The Zappa Reviews, #3 – We’re Only In It for the Money

In attempting to discuss We’re Only In It for the Money the first problem encountered is the target of the satire. Previously The Mothers had focused on the establishment social and political, but with this record the scope was expanded to include the counterculture of the time: where it had been recipient of a clarion call to action in Freak Out! and was out of but maybe actually became the frame in Absolutely Free, here it is one of the subjects of ridicule. The Mothers had come full circle to find the situation just a little bit different than it was the first time around, and here, in a great panorama of hippies, freaks, police, drugs, psychedelia, stories peculiar to the group and their friends, they once again explore their contemporary surroundings from their own unique perspective. The second problem is the album’s structure, its complex instrumentation, dense production, and the many musique concrète sections which appear in sharp counterpoint to much of the album’s performance music. Though “performance music” is perhaps a misnomer, as the construction is as much if not more of studio than of musician, and this fact of its assembly is among the major links which form the ternary star that is the Lumpy Gravy trilogy. For these reasons I am almost entirely looking at the album as a whole — and, somewhat pretentiously, my own experience in writing the review — rather than song-by-song as I have in previous reviews.

Misnomer too is “counterculture,” for The Mothers remain on good terms with the freaks, that eternal class of creative outsiders who exist somewhere around the margins of society, downtrodden but free. The hippies and flower power are meanwhile viewed as phony, counter to nothing and signifying but another fad. This take on the hippies not as revolution but as cultural fluff was in fact so apposite that songs such as Who Needs the Peace Corps? were soon taken out of The Mothers’ concert repertoire, only reappearing twenty years later on the ill fated 1988 tour. Soon the freaks came under attack from the left and right, they were both hated and feared yet oddly toyed with by the authorities, as police loaded them into buses and dropped them off downtown for what reasons people could guess but none really knew. Spurious and unjust or merely a colossal waste of time, either way it was insulting, a sociopolitical kick in the teeth. Though Zappa also makes explicit reference to Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, a short story about a traveller who visits a penal colony where the breaking of any law is punished by the use of a machine which inscribes the law(s) broken into the flesh of the criminal over the course of a twelve-hour period, in relation to both freaks and hippies. The story is recommended reading in preparation to listen to the album, the listener is instructed to imagine such a machine being used in American concentration camps as a “final solution to the nonconformist (hippy?) problem.” In the album proper this is specifically related to Concentration Moon, where hippies sing a campfire song together reminiscing about their lost freedom and wondering how the situation in which they find themselves came about. It’s a brilliant contrast, the levity of the campfire song sung within a concentration camp.

Each side is encapsulated in musique concrète, a technique of tape manipulation developed in France by Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940s which, while electronic in nature, was differentiated from the developments of Schaeffer’s student Karlheinz Stockhausen, who created elektronische Musik in the early 1950s, by way of source materials. While Schaeffer made use of electronics in the editing and manipulation of actual recorded sound, Stockhausen developed a pure form in which source, technique, and result were all natively electronic. The musique concrète pieces are of varying length and diverse atmospherics, from the mocking imitation of a psychedelic trip Are You Hung Up? to the dense, noisy, and ominous The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny. Like The M.O.I. American Pageant, each side is thus cyclical in a sense, returning this time however not to content but technique.

Among the problems I’m experiencing in writing this review is that of trying at all to understand what I’m writing about. Unlike its predecessors, We’re Only In It for the Money is a dense postmodern collage with many layers to all its aspects, much like Zappa’s solo follow-up Lumpy Gravy. Right now I’m sat here listening to a scratchy old vinyl copy in my bedroom in the vain hope that this will prove to be an educational experience, as opposed to listening to a CD or some rip on my computer, and certainly the 1984 remix with overdubbed bass and drums. This is a very pretentious thing to do, as if the medium is at all relevant to the content of the album in this case, even though this is sometimes a fact with Zappa’s records and one can inadvertently pick up a peculiar version with a different mix, different track order, or even material cuts, all of which occurred at some point with the Ryko releases. Currently, Mom and Dad plays out of my shitty speakers which sit atop two chairs in lieu of proper speaker stands. I am concerned that I am about to delve into some sort of new journalism bullshit by including autobiographical information, describing my surroundings like anyone gives a shit, and possibly just inserting real or invented irrelevant and hardly amusing things in order to spice up the affair. For example, today my dog had another dog’s saliva on his head. Ha ha. The truth is that for all my prevarication I don’t really know what I’m doing this time around. Freak Out! and Absolutely Free were positively straightforward by comparison, which is odd given that in many ways this is easier to listen to than either of those because of its fluid structure, we identify with it because it appears like an organic thing, shifting and adapting on the micro level to create an intricate yet totally coherent macroscopic array of sonic experience. What I’m trying (failing) to talk about is the fact of its omnidirectional focus, like a musical mandala of sorts, three-hundred-and-sixty degrees of spokes pointing every which way, not just thematically but musically, creating the aforementioned panorama. This is something The Mothers had not done before, and arguably never achieved again, although it maintained their previous clarity of vision and unity of themes. It was a massive evolutionary step.

