Who would have guessed that the Meat Puppets would turn out to be one of the most enduring bands of the early ’80s? The Pups never enjoyed the spotlight as did their peers Hüsker Dü, Minutemen and the Replacements, but they continued to evolve both as a unit and individually with each new record (something neither the Mats nor Hüsker Dü were capable of), slowly creating a quintessential sound rather than just a short period of brilliance.
Not to downplay the contributions of any of their contemporaries, but the Meat Puppets are the legends who’ve lived on, showcasing at South by Southwest 1999 and enjoying the re-release of all seven of their recordings for SST (plus a previously unreleased live set), courtesy of Rykodisc. If the re-release of the Pups’ early sets doesn’t represent the most hotly anticipated reissue of the year, then it certainly stands as the Reminder of an Almost Forgotten Band of the year. The fact is that the Meat Puppets got lost in their own legacy once it was gratefully adopted by such understudies as Soul Asylum and Nirvana. But the music, like the Kirkwood brothers and Derrick Bostrom themselves, lives on in all its remastered glory and with bonus and enhanced video tracks galore.
The Pups’ self-titled 1982 debut was anything but a taste of what was to come. Explosively noisy, this introductory offering spot welded shards of country, folk and blues to a desert-punk framework. It did more to announce the coming of a rock prophet than it did to secure the band an instant pole position in what was a major race at the time to take punk rock in a new direction. In retrospect, it’s as important and enlightening as anything the Meat Puppets produced, but not nearly as definitive as their later records, especially the next two.
Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun are the Pups’ most vital records. Released in 1984 and 1985 respectively, both records represent a major shift in sound and direction, with Curt Kirkwood’s guitar suddenly bursting forth as inventive and complex, while his vocals made the transition from nerve-wracking screeching to slightly atonal and melodic. Up on the Sun’s “Maiden’s Milk” and II’s “Plateau” and “Aurora Borealis” exemplify a band on the run toward creating a signature for themselves. Both albums are desert rock classics and the must-haves of the entire Meat Puppets’ catalog.
With their interest in blues rock more piqued than ever, 1986’s Out My Way EP again provides a glimpse of Curt Kirkwood’s ever- and fast-improving guitar work, coupled with a vocal hint of two releases to come (Monsters and Huevos), which are both notable nods to desert rock kin, ZZ Top. The middle child here is 1986’s Mirage, on which the band seemed to abandon once and for all any shred of their punk rock roots for a more refined straight rock sound.
Huevos (1987) and Monsters (1989) are essentially “big guitar” albums, written off by some as mediocre ZZ Top tribute albums. But both records showcase the Pups at the top of their game instrumentally, affording us a glimpse of an ultra-tight trio successfully churning out thick walls of guitar and rhythmic sensibility. Curt Kirkwood’s vocals, again, are more smooth around the edges than previously and, for the first time, the band’s live sound is sonically represented.
Rounding out the reissue set is the previously unreleased live set, Live in Montana. Recorded in 1988—in part at the Garden City’s own Top Hat—the dozen tracks include material taken almost equally from previous LPs (beginning with II), along with covers of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and “Sweet Leaf.” While not essential to a Meat Puppets’ collection on its own, Live in Montana is a stunning representation of the band at their most dynamic and in their natural habitat.
Overall, this reissue of the Pups’ early material is a small musical miracle. Their influence on the changing face of rock music is obvious, but these records form a chronology and add context to the past 17 years—and running—of rock music history. Don’t sell yourself short.