Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In the Shadow of Sgt. Pepper: We're Only in it for the Money

Last summer, I wrote in Critics at Large about how The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, a lovely, masterful avant-garde pop confection, also represented a magical retreat from a counter-culture that was on the verge of turning dark and violent. Before that darkness fully overshadowed the utopian spirit of that record, though, many of The Beatles' contemporaries made valiant attempts to duplicate the wizardry of Sgt. Pepper, as if they were trying to decode a secret language. In 1968, for instance, The Zombies ("Time of the Season") matched some of Pepper's technical innovations while adding some rich textures of their own on the exquisite Odyssey and Oracle (which was also recorded, like Pepper, at Abbey Road Studios). The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed (1967) developed precisely in the spirit of Sgt. Pepper. The album, which yielded two hit songs, "Tuesday Afternoon" and "Nights in White Satin," was conceived as a song cycle that spanned an entire day – from sunrise to evening – where every song provided a unique perspective from each member of the group. Days of Future Passed was an evocation of a pastoral mystical innocence worthy of poet William Wordsworth in the age of psychedelia.

The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request

The Rolling Stones, a mere six months after Pepper, would concoct their own psychedelic conceit, Their Satanic Majesties Request, where they abandoned their R&B roots for exotic Indian rhythms, sound collages, and music hall pastiches. But because of their bad boy image, the record felt fake (despite its devious title) with its half-hearted flower power sentiments. There were many other lesser, now forgotten groups, who attempted to capture Sgt. Pepper's lightning in a bottle. One American artist who did respond to the seismic impact of Pepper, but didn't buy into the hippie ethos that blossomed out of The Beatles' landmark recording was Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. This Los Angeles band, who coined themselves "the ugly reminder," may have had long hair but they didn't even come close to resembling the pretty groups sprouting up like flowers in a magical garden.

To paraphrase critic Nik Cohen, The Mothers suggested a band of motorcycle outlaws out to pillage your home and kidnap your daughter – though they were more likely to play her Igor Stravinsky (or maybe "Louie Louie") rather than sexually ravage her. Dan Sullivan in The New York Times once pointed up the significant discrepancy between The Mothers and The Beatles. "The most striking difference between [The Beatles and The Mothers of Invention] is not in their work but in their approach to their work – The Beatles' desire to please an audience versus The Mothers' basic distrust of one." Sgt. Pepper had celebrated the romantic ideal, offering the possibility that love could transcend all of our problems. But Zappa, who had already been railing against the 19th Century Romantic tradition of music, perceived something sinister lurking beneath the flowers, beads, and incense burning. Zappa saw the very concept of flower power evolving into nothing less than a successful fad. So on his 1968 album, We're Only in it for the Money, he decided to go after the fad rather than The Beatles' music. "Sgt. Pepper was okay," Zappa remarked to critic Kurt Loder in 1988. "But the whole aroma of what The Beatles were was something that never caught my fancy. I got the impression from what was going on at the time that they were only in it for the money – and that was a pretty unpopular view to hold."

He may have had a point. Contrary to the more generous ideals attached to the group, The Beatles' career was more often than not preoccupied by the power of money. By 1968, film critic Pauline Kael even shared some of Zappa's distrust when she reviewed the animated film Yellow Submarine. She felt that the problem of commerce undermined The Beatles' image, which by that time, began to change in the wake of all the promotional marketing tie-ins associated with the movie. "Wasn't all this supposed to be what The Beatles were against?" Kael asked. "There's something depressing about seeing yesterday's outlaw idols of the teenagers become a quartet of Pollyannas for the wholesome family trade." Yet, even as early as 1965, when interviewed by Playboy, John Lennon sarcastically remarked that they were moneymakers first and entertainers second. It was this particular aura that Zappa countered on his record.

While We're Only in it for the Money wasn't designed as a savage attack on the band, his parody of the Sgt. Pepper cover was itself a nightmare version of The Beatles' gathering. The Mothers of Invention were all dressed in granny gowns (in perhaps a parody of the mixture of  Barbary Coast and Old West costumery worn in San Francisco's hippie community) while behind them were a cast of outsiders, misfits and assassins. Rather than the bright blue sky above The Beatles, Zappa had lightning and darkness filling the horizon over The Mothers. We're Only in it for the Money was a satirical Kafkaesque portrait of the culture wars. Even though (at least initially) the hippie scene was relatively benign, Zappa deemed that their druggy passivity left them vulnerable to collusion with authoritarian elements. (Zappa saw no irony in the fact that LSD was once used in government sponsored mind-control experiments before it became the popular drug of choice in the Sixties counter-culture.) His skewering of the hippie community was not a reactionary attack on its freakishness, but rather on its tendency toward conformity. Zappa's message for the left-behinds of the Great Society, according to music critic Walter Everett, was to shun the dominant culture and learn to think for themselves.

