“Say, Mailman Mike, do you know what a Mr. Bungle is?”
In 1981, HBO aired the hour-long comedy special The Pee-Wee Herman Show, marking the first significant long-form appearance of the beloved Paul Reubens character. One of the show’s segments featured an old PSA for schoolchildren entitled Beginning Responsibility: Lunchroom Manners. It begins with a classroom full of kids being treated to a puppet show, featuring a character named Mr. Bungle, whose behavior was meant to demonstrate the opposite of how good children should act. 10 years later, a group of obnoxious punks from Eureka, California would get their big and highly improbable break under that same name, and with a very Bungle-esque philosophy towards the unwritten rules of popular music.
Of all the record labels that could have (and probably wouldn’t have) released Mr. Bungle’s challenging, pop audience-repelling debut album, among the last you’d expect would be Warner Brothers. Under normal circumstances, Warner’s execs might have gotten partway into the first song before chucking this album straight into the trash. However, Mr. Bungle’s frontman had been the driving force behind The Real Thing, one of Warner’s most recent smash hit albums. Surely there would be no harm in signing his other band, right? The result of this questionable decision was one of the most bizarre albums ever released by a major label, an album which would go on to influence a generation of metal acts, garner a sizable cult following, and which forced Warner to resort to promoting it as “A seriously weird new project.” It’s hilarious to think about the Warner execs tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to market this album to a pop audience; Mr. Bungle’s debut is as indulgently fearless as it is fearlessly indulgent, with not a single radio-ready moment across the album’s entire 73 minutes. Instead, these songs jump between tones and genres at a breakneck pace, tossing all manner of musical styles into a blender and chugging the resulting concoction with manic determination and an earthshaking belch. Is this album listenable? Is it even music? Entertainment Weekly certainly didn’t think so in 1991, but who asked them anyway?
The album’s first moments are (save for some faint snoring) completely silent, its first 30 moments in fact, when suddenly the sound of breaking glass is immediately proceeded by the monstrous first chords of the gargantuan opener, Travolta (later changed to Quote Unquote for “please-don’t-sue-us” reasons). Truly the sleeper is we, the audience, and the glass is our fragile psyche. Right off the bat, this is a much better produced album than The Real Thing, thanks to the talents of David Bryson, as well as future frequent Mike Patton collaborator and prolific avant-garde master John Zorn, who also contributes some Beefheart-eque free jazz freakouts to Bungle’s already untamed sound. The blasts of bass and guitar are like a dark orchestra underneath the horror movie keys, which give way to the twisted, off-kilter carnival riff of the verse. The pointed hits of guitar and keys warble like a nail-filled tub of gelatin, and Patton sings fiendishly about a limbless gimp writhing around and snorting drugs, as overdubbed guitar leads burn bright in the background. After a transition that sounds like keyboards being head-butted, we get the pre-chorus guitar riff that ascends and builds tension like the goddamn Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. After a brief, eerie keyboard cooldown, during which Patton sings about Grease being the word, we get a another verse and chorus, proceeded by the following refrain:
“He’s got an itch/
But nothing with which/
To scratch the itch/
So wish it away!/
With his mouth sewn shut/
He still shakes his butt/
’Cause he’s Hitler and Swayze and Trump and…/
Yes, long before even 1991, Trump was synonymous with delusional excess and unearned confidence. The end of the song is an ethereal, ambient soundscape that hard transitions into squealing sax and train sound effects. Bungle are, to say the least, a band with a flair for the dramatic, and you couldn’t ask for a better tone-setter to open this album.
When I said in my brief review of OU818 that the songs didn’t change very much when it came time to record them for the album, I may have been a bit inaccurate. The second track, Slowly Growing Deaf, has definitely been built out a bit more, cycling deftly between jazz, prog ambience, heavy metal, and funk. This track is actually the first of a two-part saga that, though the two have little in common, would conclude with one of Bungle’s greatest songs ever, Carry Stress In The Jaw from 1995’s Disco Volante. The lyrics talk about isolation from society, and contain references to snot and earwax, which may tie into the scatological ending that features a recording of someone taking a particularly nasty shit. Again, it’s a miracle Warner allowed them to release this album at all, much less that they distributed their next two albums as well. Slowly Growing Deaf has brief moments of rockabilly, surf rock, and even video game sound effects, but the driving force of the song are the hard rock sections that feature arguably some of the album’s most commercial moments, at least until they devolve into a hellish breakdown. Somehow they do all these styles justice without letting the Jenga tower of genres collapse into a jumbled mess.
