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Rear View: Attacking the Vatican.

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Uncle Meat is the new Astral Weeks.

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Uncle Meat includes more harpsichord than any post-Chuck Berry pop album you’ve ever heard. Its decks are positively awash in harpsichord. For you harpsichord freaks in the crowd, it is a sure-shot must-own.

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Uncle Meat, its fondness for 18th-century keyboard instruments aside, is also a record where a whole lot of stuff sounds disorientingly unlike what it’s supposed to. The skies are purple and the trees are blue in Uncle Meat’s alternate universe.

Some of these sonic variations are low-tech — like bassist Roy Estrada’s prodigious dude-sounds-like-a-lady falsetto, or the unexpected cameo appearance of operatic soprano Nelcy Walker on “Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague.”

Others are the result of studio tomfoolery. Clarinets sound like trumpets. Voices sound like chipmunks. Electric organs sound like theremins. Unprocessed horns gibber like tropical birds. Something swings like a loose door in the wind on the ominous “We Can Shoot You,” and flickers and trills like a piccolo on “A Pound For a Brown On The Bus.”

(Speaking of things that depart from the norm, the fade at the end of “Pound For a Brown” isn’t quite as advertised either.)

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Uncle Meat is somewhere between a slap and a Bronx cheer, delivered simultaneously in five languages you do not speak.

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Uncle Meat is the last album the notoriously fastidious Frank Zappa recorded with average musicians.

The Zappa/Mothers narrative says that Zappa emerged from the California desert with a head full of doo-wop, R&B, Varese and Stravinsky. He brought with him an ex-bar band that could cover the first two influences in their sleep, then added hired guns more familiar with the latter two.

Uncle Meat, released in April 1969, was the last album the Mothers recorded with Zappa’s desert cohort — Ray Collins on vocals, Estrada on bass, Jimmy Carl Black on drums and Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood on saxophone — alongside the hired guns.

Zappa broke up the band later that year, and when he relaunched the Mothers in 1970, they were fully staffed by skilled players like George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar.

By the mid-’70s, Zappa’s lineups had acquired their now-legendary status — studio-quality players who could turn out 17/8 riffs in unison, when not executing their boss’s twisted idea of a stage show.

And yet, things were never quite the same without the bar-band contingent.

Maybe Zappa’s eternal ’50s steals sounded more convincing being delivered by guys for whom that style hadn’t always been an ironic joke.

Or maybe the presence of the dudes from the desert was the last thing grounding Zappa … once they were gone, he was free to disappear into a black hole of hemidemisemiquavers.

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 “You guys listen to the worst shit.”

-one of my oldest and dearest friends, upon walking into the room where my brand-new CD copy of Uncle Meat was playing for only the second or third time, circa 1989.

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 Uncle Meat, on a certain level, is one of the friendliest and most accessible records out there.

How so? Well, it’s full of people talking. And nothing’s warmer or more natural than the sound of people talking, right? Moreso even than singing.

Everywhere you go you hear people talking. It’s the most common and comforting sound there is. (Its absence, in contrast, can be highly discomfiting.)

Three of the album’s tracks are entirely spoken-word, while a fourth, the deathless “Ian Underwood Whips It Out,” begins with a lengthy monologue.

Elsewhere, spoken bits pop up at the beginnings and ends of songs. Best is the apparent interview segment at the end of “Electric Aunt Jemima,” which captures Zappa’s contrarian attitude more concisely than any other five seconds of audio.

Uncle Meat, along with the other early Zappa/Mothers albums, takes a sledgehammer to the notion that a “pop” album has to consist of 10 to 14 tracks of shined-up, conventionally orchestrated pop, presented in an uninterrupted row.

Instead, it argues, there’s a place for the people who conceived and performed the music to express themselves, without having to craft a song to do so.

(One could say the same for Having Fun With Elvis On Stage. If you want to make the argument, go right ahead. I’ll read it.)

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Uncle Meat reached No. 43 on the Billboard album chart.

This is not at all bad for a double album with a thoroughly unattractive cover, portraying some sort of baroque dental exam …

… an album on which jazz, pop, R&B, and modern classical music collide haphazardly and not always tunefully …

… an album with no hit single, and indeed no single at all, whose leadoff/title track sounds like a military march from behind the Iron Curtain until it dissipates into tape-wavery coughing noises.

For all his kvetching about America’s plastic culture, and his constant lampooning of people not hip enough to understand “real music,” Frank Zappa sold a bunch more LPs than he might have.

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Uncle Meat was very nearly the name I convinced my son to call my brother, when my son was a toddler and easily influenced.

My brother escaped, but it was a near thing.

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Uncle Meat in its CD form contains 40-plus minutes of dialogue from the unfinished movie of the same name, plus an early-’80s “bonus track” in which an Italian journalist (whose voice resembles a particularly stroked-out Zappa) boasts in Sicilian about the size of his John Thomas.

These are not part of the original album and around here we tend not to speak of them.

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Speaking of the Iron Curtain, as we were a few grafs ago, we know Vaclav Havel was a Zappa fan of many years’ standing, and Czechoslovakia’s foremost underground band named itself after a Zappa song.

Imagine, then, dubbed copies of Uncle Meat in the hands of the few brave Czech longhairs, back in the day.

Imagine the weirdness of Uncle Meat, amplified a few hundred times by geographical and cultural distance. Imagine what colorful images arose in the minds of the Plastic People as they contemplated what “The Legend of the Golden Arches” could possibly mean.

Imagine Uncle Meat not as a sprawling, self-important, impenetrable mess … but as an inspiration, and a rare cultural ray of daylight in a repressive sea of gray.

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Uncle Meat bent my mind like a five-cent coathanger when I was maybe 11 or 12 and starting to sort out my notions of what grown-up rock n’ roll music might be.

I have maybe been a little disappointed in everything else since.


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