Apr 18, 2024, 06:27AM

What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, We’re Only In It For The Money.

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We’re Only In It For The Money is my favorite album by Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention. It might be my top album of all time, certainly it’s in my Top 10.

I heard it when it came out, in 1968. I used to listen to Top Gear, John Peel’s revelatory radio program on the BBC, on a Sunday afternoon in my Mum’s kitchen, while doing English homework. I have a feeling that the first track I heard was “Mother People.” I bought the LP on the back of that, loved it, hated it, and was confused by it. It has taken the last 56 years to fully appreciate it for what it is: a work of significant historical and cultural importance.

Peel was an early promoter of American West Coast psychedelic music. Not that Zappa was ever psychedelic, but he came within the broad definition of West Coast music, hailing from Los Angeles, and as a satirist and an acute observer of contemporary American society, he mirrored the psychedelic subculture of the time and reflected it back on itself. While everyone else was singing songs in praise of flower power and the San Francisco psychedelic scene, Zappa was excoriating it in the most withering terms:

Who Needs The Peace Corps?

What’s there to live for? Who needs the Peace Corps?
Think I’ll just drop out. I’ll go to Frisco buy a wig and sleep on Owsley’s floor.
Walked passed the wig store. Danced at the Filmore.
I’m completely stoned. I’m hippy and I’m trippy and a gypsy on my own.
I’ll stay a week and get the crabs and take a bus back home.
I’m really just a phony but forgive cos I’m stoned.
Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet,
Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.
Go to San Francisco.

We’re Only In It For The Money is the Mothers’ third album after Freak Out and Absolutely Free and their most accomplished, musically. The previous albums had been essentially theatrical—musical settings for a satirical stage act. Freak Out was said to have influenced the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s in its innovative use of studio techniques. We’re Only In It For The Money is Zappa’s payback. This is made explicit by the cover design, which is an undisguised parody of the Beatles’ most well-known artwork. Every element of the Beatles’ cover is taken and inverted. While the Beatles are shown dressed in their silk Sergeant Pepper uniforms, the Mothers are dressed in women’s clothing, and while the name of the band on the Beatles album is written in flowers, that of the Mothers is in vegetables. The background sky on the Beatles’ cover is bright blue, while the Mothers’ shows a dark, stormy sky cracked by lightning.

The story goes that Zappa approached Paul McCartney about the use of the image, but McCartney was reluctant to talk business and passed him on to his lawyers. Zappa was scathing. He was famously hands-on with every aspect of his work, and left nothing to outside agencies—record companies or lawyers—which is why he retained control over his creative output for most of his career. The resulting negotiations caused a delay in the record’s release, which finally emerged in March 1968, with the gatefold sleeve reversed, so that the picture of the band appeared on the outside, while the front cover design was hidden within.

The title is another reference to the Beatles. It’s Zappa’s statement on the Beatles in particular, and the rock ‘n’ roll industry as a whole. He saw them as cashing in on the hippie subculture, which Zappa loathed, as is made clear in this monologue at the end of the second track:

First I’ll buy some beads, then perhaps a leather band to go around my head, some feathers and bells and a book of Indian lore. I will ask the Chamber of Commerce how to get to Haight Street and smoke an awful lot of dope. I will wander around barefoot. I will have a psychedelic gleam in my eye at all times. I will love everyone. I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street. I will sleep… I will go to a house, that’s what I will do, I will go to a house where there’s a rock & roll band, cos the groups all live together, and I will join a rock & roll band and I will be their road manager, and I will stay there with them and I’ll get the crabs but I won’t care…

The entire first side is a seamless reflection on the culture and mores of late-1960s American society, prophetic and scary. There’s an ongoing storyline, about a future authoritarian state where “creeps” (Zappa’s preferred word for the freak subculture of the time) will be locked up in concentration camps and shot to death in their gatherings.

Concentration Moon

Concentration moon, over the camp in the valley,
Concentration moon, wish I was back in the alley,
With all of my friends still running free,
Hair growing out every hole in me.
American way, how did it start?
Thousands of creeps killed in the park,
American way, try and explain,
Scab of a nation driven insane.
Don’t cry, gotta go by bye, suddenly die die,
Cop kill a creep, pow pow pow.
Concentration moon, over the camp in the valley,
Concentration moon, wish I was back in the alley,
With all of my friends still running free,
Hair growing out every hole in me.
American way, threatened by us, drag a few creeps away in a bus,
American way, prisoner locked, smash every creep in the face with a rock.
Don’t cry, gotta go by bye, suddenly die die,
Cop kill a creep, pow pow pow.

