Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: We're Only in It for the Money
Like all superficially idealistic youth movements, the love- and drug-crazed rebels of countercultural naïveté circa the late 1960s were incredible hypocrites. The gap between the utopian, free-loving, nature-attuned neo-transcendentalists that entranced timid teen squares and scared the equally-stereotypical caricatures of their stern and stoic postwar parents, and the real lives of the VD-infested and woefully self-centered societal dropouts is well chronicled in media artifacts from the time. For film, see the commune of psych-folk cabaret travelers in Easy Rider; Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a fascinating literary chronicle of the grim realities of Haight-Ashbury. When it comes to musical representations of the true free-thinker’s reaction to this faux-enlightened mess, it all ties together perfectly on We’re Only in It for the Money.
The thing to remember about 1968 is that the Beatles were untouchable. So, when the Mothers elected to include a cover image with Money that lampooned the psychedelic flower-celebrities that adorned the cover of the recently-released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, there was another kind of iconoclasm at work. It was all too easy for the “freaks” to direct their damnation at LBJ, parents, people over 30—the usual cast of squares—but another thing entirely for the Mothers to scoff at the meaningless antics of the counter-cultural types who were probably their majority demographic. Unsurprisingly, the powers that be in the record-releasing industry objected, and the intended cover art was remanded to the gatefold until reissues decades later. Not that the cover headshot of male band members in dresses in deadpan seriousness was such a turnover to the Man.
We're Only in It for the Money
(Bizarre; US: Jan 1968; UK: Jan 1968)
Where most of the Haight-Ashbury soundtrack of 1968 fit the “Rhythm and Blues + LSD” mold, Frank Zappa took great inspiration from legendary experimental composer Edgard Varese, whose declaration, “the present day composer refuses to die!”, was included in the original liner notes. Zappa is a composer, and Money is his mad-genius masterwork—part song-cycle, part experimental freak-out, yet strangely cohesive. A number of pieces on Money bear the obvious influence of Varese’s percussion arrangements and electronic experiments. “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music” is a challenging freak out, distorted musique concrete and disorienting stereo panning, breaking briefly toward the end into generic surf rock. Chaotic, challenging music for similar times, and the kind of truly experimental noise that makes psychedelic contemporaries look tame by comparison.
Money‘s emotional core is in Zappa’s lyrics. There’s sarcasm and skepticism, directed mainly at the shallow hippie freaks; “I will love the cops as they kick the shit out of me in the streets” says the dropout protagonist of “Who Needs The Peace Corps?”, blissfully unaware of the important issues at hand in the world outside of his self-centeredness. It’s another artifact of the time, that Zappa had to fight an uphill battle to include any profanity on Money, leaving much of it backmasked or removed entirely. “Concentration Moon” and “Mom & Dad” are a back-to-back examination of the generation gap, the former from the perspective of the disgusted and confused flower child. “Mom & Dad” is a startlingly tender look at the potential for true tragedy amongst the young freaks, as the depressed parents reflect on the deaths (by cops) of kids they couldn’t understand. Meanwhile, the parents remain either ignorant of or unwilling to see the genesis of the generational issues in cold parenting. Money is full of such vignettes of social observation, from the meathead spawn of a Congressman and a hooker on “The Idiot Bastard Son” to the “Bow Tie Daddy”, an out-of-touch, elderly alcoholic who is instructed “don’t try to do no thinkin’ / just go on with your drinkin’”.
It wouldn’t be a Zappa album without pop music put through the ringer of unfamiliar structures. Witness “Flower Punk”, an aggressive number in the truly-psychedelically confusing alternating 7/4 and 5/8 time signatures (good luck dancing, teenyboppers!), which aptly collapses into a freak-out of effect-laden squeals. Riffing on ‘60s standard “Hey Joe”, the titular Punk is another in a long line of Zappa’s misguided free-love casualties, “going to the love in to sit and play my bongos in the dirt.” “Absolutely Free”, meanwhile, refuses to stick with one theme, time signature, or key. The closest thing to guidance is a menacing voice declaring “flower power sucks!” The Beatles get theirs on “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body”, complete with nasally flat backing vocals (The ugliest part, concludes Zappa’s sarcastic narrator, must be “your mind”).
In the end, no one escapes the Mothers’ criticisms, but nor is anyone without redemption. The Mothers’ ultimate goal is to inspire true nonconformist self-expression, to peel back layers of society-imposed self-doubt and constrictive hypocritical morality. In what I can only imagine is a rare moment of genuine optimism, the Mothers’ gleefully explain to listeners, “We are the other people / You’re the other people, too!” Unless you’re only in this for the bottom line.