A brilliant lampoon of psychedelic pop, We’re Only In It For The Money creates a collage of strange conversations, social criticism, and pop music far too catchy to carry such a heavy message. Best to take a big gulp of air before it starts, because the album’s sensory overload won’t present an opportunity until it’s all over. Frank the cranky genius skewers everything from flower power to conservative America: no one is spared, including The Mothers. That many of the songs work as self-standing pieces is amazing: “Absolutely Free,” “Flower Punk,” “Mother People,” “Bow Tie Daddy” and “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black” have all been separated from this egg without ill effect. It’s all part of a larger theme however, punctuated by internal musings, lapses into dementia, and reprises of earlier material. Some of the pieces are instrumental experiments in noise (“Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny”) that make Todd Rundgren’s studio noodling seem tame by comparison. It’s brazen stuff, all of it, but the standoffish arrangements belie a musical sophistication few were prepared for in 1968. That the album charted as well as it did still amazes me, though the novelty factor must have been huge. In a sense the closest parallel might be the albums of Firesign Theatre, which share the same rambling social commentary and spelunkering into the deepest recesses of strangeness. As a direct response to contemporary music, We’re Only In It For The Money isn’t for everyone. Who cares if The Mothers flip the finger to Jimi Hendrix and the Haight-Ashbury scene, you may wonder. But it’s more than that; this is an open challenge to musicians, an opportunity to push music kicking and screaming out of its comfort zone. Extreme? Of course. But Zappa did nothing by halves, and the world is a whole lot better for it.
A mishmash of musical grotesqueries, or yet another example of Zappa’s calculated dementia as art? I’m not asking you to decide, since Burnt Weeny Sandwich is probably both. It starts off innocently enough with the Cruising-compatible “WPLJ” and closes with another disarming doo-wop send-up in “Valarie,” but it’s what’s in the middle of Burnt Weeny Sandwich that merits attention. Quasi-orchestral lounge music, searing guitar solos, classical jazz, dissonance, deliberate destruction of music’s smooth facade. This is “serious” music filtered through Zappa’s unique sense of humor, iconoclasm on a surprisingly intimate scale. Selections like “Holiday In Berlin, Full Blown” and “Little House I Used To Live In” belong with most of Hot Rats in the hall of great instrumental moments. But where Rats was focused more on jazz/rock fusion, Weeny fuses together the wildly divergent aspects of Frank’s muse into a complex stew (Weasels would repeat this experiment). Underneath the chaotic haze, great ideas are afoot. “Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich” and the brief “Ivor’s Boogie, Phase One” are carefully contrived to combine ugliness and art, the band sounding on the verge of careening off the printed score into noisy oblivion, riveting the listener like a high-speed car chase where we wait breathlessly for the inevitable crash. Not being familiar with Lumpy Gravy or Uncle Meat, the Mothers’ most avant-garde outings to date, I can’t tell you where Burnt Weeny begins and they end. However, according to Zappa’s project/object theory, this clearly belongs to the same object as Weasels Ripped My Flesh and perhaps to Hot Rats as well, forming at least a contiguous trio of orchestral/jazz/rock efforts that put Zappa’s compositional genius to the test. The Flo & Eddie follies effectively ended this chapter, only to have it resurrected by (in part) 200 Motels, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. From these two trios come some of Zappa’s most brilliant and ambitious music, with Burnt Weeny in the top half of that group, and thus one of Zappa’s essential recordings.
Kronomyth 9.0: WEASELS SEIZE HELL BY THE SHORT HAIRS. A collection of live and studio recordings from the “difficult” years of 1967, 1968 and 1969 that didn’t make it onto the proper albums Lumpy Gravy, Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich et al. Frank Zappa makes a meal out of these leftovers; in fact, it’s easy to approach this as the next new Mothers record, since it’s very similar in construction and quality to Burnt Weeny Sandwich. You’ll encounter tantalizing melodies in complex classical/jazz arrangements, avant-garde experiments (e.g., “music” scored for laughter, howls and nose), smart send-ups of contemporary popular music and relatively normal blues/rock songs delivered with fire and precision. In other words, more or less the same fare as Weeny, with the caveat that nothing on Weasels is quite as clever as “Holiday In Berlin” or “Little House I Used To Live In.” In another universe, these might have ended up as outtakes added to the late-century parade of Zappa/Mothers remasters. One can envision “Oh No” as a perfect addendum to We’re Only In It For The Money, if one is inclined to envision such minute details of an alternate future at all (one would think not), or “Didja Get Any Onya” as a detour during Weeny’s “Holiday In Berlin.” Over the long and langorous years, snippets of Weasels have popped up in my mental radio as much as the other Mothers recordings, and I find myself on strange occasions silently mouthing “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” or reconstituting one of its cacophonous passages from dried memory. Weasels does feature a good amount of calculated noise (albeit meticulously scored), which can feel like having your brain poked with a stick for forty minutes if you’re not inclined toward the avant-garde.
That’s right, you heard right, the secret word for tonight is “Mud Shark.” But for this bawdy tale from the not-so-briny shoals of Seattle, Washington alone, this is required listening. Of course, instrumental fans who hunger for something more filling from Fillmore will find it in tracks like “Lonesome Electric Turkey” and the evergreen “Peaches En Regalia.” This live record (one of the last from the Fillmore East if memory serves) is one of my favorites from the Flo & Eddie experiment, showcasing their unique stage presence on the dialogue-driven “Do You Like My New Car?” and cascading into a delirious version of The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” Unlike some of Zappa’s live releases, Fillmore East retains the atmosphere of a live show from beginning to end, with a minimum of post-doctoring and a maximum of spontaneous energy (or as spontaneous as a band playing a tortuous track like “Little House I Used To Live In” can get). Among the other Zappa/Mothers albums out there, Fillmore East reminds me most of the 200 Motels soundtrack, where a similar mix of complicated instrumentals and transcendently strange songs co-existed happily (although I understand that Uncle Meat tasted about the same too). As an oral history of rock stars and the groupies who love them, Fillmore East puts Professors Flo & Eddie at the podium, overshadowing the rest of the band much of the time. Ordinarily, their monkeyshines steal the spotlight from the erstwhile top banana (Frank) and his phenomenal fretwork. But Fillmore East finds a better balance than Just Another Band From L.A., for example, alternating between the profane and the musically profound in a way that satisfies both camps.