All of which brings us to actually starting the fucking thing, though this announcement doesn’t really make any sense in context as previously I said I would not talk about the album song-by-song. Seriously, how does one go on like this for a thousand words? It’s shameful. But then it’s perhaps true that I should not be so formulaic in my reviews. Mark Cousins says that the critic should aim to create art, and to that I say what is art if it adheres simply to formula, especially when its subject does not? If the review turns out to be more about me than the actual subject, indeed if I am the actual subject, what else is new? When we respond to something, when we try to make sense of something, to look beneath the surface and discover what meaning there may or may not be, we really communicate ourselves: our experience is so much our own that we cannot represent that of anyone else, let alone speak from an objective viewpoint. However, while formula need not be the ground beneath its feet, a review must still discuss the thing it purports to delineate; must attempt to, on its own terms, collect and combine experiential data into a logical sequence of thoughts by which the author’s opinion, based as much in fact as possible, is presented to the reader. If I cannot do that, and presently I have not done it, the review and I will have failed in our goal.

When the album starts, voices, squawks, twinklings, guttural moans and inane chatter come as if up from the void into the ear, introducing the listener to the idea of creation via mixing desk. In 1968 its like had not been heard before in popular music, and the teenagers in their bedrooms who identified with all those simple and sincere songs a couple of years ago now bore witness to the birth of a new musical organism, constructed in tape, acrobatic and full of surreal superimpositions, bounding from point to point in irregular but captivating lines. Zappa was not the first to do this kind of composition, but he was perhaps the first to bring it close to the mainstream, interweaving references of cultural significance into an erstwhile unabashedly abstract and angular contemporary field of music, though as we progress into side two this forthright abstract quality is pushed further and further to the fore, preparing us for Lumpy Gravy. The vitality of magnetic tape is further stated by the utterances of a comically sinister malevolence which plans to erase all of Zappa’s tapes and reduce them to “blank, empty space,” quite literally to destroy the album from the inside. This is possibly a prototypical form of what would become the Central Scrutinizer character, who in Joe’s Garage enforces a total ban on music, as in a later snatch of dialogue we learn of its plan to erase every tape in the world. It is also possibly a personification of deconstruction at this stage in its evolution, but that’s too confusing an idea for a simpleton such as myself, so I will let it go.

We’re Only In It for the Money is Zappa’s first truly great album, he had been good before, but now had total control over the production, where previously it had either been handled by Tom Wilson or as a collaborative effort between the two. It really shows here, as Zappa’s experience with tape and instrumental experimentation come to the fore, the safe production on Freak Out! is nowhere to be seen, and The Mothers themselves almost seem to be background elements. We have already seen that he wished to place himself first since the earliest days, though he acknowledged in interviews that overall it was most definitely a group effort. It is here that we find what many consider to be Zappa’s greatest period. It’s not hard to see why, the very late ’60s were a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity, and also of a perceived seriousness of purpose while remaining playful and inventive, two things which are often considered hard to reconcile in his later work. Zappa himself would later ask the question: does humour belong in music? And he would answer: yes. Many people feel the idea of music being other than a receptacle for triggered emotional responses is too hard to bear, but somehow in these early years Zappa found a sweet spot which he would seldom replicate elsewhere. Of course, his own goal, as with any composer worth their salt, was to always progress, to find new ideas and deliver them in new ways, for music is a living thing and living things are always changing. Zappa’s prolific production rate necessitated a few bum notes here and there, but the truth is, as much as people may not like to admit it, this album is no different to many of those sonic pariahs that were to come farther down the road.

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