The Mothers of Invention – “We’re Only In It for the Money” (1968)

September 2, 2008 at 11:38 pm (Frank Zappa, Music, Reviews & Articles)

Chris Federico wrote this as part of a larger online-only book called Zappology that he was apparently writing a few years ago, and posting new chapters online as he completed them. I am not sure if he ever finished writing it. This is the “chapter” on The Mothers’ concept album We’re Only In It for the Money. I hope he doesn’t mind me posting this here on my site…

 

The original title of this album was Our Man in Nirvana. Frank planned on interspersing Mothers music with monologues from the late, controversial comedian Lenny Bruce’s Berkeley concert.

“Bow-Tie Daddy” was one of the first originals intended as recorded Mothers material. It was written during the same late-1965 period as “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” “Who Are the Brain Police?” and “Oh, No” (at that time called “Oh, No — I Don’t Believe It”). Zappa’s memory of writing the latter at that time calls into question the popular theory that it was a response to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” which wouldn’t be recorded until the summer of 1967. It was more likely a reaction to emerging trends in the rhetoric of youth.

The only things about Money that distinctly parody Sgt. Pepper are the introduction to the drummer after the first song, the reprise of “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?”, the piano-note conclusion of the final song, the cut-out sheet (which includes a photo of engineer Gary Kellgren), and the covers. The inner gatefold, which was used as the outer for many years due to MGM’s paranoia about possible litigation from EMI (the Beatles’ record company) — a subject that delayed Money’s release until the autumn of 1968 — shows the Mothers dressed in drag, to replace the pretentious Victorian style that was fashionable in the late ‘60s (mainly in London and San Francisco). Under the Beatles’ libretto, the whole band faces forward except Paul McCartney; below Zappa’s lyrics, the Mothers invert the idea and all show their backs except Motorhead, who at this time is merely the road manager and occasional sax player (he’ll be more prominent on Uncle Meat).

While “hung up” is a suitable phrase with which to kick off an album that frequently mocks trend-led kids, it also refers to the taped phone conversation later on the album, as well as Madge, who appears here in “Harry, You’re a Beast,” but who was “on the phone” in “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” on Absolutely Free.

Gary is the one whispering and enjoying the effect of the reverb on his voice. The inverted drummer lays off his backward pedal, sticks his head into the foreward presentation like a kid on a dare, and says “Hi, boys and girls! I’m Jimmy Carl Black! I’m the Indian of the group!”. This is a spoof on the introduction of drummer Ringo Starr as Billy Shears, heard just after Sgt. Pepper’s own opening song. Jimmy returns during “Concentration Moon,” but his wording’s slightly different: “Hi, boys and girls! I’m Jimmy Carl Black, and I’m the Indian of the group!”.

One major bit of mockery in “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” centers on the hippie who thinks he’s a gypsy, but who also says he’s on his own; gypsies are people who always travel together. The statement “Oh, my hair’s getting good in the back” recalls a similar comment made on Lumpy Gravy. Frank had actually heard some kid say this in Sacramento. The line “I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street” was censored by MGM on early pressings of the record. Halfway through “Concentration Moon,” Gary’s heard again; what was censored from all but the earliest pressings was his last line: “I get to work with the Velvet Underground, which is as shitty a group as Frank Zappa’s group.” What’s funny about this is that although the Mothers and their label-mates the VU played many shows together, they disliked each other and made no secret of it.

A phone rings after “Mom & Dad,” and we hear: “Operator. Hold for a minute, please.” An edit instantly brings us past the wait, and Frank is heard giving the operator a number. He hands the phone over to Pamela Zarubica, who tells Frank about a man in town who might be trying to kill him, as she waits for Vicki, her half-sister, to pick up on the other end. She’s then heard trying to quell Vicki’s fears about Pam’s father getting the FBI after her for withholding information on Pam’s whereabouts.

The nervously fast “Don’t come in me, in me” lines from “Harry, You’re a Beast” were censored from early pressings of the album, and played in reverse on later copies (although retaining the rise in pitch and the unaffected words “in me”). The 1986 reissue finally saw the four measures played completely forward. The melody in this section of the song was repeated instrumentally in “The Orange County Lumber Truck,” heard first on Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970).

