Monday, February 11, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #4: We're Only In It for the Money

The Mothers’ third album, We’re Only In It for the Money, is widely considered Frank Zappa’s masterpiece. It’s certainly his sharpest and most focused piece of social criticism, his most finely honed parody, and his most prophetic and (arguably) most relevant work. If these are the qualities you’re looking for in a Zappa album, you won’t do better than this one. 

Money was the first of four albums that grew from the No Commercial Potential sessions, an extended stay at Apostolic Studios in New York. (The re-edited Lumpy Gravy was the second.) It hit stores in March of 1968, during the apex of flower power, while kids across the country were still singing “All You Need is Love.” But those were the clean-cut suburban kids, not the “freaks” of Zappa’s audience. Zappa considered the Beatles to be representative of the corporatization of America, and was determined to speak from a different perspective.

And because he was Frank Zappa, that perspective came with teeth. Zappa saw a hippie movement that he found ridiculous, a violent Los Angeles police force cracking down on “freaks,” and a society that not only condoned this but encouraged it. The civilization of the ‘60s was rotting from the inside, Zappa believed, and if you expected lasting change to come from a love-in, you were part of the problem.

Structurally, Money and Lumpy Gravy are two sides of the same coin. (The cover art links them as “phazes” of one another.) Money is another triumph of editing, as beautiful, melodic songs are spliced together with sound effects, electronic noise sculptures and dialogue to create a cohesive whole. It would still be 18 months before Abbey Road hit stores, but Zappa was showing the Beatles how the side-long suite thing was done.

But while Gravy was the work of Zappa the orchestral composer, Money is Zappa the tricky pop craftsman. The songs do a fine job of parodying the acoustic ‘60s hippie sound, and they straddle the line between melodic and complex with ease. There are eight Mothers on this album, with the addition of incredible pianist Ian Underwood and saxophonist Motorhead Sherwood, and the sound is vibrant. It remains parody throughout, but the songs are no joke.

In fact, this album – despite its Sgt. Pepper-mocking cover and ironic title – contains some of Zappa’s most straightforward songs. He rarely cuts to the heart of things as he does on “Mom and Dad,” a chilling lament for a teenage “freak” killed by police. “You sit home and drink all night, they look too weird, it served them right,” Zappa sings, launching a familiar attack, but giving it more resonance. “Ever wonder why your daughter looks so sad? It’s such a drag to have to love a plastic mom and dad.” 

Money plays like a single piece, darting from one memorable melodic snippet to another, but never staying in one place for very long. The album is remarkably busy, ideas flying by at light speed. Zappa interrupts songs with pig snorts, whispers and general insanity, and abandons melodies as quickly as they arrive. Just as a pop gem like “Lonely Little Girl” gets going, it dissipates, on to the next.

Thanks to pitch-shifted vocals and a production style that can sometimes seem cartoony – just listen to the simultaneous monologues, one in each speaker, on “Flower Punk” – this album feels surreal, like you can’t trust it. It’s one of Zappa’s most sincere pieces of work, and his tongue is still firmly in his cheek.

Zappa’s anything-is-music aesthetic is in full bloom here as well, with no less than five of these tracks given over to noise and dialogue. The album ends with “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a six-minute collage of sped-up pianos, woodwinds, laughter, static and other seemingly random sounds. But careful listening will reveal that this song is as carefully composed as anything else on the album. As a bonus, it ends with a weak pluck on a piano string that fades out over a full minute, the final touch of the album’s Sgt. Pepper parody.

This album definitely holds up to any amount of analysis, but none of that will get at the sheer visceral thrill of listening to this thing. We’re Only In It for the Money is savage, an absolutely freewheeling excoriation of the 1960s, like lobbing grenades along the Magical Mystery Tour. Its first side viciously attacks hippie culture – Zappa only requires the 2:34 of “Who Needs the Peace Corps” to set fire to the San Francisco scene that birthed the Grateful Dead. “I’ll stay a week and get the crabs and take a bus back home, I’m really just a phony but forgive me ‘cause I’m stoned…”

“Concentration Moon” and “Mom and Dad” call out police for cracking down on those hippies, talking about “cops killing creeps” two years before the Kent State shootings in Ohio. In “Harry, You’re a Beast,” Zappa continues the theme of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” pointing at a complacent society as the root cause of the rot. He answers the question of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body” with “I think it’s your mind,” and he never penned a more potent verse than the one that ends that song: “All your children are poor unfortunate victims of systems beyond their control, a plague upon your ignorance that keeps the young from the truth they deserve…”

“Absolutely Free” co-opts the sound and language of hippies to instruct them on how to actually shake off their shackles. (Zappa is, as ever, distrusting of his rock audience’s intelligence: “The first word in this song is ‘discorporate,’” he intones with a sardonic grin. “It means to leave your body.”) “Flower Punk” goes so far as to directly reference “Hey Joe,” a hit for Jimi Hendrix in 1966, as it mercilessly assaults the flower power mentality.

The second side is less focused – Zappa takes a three-song break to tell you about childhood friends who saved their snot in jars – but it all leads to the remarkable string of short pieces from “Lonely Little Girl” to “Mother People.” “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” is one of Zappa’s most hummable melodies, and the sarcastic vocal tone clearly shows how idiotic he thinks its sentiment is. That is driven home by the reprise of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body.”

But it’s “Mother People” that feels like the mission statement here. “We are the other people, you’re the other people too,” Zappa sings over one of his most kinetic rock compositions. It’s an invitation – if you’ve found yourself agreeing with this album, and that makes you an outsider, the Mothers are waiting for you. But heed the final verses: “Do you think that I love you, stupid and blind? Do you think that I dream through the night of holding you near me?” Zappa’s savage wit would turn and bite even some of his most ardent fans as time went on.

Zappa’s bleak view of society would never dissipate either, although he would slip into paranoia in his later years (Thing-Fish, Meets the Mothers of Prevention). We’re Only In It for the Money finds Zappa the satirist and social critic in perhaps the finest form of his career – so fine that many were disappointed when he turned to other lyrical and musical pursuits. It remains one of his most important albums, and one of his very best. 

Rating: Essential, clearly. 

Which version to get: This is kind of tricky. When Verve Records received the master for Money, they took umbrage at two sections (The repeated “don’t come in me” in “Harry, You’re a Beast” and the “shitty little person” verse of “Mother People”), and edited them without Zappa’s knowledge. Frank reversed that decision when he remixed Money in 1984. Unfortunately, he also overdubbed horrific-sounding ‘80s drums and bass on the entire album, completely ruining it. For years, this was the only version available on CD – if you see a two-fer Ryko CD with this and Lumpy Gravy on it, run away quickly.

The 1995 Ryko CD restores the original vinyl version of the album, with digital tweaking, which means the “offending” sections are once again censored. The 2012 Zappa/Universal reissue uses the same master, which means it doesn’t matter which of those you get. However, the 2012 version features, for the first time ever, the hilarious Sgt. Pepper parody on the front cover, where it belongs. (Record company politics have kept it sequestered inside since 1968.) That makes the new version the one to get.

Additionally, if you want to hear the original vinyl mix of the record, you need the Lumpy Money Project/Object from the Zappa Family Trust. That set also includes the 1984 abomination, if you’re curious about that. 

Next week: Cruising With Ruben and the Jets.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Andre -

    And you might like this:

    -John Koranek