Revisiting Frank Zappa’s Anti-Sgt. Pepper Album

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It’s been fifty years since the so-called “Summer of Love” in 1967 and hippies around the world will be celebrating the release of their banner album, the epochal, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” by The Beatles, with yet another “limited-edition-ultra-special-release” CD to be released in May.

For better or worse, this album became the most influential record ever made. Musicians were suddenly free to explore all possibilities of instrumentation, recording and production techniques and conceptual themes. This paved the way for both groundbreaking innovation and pale, poor imitation to this day. Of equal importance are the direct responses to what “Sgt. Pepper” was and what it created.

Just a year after its release, serial jokester and rock music’s mad scientist Frank Zappa along with his band the Mothers of Invention released their not-so-subtle answer record, entitled “We’re Only In It For the Money.”

And as a 4th release from a sometimes impenetrable 62-album discography (during Zappa’s lifetime), it’s just as groundbreaking and classic a release as the Beatles album it skewers. Ironically the Mothers’ debut, “Freak Out!,” in 1966 was one of Paul McCartney’s main inspirations for “Pepper.”

With a cover that parodied the collage of famous faces, the title, We’re Only In It For the Money,” was also a gut punch as to what Zappa thought of the Beatles hippie opus.

For Zappa, there are not so much personal heroes and idols like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean appearing on the cover, but more an arbitrary mix of anti-heroes, blues musicians and pop culture icons: Lee Harvey Oswald, Lyndon Johnson and American Doll Sweethearts Barbie & Ken, just to name a few.

The censored bars over many of the faces’ eyes, presumably to sidestep acquiring the rights to use their likenesses, only adds to the subversive and somewhat demented nature of the music within.

And what music it is. The genius of Zappa’s fusion of styles was blossoming, pairing free jazz with musique concrète and with fuzz-guitar rock & roll, all the while maintaining a free-form sense of humor that countered the counterculture itself rather than catering to a perceived “scene” in San Francisco.

In between electronic blips, backwards tape and pitch shifts, there are cheeky asides from the band (“Hi boys and girls, I’m Jimmy Carl Black and I’m the Indian of the group.”) and even celebrity cameos like Eric Clapton (“God! It’s God! I see God!”).

Zappa was avant-garde but still had his pop-oriented ear–not so much perhaps with sight towards the pop charts but more an authentic recreation of the harmonies and catchy melodies found in his genuine love for doo-wop music. Along with the straight-up parody of “Hey Joe” (“Flower Punk”), there’s off-kilter doo-wop (“What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?”) and studio trickery collage epics (“The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny”).

In its own way, the record was predating remix culture but also more importantly it was one of the first great parody records. It’s a cheap but biting satire that brilliantly skews not just the musical styles of the time but the social discourse surrounding its creation. Even listening to it years after the hippie movement, the sarcasm and jokes remain fresh and incisive, meaning it will remain forever relevant.

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One response to “Revisiting Frank Zappa’s Anti-Sgt. Pepper Album”

  1. Well I hope Alice Cooper one night stand is recorded for those of us unlucky folks who could not attend?! ( I’m guessing it will be?).

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