This is an album that’s been out a few years, but I only got it the other week, so I’m reviewing it now…
Frank Zappa never really considered his music finished — one reason why he returned so often to the same songs and melodic ideas, both his own and other people’s, is that he was trying to get the music right. The Lumpy Money Project/Object, an archival 3-CD set put out by the Zappa family, is a record of that process.
Until recently, the Zappa estate had no control over the main body of work that Zappa put out during his lifetime. They did, of course, receive royalties, but towards the end of his life the Zappa Records/Barking Pumpkin catalogue itself was sold to Rykodisc, so that Gail Zappa wouldn’t have to bother with administering it after Zappa’s death. The Zappa family later regretted that decision (they now own the rights again, and keep *very* tight control of anything that could possibly be considered Zappa intellectual property), but while they didn’t have those rights, they still managed to exploit Zappa’s most famous works, by putting out box sets of outtakes and alternative versions, getting round the fact that all that had been signed over to Ryko was the actual stereo masters.
The Lumpy Money Project/Object (Lumpy Money from now on), is one of those, covering the albums that are probably Zappa’s two greatest works, both from 1968 — Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For The Money.
The two albums were conceived as complementary — the cover of Money had “Is this phase one of Lumpy Gravy?” in a speech bubble, while the cover of Lumpy Gravy had “Is this phase two of We’re Only In It For The Money?”, although Lumpy Gravy was originally recorded much earlier — though one was a Frank Zappa solo album and the other was by the Mothers of Invention. But while they work together very well, they’re poles apart musically.
We’re Only In It For The Money is about as close to conventional pop-rock as Zappa ever got — a collection of three-minute songs, mostly fairly straightforward, with lyrics satirising the counterculture (“I will love everyone, I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street”) while being even more scathing to the establishment against which they were rebelling, in songs like the heartbreaking Mom & Dad (“Mama, mama/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… Mama, mama/Your child was killed in the park today, shot by the cops as she quietly lay/By the side of some freaks she knew/They killed her too”). Zappa’s cynicism could, in later years, turn into an unpleasant, sour, misanthropy, but here it was still the cynicism of someone who hoped for better.
Lumpy Gravy, on the other hand, is completely devoid of any relation to anything else, ever — mostly performances of instrumental music, somewhere between Charles Ives, overblown Hollywood film music, and Stravinsky, performed by a mixture of orchestral and rock musicians, but with interruptions of musique concrete, and several pieces of surreal dialogue:
Spider: I think I can explain about . . . about how the pigs’ music works
Monica: Well, this should be interesting
Spider: Remember that they make music with a very dense light, and remember about the smoke standing still and how they . . . they really get uptight when you try to move the smoke, right?
Spider: I think the music in that dense light is probably what makes the smoke stand still. Any sort of motion has this effect on . . . on the ponies’ manes. You know, the thing on their neck
John: Hmm . . .
Spider: As soon as the pony’s mane starts to get good in the back any sort of mo . . . motion, especially of smoke or gas, begins to make the ends split.
John: That’s the basis of all their nationalism. Like if they can’t salute the smoke every morning when they get up . . .
Spider: Yeah, it’s a vicious circle. You got it.
Lumpy Gravy, in its finished version, is Zappa at his most unfiltered. It’s dense, it makes no concessions to normal taste, and it seems completely structureless, though with close attention a very tight structure becomes apparent. It’s the Finnegans Wake of popular music, really.
I say “in its finished version”, because the album released in 1968 wasn’t the same one recorded in 1967, which opens Lumpy Money. The album as it was originally conceived was recorded for Capitol Records with Nik Venet (the Beach Boys’ first producer) as a Zappa orchestral project, and the original mono mix of it, presented here legally for the first time (though it had circulated on bootlegs for years) . The Lumpy Gravy that we now know came about because Verve records (who had the Mothers under contract) insisted that Zappa didn’t have the right to record as a solo artist elsewhere, and Zappa re-edited it to include the spoken and tape-manipulated material during the eighteen months or so the release was held up.
This early version, a sort of Primordial Gravy has all the orchestral music, and it’s as magnificent as ever — and quite possibly more accessible to the average listener — but shorn of the sheer bravado of the finished album, and the shock of its unconventional structures, it’s merely some very good Zappa instrumental music, about on the same level as the orchestral sections of the 200 Motels soundtrack. This was an occasion where Zappa’s obsessive tinkering really paid dividends.
This is paired on the first disc with the 1968 mono mix of We’re Only In It For The Money, which had only had a very brief release on vinyl. There are various notable differences between this and the stereo mix — backing vocals mixed up or down, reverb added in different places, that sort of thing — but the casual listener (rather than one A-Bing every track) will probably notice little difference. That’s no bad thing, however — Money is arguably the best pop/rock album of 1968, possibly of the whole 60s, and is always worth listening to.