The voice that says, “I don’t do publicity balling for you anymore,” interjected just after the introduction to “Absolutely Free,” is Pamela’s. This, as well, was omitted from some early pressings by the record company. “The first word in this song is ‘discorporate,’” Frank says in his “poetic hippie” style from the end of “Who Needs the Peace Corps?”. “It means to leave your body.” He’s being a smart-ass, since “discorporate” is made to indicate freeing oneself from corporations, in the actual lyrics (“Escape from the weight of your corporate logo”). The lines “You’ll be absolutely free/only if you want to be” are genuine; other lyrics in the song approach this idea, but turn into parodies of “psychedelic” sentiments. The noises often added to ‘60s music just for the sake of including “weirdness” are hilariously lampooned when “BOING!” is exclaimed with heavy echo twice in the song.

The lyrics in “Flower Punk” spoof “Hey, Joe,” made popular by Jimi Hendrix (who’s seen on the album cover, holding a little white girl — Herb Cohen’s daughter Lisa — in front of a Christmas tree and a pope from a Titian painting, in defiance of racism and the traditional religious, American family portrait), but previously recorded by the Leaves — whose former bassist, Jim Pons, has played with the Turtles and will, by 1971, join the Mothers.

Among the exclamations heard at the end of “Flower Punk” is “Leave my nose alone, please,” which will be used as the cry of a child in a trench at the end of “Drafted Again” on You Are What You Is (1981).

Most copies of the record (and the 1995 CD, which returns to the ’68 master) omit a verse from “Mother People,” including it backward after “Flower Punk,” the closing song on the original Side 1, under the title “Hot Poop” (to mimic the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper inner-groove gibberish). The verse is excised because of the line “Shut your fuckin’ mouth about the length of my hair.” It’s only heard where it belongs on the ‘86 CD. Roadie Dick Barber’s snork caps off the backward part (and the album’s first half). The name “Hot Poop” predicts the album title Hot Shit; the second word will be changed by Frank to a similar exclamation of distress — “Rats” — in the interest of avoiding censorship, which has probably been the impetus behind removing and playing backward the “Mother People” verse. (Christine Frka will be seen emerging from a sewer on the Hot Rats cover anyway, emulating an actual rat.) In place of the omitted verse on the applicable versions of the album, a beautiful segment of orchestral music from the end of Lumpy Gravy’s first half is inserted, via a needle-zipping sound.

Cream guitarist Eric Clapton is the person asking, from inside the piano at Apostolic during the Lumpy Gravy sessions, “Are you hung up?”; he’s also the one giggling at the beginning of “Nasal-Retentive Calliope Music,” and joking about seeing god. Eric told Frank that he wanted to imitate Eric Burdon (of the Animals) being high on LSD. The snippet of surf music during this piece comes from Frank’s Studio Z days in Cucamonga (it’s the beginning of the Zappa-produced 1964 song “Heavies” by the Rotations, which has a fitting enough title, considering this album’s setting).

Frank has often called “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” a “folk song.” It’s about Ronnie and Kenny Williams, Frank’s old friends. Dink was their father’s actual nickname. The lines “I still remember mama with her apron and her pad/feeding all the boys at Ed’s Cafe,” a reference to the boys’ mother, was censored from early pressings, because some twisted schmuck at MGM thought that the lady in the song was feeding the customers her sanitary napkins. The tune ends with a click, followed by an old recording of Ronnie talking like a DJ: “This would be a little bit of vocal teenage heaven right here on Earth!” His bluesy scatting, originally recorded to Frank’s guitar accompaniment in the Williams’ living room, is then heard backward. The voice was heard normally as one of the animals at the beginning of Lumpy Gravy’s second half. (For more on the Williams brothers and this song, see the Lumpy Gravy section.)

