set that ran roughly 75 minutes in length. Uncle Meat was the soundtrack album for a science-fiction movie imagined by Zappa but never completed (although test footage of the film would be released on video in 1987). It was considered by Zappa to be the fourth installment in his “No Commercial Potential” project, which included his previous albums We’re Only In It For the Money, Lumpy Gravy, and the doo-wop oriented Cruising with Ruben & the Jets.
In a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Zappa said that the four were “all one album. All the material in the albums is organically related and if I had all the master tapes and I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order, it still would make one piece of music you can listen to.” Nevertheless, I can see the brain trust at Warner Bros. taking a deep breath, swallowing hard and, trusting in their new genius-in-residence, releasing Uncle Meat upon an unsuspecting world on April 21st, 1969. The album performed surprisingly well given its experimental nature, rising to #43 on the Billboard chart and becoming an enduring favorite among Zappa’s rabid fan base.
Fifty years later, Uncle Meat holds up reasonably well as a major entry in the extensive Zappa canon. A truly odd album in a catalog that can brag of many such moments, Uncle Meat broke new ground with Zappa’s innovative approach to sound editing, instrumental overdubs, use of non-traditional instruments, and his studio experimentation with changing tape speeds and various recording techniques. Writer and musician Billy James, in his 2000 book Necessity is…The Early Years of Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, wrote that Uncle Meat “was far closer to the unique experience of a Mothers’ live performance.” Of the recording process, James observes that Zappa’s “piecing together of songs like a jigsaw was facilitated by the increasingly sophisticated recording technology that was now becoming available.”
Musically, the album displays a muscular blend of rock, jazz, and classical styles performed by a band that featured singer Ray Collins, bassist Roy Estrada, keyboardist Don Preston, and drummers Billy Mundi and Jimmy Carl Black (“the Indian in the group”) along with multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, percussionist Artie Tripp, and a horn section that included saxophonists Bunk Gardner and ‘Motorhead’ Sherwood. Sessions for the album stretched from late 1967 until late 1968, with James stating that “some tracks on Uncle Meat were so extensively over-dubbed, containing as many as forty tracks, that at times the music sounded like a full orchestra rather than just the product of ten rock musicians.”
Presaging much of Zappa’s later work, Uncle Meat would be the first of his albums to feature recurring musical and lyrical themes, with short vocal tracks by ‘Suzy Creamcheese’ (a/k/a Pamela Zarubica), Zappa, and various band members interspersed between instrumental passages that shimmy and shake across the musical spectrum like a drunken dervish. The six-minute “Nine Types of Industrial Pollution” uses studio wizardry and shards of sped-up guitar to create an alien musical landscape that owes as much to Zappa’s fascination with avant-gardists like Edgard Varèse and John Cage as it does to improvisational jazz. “The Legend of the Golden Arches” revisits musical themes from previous albums and is one of the first instances of Zappa’s pursuit of ‘musique concrete,’ the art of mixing recorded sounds as raw material in creating a musical montage.
There is very little conventional songcraft to be found on the album; songs like “Electric Aunt Jemima” and “The Air” continue in the R&B-tinged doo-wop vein explored on Ruben & the Jets. “Cruising For Burgers” is a sort of skewed psych-pop number with breathless vocals and syncopated rhythms while “Dog Breath In the Year of the Plague” mixes ‘60s rock and ‘50s doo-wop with lyrical call-backs to previous albums. Stripped of its vocals and re-imagined, the song became an avant-garde orchestral romp as the melody is re-used for “The Dog Breath Variations.” One of Zappa’s most enduring songs, “Mr. Green Genes” is a bit of absurdist rock ‘n’ roll with nonsensical lyrics and fascinating backing music.
The live tracks shoehorned into Uncle Meat are the album’s weakest point; poorly-produced and featuring rather lackluster performances, this was the first time that Zappa blended studio and live tracks together on an album, a practice that he would refine and perfect on future releases. The album’s master stroke, however, is “King Kong,” with its many instrumental variations. Running just shy of eighteen minutes across side four of Uncle Meat, “King Kong” is a brilliant display of musical virtuosity, showcasing nearly all the individual band member’s talents and helping lay the groundwork for jazz-rock fusion to follow in the 1970s. French jazz violinist (and future Mothers member) Jean-Luc Ponty would use “King Kong” and several other Zappa songs as the foundation of his critically-acclaimed 1970 album King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa.
VIDEO: Jean-Luc Ponty – King Kong
At the time of its release, Uncle Meat received a five-star review from Rolling Stone magazine, with noted jazz critic Bart Testa writing in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, “here Zappa the moralist-satirist temporarily disappears, replaced by an incarnation as a metaphysician. The vocal fragments, spoken parts and even the songs consist largely of autobiographical allusions, poetic texts, linguistic games and gnomic manifestos on aesthetics. The result is Zappa’s most personal work.” When an expanded three-disc reissue of the album was released in 2016 as Meat Light: The Uncle Meat Project/Object, the magazine’s David Fricke wrote “this was Zappa’s vision of modern American music in all of its rigorously exuberant bloom, ignited by his big-band version of the founding Mothers: doo-wop, greasy R&B, free improvising on stage, explosive symphonettes and a dense whiplash of tape-speed and overdub manipulation.”
Months after the release of Uncle Meat, Zappa broke up the Mothers, citing the expense of paying the band members and his dissatisfaction with the skills of the original band members. Zappa’s creative ambitions had outstripped his band’s ability to perform his ideas. Studio leftovers by many of the musicians featured on Uncle Meat were released in 1970 on the albums Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Later that year, Zappa would put together a new version of the Mothers (dropping the “of Invention” from their name) that included multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood from the old line-up and new talents like journeyman British rock drummer Aynsley Dunbar, jazz keyboardist George Duke, and singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan from pop band the Turtles, who would perform under the stage names “The Phlorescent Leach and Eddie.”
Half a century after its release, critics and musical historians are still trying to decipher Uncle Meat. An influential and challenging album that would find acolytes in artists like the aforementioned Eugene Chadbourne, Col. Bruce Hampton, Les Claypool of Primus, and Mr. Bungle’s Mike Patton, among many others, Uncle Meat would close the book on the first incarnation of the Mothers of Invention and set the stage for the wild-and-wooly decade of the ‘70s where Zappa would find both a modicum of commercial success but also artistic satisfaction with albums like The Grand Wazoo and Chunga’s Revenge. But Uncle Meat was the transitional work that vaulted Zappa and the Mothers above their psychedelic-rock peers and into a world of unlimited musical possibilities.
VIDEO: The Mothers of Invention – Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme