The Mothers of Invention: Uncle Meat

By Lawrence Kart

DownBeat, 26 June 1969

The Mothers of Invention

UNCLE MEAT – Reprise/Bizarre 2024: Uncle Meat; The Voice of Cheese; Nine Types of Industrial Pollution; Zolar Czakl; Dog Breath in the Year of the Plague; The Legend of The Golden Arches; Louie Louie; The Dog Breath Variations; Sleeping in a Jar; Our Bizarre Relationship; The Uncle Meat Variations; Electric Aunt Jemima; Prelude to King Kong; God Bless America; A Pound for a Brown on a Bus; Ian Underwood Whips it Out; Mr. Green Genes; We Can Shoot You; "If We’d All Been Living in California" ; The Air; Project X; Cruising for Burgers; King Kong.

Personnel: Bunk Gardner, Euclid Sherwood, reeds; Ian Underwood, reeds, organ piano, harpsichord, celeste; Artie Tripp, Ruth Komanoff, vibraharp, marimba, xylophone, miscellaneous percussion; Frank Zappa, guitar, vocals, percussion; Don Preston, electric piano; Roy Estrada, electric bass, vocals; Jimmy Carl Black, Billy Mundi, drums; Ray Collins, Nelcy Walker (tracks 5 and 11), vocals.

Rating: ★★★★½

“Freaking Out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded standards . . . in order to express CREATIVELY his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure ns a whole.” – Frank Zappa. Part serious, part promotional jive – but Zappa’s insistence on “immediate environment” is one reason why the Mothers have produced remarkable satire and one reason why the musical end of their spectrum seems to be gaining an independent life.

Zappa has made if clear that, for him, the “immediate environment” is 99% garbage, to which his response has been violent and accurate satire (America Drinks and Goes Home, for example). But the musical means he uses to cloak that satire are so technically extravagant that formal relationships arise in the music which have nothing to do with the satirical impulse.

Zappa is aware of this, since he has complained in print that no one notices the musical complexity of things like Son of Suzy Creamcheese, but I think his complaints are naive or put-ons. A true satirist wants to get his message across, and to hell with whether or not anyone digs the aesthetic doo-dads. But Zappa seems to care as much, if not more, about the musical trimmings as the satire.

This comes through strongly on Uncle Meat, which contains most of the music from the Mothers’ unfinished movie of the same name. (Incidentally, the soundtrack label doesn’t have its usual significance; the music will probably inspire the action rather than the other way around.) The two-LP set is mostly instrumental, and, in typical Mothers’ fashion, there is something for everyone – straight-ahead jazz, with electronic frills, the usual expert satire, and a heavy dose of the abstract music that has grown on Zappa’s satire like penicillin.

The jazz performances are King Kong (which takes up one side) and Underwood. All the Mothers can function in a jazz context, and the three reedmen are skilled in the Coltrane-Ayler idiom. Sherwood takes a brief, intentionally hilarious solo on King Kong, in which avant-garde mannerisms are interspersed with grunts and slobbering sounds. It could be taken as an insult to the music, but that’s not the way I hear it. On the same track, Gardner solos on alto with an octave divider, I think, and later Underwood plays alto through some sort of electronic device that makes the horn sound just like an electric guitar.

The best jazz performances are Preston’s electric piano solo on King Kong (the first work I’ve heard on that instrument which really uses its virtues), and Underwood’s on the track named for him – a concert tape featuring an alto solo over a swinging background. While Underwood is not as advanced rhythmically as he is melodically (some accents sound like Phil Woods’), it is a driving performance.

For those who’ve heard the Mothers before, there’s no need to describe their vocal lampoons, but, for those who haven’t, Zappa is into a Southern California-dada-1953 Mad magazine-science fiction-Guess What Mom and Dad are Doing in the Bedroom-bag. Some of the music on these tracks is functional accompaniment, some is savage parody, but Zappa’s talent turns most of into formal elaboration (the staggered vocal lines at the end of Air, for example).

And that kind of elaboration is what we hear throughout the non-jazz instrumental tracks (the bulk of the set). The basic ensemble consists of saxophones and/or woodwinds (often electrically modified), harpsichord, guitar, drums, and a large array of mallet percussion. First, all these instruments are expertly played. Second, Zappa has obviously listened carefully to a number of 20th century classical composers. We hear additive rhythms a la Stravinsky on the title theme and The Dog Breath Variations, woodwind passages that might be from Varèse on Project X and Dog Breath, and more, all of which Zappa uses expertly in pretty much his own way. There are brilliant episodes on every one of these tracks, and the brief Zolar Czakl stands out as a gem-like little invention.

At present, the music’s emotional range seems to be limited to mystery, humor, violence, and the pleasure of abstract formal relationships. That is quite a lot, but music can touch many more emotions than these, ones that I think run deeper.

What Zappa and the Mothers do they do superbly, and, although I want more from music than they have to offer right now, this set is brilliant entertainment. Perhaps Zappa will realize that a composer’s “immediate environment” can be as much his own mind and emotions as his surroundings.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)