The Squeaky Reel

An outlet for my thoughts on film, music, books, and various off-topic ramblings.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Are you hung up?

"We're involved in kind of a low-key war against apathy. I don't know how you're doing on apathy over there, but we've got a lot of it, boys and girls. A lot of what we do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might -- just for a second -- question enough of their environment to do something about it. As long as they don't feel their environment, they don't worry about it. They're not going to do anything to change it. And something's gotta be done -- before America scarfs up the world and shits on it."
-- Frank Vincent Zappa, England, 1968

This past couple weeks or so, I've been on a pretty serious Zappa bender, thanks to a thread over at the A/V Maniacs Forum. I haven't gone back into the Zappa catalog for a while now (I go through phases), but the act of recommending some of his stuff, and diving into the reasons why I picked this or that, got me going. I guess my tastes on his music are pretty cemented, because I found that my opinions haven't really fluctuated that much. I still prefer the Mothers' early material, and find a goodly-sized chunk of his later work a little too "frat boy" in its humor (though there's no arguing -- in my opinion, of course -- his instrumental talent and the immense control he has in recalling various pieces of his past in orchestrating the "conceptual continuity" approach he mastered at *any* stage of his career). However, even though I've been revisiting a lot of his albums, the one record I've strategically avoided (as it's long been my most-listened-to work of his) still remains my favorite.

We're Only In It For The Money.

While Freak Out! is not only important for being what it is when it was (released in 1966, it is ahead of its time and ahead of trends by about 2-3 years at least), it is almost too conventional in its approach most of the time to live up to the legend created by the Mothers, even with the presence of tracks like "Help, I'm a Rock" or "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet." That's part of its genius, no mistake -- it's a polished attempt to "take on" various musical genres in a full-brunt attack on pop culture and the establishment. Absolutely Free delves head-first into the lunacy hinted at on the previous album (and quickly establishes conceptual continuity by basing its first track, "Plastic People," on a triplet from "Who Are the Brain Police?" from the debut -- "What would you do if the people you knew / Were the plastic that melted / And the chromium, too?"), but in being divided into two distinct oratorios, it loses a bit of the concentrated focus of what was to come.

1968's We're Only In It For The Money found Zappa at his most biting to date, with his focus directed in laser-like precision, and though the music jumps from one place to another with alarming rapidity, it feels like much more of a complete and coherent work than anything he'd done previous. While much has been made of the album's seeming tweak of the nose of hippiedom, it feels like much much more of a statement of outrage than that. From the album cover to the final note, I take it as a severe riposte to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

It's as if Zappa took one look at/listen to the Fab Four's masterpiece and reacted violently. The album seems to be ranting, "How DARE you? You guys, in your fancy marching band outfits, are trying to peddle some kind of bullshit 'love is all you need' message to the kids out there because it sounds like that's what they wanna hear, while people are fucking DYING? Look, boys, you can sing about some lovely little meter maid all you want, but when the cops are out there cracking freaks' heads open with their batons, the kind of utopian, loveable message you're putting out there is gonna wind up getting someone fucking KILLED. You're never going to get people to change the goddamned world by saying that all they need to do is love each other while they sit around on their thumbs waiting to have their heads smashed in. That kind of thinking breeds apathy, kids. You wanna motivate the freaks? Tell 'em what the real poop is. Fuck, you've painted me in this corner now, and the only way out of this is for me to catalog all of the idiocy out there in the REAL WORLD as opposed to this loveable little quirky fantasy realm you guys are dishing out. And you're not going to like what you hear, because the problem isn't just with the guys in charge. Yeah, they're a hassle too, but it's also with the coattail riders your little album is inspiring, the hippie tourist types who think that if they put a wig on and head on over to Haight Street, that they'll be instantly as turned on as the REAL freaks who've been dwelling on the fringes for years. It's with the stupid hard-liners who think that if you're not aesthetically matching every other nonconformist out there, that you're completely unacceptable. Thanks a lot, you guys."

And the album just goes from there. There are slight departures into describing the "true" freaks and how society has impacted them ("Let's Make the Water Turn Black" and "The Idiot Bastard Son"), and the album eventually makes its way around to some summations of optimism despite the state of things at the time. "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" is often described as being a tongue-in-cheek sarcastic take on the "free love" movement, but I don't think this is the case. I think it's actually pretty sincere, especially in that it's paired with "Mother People."

