Unkle Funkle



Have you ever wondered what it might have been like to be in 1960s Oxford, England, when Michael Palin and Terry Jones met each other doing the very first smartass Oxford Review shows? Or at Cambridge, when Graham Chapman and John Cleese first met, in 1963, and did their rude “Cambridge Circus” thing? Or even when Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement first shared a flat as students at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, when they did their “So You’re a Man” thing, performing at New Zealand’s arty BATS Theatre? All very naughty boys. Multitalented, to be sure. Super smart. Literary and musical. And naughty. It’s hard to believe it now, but some of what these boys got up to when they first started out was considered filth. Yes, filth.

Now, you might think we’ve got all that under control now, no more overreacting when something clever and slightly rude comes along. It’s 2013. We don’t freak out. We’re cool. We can handle it.

Well, I have to report that we’re not quite there. We still have issues.

I decided to write about the latest Unkle Funkle record because just this week I was reading an article about Martin Scorsese’sThe Last Temptation of Christ,” the 1988 film adapted from the 1953 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. A classic novel and classic art film today, with a still impressive soundtrack by Peter Gabriel. A massive protest effort by religious groups across the U.S. erupted and succeeded in getting the first production company, Paramount, to cancel the project in 1983. It took another four years to get Universal to agree to financially back and release the film. We sure weren’t cool in 1983.

I heard that the latest Unkle Funkle record, “Picture of My Dick” (Marriage Records, 2013), was being prepared for release, and I got it: There would be a penis on the cover. Woo hoo. I hadn’t heard the record back in 2011 when it was released on the Internet, nor did I manage to get a cassette copy from Gnar Tapes in 2012. (I wasn’t really looking for it.) But then I heard Marriage Records was committing the record to a vinyl pressing and I thought, “I can’t wait for the posters and window display at The Business,” in Anacortes, the small Indie record shop that handles all my special-order needs and also distributes Marriage Records.

But then, something interesting started to happen. The record was delayed. Just a bit. Then I heard that each LP would come in a special black plastic bag with a sticker on it, hiding the artwork. I got all nostalgic remembering back to John Lennon’s “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins” LP coming in a brown paper bag. Or those naughty German metal Scorpions’ records like “Virgin Killer” (in black plastic shrink wrap), or Storm Thorgerson’s artwork for “Lovedrive” being banned altogether. Still, that was the past. Looking at those LP covers today, it’s hard to get back in touch with that level of panic. Maybe a little sentimental, certainly not aroused. Labels and their vendors had to scramble back in the day to find solutions to either hide or replace naughty or suggestive artwork.

And here we are again, sort of. There is still a prudish reticence about some things in the music business, and would you believe it, penises in the record-manufacturing industry? I know! Chris Uehlein, the very smart, very creative, and (very) naughty boy who is Unkle Funkle, delights in creating both music and LP artwork that has to be designed for pure provocation. He knows exactly what he’s doing. I thought, “So do we, no worries.” Penis art, boy humor, I get it. “Picture of My Dick” finally made it into distribution, and inside the sleeve there’s a fascinating insert that tells the full sad story about how no manufacturer would print the LP cover as designed, with an extreme close-up black and white photograph, taken by Brian Echon, of Uehlein’s penis. No one would print it. To get the vinyl out of the warehouse and into distribution, Uehlein had to order blank LP sleeves with just the track titles, and have the B&W artwork privately printed separately and then attached afterward by hand.

Over the top, you think? Why not just drop the artwork? As Uehlein explains on the insert with the LP: “[T]he dick has to do with the self-involved and masturbatory process of crafting pop-songs on a computer by yourself.”

Naturally, the artwork, not the music, not the parody, is becoming the conversation about this record, which is a shame. The 15 tracks on this record (14 “official,” and one “hidden track”) work together as a kind of comedic compendium of radio parodies and DIY “band” songs created using computer-programmed everything. The dude totally captures how modern commercial radio stations package music as product and cram in as much non-information as they can, squeezing the music down to the point that it becomes ornaments for commercials, rather than being the center of attention. He even includes a few mock commercials that you have to listen to very carefully to hear all the silly sound bites he’s wrapped into each one. An ad for a drug called “Reality,” for example, to fix your difficult children. The song “Picture of My Dick” even has its own music video. Spoiler alert: you never see his or anyone’s dick in the video.

So, what’s the point of being provocative this way? It’s simple: to get a reaction. If no one reacts, then the creator has missed and must to try again. I see this record very much as a comedy piece, to play occasionally, or at non-prudish parties for a laugh. I mean, I actually laughed out loud when I first heard “What Would You Do?,” a heart-throb ballad about being gay and coming out in a song. Or “The Balls,” a mock commercial for a sports talk show with the inside story about ball control, finding the hole, and scoring. Get it? Uehlein is a serious smartass. And he’s also kind of amazing because he makes this record work as a collection of well-produced comedy songs filled with satire.

If you’re into double entendre and sexual innuendo, this is your record. If you’re into supporting artists who challenge prudes and censorship, this is your record. However, if you have a problem with large black-and-white photos of penises, especially Chris Uehlein’s flaccid penis, better give this record a miss. The title says it all.