Album review: Frank Zappa – We’re Only in It for the Money

A technical landmark and a vicious piece of satire, but not an easy listen.

Genre: Psychedelic rock/free jazz/doo-wop/avant-garde
Country: United States
Release date: March 4, 1968
Label: Verve (reissued on vinyl by Zappa Records)
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: ZR 3837-1

Frank Zappa – guitars, piano, lead vocals, voiceover, tape effects
Jimmy Carl Black – drums, trumpet, vocals, voiceover
Roy Estrada – bass, vocals
Billy Mundi – drums, vocals
Don Preston – keyboards
Bunk Gardner – woodwinds
Ian Underwood – piano, woodwinds
Euclid James Sherwood – baritone sax, soprano sax


Pamela Zarubica – backing vocals, voiceover (track 5)
Dick Barber – bodily noises
Eric Clapton – voiceover (tracks 1 and 12)
Gary Kellgren – whispering voiceover
Spider Barbour – backing vocals
Dick Kunc – voiceover
Vicki Kelligren – voiceover (track 5)
Ronnie Williams – back-masked voiceover
Sid Sharp – orchestra conductor


Are You Hung Up?



Who Needs the Peace Corps?



Concentration Moon



Mom & Dad



Telephone Conversation



Bow Tie Daddy



Harry, You’re a Beast



What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?



Absolutely Free



Flower Punk



Hot Poop



Nasal Retentive Calliope Music



Let’s Make the Water Turn Black



The Idiot Bastard Son



Lonely Little Girl



Take Your Clothes Off when You Dance



What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (reprise)



Mother People



The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny


Total running time:


Satire in music is a difficult thing to get right. Do it perfectly, and you can combine the cerebral appeal of the written word with the subconscious gut-punch that’s only possible through a direct, emotional medium such as music, but all too often musical satire devolves into kitschy novelty and/or pastiche in the style of Weird Al Yankovic, or even worse, the even kitschier sentimentality of a band like Helloween and their downright embarrassing attempts at humor (has anyone with half a soul ever laughed at “Rise and Fall”?). Even Zappa himself in his later years got it wrong more often than right, frequently resorting to vulgar gross-outs or cheap insults in lieu of any deeper criticism (and criticism is what separates satire from other forms of humor, after all). But if there ever was a time and a milieu that deserved to be taken down a peg (or six, or eight), it was the ‘60s hippie movement, which has spent the past half-century being endlessly memorialized and sentimentalized, even as the actual hippies betrayed everything they once claimed to stand for, becoming the yuppies of the ‘80s and the paranoid, xenophobic Make America Great Again crowd of the present day. If Zappa were still alive to see what has become of “flower power” and its former adherents in the present day, he would not be in the least bit surprised, and his magnum opus We’re Only in It for the Money is the epitaph the hippie movement truly deserved.

As the album cover (originally consigned to the inner gatefold because of nervous record executives, but restored to its rightful place on the front in the Zappa Records reissue) suggests, this album is also something of a satire of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but Sergeant Pepper was itself something of the Beatles’ answer to an earlier Frank Zappa album, 1966’s Freak Out! Zappa was not as impressed by Sergeant Pepper as most other listeners—Freak Out! was a very complex, subversive, and challenging piece of music (and did the whole “concept album” thing first), and even with its exotic instrumentation and song-to-song narrative arc, Sergeant Pepper was very much a ‘60s pop album, full of catchy hooks and gentle, consonant melodies that were designed not to alienate radio listeners. Zappa, being Zappa, didn’t care if his music alienated people, and seemed primarily interested in whether his music pleased him, and felt Sergeant Pepper was insincere and commercial. So, again being Zappa, he decided to respond with an even more bizarre and subversive album that skewered the entire hippie subculture the psychedelic-era Beatles heralded, the rock album format, and the infant form of the concept album that he had previously introduced.

This sort of detachment from others’ desires and expectations can easily lead to disaster, as what happened with “serious music” giving up on the public after World War I and retreating into atonal, academic solipsism, but unlike them, Zappa did not have any pretensions of being some guardian of high culture who had to protect it from the unwashed degenerate hordes, nor did he take himself or his music overly seriously, and We’re Only in It for the Money attacks the targets of its satire predominately for their hubris, their parochialism, and their privilege. Zappa lampooned authorities, but never seemed to want to be one, and however much scorn he had for hippies for whom an escape from the mendicant lifestyle was just a phone call away, he had outright disgust, even hatred, for the authorities arrayed against them and the Stepford Wives society their rebellion, however directionless and confused it was, was directed against.