If Anthony Keidis thought Epic sounded too similar to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he must have shit a brick when he heard the next track, Squeeze Me Macaroni. Rapid fire cowbell hits like a woodpecker from Mars as the speedy bass line drives the meth’d-out beat, and Patton is spitting his tongue-twister lyrics so fast you can barely make out his grotesque, food-related sexual innuendos. There are elements of James Brown and Prince in the music, which clash in a beautifully hideous way with the heavy metal. Indeed, Patton’s nasally cries of “Knick knack paddywack!” recall the golden age of 80’s pop funk, as do the wah on the guitars. Like Slowly Growing Deaf, there’s a breakdown partway through where all semblance of funk crumbles into experimental metal insanity, as well as some quieter and more gentle sections. The end of the song features perhaps the most juvenile refrain in Bungle’s entire studio discography:
“We came to potty!/
We came to potty down your throat!”
Your favorite rapper couldn’t dream of writing double entendres this clever. This repeats a few times before descending into madness (which includes a weird, tinny breakbeat that lasts mere seconds), segueing into the next track with, what else, a dialogue sample from a porno.
Getting a proper studio treatment has done wonders for the next song, Carousel; what was once just a dark ska tune is now more twisted and ambitious than you could ever glean from the demos. The horns are fuller-sounding, there are carnival sound effects and samples, and there’s even another tiny bit of surf rock, seemingly for no reason. One thing that gets lost about Mr. Bungle in analyses of their wild experimentation and mirthful inaccessibility is that much like the even more dense and impenetrable works of Captain Beefheart, their songs are actually packed with hooks and memorable moments. One of my favorite bits is when they transition into a calliope section, which quickly segues into a heavy metal interlude where Patton can be heard retching like he’s on a ride that’s going too fast. Much like many songs on this album, the ending is a gradual descent into complete fuckery, this time with more tinny instruments playing demented circus music amid a sea of pitch-shifted cackles, and finally the famous Namco Scoreboard sound effect.
The next track is Egg, which has been fleshed out to nearly eleven minutes. Not much has changed in the first two minutes except that the pick-harmonic guitar solo has an unearthly squealing tone to it, and Patton is doing his best Andrew Dice Clay gabagool voice when he says “How’d you know I was lookin’ at you if you weren’t lookin’ at me?” On this version, the “chicken comes out of an egg” refrain transitions into the outro with nightmare horns and drums that sort of remind me of Incoherence, and Patton is milking a ridiculous amount of melodrama out of his repeated shouts of “there’s no place like home!” His vocals get increasingly sillier, and the in-between moments are filled in with instrumental nonsense and Zappa-esque sound effects. By the end of the song, Patton is screaming and growling like Jim Carrey after a kick to the nuts, and the final two minutes feature even more train sound effects that are most likely the band’s own low-quality field recording.
Next is the theatrical story song Stubb (A Dub), written about the illness and death of guitarist Trey Spruance’s childhood dog. As frantic as the circus music on this track is, the childish lyrics actually come across rather sad, especially at the end:
“Do you remember?/
We called you family/
Now you’re underground/
We call you memory”
The opening notes come in like a wedding procession, and Patton is crooning over the increasingly strange waltz that suddenly shifts to fucked up polka, to heavy metal, and back again. The band makes frequent use of a warbling effect on Patton’s vocals that sounds like something out of a TikTok, and there are a lot of little moments where sound effects and extra percussive instruments are mixed into the madness really nicely. There are tons of musical shifts and moments of prog virtuosity all over this song, and there’s a section with dub-influenced rhythms and soul-inspired singing that features a phenomenal bass line from Trevor Dunn that’s mirrored by clean, plucked guitar. Patton sings “Do you know that you’re a fucking dog?” with side-splitting casualness, and his versatility across this song is some of his most impressive on the album. There’s even a section where he’s overdubbed over his own singing, and repeats his lyrics spoken word-style with a pastor-like inflection. The last minute of the song is mostly taken up by the sounds of none other than Kyle MacLachlan from the famous scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet where he breaks down in tears. Though contextually unrelated, it does drive home the theme of grief that’s mostly masked by the song’s irreverent theatricality.
Despite its hilarious title, the track My Ass Is On Fire is actually one of the more straightforward moments on the album, at least to an extent. The song begins with guitar riffs that switch between angular metal and a dissonant chord progression that would make Zoot Horn Rollo proud, accentuated by slap bass and stabs of horns. Speaking of stabbing, Patton’s eccentric performance and violent lyrics are a perfect compliment to the brutal heavy metal, and he comes through with some of his most intense screaming yet. Though lyrically fairly incoherent, the song does contain one of the album’s funniest and catchiest hooks, as Patton cries out between menacing tremolo-picked guitar leads:
“It’s not funny, my ass is on fire!/
Paraplegic, inhuman liar!”
