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Fifty Year Friday: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention; United States of America

Zappa WOIIFTM_

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: We’re Only in It for the Money

In the summer of 1969 my family drove up to the San Francisco to take a cruise to Alaska on the Princess Cruise Line Ship,  MS Italia, and visited with my Aunt and then dropped me off for most of the day to visit with my cousin who was rooming with two or three other college students.  As typical, there the living room was the shared area, and it was well-stocked with a stereo system and dozens of LPs.  Several of them were recent recordings of Baroque music, this being the era of the baroque revival where driving around San Francisco one can find multiple FM stations playing mostly baroque music with works of not only J.S. Bach and Telemann, but seemingly dozens of Italian Baroque composers with names like Torelli, Tartini, Tortellini, Samartini, Scarlatti, Spumoni,  and on and on. So though my natural instinct was to dive into the treasures of Baroque music stacked around the stereo and against the sides of the speakers, my attention was redirected by an album that looked like Sgt. Peppers, but clearly was not.

“My roommate is a big Frank Zappa fan”, explained my cousin. “He’s got all the albums.”

That is, all the albums up to the summer of 1969.  And so I started with “We’re Only In It For the Money”, intrigued and yet mostly thrown off balance for much of side one and, to a lesser extent side two, but comforted by having the lyrics printed on the back.   Then putting on “Reuben and the Jets”, I was even more puzzled, abandoning it at the end of the first side, going on to the next Zappa album, and then ultimately shifting to one of the many Baroque albums I had initially neglected.

A few weeks later, during my first semester in college, I was able to explore Zappa’s early catalog at my own pace, and appreciated better the musicianship, music, and unconventional point of view, though not particularly embracing the sarcastically, disparaging tone and the interspersed droppings of scatology that were as much a Zappa trademark as the predictably unpredictable musical discontinuity and divergent shifts. I would not become a Zappa fan until Hot Rats, but was still able to enjoy and laugh at these early albums, particularly Freak Out, Absolutely Free, and We’re Only it For the Money. 

So Fifty Years later, I am not yet ready pronounce, We’re Only it For the Money as a masterpiece of Western music, but can unequivocally state that it is a work of genius and something everyone should hear, if not just for purely musical reasons, for both musical and historical purposes.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Frank Zappa.

Side One

#

Title

Length

1.

Are You Hung Up?

1:23

2.

Who Needs the Peace Corps?

2:34

3.

“Concentration Moon”

2:22

4.

“Mom & Dad”

2:16

5.

“Telephone Conversation”

0:48

6.

“Bow Tie Daddy”

0:33

7.

“Harry, You’re a Beast”

1:22

8.

What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?

1:03

9.

Absolutely Free

3:24

10.

“Flower Punk[11]

3:03

11.

“Hot Poop”

0:26

Side Two

 #

Title

Length

1.

“Nasal Retentive Calliope Music”

2:03

2.

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black

2:01

3.

“The Idiot Bastard Son”

3:18

4.

“Lonely Little Girl” (“It’s His Voice on the Radio”)

1:09

5.

Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance

1:35

6.

“What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (Reprise)”

0:57

7.

“Mother People”

2:32

8.

“The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny”

6:25

Total length:

39:15

united states of america

The United States of America: The United States of America

Two days after We’re Only in It for the Money was released on March, 4, 1968, another unconventional and relatively radical rock album was released, the work of Joseph Byrd, other band members including vocalist Dorthy Moskowitz, and producer David Robinson.

I first heard this band in my first semester in college in 1973 as part of Music History 251, when the track “Garden of Earthly Delights” was played on the classroom’s barely adequate stereo as part of the listening example included in the course workbook. I was impressed but when looking for that record that weekend could not find it in even the larger chain record stores and so forgot about it until years later when it became available again through reissue.

The first track, “The American Metaphysical Circus”, opens up much in the spirit of Charles Ives with competing marching bands, a piano playing “At a Georgia Camp Meeting” and a calliope.  But going beyond Ives is the electronic effects — no Moog synthesizer, this was beyond the financial means of the group — but creatively generated effects from more basic sound wave generation equipment.

More obvious than the Ives’ influence here, is the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers’ influence.  The lyrics of that first track hearkens back to “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” — at least in the first verse:

“At precisely 8:05, 
Doctor Frederick von Meyer
Will attempt his famous dive
Through a solid sheet of luminescent fire.”

However as the song progresses the lyrics darken:

“In the center of the ring
They are torturing a bear
And although he cannot sing
They can make him whistle Londonderry Air”

And then political:

“And the price is right
The cost of one admission is your mind.

“We shall shortly institute
A syncopation of fear
While it’s painful, it will suit
Many customers whose appetites are queer.”

And such goes much of the album with decidedly left-wing, if not communist-inspired viewpoints (one track is titled “Love Song for the Dead Ché”), embedded into adventurous, well-crafted music.   This album, the group’s only offering (they broke up shortly after the release) is sometimes mentioned as a forerunner to progressive rock. For anyone interested in building up a collection of more exploratory and ambitious 1968 “rock” music, it is worth the trouble to track this album down — and it is a suitable companion for We’re Only in It for the Money next time you have ninety minutes set aside for some uninterrupted listening of some of the more progressive and unusual music from 1968.

Side One

Title

Length

1.

“The American Metaphysical Circus” (Joseph Byrd)

4:56

2.

Hard Coming Love” (Byrd, Dorothy Moskowitz)

4:41

3.

“Cloud Song” (Byrd, Moskowitz)

3:18

4.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Byrd, Moskowitz)

2:39

5.

“I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar”

(Byrd, Moskowitz)

3:51

Side Two

Title

Length

6.

“Where Is Yesterday” (Gordon Marron, Ed Bogas, Moskowitz)

3:08

7.

“Coming Down” (Byrd, Moskowitz)

2:37

8.

“Love Song for the Dead Ché” (Byrd)

3:25

9.

“Stranded in Time” (Marron, Bogas)

1:49

10.

“The American Way of Love”

  1. “Metaphor for an Older Man” (Byrd)
  2. “California Good-Time Music” (Byrd)
  3. “Love Is All” (Byrd, Moskowitz, Rand Forbes, Craig Woodson, Marron)”

6:38

Personnel

The band

Additional musicians

  • Ed Bogas – occasional organ, piano, calliope

Technical staff

  • Glen Kolotkin, Arthur Kendy – remixer
  • Richard Durrett – instrument design engineer
  • David Diller – engineer
  • David Rubinson – producer
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