They call 1969 “The Year Everything Changed.”
That was the year that 500 million people watched Neil Armstrong leave the first human footprints on the moon. Rupert Murdoch bought his first newspaper. An oil spill led to the first Earth Day (held the following year), and a river caught fire in Ohio, sparking the creation of the EPA. A guy named Muammar Gaddafi became dictator in Libya. The first ATM machine was installed. The first episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You was broadcast, as was the first episode of Monty Python. And the first message was sent over the ARPANET (which would develop into what we started calling the Internet in 1982).
Elvis Presley stepped into a studio in Memphis and recorded what would prove to be his comeback album. The New York State Thruway was brought to a standstill near Bethel, New York, by an event called “Woodstock”. Led Zeppelin released their first album, and the Beatles played their last gig (on the roof of Apple headquarters; it was broken up by the police).
“I hope you didn’t pay for that”
I was a freshman in college. I had a buddy who was known for his skill at the “five-finger discount.” One day he showed up at my door with an album tucked under his arm. The cover was disgusting. I took one look at it and said, “I hope you didn’t pay for that.”
The album was Uncle Meat, by the Mothers of Invention. I’d heard of Frank Zappa, but I thought of him only as “that guy who did the Sgt. Pepper’s parody” album cover. I did not think highly of him for it.
Grudgingly, I gave the thing a listen. It was a double album: two discs (4 sides) of incomprehensibility. But, as the cover explained, it was supposed to be a soundtrack album for a movie that would never be made… so, well, okay, maybe that explained the long stretches of industrial noise. A few of the tracks were actually songs, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The guitar playing was not bad in a few places.
In the style of classical composition, some of the tracks were “variations” of musical themes established in previous tracks. Well, okay, Zappa obviously takes the music seriously. He also made a point of explaining in the liner notes that the music was assembled by blending recordings of live performances with studio tracks, sometimes within the same song.
The Uncle Meat Variations
The 2-minute opening track of the album was expanded on Side 2 (this was when albums came on vinyl discs and had “sides”) into a 4:46 track, The Uncle Meat Variations. It’s worth describing in detail:
The first 55 seconds are a slowed-down deconstruction of the melody, played on woodwinds and what sounds like a harpsichord (one can never be quite sure of the instruments on this album), backed with a simple tom-tom beat. Then the theme from the eponymous title track emerges. The keyboards pick up the melody. At 1:23, the ensemble starts a new variation and xylophones are added. 30 seconds later, the theme is stated again, with a bass clarinet (or possibly a bassoon) in the foreground, playing a contrapuntal melody.
At 2:48, suddenly falsetto voices come in, singing, at first, la-la-la nonsense syllables. The voices have been altered, sped up. One of them is an operatic soprano, singing a vocal line that can only be described as “acrobatic”. The voices start singing excitedly about fuzzy dice and bongos (items that had been mentioned on Side 1) and brodie knobs and about how these things were available at the Pep Boys, winding up with a happy little laugh at about 3:15. Then keyboards state the theme once more, as the other instruments fall away. A sort of expectant vacuum is created.
Then magic happens
A flourish announces a key change, and a live performance is seamlessly spliced in: three long, thin, bent guitar chords flail in; and on the 4th, the stage ensemble tumbles into a guitar solo, with the band playing a line of descending chords behind it. The descending chords unexpectedly reverse direction and begin ascending, matching the chills that have begun climbing up your spine. Because you realize they are not playing a simple repeated chord progression; somehow, it’s a chordal support of the melodies in the guitar solo. The solo is nothing like most guitar solos of the period. Instead of wailing high notes, the man’s fingers are all over the fretboard, high and low notes bending and twanging in unpredictable directions, all held together by what is unmistakeably an improvised melody, a tour de force of the entire range of the fretboard. An electronic organ, twisted and warped by a slow tremolo, lays down an insistent train of block chords, with sustained bass notes and straight-ahead bashing on the drums finally closing down the track underneath 20 seconds of an overdubbed acoustic guitar lick. This live solo is only the last 60 seconds of a 4 minute and 46-second song, on a double-disc album. But it was 60 seconds that changed my life.
Home to my Mothers
Those 60 seconds caused me to reconsider the whole album. What I had dismissed as a “comedy” album, I had to admit was serious music. The lyrics were often very personal, about nonsensical things like pancakes (“khaki maple buckwheats”) and teenage activities like cruising for burgers. But they were all tied together by musical composition. It didn’t matter that some of the songs made you laugh out loud; it was all part of a logical and meticulously-constructed whole.
Reconsidering that album caused me to go back and relisten to other Frank Zappa albums. What I found opened the doors to whole new musical genres. Though it didn’t all happen immediately, listening to those 60 seconds of The Uncle Meat Variations started a process that percolated through my entire experience, down to the present day, 42 years later.
Now, even the album cover makes sense.
So, where do I get this marvelous music, you ask? And well you might ask. Don’t look for it in iTunes. With a few exceptions, Zappa’s entire musical legacy is handled by the Zappa Family Trust. Your best bet is to Google for it. Amazon it. If given a choice between the original vinyl and the later reissue, even though the remix was done by Zappa himself, take the vinyl. No, seriously and no fooling, people. The vinyl mix is better. Way better.
Oh… Zappa did eventually make the movie. Sort of.