People's Park 1969.

As music, We're Only in it for the Money is a boldly experimental record, like Pepper, but it is Sgt. Pepper conceived as a Mad Magazine collage. Although Zappa didn't spare the hippie culture on the record, he was no less harsh on the establishment. After lampooning hippie passivity in "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" the next song, "Concentration Moon," with its wickedly hilarious Rudy Vallee-styled arrangement, attacks the police for its blatant brutality toward the hippie community. Singing about an American police force that used firearms to bring dissidents under control might have seemed too paranoid in 1968, but the song was recorded only a couple of years before the tragic shooting and killing of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Furthermore, even earlier than that tragedy, in 1969, a parking lot on the University of California in Berkeley was turned into a "people's park" by anti-war protesters. Governor Ronald Reagan quickly ordered the National Guard to reclaim the park and shoot all resisters. Using saltpeter, instead of bullets, they wounded many protesters and killed one person, James Rector. Later, after the "park" was reclaimed, a number of individuals were arrested, including Robert Scheer of the leftist magazine Ramparts. They were all taken away by bus to an internment camp in Santa Rita where they were detained and violently interrogated for a couple of days (just as hippies were gathered up in Zappa's song to be interrogated at Concentration Moon).

Right after the terror of "Concentration Moon," Zappa brings it all back home on "Mom & Dad." This track continues the story from "Concentration Moon," where a murdered child's parents sit at home drinking while learning that their daughter has been shot dead by the police. In this song, Zappa's own chilling response to The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home," he finally takes the blame away from the hippies, and the cops, and addresses her folks. The drinking parents, hiding behind their appearances, are irrevocably linked to their drug-addled kids. "Zappa...never found his emotions so mixed as when observing all those genuinely idealistic, authentically dumb kids trying to forge something positive out of the plastic catastrophic America they'd inherited," wrote rock critic Dave Marsh in his Rock & Rap Confidential.

"Harry, You're a Beast" became a cogent observation on male/female dynamics in an age that many considered to be the cusp of the Sexual Revolution. Zappa saw nothing of the sort. In "Harry, You're a Beast," Harry and his wife, Madge, live in a sexless marriage until Harry attempts intercourse. As Madge fights him off, borrowing the words of Lenny Bruce from his classic routine "To is a Preposition, Come is a Verb," she cries, "Don't come in me/Don't come in me." When it's obvious that Harry does indeed come in her, the next song, "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" identifies the root of their sexual repression – in the mind. "Flower Punk" is a rewrite of the rock classic, "Hey Joe," where a guy shoots his girlfriend and then escapes to Mexico. But Zappa turns Joe into a hippie with a flower instead of a gun. (He may have been patterned on any number of people who were then sticking flowers in the gun barrels of National Guardsmen.) The character in "Flower Punk," roving from one love-in to another, finds himself consistently looking for any group that will validate his existence. But just as quickly as Zappa goes on the attack, he then uses satire to offer possibilities for true freedom. On "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance," he comically invents alternative strategies for a culture free of repressive sexual and political practices.

The album's final track, "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny," is a tour-de-force audio poem, which mixes voice, tape, and various instruments into a brilliantly conceived sound collage. Inspired by a reading of Franz Kafka's short novel, In the Penal Colony (1919), Zappa advised record buyers to read Kafka's story, where the victims of an authoritarian regime have their crime literally tattooed on their body, before listening to the piece. This stunning example of musique concrete is an abstract nightmare version of the casual alienation offered in "A Day in the Life" which concluded Sgt Pepper. Curiously, while Pepper had its fans as a smuggled bootleg item in Iron Curtain countries, it was Money that earned Zappa more accolades from those in Eastern Europe because of its anti-authoritarian attitudes.

We're Only in it for the Money ushered in the New Year in 1968, where it reached #30 in the U.S. charts, making the album something of a hit for Frank Zappa. But the reception to it was naturally mixed. To satirize, in 1968, the hippie culture, the status quo, and the drug culture didn't win Zappa many friends in authority, or in the rock world. "Where, the album asks over and over again, is the promise of the Sixties?" asked critic Kelly Fisher Lowe upon hearing We're Only in it for the Money. "Where is the society that was glimpsed on the streets of Los Angeles in 1964-65? The answer is that it has been destroyed – by advertising, government, drink, parents, television, and, indeed, ambivalence – in fact, the album is a frontal assault, from beginning to end, on the ambivalence of the cultural warriors." Looking back now, We're Only in it for the Money challenged the political and cultural realities where Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band could only reflect them. Money had the uncanny ability to also look ahead. A little more than a decade after its release, many of those same hippies Zappa lampooned soon morphed into yuppies – folks who, without question, were definitely in it for the money.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's  Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney                                               

No comments:

Post a Comment