By Eleni P. Austin
If you came of age in the late ‘70s/early 80s, chances are you remember when Punk Rock felt like a secret. Pre-internet, pre-MTV, maybe if you were lucky, Rolling Stone wrote a little blurb about your favorite Punk band.
At the same time, small start-up labels were staking their claim in the Punk Rock firmament. An easy introduction to any new group came if they were on the same label as your favorite band.
The SST label was easily the most popular and influential underground independent label of the era. Guitarist Greg Ginn (of Black Flag) started the label in 1978, and proceeded to create the Mount Olympus of Punk. The roster of Greek Gods included Black Flag, Minutemen, Descendents, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, Firehose, Fatso Jetson and Meat Puppets.
Meat Puppets began making music in 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona. Brothers Curt (guitar/vocals) and Cris (bass/vocals) Kirkwood cycled through a series of bands in high school before hooking up with drummer Derrick Bostrom. The Kirkwoods played conventional Rock & Roll until Bostrom introduced them to Punk Rock via his collection of 45s.
Their self-released EP was crammed with noisy, hardcore punk. Greg Ginn heard the recording and signed Meat Puppets to SST in 1982. Their eponymous debut was thrashy and chaotic, perfect fit for SST.
As the band crisscrossed the country playing tiny dive bars and Punk clubs, they began to expand their musical horizons. By the time they released Meat Puppets II the trio had settled on a potent blend of Punk, Country and Psychedelia. That sound was solidified on their third effort, Up On The Sun. That album received national exposure in the mainstream press.
Between 1982 and 1989, the Pups released seven albums through SST. They were never the label’s most popular act, but Meat Puppets remained loyal long after label-mates disbanded or abandoned SST for the greener grass of major labels.
Just as the Grunge era dawned, Meat Puppets did jump ship and sign with London Records. Despite a major label push, and exposure from MTV’s 120 Minutes, their London debut, Forbidden Places, was a flop.
Luckily, Kurt Cobain had name-checked bands like Meat Puppets and the Pixies as huge influences. By 1993, Nirvana was the biggest band in the world, and they invited Meat Puppets to be the opening act for their In Utero tour.
In the midst of that tour, Nirvana taped an “Unplugged” segment for MTV. Cobain invited the Kirkwoods to join Nirvana on stage to perform “Plateau,” “Oh Me” and “Lake Of Fire,” three classic tracks from Meat Puppets II.
Needless to say, it was a pyrrhic victory when the Pups 1994 release, Too High To Die, achieved critical and commercial success just a few months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Twelve years after their debut, Meat Puppets finally had a gold record.
Unfortunately, their newfound prosperity made it easy for Cris Kirkwood to burrow deep into drug addiction. His complete dependency on heroin and crack cocaine forced the band into an extended hiatus in 1996.
Curt Kirkwood busied himself with extracurricular music as Cris spiraled downward. In 2003, following the overdose death of his wife, Cris attacked a security guard at a Phoenix post office. He was shot twice and ended up incarcerated in an Arizona State Prison.
As Cris worked through his personal issues, Curt tentatively began resurrecting Meat Puppets with a series of different drummers and bass players. By 2006, Cris was free and sober and the Kirkwoods reunited musically along with new drummer Shandon Sahm, (son of legendary Country-Rock progenitor, Doug Sahm). Happily, Meat Puppets were re-born.
The band’s output was prodigious. Between 2007 and 2011 they released three albums, Rise To Your Knees, Sewn Together and Lollipop. Now the band has just recorded their 14th effort, Rat Farm.
The album kicks off with the title track. Opening with a tribal tattoo rhythm and crustaceous guitar riffs, the tune quickly downshifts into a loping gait. Curt’s honeyed harmonies belie the lyrics’ tart menace… “Hallelujah, I’m rotten to the core, and I take what I want and I want a little more.”
Several songs on Rat Farm expand Meat Puppets sonic palette. The guitars on “One More Drop,” pivot from Punky power chords to searing bluesy fills to dusty psychedelia in under four minutes.
“Down” jangles and jingles with Byrdsy delight. A tambourine provides the tick-tock beat on this ode to childhood adventure.
The lyrics on “Leave Your Head Alone” use sly metaphors that instruct us to let go of cerebral worries and “right brain” it for awhile. Sensation over reflection. The melody here is suitably relaxed and serene.
“Again” matches a waltzy stop-start melody with stream-of conscious lyrics… “Once more again do we find reality lingers behind/To bury our memories in a hole in the road.”
Three songs, “Waiting,” “Time And Money” and “Sometimes Blue” offer the album’s sweetest surprises. The melody on “Waiting” echoes Marty Robbins’ old gunfighter ballads like “El Paso” and “Big Iron.” The lyrics are an inscrutable haiku but the tune is anchored by beautiful Spanish guitar filigrees that cascade, dive and plateau.
“Time And Money” is propelled by chunky power chords and an infectious chorus that feels like a grungy Grateful Dead outtake. “Sometimes Blue” is a breezy celebration of nature that includes a countrified guitar break.
Other stand out tracks include the jangly Jesus parable, “Original One,”the slippery “You Don’t Know” and the swiveling Tilt-A-Whirl of “The River Rose.”
The album closes with “Sweet,” a churning maelstrom anchored by scorching guitar riffs, throbbing bass lines and a pummeling backbeat.
Nowadays the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” plays as background music in Coppertone commercials, and Hot Topic practically sells Punk Rock kits. Black Flag has reformed as as two competing bands, Black Flag with Greg Ginn and Ron Reyes and FLAG with original singer Keith Morris. Original punks can rest assured that as much as Meat Puppets change, their primal style remains the same.