"There will come a time
When everybody who is lonely
Will be free to sing and dance and love.
There will come a time
When every evil that we know
Will be an evil that we can rise above.
Who cares if hair is long or short
Or sprayed or partly grayed?
We know that hair ain't where it's at.
There will come a time
When you won't even be ashamed if you are fat."

Part of the album's theme is intolerance for diversion on both sides of the aisle. True freaks, the album seems to argue, don't care how you look; it's a state of mind and a way of life. Both hippies and the establishment want you to conform to their own ideas of what is aesthetically acceptable. The trick is to not buy into their pigeonholing and to be who you are, loudly. With that in mind, it's hard to take that song as being overtly satirical. It's pretty simple in its meaning. This is reinforced by the bridge between this song and "Mother People," a reprise of the song "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?"

"What's the ugliest
Part of your body?
What's the ugliest
Part of your body?
Some say your nose,
Some say your toes,
But I think it's your mind."

Don't change how you look. Change how you think. Stop buying into either side's arguments and think for yourself. You'll be absolutely free, only if you want to be. "Mother People" follows this, and it's essentially a rallying call:

"We are the other people
We are the other people
We are the other people
You're the other people, too.
Found a way to get to you."

Interspersed with this call for unity among the diverse are questions posed to those who don't "get it." "Do you think that I'm crazy, out of my mind?" "Do you think my pants are too tight? Do you think that I'm creepy?" These are answered by declarations that "I'm another person." Despite how different we all are, we're all other people. There's room for all of us.

...And then the optimism is undercut by "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny." A piece of Musique concrète, the work is meant to be evocative of Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" (and in fact, FZ recommends reading the story before listening to the song), implying that this is where we're headed if things don't change. If minds aren't altered. If America scarfs up the world and shits on it. This refers back to the earlier track "Concentration Moon," which is sung from the perspective of a freak who has been imprisoned for unknown crimes and looks longingly at the night sky:

"Concentration moon,
Over the camp in the valley,
Concentration moon,
Wish I was back in the alley
With all of my friends,
Still roaming free
Hair growing out
Every hole in me...

How did it start?
Thousands of creeps
Killed in the park.
Try and explain:
Scab of a nation
Driven insane.
Don't cry
Gotta go bye-bye
Suddenly die-die

Threatened by US.
Drag a few creeps
Away in a bus.
Prisoner: lock
Smash a few creeps
In the face with a rock..."

A prophetic work, given that it was recorded in '67, and that it basically encapsulates the events of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. But these tensions were boiling across the nation, despite how things were being painted as the "Summer of Love." Zappa's condemnation of the Beatles was somewhat justified, then: he knew better than they did what was going down on the streets. The same ideas are continued on the next song, "Mom & Dad" (which could also be seen as an answer to the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home"):

"Mama! Mama!
Someone said they made some noise;
The cops have shot some girls & boys.
You'll sit home & drink all night;
They looked too weird . . . it served them right

Ever take a minute just to show a real emotion

In between the moisture cream & velvet facial lotion?
Ever tell your kids you're glad that they can think?
Ever say you loved 'em? Ever let 'em watch you drink?
Ever wonder why your daughter looked so sad?
It's such a drag to have to love a plastic Mom & Dad

Mama! Mama!

Your child was killed in the park today
Shot by the cops as she quietly lay
By the side of the creeps she knew . . .
They killed her too."

Yes, it's a little bit of vocal teenage heaven, right here on earth.

We're Ony In It For The Money is an uncompromising work, musically challenging (encompassing -- as was FZ's wont at the time -- doo-wop, psychedelia, blues structures, modern classical, jazz, R&B, and the aforementioned musique concrète), and as socially, politically and emotionally direct as Zappa probably ever got. Others came close, but to me this is his best work in focusing all three aspects at once. And it manages to be funny while doing it. And serve as a prelude to the "Zappa's always listening" motif that keeps cropping up in 200 Motels, with Record Plant co-founder and this album's engineer, Gary Kellgren, whispering constantly about how much he hates working for Zappa and how he knows that FZ's probably listening to every word he says.

The original RykoDisc CD release of this put it on a two-fer CD with Lumpy Gravy, but the album was drastically remixed, with the rhythm section completely re-recorded. As a result, the entire album sounds completely different from its original vinyl release. Numerous effects were replaced, vocal parts were entirely altered, the presence of any number of instruments was changed, etc. It also sounds remarkably cold compared to the vinyl version. I eventually came around to appreciating it as a kind of late-period Zappa reinterpretation of the album, but for listening pleasure, the reissue (using the original 1968 mix -- or as close to it as can be approximated using the surviving source materials) is the way to go.

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