Saturday, January 19, 2013

We're Only In It For the Money - The Mothers of Invention

We're Only In It For The Money
The Mothers of Invention
Verve V6 5045X

My earliest memory of Frank Zappa comes from Alameda in the San Francisco Bay Area where I was living when I was in the 8th grade.  On my walk home from school, I passed a run down old home that I took for a hippie den of iniquity.  The front door had a big glass panel which had been covered with posters.  One was for the movie "Jimi Hendrix" and the other was a poster of Zappa who I viewed as a creepy weirdo.  I wonder how Frank would have appreciated the irony that I perceived this inveterate mocker of hippiedom as a degenerate hippie himself.  By the time I became interested in Zappa as a musician as opposed to a freak, his classic 1960s records on Verve were out of print and already commanding hefty prices in the used record stores.  I eventually managed to collect them all, but it took awhile because I couldn't afford them at their market value and had to look for bargains.  The first three are my favorites and it is tough to choose which one I like the best.  "Freak Out" is probably the greatest of the trio, but this is the one I play the most.  I also give it the edge over the other two for its "Sgt. Pepper" parody on the gatefold.  The album is constructed as a single flowing suite of music with the songs edited together without pauses and connected by various sound effects and sound bites.  I find the resulting melange of sound and music to be dizzying and exhilarating, truly a landmark in pop music.  Zappa's editing creativity is evident right from the album's opening cut, "Are You Hung Up?", which is a sound collage centered around the title question and the hippie phrase "out of sight."  It is followed by a whispered threat to erase all of Zappa's master tapes, some psychedelic guitar noodling and band member Jimmy Carl Black's announcement, "I'm the Indian of the group" which Zappa evidently found so amusing that he repeated the line in "Concentration Moon" and in the musician credits.  The song introduces one of the themes of the album, mocking hippie shallowness and cliches.  This is even more explicit in the scathing song that follows, "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" which is my favorite track on the album.  The song is an answer song to songs like "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" which hyped "the Summer of Love."  In Zappa's song, phony hippies flock to San Francisco to drop out, get stoned and get the crabs.  "Concentration Moon" introduces Zappa's other big theme, the intolerance and hostility of straight culture and authority figures towards the counter-culture.  In the song, cops kill longhairs or put them in a concentration camp.  In keeping with the collage construction of the album, the song veers back and forth between a slow folky section and a fast paced rocking section with speeded up vocals.  The intolerance theme is also the subject of the brooding "Mom & Dad" which features straight parents defending police brutality towards hippies and alienating their daughter who ends up getting killed by the police for hanging out with "creeps."  "Bow Tie Daddy" also pokes fun at uptight parents.  It starts with a weird telephone conversation before going into an old-timey style tune.  "Harry, You're A Beast" attacks frigid women leading superficial lives.  "What's The Ugliest Part of Your Body?" starts as a slow doo-wop type song before jumping into a rocking section.  The answer to the title question is "your mind" as Zappa again blames the mentality of mainstream parents for their children's alienation from their culture.  There is a brief interlude of classical style piano before Suzy Creamcheese announces that she doesn't do "publicity balling for you anymore."  This line has apparently been censored on some pressings of this album, but it is loud and clear on mine.  "Absolutely Free" is a parody of psychedelic escapism.  It is another one of my favorite songs on the album.  It starts out waltz-like before going psychedelic.  "Flower Punk" uses the melody of "Hey Joe" to assail hippie cliches like going to love-ins to sit in the dirt and play bongos.  The final section features some crazed fantasizing about being a rock star before leading into "Hot Poop" which Zappa describes in his liner notes as the head of the Flower Punk exploding after an overdose of STP.  In actuality it consists of a censored verse from "Mother People" played backwards followed by some sort of electronic burping sound.  In case you are wondering about the censored verse, it goes "better look around before you say you don't care, shut your mouth about the length of my hair, how would you survive, if you were alive, shitty little person."  It is supposed to be "shut your fucking mouth" but the word has been edited out.  Too bad the verse was removed, it would have made "Mother People" a stronger song.  Side two opens with "Nasal Retentive Calliope Music" which consists of a bunch of sound effects, a sound bite from Eric Clapton and some surf music. "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" is a disgusting portrait of some teenage weirdos out by San Bernardino.  Zappa begins the song by claiming that it is really true and in his autobiography he elaborates on this.  In his book he also complains that MGM censored the line "Mama with her apron and her pad" but it is present on my pressing of the album.  The song is about a pair of brothers who smear snot on their windows, light their farts and collect their urine in jars.  The song is gross, the story in the book is even grosser.  Zappa's juvenile delight in aberrant human behavior (which would only get worse as his career progressed) is the one element that makes me question him as a major artist.  The tale of these creepy brothers continues in "The Idiot Bastard Son" in which they rescue the title character and raise him to "enter the world of liars and cheaters and people like you."  The next song is listed as "Lonely Little Girl" on the record label but as "It's His Voice On the Radio" on the lyric sheet.  It's about another daughter alienated by her parents.  "Take Your Clothes off When You Dance" describes a world where people are free and not judged on their appearance.  The song pokes fun at hippie fashion but otherwise seems to be sincere in its utopian sentiments.  It is a catchy song, if you took away the speeded up vocals and sound effects, you can almost imagine it as a commercial single.  "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body" is briefly reprised before the group launches into the propulsive "Mother People" which is a celebration of non-conformity.  The album concludes with "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny."  It is an instrumental but in his liner notes Zappa claims that the song is inspired by Kafka's "In the Penal Colony."  Zappa invites the listener to imagine being an inmate in a non-conformist concentration camp in California, "Camp Reagan," and being punished by the torture device in the Kafka story.  I don't perceive that at all, I hear some Edgar Varese inspired symphonic music mixed with a bunch of sound effects and goofy speeded up laughter.  It sounds a lot like "Lumpy Gravy" and originates from the same sessions that produced that album.  It is an extraordinary finish to an extraordinary album.  Pop music just doesn't get any more challenging or stimulating than this.  You could argue that the album's themes are dated, but having grown up around hippies it still strikes a chord with me and as far as I'm concerned non-conformity and intolerance are just as relevant today as they were back in 1968.  Also I think Zappa's skewering of the commodification and exploitation of youth culture is probably an even bigger issue now, than it was in the 1960s.  I never get tired of this album and consider it is one of the great albums of rock history.  Recommended to people who think hippies were kind of dumb but not as dumb as the mainstream culture they were rebelling against.  

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