“Does Humor Belong in Music?” is one of those questions that, whatever your answer might be, it defines your entire worldview, especially the way you consume art, culture, and media. Frank Zappa, the greatest musical genius of the rock era — I’ll fight anyone who thinks otherwise — famously titled one of his key live compilations with this question; without a doubt, he had always been a staunch defender of free speech, of art as provocation, and of the use of comedy and satire to make important social commentary. Humor informs his entire oeuvre, it’s an essential part of his creative process, and the crux of his early masterpieces, particularly his 1968 record with The Mothers of Invention, We’re Only In It For The Money, which turns 50 today.
The Mothers were a fascinating bunch; a notorious cabal of multi-talented weirdos from the Los Angeles “freak” scene, they were a sort of anomaly in the musical culture of the time. While San Francisco was swallowed by psychedelic music and the lifestyles that came with it, and both New York and London were enamored with early jam-bands, folk singers, Sgt. Pepper’s, and acid rock, L.A’s Mothers were the rare group that could deliver the most adventurous, experimental sounds without ever trying a drop of LSD or hit a joint, but most importantly, they saw through the bullshit of “the hippie dream”. Comparable to an anachronistic Dada troupe, or the Parisian Mouvement panique, The Mothers of Invention valued humor, horror, randomness, free imagination and the combination of so-called “high-culture” and “low-culture” elements. They believed that such concepts were also false, or at least obsolete, and that, just like in post-World War I society, there was a need to point out the hypocrisies of our system of beliefs, particularly those shaped by late-stage capitalism. They understood its potential for absolute ruin decades before History proved them right.
We’re Only In It For The Money was constructed as a series of vignettes, short songs — one or two-minute long, with three exceptions — that encompass garage rock, radio art, musique concrète, jazz fusion, mock versions of psych-rock burnouts, and moments that hint at the odd-time signature-heavy, riff-based aspects of progressive rock. This is a record that, for the musical diversity alone, deserves a mention among the classic albums of the 60’s, but it’s the scathing satire of the lyrics what makes it a masterpiece. In “Who Needs the Peace Corps?”, our welcome to the record’s concept, they sing “I’m hippy & I’m trippy I’m a gypsy on my own// I’ll stay a week & get the crabs &
Take a bus back home// I’m really just a phony But forgive me Cause I’m stoned”, which illustrates their critique of the massification of the American counter-culture; the notion that thousands of young people flock to San Francisco, the de-facto Mecca of the psychedelic movement, to be a part of its extravagant bohemianism without caring about the social issues and political struggles that sparked the phenomenon in the first place. “Mom & Dad” takes a look at the generational gap between the baby boomers and their parents, and how the parents’ neglect and obsession with money and comfort have furthered that divide. The line “Ever take a minute just to show a real emotion In between the moisture cream & velvet facial lotion?// Ever tell your kids you’re glad that they can think? Ever say you loved ’em? Ever let ’em watch you drink?// Ever wonder why your daughter looked so sad? It’s such a drag to have to love a plastic Mom & Dad” drives this powerful point across.
But even with its vicious attacks on a self-identified liberal segment of Americans, the record equally criticises both left and right-wing perspectives. “Harry, You’re a Beast” addresses the strange sexual and power dynamics of hippiedom; “Absolutely Free” admonishes psychedelia’s empty spirituality, referring to it as something purely commercial, co-opted by Madison Avenue and sold as a commodity — the capitalist system inventing its own resistance. “Concentration Moon” looks at police brutality and how conservatives blame the young for their own oppression. The use of the word “creep” in several songs echoes the right’s dismissal of alternative lifestyles, but it’s also directed at hippie men’s treatment of young women. Yet the song that better defines the album’s brilliance, the importance of its messages, and Zappa’s satirical genius itself, is “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?”. It delivers the record’s clearest protest in the line “All your children are poor unfortunate victims of lies you believe// A plague upon your ignorance that keeps the young from the truth they deserve”, and its chorus remains not only the album’s most quoted line but one that completely justifies the need for humor in music, the one that answers that opening question with a resounding YES:
What’s the ugliest part of your body?
Some say your nose
Some say your toes
But I think it’s your mind