CD two takes us from 1968 to 1984. In the mid-80s, Zappa had finally got the rights back to all his old material, and began a process of getting it all issued on CD. When it came to We’re Only In It For The Money, he decided to restore several passages that had been censored by Verve upon its original release — the lines “don’t come in me, in me” from Harry You’re A Beast, and the verse “Better look around before you say you don’t care/Shut your fucking mouth ’bout the length of my hair/How would you survive/If you were alive/Shitty little person?” from Mother People, both of which had been included only in backwards versions, to protect innocent ears. He also decided to remix it to take advantage of the greater dynamic range that CDs offered, as he did with a few other 60s albums.
Those decisions would have been uncontroversial, were it not for one other decision he made at the same time, which was to replace all the drums and bass on the album with new performances by Chad Wackerman and Arthur Barrow. At times he claimed this was because the original tapes were too damaged to use (though this was nonsense — the original masters were used for the 1995 CD reissue and all subsequent reissues), but he also said that it was to make the album sound better to the ears of 1980s youth.
The result is… odd. Even with the extra reverb added to the other parts, the rhythm section still seem to be in a totally different sonic universe from the rest of the musicians. You’ve got rubbery, direct-injection fretless bass and “sonic power” 80s drums that sound like they were recorded by Hugh Padgham while everything else could be off a Monkees record. It’s a huge technical achievement — these are hard songs to play, and playing rhythm parts to a pre-recorded track (often with a certain amount of tempo drift as well) is incredibly challenging, but the result is a little like if, when Ted Turner was told he couldn’t colourise Citizen Kane, he’d got Tom Cruise to perform the role of Kane and then inserted him digitally into the film in place of Welles, while keeping everything else the same.
It’s fascinating to listen to, but it’s easy to see why it was controversial, and why Ryko reverted to the original mix for the CDs released after 1995. (Now if only the same were true for Cruisin’ With Ruben And The Jets, which is marred even more badly by the same nonsense).
It’s on CD two, along with, astonishingly, a version of Lumpy Gravy where he did the same thing and more. Here not only do we have Wackerman and Barrow replacing all the bass and drum parts, but there are also additional parts (many of the dialogue sections are accompanied by Wackerman’s drumming) and, most bizarrely of all, a new vocal section at the beginning, where Ike Willis and Bobby Martin sing lyrics relating, not to Lumpy Gravy itself, but to Zappa’s 1983 triple-album rock opera about AIDs, race, and Broadway musicals, Thing-Fish.
Oddly, it works better on Lumpy Gravy than on Money, because part of what Lumpy Gravy is “about” is its existence as something put together from different, incompatible sources. These new elements just add to the collage feel. As such, I honestly don’t know if the 1984 remix improves on the original or not — it doesn’t sound better to my ears, as I much prefer 1960s recording and musicianship to 1980s, and the original is so much a part of my musical life that I can’t look at any other versions objectively — but by going against the grain of the original, the overdubs work with it, in a way that they just don’t on Money.
Disc three is a collection of odds and ends — instrumental tracks, outtakes, bits of dialogue recorded during the sessions (including a longer section of some Money dialogue, slagging off the Velvet Underground), the single version of Lonely Little Girl (which actually has more of Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance than it does the song whose name it was released under), and that kind of thing. The best thing is the opening track, How Did That Get In Here?, which sounds like (and may well be) a twenty-five minute continuous orchestral performance that was edited down to make sections of Lumpy Gravy. It has a lot of familiar sections, but mixed among them is a mixture of atonal skronking, cheesy Hollywoodesque cues, and familiar melodic ideas in different contexts. It’s the raw material, rather than the finished thing, but there are some wonderful sections in there that got left unreleased.
You already know if Lumpy Money is your sort of thing — either you’re as obsessed with those albums as I am, or you’re not. If you’re not and it’s because you’ve not heard them, just getting the original versions is still the best place to start. But if you are, this sheds a fascinating light on their construction, and allows you to listen to them with fresh ears.
One problem I have, though, is with the liner notes. There’s a section written by Gail Zappa which, as with all these Zappa Family releases, is almost unreadable — it reads like a very nasty, cynical, advertising person trying to write in the style of the late 60s underground magazines in an attempt to appeal to that audience, and just slightly missing (I’m not saying that’s what it is, but that’s what it reads like). Meanwhile, the more fact-based notes seem to be attempting to rewrite the historical record — they say that all the basic tracks were recorded by Zappa, Billy Mundi, Ian Underwood, and Roy Estrada, and that the other members of the Mothers on the album (Jimmy Carl Black, Don Preston, Bunk Gardner and Motorhead Sherwood) only made minor additional contributions.
That’s not the way anyone involved has ever told it in interviews, and “coincidentally” Preston, Gardner and (while he was alive) Black have been involved in pretty much continuous lawsuits for thirty years over lack of performance royalties and composition credits, and the rights to the “Mothers of Invention” name, while the others haven’t. (I don’t know if Motorhead was involved in those lawsuits at all, but I believe he actually didn’t play very much).
That kind of attempt to rewrite the historical record leaves a bit of a bitter taste in the mouth, especially with an archival release like this. But it shouldn’t put off those with an interest from buying this. The music is worth it.