This is before the Kent State shootings of May 1970, when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on anti-Vietnam War protesters, killing four and wounding nine. As he said later: “The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it's profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”

The lyrics on this album are among Zappa’s best. His later work is characterized by a dry cynicism and a disdainful self-confidence. He’s very rarely emotional. We’re Only In It For The Money is the exception to this. Take the next track as an example:

Mom & Dad

Momma, Momma, someone said they made some noise,
The cops have shot some girls and boys.
You’ll sit home and drink all night.
They looked too weird it served them right.
Ever take a minute just to show a real emotion,
In between the moisture cream and velvet facial lotion,
Ever tell your kids you’re glad that they could think
Ever say you love ‘em,
Never let them watch you drink?
People wonder why your daughter looks so sad.
It’s such a drag to have to love a plastic Mom and Dad.
Momma, Momma, your child was killed in the park today,
Shot by the cops as she quietly lay.
By the side of the creep she knew, they killed her too.

I don’t think Zappa ever wrote a more poignant set of lines, which are beautifully carried by the sweetly mournful tune.

The album continues with this attack upon the culture of women in 1960s America:

Harry You’re a Beast

I’m gonna tell you the way it is,
And I’m not gonna be kind or easy
Your whole attitude stinks I say
And the life you lead is completely empty.
You paint your head,
Your mind is dead,
You don’t even know
What I just said.
That’s you, American womanhood.
You’re phoney on top, you’re phony underneath,
You lay in bed and grit your teeth.

“Madge I want your body.”
“Harry get back.”
“Madge it’s not merely physical.”
“Harry you’re a beast.”

The next lines are in reverse on the 1968 version of the album. This was at the insistence of the record company who feared litigation. A later version reveals what the backwards tape actually said:

Don’t come in me, in me, don’t come in me, in me
Don’t come in me, in me, don’t come in me, in me

Madge I… Madge I couldn’t help it, I… doggone it.

My favorite lines are from the eighth track: What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?

What’s the ugliest part of your body?
What’s the ugliest part of your body?
Some say your nose, some say your toes, but I think it’s your mind…
All of your children are poor unfortunate victims of systems beyond their control.
A plague upon your ignorance to the great despair of your ugly life.
Where did Annie go when she went to town,
Who are all those creeps that she brings around?
All of your children are poor unfortunate victims of lies you believe.
A plague upon your ignorance that keeps the young from the truth they deserve.

The sophistication of the music reveals a mastery of his craft. He shows that he’s capable of taking any musical form and not only reproducing it, but improving upon it. This is particularly shown on the next track, Absolutely Free. On first listening, it sounds like a typical hippie pop song of the era, albeit one with some strange lyrical allusions:

The first word in this song is discorporate. It means, to leave your body.
Discorporate and come with me, shifting, drifting, cloudless, starless,
Velvet valleys and a sapphire sea. Wah wah.
Unbind your mind, there is no time to lick your stamps and paste them in,
Discorporate and we will begin. Wah wah.

It’s almost psychedelic, although the reference to licking stamps is obscure. If it’s a parody of the Beatles, then this is clearly a reference to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” with all its visual imagery. But it’s the next line, that gives it away. “Flower power sucks,” says a female voice, before the melody kicks in again. I recommend listening to both tracks back-to-back to get an idea of how intelligent the Mothers’ version of psychedelic sensibility is.

Zappa’s often portrayed as a cynic, but on this album he reveals his real character. There are a number of potential hits. He could’ve cashed in on the flower power scene to make money, but instead chose to do the opposite. He uses his immense musical and compositional skills to parody it, to diminish it, to undermine it, to show it up for the money-making scam it was.

I’ve often wondered what it might’ve been like to listen to this album on LSD. It’s clearly designed with this in mind, but, instead of being transcendental and enlightening, it’s demonic and scary, almost guaranteed to give the listener a bad trip.

His assault upon psychedelic culture continues into the final track on the first side:

Flower Punk

Hey Punk, where you goin' with that flower in your hand?
Hey Punk, where you goin' with that flower in your hand?
Well, I'm goin' up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band.
I'm goin' up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band.
Hey Punk, where you goin' with that button on your shirt?
Hey Punk, where you goin' with that button on your shirt?
I'm goin' to the love-in to sit & play my bongos in the dirt.
Yes, I'm goin' to the love-in to sit & play my bongos in the dirt.
Hey Punk, where you goin' with that hair on your head?
Hey Punk, where you goin' with that hair on your head?
I'm goin' to the dance to get some action, then I'm goin' home to bed.
I'm goin' to the dance to get some action, then I'm goin' home to bed.
Hey Punk, where you goin' with those beads around your neck?
Hey Punk, where you goin' with those beads around your neck?
I'm goin' to the shrink so he can help me be a nervous wreck…