The song is pure chaos, going as far as to sample a car alarm, throw in some DJ record scratches, and there’s even a section in the middle where Patton references the iconic “don’t you fucking look at me” moment from Blue Velvet. Like Egg before it, the song also has an extended outro, ushered in by a death growl that sounds less like a death metal vocal and more like someone hocking a loogie. The riff bangs repetitively as Patton screams “REDUNDANT, REDUNDANT, REDUNDANT” like an evil little goblin deeming you superfluous and banishing you to the nether-dimension. Once again, the song gradually becomes a mess of screaming and nonsense, followed by a clip taken from a learn-to-speak-Chinese instructional tape, and the sampled phrase mirrors the thoughts of the listening audience exactly:
“Excuse me, I am lost. Please help me.”
After that is the sample from Raw Footage that turned up on OU818, which is a perfect way to introduce the next track.
On The Girls of Porn, Bungle bring the funk back. Written as a pastiche of 70’s porn music, this song sees the band lyrically exploring the gross and seedy underside of pornography. The horn hooks are among the catchiest and grooviest on the album, the bass is as on point as you’d want from a funk song of such magnitude, and the guitar is pitch perfect whether it’s filling out space with solos or hanging back with the rhythm section. Patton sings “it’s time to masturbate” and “I was trained to fuck you, baby” with Princelike confidence, and the hook explodes into the most hair metal-ass riff Bungle ever wrote. There are porn samples spliced throughout the song, especially when Patton goes into a whispered rap section where he spells out a long list of the most depraved porn categories you could imagine, and the coda kicks off with a sample of the famous Robocop quote, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” Appropriately, the song ends with the Bungle version of a big finish, which predictably involves a lot of screaming and dissonant blasts of horns.
By virtue of being tongue-in-cheek, the next track, Love Is A Fist, is a marginally more tasteful domestic violence anthem than, say, Ted Nugent’s Stranglehold, but it’s definitely not one of my favorites. It begins with a eerie guitar passage and a brief hard rock riff, breaking into ethereal jazz that gets freakier and more metal as John Zorn starts blowing away manically in one of the most expressive sax performances on the album, shredding his reed as he makes his instrument shriek and squeal in agony. Like Spinal Tap before them, Mr. Bungle were keen to treat their mainstream audience to an exploratory free form jazz odyssey. The keyboards wash over the ears like waves on a beach as Patton sarcastically muses, “What’s love got to do with it?” Yikes. Musically, it’s about as as strong as the other tracks, if somewhat less adventurous and lengthy, but the lyrics obviously aren’t as much fun as on a track like Squeeze Me Macaroni. I guess besides being a bit insensitive, my biggest issue with this song is that I feel like there’s much less to say about it than the rest of the album. The track ends with a minute and a half-long sample of the aforementioned PSA aired on The Pee-Wee Herman Show. It serves as a bit of context for the audience, and a nice way to begin wrapping up the album.
The circus ska returns on the final track, Dead Goon, which is written from the perspective of a victim of accidental autoerotic asphyxiation. Bungle were ahead of their time in many ways, but especially when it comes to the asphyxiophile discourse. It opens with what sounds like a cross between an ambient transitional moment from a Jimi Hendrix song and a creepy, Lynchian soundscape, and eerie organs come into the fold before breaking into an almost salsa-like rhythm with Trevor Dunn playing a nimble jazz bass line. Patton is at his most in-character, switching between grumbly growls and some kind of marble-mouthed yarl. He even uses his Meatwad voice that would turn up again on the song Platypus, and about halfway through the song (after a piercing scream) we hear him acting out the suffocation as he repeats, “It can’t happen! It can’t happen!” Most of the rest of the song unfolds like a peaceful dream, sonically simulating the narrator’s untimely death. The circus rhythms are but an undercurrent for the airy synths, channel-traveling whispered vocals, and eerie creaking sound effects. The album’s final moments are a rather gorgeous orchestral arrangement, symbolizing the ultimate and final passage into the great beyond. Like all good album closers, this track could not have made sense placed anywhere else on the album, and it’s really unexpected for such a chaotic and unrelentingly abrasive record to end so peacefully.
Mr. Bungle is probably one of the most daring American rock bands to ever release a commercial album. They shit in the face of good taste, never caved to pressure from their label, and served as inspiration to metal bands as diverse as Korn, Dream Theater, and Avenged Sevenfold. Their immaturity resulted in some hilariously crude tunes, but was sometimes their downfall, and they only got more interesting as they began to grow up. This album is a cyclone of influences, all informing and reinforcing each other to create a collage of genres that is at once repulsively unnatural and admirably cohesive. Even for fans of experimental music, this can be a difficult album to digest, but its shallower moments are rewarding enough to warrant repeat listens, and it becomes more impressive the more layers you peel back. Though its many indulgences may wear thin for some, only a band operating at an extremely high level of skill and talent could have pulled off an album like this.
I give Mr. Bungle’s self-titled a macaroni-squeezing 8.5/10
Best Songs: Travolta, Carousel, Egg, Stubb (A Dubb)