By Will Romano
The Zappa Family Trust has certainly positioned itself as the best entity to identify, propagate and ultimately distribute Zappa material throughout the world. In 2008, it turned its sights on some of the most important and impressive work Zappa ever created, recognizing some milestones.
With all the hoopla surrounding the 40th anniversary of The Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it seems only fitting that the record which mocked it, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In It For the Money, has its own 40th anniversary celebratory send up.
To commemorate this momentous occasion, We’re Only In It For the Money (Zappa’s first full-fledged project as a producer) and Lumpy Gravy (Zappa’s first solo effort), dubbed Phase I and Phase II, respectfully, of Zappa’s grand work (Civilization, Zappa’s final finished composition, was Phase III), the Zappa Family Trust has compiled a 3-CD “audio documentary” titled Lumpy Money. The multi-disc set is stuffed with alternate mixes, outtakes, interview snippets, original mono mixes, and a never-before-released instrumental/orchestral version of “Lumpy Gravy,” the two-part title track composition .
“… [I]n the case of Lumpy Gravy, that album was originally constructed in a certain way,” says Travers, “and because of contract problems with the record company at the time, [there] was delay. During the delay, Frank reworked the record into the master that everybody is familiar with now. But prior to that it was just an orchestral edit, and it had never been released in that manner before. So, now we’re going to make that available.”
“Part of [the reason for this release] was educational, as far as the process of how Frank worked,” says Gail. “I want … music students to have more to listen to in terms of how things developed …”
As offbeat as Lumpy Gravy was and is, We’re Only In It For the Money is arguably unlike any other rock record in music history. It skillfully lances the superficiality of hippie fashions, lifestyle and spirituality (and an emerging feminist philosophy), the hypocrisy of disowning your values to achieve some level of commercial success in the music business, and the hippies’ lack of true vision to change the world for the better. While in some cases it is hard to discern what Zappa’s imagery means, ultimately the record reveals a phoniness about the rebellious attitude and spiritual “insight” espoused by the rank and file in the hippie movement.
“[Zappa] didn’t spare his sword at all,” says Gail. “I don’t mean that he went after everybody, but he just skewered everything that was really stupid.”
“[We’re Only In It For the Money] is quite a statement,” says Travers. “People weren’t ready for it at the time. But, then again, that was always the case with Frank.”
Some consider Sgt. Pepper’s ground zero for the entire progressive rock movement, so it’s fitting that Zappa should deride the record. Ironically, everyone is familiar with the creative competition between The Beatles and The Beach Boys in the mid- and late 1960s. But, whether The Beatles (or anyone else, for that matter) were aware of it or not, they, Brian Wilson and Zappa were caught in a bizarre musical triangle of influences/antagonistic competition. (Throw in the Rolling Stones’ late 1967 effort, Their Satanic Majesties Request, and it gets even stickier and kinkier.)
Zappa even pointed out in an interview, a snippet of which is now immortalized on the four-disc Zappa Records release, The MOFO Project/Object, that he believed The Beatles swiped the idea for the yelping and huffing at the close of “Lovely Rita” from the sonic weirdness splattered all over his 1966 Freak Out! album.
“[We’re Only In It For the Money] is quite a statement,” says Travers. “People weren’t ready for it at the time. But then again that was always the case with Frank.”
Zappa’s influential work simply defied (and continues to defy) categorization. Dubbing it a “progressive rock record” is as inadequate as unimaginative. The collage of sound, musical styles and sharp edits demonstrate that the composer/producer is not curtailing his venom for the sake of political correctness. He was telling it like it was, or, at least, as he saw it.
“Both [We’re Only In It For the Money, Lumpy Gravy] were worked on at the same time, and Frank [considered] both of those records as part of his master work,” says Travers.
Nevertheless, Sgt. Pepper’s and We’re Only In It For the Money were both put-ons in their own ways. But while the former glorified the hippie culture, the latter picked it apart. (The Beatles attempted to play a role, literally wearing military/bandsmen’s garb and promoting a kind of trendy Carnaby Street fashion façade. Zappa and the Mothers did, too, but the vision they promoted of themselves was of a freakish, burlesque, ragtag band of eccentrics with enough low-profile latitude to play devil’s advocate.)
Simply put, The Beatles were compromised poster boys for the psychedelic movement, and they knew it. Certainly, Eastern musical and mystical flourishes (ie. “Within You Without You”) and experimentation, musical or otherwise, abound. But, The Beatles were as much outsiders as pioneers of psychedelia, especially the kind immortalized in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. Ironically, Zappa, too, was an outsider to the West Coast/San Francisco scene, calling out plastic or fake hippies, and hippies of all shapes, smells and hair lengths, who’d sunk to tired, middle-brow philosophizing, bent to the lure of music as commercial commodity and were indifferent to routine drug use.
Musically, We’re Only In It for the Money plays with American musical stereotypes (by using approximations of Dixieland, old-timey/Americana and doo-wop), much in the way Sgt. Pepper’s tapped English and British forms like music hall, fairgrounds motifs and Victorian traditional to frame the Beatles’ masterpiece. Similarly, if Sgt. Pepper’s was the zenith of pop music big-studio production, We’re Only In It For the Money reflected Zappa’s splice-and-dice approach to editing tracks, setting a standard for himself (and other independent record producers everywhere).
“… [Zappa] was amazing at razorblade editing,” says Travers. “Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For the Money were testaments to that. The razor blade was an instrument to him. Believe me. I see those master tapes and see the amount of splices in order to make those compositions. Also, a lot of the [sound] on those records was utilized by using tape speed manipulation and recording at one speed and the playing back at another and then overdubbing on top of it.”
We’re Only In It For the Money concludes with a long, drawn-out piano chord, much in the same way the final “song” (discounting the end loop madness) on Sgt. Pepper’s (“A Day in The Life”) does. It also makes an obvious reference to drug use (again similar to “A Day in the Life”) by featuring what seems to be coughing, deadhead hippies laughing quite dopily amid a haze of what we envision as pot smoke. (Perhaps a Zappa nod and wink to the Beatles regarding the supposed Freak Out!/“Lovely Rita” connection.)
“In this modern era of 70-minute records, that record feels like it’s an hour and change,” says Cholmondeley. “It is only 39 minutes. I think it’s stood the test of time.”
The deeper The Zappa Family Trust digs into the Vault, the more a picture of continuity emerges regarding the composer’s work. In essence, Zappa’s music becomes a kind of guide, a bottomless well of creative ideas that many revisit time and time again, as if Zappa himself continues to walk a path with us into the 21st century.
“There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to release,” says Gail. “We’re going to try to release, minimum five, but possibly eight to 10 projects a year.”
“[Zappa] was working and thinking 24-7,” says Travers. “It wasn’t just on albums. I mean, the guy was working on screenplays, films, cutting his own films in house, and he was always on the road. He was touring constantly. Touring for him was the best way for him to invest in himself when he came home, so he could do the things he wanted to do, which was music. … I don’t know how he had time to do all of it. Maybe it was all of that coffee and cigarettes.”