We're Only In It For the Money (review)

By Barret Hansen [1]

Rolling Stone, April 06, 1968

We're Only In It For the Money,
The Mothers of Invention.
(Verve V6/5045)

Frank Zappa is a supreme genius of American music today. A direct function of this fact, perhaps, is the incredible obstacle course that each of his albums has had to follow between recording and release. One, Lumpy Gravy, hasn't made it at all. And it has been a good four months since this album was first advertised in the press.

Those four months have brought many delights, but now once again it is Zappa's turn to claim our full attention. To lay it on the line, the Mothers new album is the most advanced work to be heard in rock today. Whether it is the best is a moot point – how would you compare it with, for instance, Otis Redding. But Zappa's ingenuity in conception of form, in innovation of recording techniques, and in the integration of vastly differing types of music, beggars all competitors. His rhythms and harmonies are truly sublime, and his lyrics contain the most brilliant satire in the whole pop world.

He is the only man in the whole business who could get away with coming on the way he does. I'm referring mainly to the Only Money cover which is, of course, a spoof on Sgt. Pepper. But it's more than a spoof. You must look at it side by side with the Sgt. Pepper cover to see what heavy things the Mothers are saying. While paying the Beatles the supreme tribute of parody, the Mothers are also putting the gods of Liverpool in a slightly less exalted light than we've been used to seeing them in. Suddenly the Beatles look much too pretty, and not a little bit plastic in all those satin uniforms. And from the lyrics inside we read:

I'm gonna tell you the way it is
And I'm not gonna be kind or easy.
–"Harry, You're a Beast"

Zappa, the freewheeling experimentalist of Freak Out and the hilarious wit of Absolutely Free, has in this terrifying year of 1968 given us a message album. His humor is sharper and drier than ever, but now it's as grim as the headlines. A repeated theme is that of the World War II Japanese relocation centers, allegedly being prepared for the incarceration of socially and/or politically undesirable American citizens.

Concentration moon
Over the camp in the valley . . .

Most of the lyrics are slightly less grim than this, and Zappa provides plenty of belly laughs as he takes deadly aim on American Womanhood, "Bow Tie Daddy," "Flower Punk," the San Francisco scene, and many other people and places. Though the Establishment gets well roasted, Zappa saves his sharpest jabs for "hippies," brutally exposing the irrelevance of much of their world. "Flower power sucks," a voice says, and many other voices on this disc say the same thing more subtly. Zappa never lets your mind get too far away from ugly reality, as war, murder, police, Nazis crop up frequently in many contexts. One song, "Mom & Dad," is so grim that it leaves the realm of humor altogether for a moment, and it seems quite evident that Zappa has suffered a momentary lapse in taste. Perhaps he got carried away with this morbid story of a girl slain by policemen; perhaps he only wanted us to think so.

The timeliness of Zappa's message, the accuracy of his barbs, the consummate wit of all his writing tend to make the Beatles' lyrics look vacuous by comparison. But we must be aware that this tendency represents only one point of view. (A point of view pretty close to the Communist doctrine of art in service of the revolution.) The Beatles represent beauty for its own sake. And what purpose does a revolution serve other than making our lives, or someone's lives, more comfortable and more beautiful? If the Beatles were denied us, we'd have a lot less to live for, even in the most utopian of new societies.

With that cover, the Mothers are challenging Lennon, McCartney & Co. musically as well as ideologically. If the music on Only Money were anything less than titanic, the whole idea would appear rather ridiculous.

Among the great creators of pop music today, Zappa is one of a select few who developed a vastly sufficient musical language for himself without the aid of the Beatles. His original environment was the rhythm & blues vocal group sound of the 1950's – especially the El Monte Legion Stadium variety that produced the Penguins, the Medallions, Marvin & Johnny and such stalwarts of the Oldies. Zappa came to know the scene intimately both as spectator and participant. Later, he became deeply involved in contemporary classical music. He has written many pieces of instrumental music, ranging from piano sonatas to that large orchestral work, Lumpy Gravy, recorded (for Capitol) but never released. His major influence in this field was probably Edgar Varèse, a good selection of whose compositions for instruments and tape machines is available on Columbia (MS 6146).

Only Money contains by far the largest dose of composed electronic music ever heard on a rock record. Note that Zappa's electronic music is not at all the same thing as what Jimi Hendrix makes by skillfully manipulating the natural malfunctions of guitar amplifiers. Zappa's sounds are put together as painstakingly as a symphony. A few seconds of sound on this album will often represent hours of work on the part of Zappa and his recording engineers, using roomsful of sophisticated equipment, and the results of years of experimentation, to create the most powerful and appropriate possible sound.

Six minutes at the end of side 2, and substantial shorter segments on both sides, are filled with such sounds, alone and in combination with "live" instrumental sounds. Perhaps the most striking are the tones that begin and end the six-minute segment (which incidentally is supposed to represent an experience at "Camp Reagan," a penal colony for nonconformists). The manipulation of levels on the two stereo channels produces a really alarming effect, especially through speakers with heavy bass response.

There are many other effects in the engineering and editing which border on electronic music. Much of the editing also is analogous with the editing of modern cinema. There are many brief interludes where speaking voices are heard, often electronically altered. Speech, music, and sounds are all collaged together in bits of all sizes and shapes. At the end of the first side two conversations (one on each channel) are carried on simultaneously, along with the music. The editing throughout the disc is so rapid-fire as to allow the listener no peace.

The closest we get to respite from this is when the Mothers go into a song. Actually the songs themselves are the least revolutionary part of the album. Musically they fairly well resemble the songs on Absolutely Free. "Let's Make the Water Turn Black," "The Idiot Bastard Son" and several others are well into the Absolutely Free groove, which could well be called the only tenable contemporary approach to the musical comedy idiom. Beside these, and the electronic things, we have one sterling example of Zappa's writing in the old-time rock idiom – "What's The Ugliest Part of Your Body." The juxtaposition of 1968 ideas to 1954 music is absolutely perfect.

The purely instrumental (meaning guitars, bass, drums) aspect of the Mothers' music is less in evidence on this album than on its two predecessors, both of which had a fair bit of jamming and soloing. Save for an amazing flash of Clapton at the beginning, guitar is mostly used for rhythm only. But Roy Estrada's bass and the double drums (Billy Mundi and Jimmy Carl Black) are with us fairly constantly, and are fairly constantly fantastic. "Flower Punk" (a burlesque of "Hey Joe") has them cutting some really hairy rhythms just like 1 2 3.

The voices also go through some changes. Mostly speed changes. About half the time, they are sped up in various degrees, as part of the whole electronic circus. In fact, there is for my taste just a taste too much of speeded-up vocal sound. The Donald Duck voices certainly make a point, but they satirize more eloquently when the little nuances can be heard at regular speed.

In the right circumstances, the first hearing of this album could well be the most profound record-listening experience a person has ever had. In a day when the term is tossed around very lightly, this album will assuredly and genuinely "blow your mind." The long-range effects, however, may not be quite as strong, for the Mothers depend an awful lot on shock value, and after twenty listenings there isn't so much shock value any more. The Beatles, and a lot of groups who couldn't hold a candle to Zappa for pure genius, do settle down in your mind much better with repeated hearings. There is much in rock music that is essential, that the Mothers do not, cannot, do not attempt to offer. But at the forefront of total creativity they stand alone.

1. Barret Hansen aka Dr. Demento contributed to Rolling Stone in 1968-1969. This is his first article in Rolling Stone.

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