As much as I class myself as a Musical Moron, there is someone very close to me who could not be further from it. My wife has a degree in Music and there is one artist that she has spent a lot of her educational life studying – Frank Zappa. It was a name that rang a distant bell with me but I think I had a recollection of him playing in goal for Italy at some World Cup or other (later discovered to be a confusion caused by a combination of Dino Zoff and Walter Zenga). My wife has tried on a few separate occasions to osmosise the music of Zappa into my consciousness with no great success. We attended a concert by Dweezil (son of) Zappa where I felt like the only person who hadn't been let in on some secret coded language. She created me a playlist that currently exists as whatever the digital equivalent of dusty and mildew-ridden would be. The closest I came is a vague memory of appreciating a song selected by Martin Clunes on Desert Island Discs, about which I remember neither form nor title.
Thus, I tasked my wife this month with picking one album that would give me an introduction to Zappa – Zappa For Dummies, if you will. The album she chose was Zappa's fourth overall and his third with his regular band The Mothers Of Invention – 1968's We're Only In It For The Money. The only clue given for its selection was that it had a Beatles connection so at least I would have a starter point of reference. As someone with a mild interest in parodying album covers, the first thing that struck me about this album was the blatant satirical swipe at Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club that emblazons the front. While The Beatles surrounded themselves with historical 'royalty', Zappa positions himself alongside Lee Harvey Oswald, Barbie and an assortments of other characters – most of whom appear to have had their eyes redacted. The Beatles' technicolour military uniforms have been replaced by dresses and the flowers by vegetables. The clear message for me being “I can be just as talented as you, and I'm not even taking it seriously”.
The overriding theme of We're Only In It For The Money is taking a pop at the hippie culture of the 1960s, at individuals who proclaimed themselves politically aware but only as far as clothing, drug taking and sexual promiscuity. Who Needs The Peace Corps? boldly proclaims 'Go To San Francisco' as an uninspired mantra by which these people can live. Absolutely Free weaves Christmas imagery with hippie rhetoric and floaty sentiments to try and highlight the absurdity of the movement. Flower Punk ends with a 'duelling Zappas' type scenario, one advocating more hippie principles, the other talking of a more capitalist-driven lifestyle but each ending with the same level of self-interest.
Zappa does also reserve some critique for other groups. Mom & Dad and Bow Tie Daddy train the spotlight on the societally desensitized parents who hide in their houses behind drink and face cream. On the flip side, What's The Ugliest Part Of Your Body? condemns parents who force their children to adopt the same stances and opinions as themselves. People regularly describe The Simpsons as 'equal opportunity offenders' and it seems Zappa has somewhat of a similar mentality – unconcerned with sparing feelings, Zappa will pick at his perceived societal holes regardless of the backgrounds of the 'perpetrators'. This is a refreshing outlook considering the hyper-vigilance required for participating in social commentary nowadays.
Were Zappa still alive today, I think society would brand him a bit of a freak. Not because of his Jesus-like lineaments, his alternative fashion choices or his experimental approach to music, but because of his reluctance to drag fame from his endeavours at all costs. Caught in a tidal wave of YouTube ego-massagers, nepotism-driven celebrity children and talentless reality stars, Zappa would stand out as a man intent on making music for music's sake – a man who would release an album even if he knew nobody was listening and we at Musical Moron salute him for that.
We're Only In It For The Money is a marvel to behold. Whilst some of its criticisms may feel era-specific, it is not hard to see the societal equivalents that would get Zappa's back up were he around today. Some of the anti-capitalism protestors to start with – talking about opulence in their pop-up tents, advocating living off the land while drinking a Starbucks macchiato. Musically, the album is diverse, intelligent and with an undeniable talent and complexity. No doubt there are entire books devoted to its various nooks and crannies, its interludes and incidental instrumentals. I won't profess to have enough knowledge to begin the conversation myself. What I will say, despite still not declaring myself a Zappa fanatic, is I can see the appeal. It is music to reach for – the auditory equivalent of picking up Plato's Republic and feeling chuffed at understanding 50% of it. I will definitely listen to this album again and will seek advice from my wife as to which other album would best continue my Zappa education.
During his lifetime, Frank Zappa released a total of 62 albums, including both studio and live records. Since his death from prostate cancer in 1993, a further 43 albums of his work have been issued by the Zappa Family Trust. To date, there have been over 40 tribute albums made by other artists covering his music. He is an artist that will inevitably go down as one of the most prolific and unique in the history of music.
Lyric Of The Month
“I'm hippie and I'm trippy//I'm a gypsy on my own//I'll stay a week and get the crabs//And take the bus back home”
Who Needs The Peace Corps?
No flower power
Zappa calls out the phonies
And their parents too
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