Frank Zappa occupies an uneasy place in the pop canon. On the one hand, he’s proven to be an influence on everyone from John Zorn to Kool Keith; on the other, his work—especially in its later years—has a tendency to devolve into crude, unfunny in-jokes or self-important experimentation for the sake of it. Beyond that, you often got the sense that he thought himself too good for pop music. Between the abrasive musique concrete of his early years and the spun-out classical that dominated his later ones, Zappa often seemed like he was writing music solely for his own enjoyment—something that can be a little hard to get past, even for people who claim to love every minute of “Revolution 9.” Even at its poppiest, Zappa’s music is still incredibly short on emotional resonance; you’d probably hate to hear the fates of most of the characters in his songs, if he put any effort into getting you to care about them. It’s probably not a coincidence that his most celebrated song, “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” is almost entirely instrumental. And as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s often an underlying sense in Zappa’s music of being talked down to—that the message comes first and foremost, and that it’s really more important to educate you than entertain you.
Keeping all of the above in mind, why would you want to listen to Frank Zappa?
For starters, his arrogance was (at least during his Mothers of Invention years) largely justified; there were simply no other pop artists at the time doing what he was doing. At their tightest, Zappa’s songs had all the immediacy and catchiness of the very best ad jingles, with lyrics that straddled the line between thought-provoking and just plain ugly. And nowhere is this dynamic better demonstrated than on the Mothers’ third studio album, We’re Only In It For The Money.
Nowadays, the aspect of this album most widely remembered is what it’s mocking: hippies, drug culture, manufactured rebellion, and various bands Zappa perceived to be sellouts. It does indeed go after these targets, fairly mercilessly (“Flower Punk,” in particular, takes shots at just about the entire hippie movement) but to reduce it to a half-hour piss-taking is to do the album a massive disservice. There are moments of genuine social consciousness here, and while they’re all too tongue-in-cheek to connect in the way truly great protest songs do, they can, at the very least, give the listener pause. Just look at some of the lyrics from “Mom & Dad”:
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.
All this two years before the Kent State shootings. Overall, the album’s first half is where the majority of the hippie-bashing occurs—sometimes literally, as on the mass-internment dystopia of “Concentration Moon”:
Smash every creep in the face with a rock.
In contrast, the second half is largely a celebration of what Zappa viewed as the true counterculturals. Perhaps “celebration” is the wrong word, but he certainly treats his assorted freaks with more affection than the pseudo-bohemians of Side A. Even “The Idiot Bastard Son” seems to feel at least a little pity for its titular character, “abandoned to perish in back of a car.”
We’re Only In It For The Money ends on an unsettling note: the one-two punch of “Mother People,” in which the “other” people’s aggressions and anger finally boil to the surface, and “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a wordless six-minute sonic collage that sounds like Rubber Johnny’s death spasms. Zappa recommends accompanying it with the Franz Kafka story “In The Penal Colony”—perhaps just to drive the album’s consistently underlying sense of despair home.
Now, all this is not to say that the album avoids some of Zappa’s later-career pitfalls entirely—“Harry, You’re A Beast,” exhibits the kind of juvenile shock tactics Zappa would too often devolve into with his ‘70s output, and this lapse in taste is by no means an isolated occurrence. Overall, though, the lyrics here are probably the most focused and conceptual (not to mention grounded) of any of his albums, with or without the Mothers.
At times, Money can come across as mean-spirited. After all, it’s one thing to call the establishment phony; it’s quite another to accuse the stoned dropout rock n’ roller by the side of the road of the same. After all, if he’s not authentic, who is? And that’s the crux of why the album works: through the music here, Zappa’s providing a genuinely experimental alternative. Accusations of phoniness only work when you can prove you’re not the pot calling the kettle black, and Zappa does so time and time again here.
For starters, you’re unlikely to find any other rock albums of the time (excepting, perhaps, Joseph Byrd’s various endeavors) that make such prominent use of electronics. This is most prominent on the more experimental tracks, such as “Are You Hung Up?” or “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” but electronics are present throughout, either as segues from song to song, or acting a instruments in their own right. This isn’t Lumpy Gravy or Uncle Meat, mind you; Zappa’s classical instincts still largely play second fiddle to simply crafting catchy pop melodies. And does he ever—the songs are a wonderful kaleidoscope of pastiches, with the Mothers trying on styles like wigs—the wackier the better. From the jazzy, urban flavor of “Who Needs The Peace Corps,” to the doo-wop stylings of the two-part “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” to the comically-euphoric patter of “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black,” We’re Only In It For The Money’s music is consistently colorful and energetic.
Still, this is the one area in which those Zappa is satirizing have a leg up on him: his engineering and editing is genuinely disorienting, even today, but the actual songs can’t hope to hold up to what the Beatles, or even the United States of America, were doing at the same time. They’re all enjoyable enough, in their own way, but this is one of Zappa’s albums in which the experimentalism side outshines the pop.
Musically, We’re Only In It For The Money holds up quite well; lyrically, less so, but more because of the topics chosen than the attitudes expressed. Still, if you can look past some of its more dated aspects, you’ll find one of the most forward-thinking albums of a time period not short on innovators. Zappa would go on, after leaving the Mothers of Invention, to produce music that was more extreme, and songs that stood better on their own legs, but Money is perhaps the best reconciliation of those two sides—the composer and the pop artist—that he ever produced.
Essential Listening: Absolutely Free, Flower Punk, Mother People