“The Idiot Bastard Son” is about a kid born to parents who don’t care about him; the father turns out to be one of the Nazi-like politicians in “Plastic People” on Absolutely Free, and the mother’s a hooker. The Williams brothers wind up “raising” the bastard (he’s an incarnation of their combined characteristics) and stashing him away in a jar. This most likely refers to one of the mason jars into which the siblings and their friends urinated while playing poker in the Williams’ garage, the bastard being correlated with “Kenny’s little creatures on display” from the prior song — the tadpole-like things found in the urine after it had all been ceremoniously dumped into a big crock pot, which had then been covered with a board and left to sit for a long time.

The backward voices amid the cacophony halfway through the song are saying “Uh-oh!” and “You showed ‘em!”. One of the normal voices predicts the Mothers’ cover of “WPLJ” (“White Port and Lemon Juice”) on Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Ronnie’s scatting is heard backward again, and an even more sped-up voice than the others comes out of the crowd and reacts to the kid: “Very strange.” The 1974 song “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” heard on the 1979 album Sleep Dirt (and on 1977’s Läther, once it’s finally released in ‘96), will have as its main character a pig who talks in a high voice like the one saying “Very strange” here. Greggery will remark that the local kids and their outdoor parties are “very strange.”

The alternate title of “Lonely Little Girl” is “It’s His Voice on the Radio,” as can be read on the original Verve label (and in the libretto).

“Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” was originally an instrumental Studio Z tune called “Never on Sunday.” (This wasn’t the same recording as the instrumental version that closed Lumpy Gravy.)

Ronnie’s the one growling, “Do it again! Do it again!” after the “Ugliest” reprise and Dick Barber’s snork. A ticking reprise of the reversed drum pedaling at the album’s opening is heard just before “Mother People” starts.

As Frank’s response to the armageddon that concludes “A Day in the Life” on Sgt. Pepper, his own closing piece, “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny” (named after the small, circular wind-hole found in place of genitalia on the common toy doll), offers its own final, sustained note, but it’s delivered differently. The lone piano note (as opposed to the Beatles’ majestic chord) fades in, thanks to backward reverb, and is then made to sound as if it were played just before the tape recorder’s been turned on; it then undulates from speaker to speaker as it fades.

After winning back his old Verve tapes in court, Frank wished to digitally remaster the early albums for release on CD. The tapes had not been stored properly, however. The two-channel master of the Money album had been ruined; it was necessary to return to the four, eight or twelve separate tracks (it was a song-by-song case) and completely reconstruct the master, which involved positioning the instruments in the mix all over again, not to mention redoing the countless edits. Since this task would have to be undertaken anyway, Frank decided to replace the drums and bass with new parts played by Chad Wackerman and Arthur Barrow. It was an attractive idea to him in any case, as he’d never been crazy about the sound of the original rhythm section; the drums had been mixed in mono, due to the limited amount of separate tracks. He was now able to get an excellent stereo drum sound in his own basement studio, and saw no reason why albums from the past had to remain trapped in unsatisfactory sonics. Since the studio was already set up for supplanting the rhythm tracks on Money, he liked the idea of doing the same for the old Ruben songs.

As far as Frank was concerned, complaints about the remixes amounted to musically irrelevant fetishism; but he accommodated those listeners in the case of Money, when another two-track master, this one in much better condition, was discovered. The 1995 reissue therefore provided the album as originally heard. Since Frank didn’t touch any of the edits this time, the censored parts unfortunately came along with the original drums and bass. 1985’s Ruben reissue, however, has never been replaced with the original mix. The overall sound, along with the clearer backing vocals and pristine instrument equalization (the acoustic guitar in “Jelly Roll Gum Drop” comes to mind — it’s finally been brought to the forefront), is a hell of a lot better, to this writer’s ears, than on the old Verve LP. Just because an old fan’s uneasy about change doesn’t mean that he should refuse to give the superior remaster a chance. As Ben Watson writes, “Maybe it’s better just to enjoy Art Barrow’s undeniably beautiful playing.” He quotes Frank from William Ruhlman’s 1/27/89 Goldmine interview: “I think that the material should have a chance to sound as good as you can make it sound, given the technical tools that are at your disposal.” Watson adds, “Zappa obviously resents those who ‘freeze’ his back catalogue to its original technical limitations.”

Chris Federico

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