Another thing Zappa never showed much regard for is genre, and while Zappa and especially his work with the Mothers of Invention is frequently associated with progressive rock, this album not only hews to none of the conventions of the genre, but predates even the earliest recognizable prog albums by a year. Neither is it strictly “psychedelic”, even if it is at the entry level a parody of psychedelic rock. At times it sounds like blues, at times like doo-wop (a style Zappa came back to many times later in his career, with varying degrees of mockery), at other times like atonal modernist classical or French musique concrête, and the music suddenly, frequently, and unpredictably changes these and several other styles, or merges them together. Indeed, it seems to actively resist being predictable or falling into a recognizable pattern for more than a minute or so.

There are nineteen tracks on this album but none of them really constitute a “song” and it would be hard to imagine any of them being played live without major changes. Every track is full of tape edits and splices, with elements being sped up, slowed down, played backwards, dismembered and put back together out of order, and I sometimes wonder if by doing this Zappa was also mocking the rock ideal of authenticity in performance (and unintentionally anticipating the controversy that would surround sampling in hip-hop music twenty years later) and drawing attention to the artifice that comes with recording music. It seems likely that many of these tracks were even put together from elements originally made for different “songs”, and Zappa himself said that the final product could be cut up and put back together in a different order and still function as an album—which perhaps makes it just about the purest concept album ever, as the conceptual relation among the various tracks does not even rely on them flowing in a specific order.

The heavy manipulation of the sounds on this album make it very hard to evaluate from an “audiophile” perspective—how can you say whether this or that instrument sounds like a live performance when nothing does, not even Zappa’s own voice, which half the time is pitch shifted to extend his extremely limited singing range? Like Sergeant Pepper and many other pop and rock albums from the ‘60s (and in contrast to the style of jazz recording popularized by Rudy van Gelder and carried on into the ‘70s and ‘80s by ECM Records), it’s very heavy on the midrange and relatively weak in the treble and bass, which may make it sound muddy to modern ears who expect much more “sparkle” from a rock album. That said, the overall sound is very clean despite the extensive tape molestation, and the instruments are nicely separated both in terms of frequency ranges and their apparent position on the soundstage. The Zappa Records LP (pressed by some tentacle or another of Universal Music Group) sounds very similar to the digital version available on Spotify and likely comes from the same master; thankfully there is little evidence of major dynamic range compression or attempts to “update” the mix for modern tastes. Unlike the Verve original, the intended album art with the brilliant Sergeant Pepper parody collage is now on the front with the plainer crossdressing band photo moved to the gatefold. The back cover is something of a mess, with small-print black text on a red background and the text spilling over a smaller band photo near the bottom. Many of the lyrics are mostly or entirely illegible, which is not good for such a verbose album.

In 1968 this was probably a pretty bold band photo; in 2019 it feels cheap and vulgar at best.

While Frank Zappa became one of the 1970s’ most (in)famous “musos”, especially with his predilection for long guitar solos, We’re Only in It for the Money has virtually no conspicuous displays of virtuosity. All the musicians are highly proficient, of course, but the way they use their chops is strictly functional, and the parodies of pop rock and doo-wop leave little room for solos, showmanship, or gratuitous complexity. The biggest treat for fans of chops is “Flower Punk”, which is a mockery of the famous blues standard “Hey Joe” (and more specifically hippies’ awkward attempts to imitate Jimi Hendrix’s version), and it sounds 4/4 until you try to count it out, and then it quickly becomes apparent that the meter changes every few bars, giving the impression of lurching, clumsy amateur musicianship while actually being incredibly precise in delivering that lurch just so. The lyrics are a real hoot too, and the lyric “Hey, punk, where you going with those beads around your neck? / I’m going to the shrink so he can help me be a nervous wreck” will certainly resonate with those of us (and there are many) who have sought mental health care only to leave the office with even more questions than we came in with.

One aspect where virtuosity is distinctly not present, however, is the singing, which is almost all Zappa’s own voice (in lead anyway, there are several backing vocalists but none make much of an impression as an individual), and however much of the best processing ‘60s money could buy he put on it—the tape effects are quite a wonder—it can’t cover up how limited and plain his voice is, and his minimal technique. This is especially unfortunate with how hard Zappa leans on humor on this album, because a good comic singer or actor, while not always gifted in the conventional sense, needs a great deal of versatility and flexibility, the ability to inhabit all sorts of different characters and voices as needed to serve the joke. Think of the chameleon-like voice shifting of Mel Blanc or Mike Judge as they switch roles and seemingly become entirely different people entirely, or even Weird Al Yankovic’s command of several different singing styles (indeed, Yankovic, as a singer, often sounds like the sort of sound Zappa was reaching for but couldn’t pull off). Zappa, however, only ever sounded like himself, with a blandly generic American accent, barely adequate pitch control, and a range of maybe an octave and a half. He had the joke-crafting skills to make a great funnyman, but not the voice. The voiceovers come off better in this regard, since there are more people doing them (including no less than Eric Clapton!), and thus more variety.