It’s sung to the tune of “Hey Joe,” a hit for Jimi Hendrix (who coincidentally appears on the cover). There’s a funny bit during the fade out. Two competing voices, both of them Zappa—one of them speeded up slightly—reflect upon their hopes in the music industry. On the left you can hear him saying:

It's one of the most exciting things that's ever happened to me. You know, every time I think about how lucky I am to be in the rock & roll industry, it's SO exciting. You know, when I first got into the rock & roll business I could barely even play the changes to this song on my, on my guitar. But now I'm very proficient at it, I can play the guitar, I can strum it rhythmically, I can sing along with my guitar as I strum. I can strum, sing, dance, I can make merry fun all over the stage. And you know, it's so wonderful to... It's wonderful to feel that I'm doing something for the kids, because I know that the kids and their music are where it's at. The youth of America today is so wonderful... And I'm proud to be a part of this gigantic mass deception. I hope she sees me twirling, yes... I hope she sees me dancing and twirling, I will say: "Hello, dolly!" Is the song over?

While on the right:

Boy, this is really exciting, making a rock & roll record. I can't even wait until our record comes out and the teenagers start to buy it. We'll all be rich and famous! When my royalty check comes I think I'm going to buy a Mustang. No, I think I'll... I think I'll get a Corvette. No, I think I'll get a Harley Davidson. No, I don't think I'll buy any of those cars. I think what I will do is I will buy a boat. No, that wouldn't be good either. I think, ah, I'll go into real estate. I think I would like to... I think I would like to buy La Cienega Boulevard. No, that wouldn't do any good. Gee, I wonder if they can see me up here, twirling my tambourine and dancing… Maybe after the show one of the girls who sees me up here, singing and twirling my tambourine and dancing, will like me. And she will come over to me and I will walk... I will walk up to her and I will smile at her and I will impress her and I will say: "Hello, baby, what's a girl like you doing in a place like this? I'm from a rock & roll band, I think we should... " Is the song over?

The second side continues in the same vein. It’s sharp, insightful, witty and scarily real. The last track, “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” reveals his ambition to be recognized as an avant-guard composer in the vein of Edgard Varèse, who he specifically references in the cover notes. He also tells us to read In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka, which tells you something about the scope of his literary allusions.

Zappa went on to have a distinguished career as a modern composer of international renown. He led a variety of musical ensembles under the name of The Mothers of Invention. He liked to surround himself with virtuoso musicians, and wrote highly complex music designed to challenge their abilities. His was a unique voice in 20th-century music, proficient in a number of genres. He wrote orchestral pieces as well as jazz, pop, doo-wop and r’n’b. He made films and was a free speech advocate. His lyrics were always satirical, sometimes scatological, but it’s We’re Only In It For The Money that reveals the man at his best: profound, prophetic and—under the cynical pose—a person of humane convictions.

—Follow Chris Stone on X: @ChrisJamesStone 

  • Very interesting article! I came of age in the late 60s and early 70s in the SoCal beach culture where the confluence of surfing, psychedelics and progressive rock merged. The bands that my friends and I listened to were Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Gentle Giant and several other groups in that vein of music. Frank Zappa for the most part was unknown to us and almost never played on the radio. In the mid 70s my older sister had a boyfriend who was a Frank Zappa aficionado and had all his albums, went to his concerts and always talked of how great Zappa was. At one point he decided to give my sister all of his old Zappa albums many of which were scratched pretty bad from playing them so much and he bought a whole new set of Zappa albums, everything he had recorded to date. My sister didn’t care that much for Zappa’s music and eventually all her Zappa albums made their way into my room and from that point moving forward I have been a huge Zappa fan... We’re Only In It For The Money as well as Freak Out were stand out albums. Overnight Sensation and Apostrophe were personal favorites of mine. I love Frank’s guitar work on those albums and Jack Bruce’s bass playing on Apostrophe is about as good as it gets. Nobody before or since has done anything comparable to what Zappa did, not even close. He was a complete original .

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  • That's interesting because all those bands you list are British. I agree that Frank was a complete original. I think these days modern classical music afficionados acknowledge him as a significant figure in 20th century music. Overnight Sensation and Apostophe are also two of my favourites, along with Hot Rats. I enjoyed writing this piece, and exploring the lyrics more closely than I have before. Lyrically it's definitely his best, at least to these untrained ears.

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