"Uncle Meat"—Frank Zappa's Soundtrack Album to a Movie He Correctly Predicted You Would Never See
The sometimes jarring amalgam of ‘50’s Doo-Wop and R&B spoofing, Southern California Chicano, fast-food car culture and anti-hippie Laurel Canyon social commentary, avant garde classical (particularly of the percussive variety), musique concréte, sonically graphic renderings of body functions and early “foodie” obsessions capped by the powerful yet sometimes cartoonish progressive jazz of “King Kong” mark this double set as one of Zappa’s most adventurous excursions into what he most loved (superior musicianship, good sound) and detested (conspicuous consumption, pretense and conformity). The throwaways like “Louie, Louie” played on the Royal Albert Hall’s giant organ, add just the right amount of extra “color”.
In his compositions Zappa seemed to have a need to tear down even the things he himself elevated—including himself. His love for Doo-Wop was obvious, yet when he used it, he mocked it, twisted it, sped it up and turned it into parody. He did that with everything he touched with the perhaps the exception of his guitar playing prowess, which was formidable.
Born in 1940, Zappa grew up musically with Doo Wop and R&B but at an early age became obsessed with classical music, particularly of the 12 tone Arnold Schoenberg/Anton Webern school. He was also keen on Varese and other 20th century classical composers and experimenters. His age gave him a good perspective from which to watch the entire hippie culture grow and play itself out. He was never directly part of it, or pleased with certain aspects of the “counterculture” yet in order to be relevant to the target audience he had to look and act the part even as he skewered it.
While his earlier albums were more satirical, on Uncle Meat Zappa let his serious compositional chops guide the action—made possible of course by the deadly skilled, very serious Mothers of Invention musicians, even as his “wack pack” characters like Suzy Creamcheese and other obsessions sprinkle the sonic landscape.
The result is “NUTRITIOUSNESS, DELICIOUSNESS, WORTHLESSNESS! (minus the “worthlessness.)”
In the notes Zappa mocks the silliness of the lyrics, which range from teenage car obsessions to food obsessions. He assures fans that the lyrics are “….all very serious & loaded with secret underground candy-rock profundities.” And then in typical Zappa fashion busts his own obviously sarcastic description by unloading “(Basically this is an instrumental album”).
And what an instrumental album it is! Perhaps Zappa saw himself as a hippie era Duke Ellington because the band he fronted overflowed with virtuosic talent. To the Mothers’ core of veterans Ray Collins, Jimmy Carl Black and Roy Estrada Zappa added to his arsenal Don Preston, Ian Underwood, Artie Tripp and Euclid James (Motorhead) Sherwood. The vibes and percussion-driven sections with Ruth Komanoff joining Tripp in the mallet banging help define much of the album’s drive, while side four’s “King Kong” variations announce Zappa’s sustained serious musical intentions, jazz and otherwise.
Regarding this reissue, these tapes are old. Ironically many older tape formulations held up better than the ones produced during this late ‘60s era. For all of the current Zappa reissues, when original tapes are in usable condition Chris Bellman is given them to cut but when they are not, Zappa vaultmeister Joe Travers produces the best cutting master from available sources.
The Uncle Meat original edited master tape was damaged in places. It was carefully transferred to 96/24 as were a set of safeties also in the vault. Travers chose not to cut and splice into the master. Instead, using the two transfers, he digitally assembled a new cutting master used by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman mastering.
So how does it sound? First of all it’s nice to have the four sides sequenced for single-play turntables. The original was I-IV, II-III, sequenced for record-changers. Beyond that, two things are clear: the reissue has greater dynamic range and far superior transient response. The original was always pleasing to listen to but it was somewhat “slow and bulbous”. The reissue is “fast and definitely not bulbous”.
The percussive attack on the reissue is far superior to the original and if that hurts your ears, it’s not because it’s “digital” it’s because mallet strikes are hard. The high frequency oscillator squeals at the beginning are too. I’ve been playing this record since it was first issued (I have an original Bizarre 1A pressing), so maybe you could say my copy is worn out but I don’t buy that! When originals sound better they sound better after hundreds of plays. Here it sounds as if the original is coming to you behind a pleasant scrim of warm gauze and as pleasant as it is, there’s so much more detail revealed on this reissue—just on the first track alone—I can’t imagine any veteran of this album will be less than thrilled to hear it again far more transparent, way more dynamic, with deeper, more forceful bottom end and in every way superior to the original, digitally sourced and all.
Frank was a sound fanatic who recorded this album using a prototype Scully 12 channel recorder running at 30 IPS. There are overdubs upon overdubs—forty tracks in places—and a lot of effects too, (he even credit's the board's designer) but the sound has always been exceptionally good in my opinion but it has never been better than on this reissue.
The 180g pressing quality from Pallas (I think) is superb and even the booklet is well-reproduced, though the jacket art reproduction is second rate.
The two files below are from the original and reissue so you can decide for yourself.