‘We’re Only In It For the Money’ Is Frank Zappa’s Delightfully Ugly Take on ‘Sgt. Pepper’

If Absolutely Free followed on the promise of Freak Out!We’re Only In It For the Money builds on the satire of its predecessor. It’s also the most cohesive of Zappa’s first three albums. Where Absolutely Free seemed a little rough in places, We’re Only In It For the Money is quite a bit cleaner sounding. (It’s also the first album Zappa produced himself.) Songs abruptly begin and end, linked with a collage of phone messages, studio chatter and more. And, it’s also the victim of the most censorship of Zappa’s career.

The album opens with “Are You Hung Up?” which isn’t a song, but a bit of the aforementioned chatter, ending with a slightly disturbing flange effect. It segues to the first real song on the album, “Who Needs the Peace Corps?,” a vicious criticism of the hippie myth. The narrator dreams of travelling to San Francisco and crashing Owsley Stanley, the Grateful Dead’s engineer known more for his skill at making pure LSD. Though where the narrator might be set up for a fall as he realizes the truth of hippiedom, in fact, he embraces the fact that he’s a phony. He’s a subculture tourist, ready to take a trip to San Francisco, get all the drugs and free love he can, and then go back home a week later. He doesn’t care about the difficulties — he will “love the police as they beat the shit out of me on the street.”

We're Only In It For the Money front cover
The original front cover to We’re Only In It For the Money

“Who Needs the Peace Corps?” is a great opener for We’re Only In It For the Money. Where Absolutely Free was a general look at American society circa 1967, We’re Only In It For the Money is much more focused on the hippie scene. But Zappa’s not completely criticizing the hippies; tracks like “Concentration Moon” and “Mom and Dad” are almost dystopian in the way they illustrate the violence against hippies from the establishment. (It’s a little surprising to think that Kent State was still a few years off.)

The album’s not all dark, either. Cuts like “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” are jaunty and almost nostalgic? At least in a strange way involving weird guys who pee in a crockpot until strange creatures form and smear boogers on the downstairs window. (Charming!) But the main thrust of the album is hippies and the generation gap, but from Zappa’s typically removed stance. He doesn’t identify with either group, just as an outsider. But where some of his later work curdles a bit into meanness, We’re Only In It For the Money has empathy with its targets.

We're Only In It For the Money insert
The We’re Only In It For the Money insert

But empathy isn’t the same thing as pulling punches. The entire package reveals its nightmarish nature, from opening with “Are You Hung Up?” and its monologue about erasing master tapes to the dark sound collage of “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” from its twisted take on the Sgt. Pepper packaging. We’re Only In It For the Money even has its own take on the freebies with the Beatles’ record. Though instead of a fun cut-out moustache you could put on to pretend to be part of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, Zappa includes a nipple, a Zappastache and a “one navel” bill.

That said, this was the first album to really scare his label, Verve records. The original artwork was inverted, so the Sgt. Pepper parody was the inner gatefold, where the band photo intended to be the gatefold was put on the outside. But it wasn’t just the album artwork the label changed; for the first (and only) time, the actual recording was edited. “Harry, You’re a Beast” had a section reversed and chopped up, “Mother People” had a verse excised, and some pressings even have further edits. The strangest of these is on “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” where an executive thought the line “I remember mama with her apron and her pad, feeding all the boys in Ed’s cafe,” referred to a menstrual pad not, you know, a waitress’ order pad.

Sadly, the master tapes were damaged, so when it came time to re-release the Zappa catalog, though the album art issue was fixed, the only versions of the album that feature the least editing were the ones that Zappa remixed in 1984 to remove the bass and drums. You can hear this version on Lumpy Money, but be warned: it’s goddawful. Though most of the missing lines and verses were restored, the album is otherwise ruined with plastic ’80s-sounding drums and overdriven bass that doesn’t mesh with the rest of the recordings. (Lumpy Money also includes the ’80s remix of Lumpy Gravy, which was thankfully never actually released. It’s somehow even worse than the ’80s remix of We’re Only In It For the Money.)

Also, We’re Only In It For the Money was part of a four-LP concept called “No Commercial Potential,” consisting of this album, Lumpy GravyCruisin’ With Ruben and the Jets and Uncle Meat. We’ll be taking a look at Lumpy Gravy next time. (But the real version, not the awful remix.)

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