too much typing—since 2003

3.20.2006

discorporate

We're Only In It for the Money is often regarded as one of Frank Zappa's best albums, certainly the best of the releases recorded with the original Mothers (of Invention, as MGM/Verve's necessity had it). And as is well-known among Zappa fans, when the album was initially released on CD, Zappa claimed the original tapes had decayed to the extent that the bass and drums were unusable and needed to be rerecorded. As a result, Zappa hired the bassist and drummer from his then-current touring band (Art Barrow and Chad Wackerman, respectively) and had them redo the bass and drum parts. The problem (as an army of Zappa fanatics loudly proclaimed) was that neither player made any effort to play the sort of bass or drum parts compatible with the rest of the tracks, which were recorded in 1967 and 1968. (This was apparently per Zappa's request.) The results...well, they're generally considered appalling. I'm not going to disagree, particularly - although the much-maligned recording featuring Barrow's and Wackerman's contributions does have some virtues, virtues that unfortunately are lacking in the more authentic later CD issue. (The two are readily distinguishable: the Barrow/Wackerman version pairs Money with Lumpy Gravy. Links to alternate versions of the songs are at the bottom of this entry for the most part.)

The album itself is a brutal slam at some of the more absurdly naive preconceptions and preoccupations of the then-burgeoning psychedelic movement. Although Money parodies Sgt. Pepper structurally and in its notorious packaging, its target is primarily the American take on hippiedom, particularly that associated with San Francisco. (It should be noted that it outdoes Sgt. Pepper in being far more coherent a suite of songs, one that suffers from excerpting - but I'm excerpting anyway.) So after an opening, and rather creepy, sound collage featuring odd sounds and echoed whispering, the album's first track is "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" - which deflates hippie ideals by pointing out their obvious fashion-accessory status and their attraction to any loser looking for a party. "Flower Punk" is a hilarious version of the de rigeur '60s cover song "Hey Joe," here rearranged into a series of spastic 5/8 and 7/8 measures and helium-addled voices. The blathering nonsense (in stereo!) filling out the end of the song is, sadly, just as timely today: I'm sure you can hear much the same thing at any number of "jam band" shows (including the dazed confusion of "is the song over?"). (I've only posted the original version of this track.)

Zappa's cynicism - which feels far more comfortable to us today than the almost unbearable naivete of the hippies - isn't as pervasive as it was to become, however - because the album also contains what may well be the most emotionally honest and moving track Zappa ever recorded, "Mom and Dad." The bridge (even though Zappa's phrasing is full of contemporaneous jargon) cuts directly to the point, and the song's last few lines are among the few moments in a Zappa lyric that exude empathy - even if it does so with a twist both brutal and compassionate: if the speaker adapts the parents' attitude about their daughter's friends - "creeps" - it's clear that they're going to have to recognize their own daughter was regarded exactly the same. (And note that what might have seemed paranoid in 1968 - cops killing hippies - was all too realistic a few years later. A liner note claims that "this whole monstrosity was conceived & executed by Frank Zappa as a result of some unpleasant *premonitions, August through October 1967" - the asterisked note reads "All premonitions continuing to come true.")

Alright, so what about the music? The original version of "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" melds a fairly typical Zappa melody (note the large leaps in triplets in the instrumental interjections) with a descending guitar part (in the phrases at the ends of each verse) that really does seem as if it could have come off a Byrds album or something. Roy Estrada's bass begins on a somewhat odd note, which makes more sense the next time it comes around. Compare the remade version: Barrow's bass borrows the same melody, but he plays it an octave lower, with some fancy-ass slapping (not to be confused with fancy ass-slapping) and a big, round, slightly chorused fretless sound that no way in hell was like any bass part in 1967. Later in the track he introduces some discoid off-beat octave leaps that, again, are utterly unidiomatic - not to mention intrusive and showoff-ish. Wackerman's drumming is a bit less obnoxious(Barrow's bass also seems to be mixed as nearly the lead instrument), but its stereo panning and bright, wet-flesh-patting sound (ah - here's the fancy ass-slapping) are - again - completely era-inappropriate. That is, for 1967: they're all too mid-'80s.

"Mom and Dad" probably has the most radical changes of any song on the two versions of the album. In addition to the bass and drums having been redone, there's a recorder part that's inaudible in the original, and one of Zappa's patented "snorks" (an extended one) that recurs underneath the song's main melodic line. That line in this version is doubled in its second phrase by Barrow's busy bass-playing - which means that part obscures the little descending note at the end of the line. I like the idea of the recorder part - but it seems mixed too high to my ears, plus it's a bit out of pitch, I think - as if an in-tune recorder would be too sentimental. The overall effect of these changes (the snorks in particular) is to disavow the lyric's emotionality - typical of the later Zappa, who became sadly crankish in his later years.

Okay, so the original mix is much preferred. Why, though, are the rest of the instruments noticeably more muddy and indistinct compared to the bassed-out versions? "Mom and Dad" in particular sounds like a cassette recording compared with the redone version. I suspect Zappa's death had a lot to do with this: if he worked on the restoration of the original mix at all, he certainly didn't complete it. Instead, it sounds as if Rykodisc played it safe, and tried to reproduce the original Verve LP mix as best it could. That would include, controversially, restoring the censored content left out on that issue: the Barrow/Wackerman version of the album restores "don't come in me, in me" from "Harry, You're a Beast" and the "shut your fuckin' mouth about the length of my hair" line from "Mother People." Some argue that those two edits were, in fact, pre-emptive on the Verve version and performed by Zappa himself: this seems possible, in that the reversed-out lines in "Harry" are actually switched around so some are backwards, some have phrases switched, and some are forward: far more detail than a company hack would be likely to bother with. Similarly, the "Mother People" edit was actually mentioned on the printed lyric sheet - although, oddly, the word "fuckin'" was still censored even in its reversed version (a/k/a the track "Hot Poop").

So, who knows: maybe some day a restored version will be released with the original performances but sonically cleaned up. Unfortunately, it appears the original master tapes are all but transparent: I would assume that when they were transferred to digital in the mid-'80s, those digital masters were kept - but the fact remains that the other instruments on the '80s version are far clearer than on the '90s reissue.

Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" (original)
Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" (rerecordings)
Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention "Flower Punk" (original)
Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention "Mom and Dad" (original)
Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention "Mom and Dad" (rerecordings)

4 comments:

Joe said...

My first exposure to this album was the Lumpy Gravy 2-fer. When I eventually bought the standalone, I hated the muddiness of the mix, so I returned it and bought the 2-fer. As these songs show, the '67 version is mastered louder than the '84 version. "Peace Corps '67" swings a lot better than the '84 version, though - the drums on '84 are far too high in the mix and since the other instruments are buried, the gestalt of the swing is lost.

Listening to these clips, maybe I need to try the one-fer again...man, what a great album!

Editrix said...

Money holds a special place in my heart (or, some might say, somewhat lower), as it's the record I lost my virginity to.

Jens Carstensen said...

You LOST YOUR VIRGINITY to We're Only In It for the Money ??!! Is ... that ... possible ?

2fs said...

Somehow, I think Frank would approve. Me, I don't recall whether any music was playing (I think my mind was on other things) - if it was, it was probably Paul McCartney & Wings (the girlfriend in question's high-school fave). I just hope it wasn't Billy Joel, her sister's favorite. That can't be good, karmically.