Lyrically, the best material is front-loaded, with “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” through “Mom and Dad” being brilliant almost all the way through, and keeping their focus on social issues and political satire rather than gross-out imagery. The former acts as sort of an overture for the entire album, introducing the warped melange of musical styles used without going too far out there, and featuring the bluntest and most direct send-ups of hippie culture (“I will love everybody…I will love the police even as they kick the shit out of me on the street”) on the entire album. The latter two focus more on their parents, the so-called “Greatest Generation” who, far from returning from World War II (if they actually went to war; there were plenty of 4Fs and very few women served back then) not as enlightened cosmopolitans full of courage and élan but people who saw the slightest display of nonconformity or eccentricity as a threat, people who became nearly as fascist as the Waffen-SS soldiers they fought in Europe. “Mom and Dad” is as close as Zappa ever really got to being moving, with the main section of the song being a melancholic The Doors pastiche describing American parents’ indifference towards police brutality and oppression, alternating with a more energetic B section that portrays American society itself as being irrational and paranoid bordering on madness (“American way / Threatened by us? / Drag a few creeps away in a bus / American way / Try and explain / Scab of a nation driven insane” ). However ridiculous Zappa might have seen the hippies as being, when the tear gas billowed and the truncheons came down, his sympathies were firmly with them, not the cops. “The Idiot Bastard Son”, later in the album, is in a similar vein, painting a picture of bourgeois white male mediocrity that will seem remarkably familiar to people who have followed the Trump administration or the national disgrace that was Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court—truly we have become a nation ruled by idiot bastard sons, and they are much the same today as they were when Zappa observed them in 1968, right down to the crypto-Nazi fathers.

The “conventional” musical segments are frequently interrupted by musique concrête collages full of tape loops, voiceovers, and sound effects, and while they probably made an impressive demo of what a modern studio could do in the late 1960s (certainly more ambitious than what the Beatles did with the technology), they don’t really work as music, having no apparent direction, narrative, or development and seemingly being thrown together from completely unrelated scraps. They’re at least, for the most part, very short, so blasts of incoherent noise like “Hot Poop” don’t really get a chance to become that annoying. However, this changes with the final track, “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny”. The ending of “Mother People” suggests that the album might end with modernist classical music (as that ending is an outtake from Zappa’s orchestral project from 1967, Lumpy Gravy), but instead it is a noise collage that drags on for over six minutes and doesn’t so much end as just drop dead. The noises don’t have any apparent meaning, overt or hidden, in them, they’re not like the sort of sound collage a hip-hop album from the ‘80s or ‘90s might begin or end on, where the samples are of things like newscasts or snippets of music that are conceptually related to the rest of the album. It’s just noise—crashing, belching, tape artifacts, static, all jumbled together in a homogenous mass. For an album so intent on making a statement, ending it on six minutes of continuous non-statement is just plain jarring.

The other lowlights, though less egregious, are the sex and excrement jokes, especially in “Harry, You’re a Beast” (notable for being perhaps the first time “come” was used in its sexual meaning on a mass-produced record, being censored in some countries for that reason, and nothing else) and “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”, which seems to take enormous delight in boogers (“a marvel to be seen, dysentery green”, so I guess it’s a poop joke too) and farts (of course they’re lit on fire). Fortunately, they’re mostly confined to those two songs, whereas in later albums the excrement, anal sex, and fart jokes would spill out to deluge entire albums with juvenilia even Beavis would have a hard time laughing at, and almost make Robert Christgau’s flippant dismissal of Zappa’s lyrical abilities accurate. “Take Your Clothes off When You Dance”, however, is not one of those “haha SEX” numbers, but instead a moment of genuine hope and optimism from a musician who normally tends towards nihilism, a foretelling of a day when people will be able to cast off their insecurities, prejudices, judgmental attitudes, and superstitious fears and be their most authentic selves without shame. It’s also catchy as hell, with a brilliant principal melody. If you’re the type to sing to yourself out loud, you will probably catch yourself doing it with this song or the equally catchy but less interesting “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” (of course, it’s not any of your naughty bits—it’s your mind).

We’re Only in It for the Money is a difficult and unapproachable listen, and its self-conscious, sometimes didactic satire has always been polarizing. There are few people who “kind of like” a Zappa album, if it doesn’t come across as genius it will probably instead seem utterly insufferable. I can’t help but put many of Zappa’s later works in the “insufferable” category, but when he’s on during this album, he is dead on, and its use of the recording studio itself as an instrument was genuinely avant-garde and pointed the way towards the sampling and looping revolution sparked by hip-hop and electronic music. This is definitely not an album you should buy without hearing first; it is available on just about every major streaming service, but you almost certainly should hear it at least once. It is a piece of musical history, a foundation stone of modern music recording, and a warning to the youth of today to beware of becoming tomorrow’s “plastic mom and dad”, living the same empty lives they castigate their parents for.

Rating: 85%


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