By Ken Clarke
Frank Zappa fans have a rare event in store for them. For three nights only, the Shiny Beast Collective and The Whip It Out Ensemble will be performing music from Zappa’s eclectic 1967 masterpiece, We’re Only In It For The Money.
The "Summer of Love" in 1967 meant different things to different people. To Frank Zappa it was an opportunity to record his scathing anti-hippie sentiments for posterity. It featured critical social commentary on everything happening at the time, including cops, dope-smoking kids and their soused parents. While most people were tripping around in a psychedelic haze, Zappa scowled from the sidelines.
Musically, We’re Only In It For The Money was an avant-garde aural assault performed by Zappa and his band, The Mothers Of Invention. It contained several different musical forms from abstract sound experiments to ’50s doo-wop with sped-up voices. Collaged together with no breaks between songs, it made a significant impact on anyone who was up to the challenge. Topping it off was an album cover parody of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, which had been released only a few months earlier.
Thirty-five years later, One Yellow Rabbit’s Michael Green is directing We’re Only In It For The Money on the Big Secret stage. Green also happens to be the founder of Calgary’s own Real Frank Zappa Appreciation Society and is of course a Zappa fanatic.
"I can remember the moment at which the penny dropped for this," recalls Green. "I was washing my dishes one Monday afternoon, listening to We’re Only In It For The Money. I was singing along, seeing it in my head, and it became clear that we could do this. Every idea, style and theme that Zappa would later explore, has a seed in that album. All his obsessions, serious commitments to music, and sense of humor are there."
Anyone who’s familiar with Zappa’s music would agree that playing the correct notes in the proper time signatures is a daunting task.
"Frankly, most of the musicians were terrified at the prospect of being expected to perform his work," explains Green. "Least of all, it’s simply hard to find the sheet music for Zappa. But with We’re Only In It For The Money being just his third album, it was created with the Mothers Of Invention being able to perform it. The music reflects that and is not beyond the musicians that we’ve got. I think that once we’ve got this under our belt, these same musicians will feel more ambitious and want to do another album after this."
That’s not to say that everyone in the ensemble is as knowledgeable about Zappa as some of the hardcore fans can be. However, of the 11 people in the group only three or four members aren’t entirely familiar with Zappa’s career. Not too shabby.
"With We’re Only In It For The Money having made such a splash all those years ago when it came out, it’s one of the albums that people do know. It contains some classic numbers like "Let’s Make The Water Turn Black" and "The Idiot Bastard Son" which everyone knows. It wouldn’t be fair to characterize the entire ensemble as rabid Zappa freaks, but it would be equally unfair to call us a bunch of neophytes."
Obviously anyone attempting to perform Zappa’s music is not only in it for the money. There are easier ways to get rich. However, artists need to be paid like anyone else and box office receipts from an event like this just don’t cut it.
"The fact of the matter is, I did manage to get $10,000 from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts," says Green. "I worked quite hard on that application. I explained that we wanted to explore the man and his music the way the Mothers would have. We’re doing what we can with that amount. It’s enough money for me to hire a group of 11 musicians to work for two weeks and pay them something, and still have a little bit left over for production expenses. I wish we were paying ourselves a little more though."
Audience members unfamiliar with Zappa need not feel intimidated. If they’re curious and open minded, this performance offers a unique opportunity to experience something they’re not usually exposed to.
"This show will be entertaining, although it’s a workshop-not a finished theatrical event. It’s going to be ‘the concert.’ It’s really worth coming and checking out. Not only is it entertaining as a piece of musical art, it’s strangely timely again as we find ourselves beating the drums for war."
Comprising the 11 piece line-up of The Whip It Out Ensemble are three vocalists, two guitarists, two percussionists, two horn players, a bass player and a keyboard player. Also on board for the three nights is Anita Miotti who will choreograph and stage some "freak out" material. This should be interesting since the very early Mothers concerts were part of what was then termed a "freak out."
If all goes well, Green might bring the production back at the High Performance Rodeo next year.
"If this turns out to be a lot of fun, then I’ll have the impetus to consider the future. What if we end up with an annual Frank Zappa festival? That would be very cool and not impossible. This is step one. We don’t know what step two is yet.
"Zappa was never interested in being cool or popular and his music was really the better for it. The most colourful modern compositions or contemporary chamber music out there belong to Zappa. Everything else takes itself so fucking seriously. One thing he took seriously is that he didn’t have to take things seriously."
In the original liner notes of We’re Only In It For The Money, Zappa wrote: "This whole monstrosity was conceived and executed by Frank Zappa as a result of some unpleasant premonitions, August through October 1967. All premonitions continuing to come true."
We’re Only In It For The Money takes place Sept. 19–21 at 8:00 p.m. in the Big Secret Theatre in the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts. Tickets are pay-what-you-can on Sept. 19 and $15 on Sept. 20 and 21.