It’s an unfortunate truth that as a filmmaker, Frank Zappa was a terrific musician.
This lack of affinity for the art form never stopped him, however. While in later years he would stick to concert films, like the extensive Baby Snakes, he definitely harbored the ambition early on to create a movie for theatrical release. He tried it in the 1960s with Uncle Meat, but shelved the idea when he ran out of money. But his second stab at filmmaking, the nigh-unwatchable 200 Motels, made it all the way to the multiplexes. (Where, of course, it died a sputtering death.)
While the movie has not made the leap to the digital era, the soundtrack has, and it’s one of Zappa’s most difficult and complex works. United Artists gave Zappa $650,000 to make the film, and most of that money went toward hiring the London Philharmonic Orchestra to finally flesh out some of the composer’s more intricate melodies. In many ways, Zappa’s entire musical career to this point led to the meshing of rock and orchestral music that makes up the bulk of 200 Motels.
The prior Flo and Eddie-era Mothers albums were certainly a prelude to this monstrosity. Zappa was intent on capturing the experience of touring, both musically and visually, and the raunchy material on both Chunga’s Revenge and Fillmore East – June 1971 paved the way for the themes of 200 Motels. It includes surreal tales of backwater towns, an encounter with “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” in a country bar, a ripped-from-life retelling of bassist Jeff Simmons’ departure from the band, and many songs about groupies.
In fact, Zappa had never before combined his low and high arts as thoroughly as he did on 200 Motels. In Flo and Eddie, Zappa had found gleeful accomplices – they could sing anything put in front of them, and would happily spout Zappa’s increasingly perverse lyrics. And with the London Philharmonic, Zappa could explore the fuller sounds he had been after. So what we have here is mainly sophomoric humor set to impossibly beautiful (and very difficult) orchestration, with rock band flourishes. A true mixing of highbrow and lowbrow.
Zappa was unhappy with the performances of his session players, but imagine you are a member of the prestigious London Philharmonic, and you are given a piece called “Penis Dimension.” Now, imagine you are unable to properly play a piece called “Penis Dimension,” because it’s remarkably intricate, and you have been given very little time to learn it. Orchestral players had a tendency to underestimate Zappa as a composer, and Zappa had a tendency to overestimate his players’ willingness to pursue perfection at union scale wages.
If there are issues with the performances on 200 Motels, they’re likely recognizable only to the composer himself. The score is in parts breathtaking – the opening “Semi-Fraudulent Direct From Hollywood Overture” uses lines from “Little House I Used to Live In,” “Dance of the Just Plain Folks” is a dark instrumental piece that changes shape every few seconds, and “Janet’s Big Dance Number” is claustrophobic and eerie.
“Janet’s” is part of a suite of songs on the first disc that describe groupies getting ready to meet and have sex with touring musicians, and they’re perfect examples of the clash of low and high arts. The orchestra provides interludes while the rock band thunders in for three linked vocal pieces. In “Half a Dozen Provocative Squats,” Flo and Eddie provide a lament for the sexually frustrated woman: “The last guy to do her got in and got soft, a sad but typical case.”
“Shove It Right In” picks up the story, finding groupies on the prowl: “At least there’s sort of a choice there, 20 or 30 at times there have been, somewhat desirable boys there, dressed really spiffy with long hair, looking for girls they can shove it right in…” The powerful orchestral piece “Lucy’s Seduction of a Bored Violinist and Postlude” concludes the tale. It’s like a concerto of smuttiness.
Does this work? At times the scatological humor overpowers the orchestral score, easily the more interesting of the two elements. The Mothers – the same lineup that made Fillmore East – take the spotlight a few times, most notably on the single “Magic Fingers,” and the bawdier material works better with blistering guitars. But there’s no denying the genuine beauty of the melodies in “What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning,” for example.
And then there is “Dental Hygiene Dilemma,” a song that achieves almost Inception levels of recursion. Zappa was a compulsive documentarian, and had a habit of recording his band members at all times – in their hotel rooms, during cab rides, anywhere he could place a microphone. That’s how he managed to record Simmons grousing about the “comedy music” Zappa kept making him play, and musing about leaving the band and starting a more serious solo career.
Zappa decided, when writing the script for 200 Motels, to include this secretly taped conversation as a scene, with Simmons playing himself. He did not, however, run this idea past Simmons – the first the bassist heard of it was at a read-through of the script. And as the band was intoning the lines about Simmons quitting the band, he did just that, getting up and walking out. (Even this conversation was recorded by Zappa, and appears on Playground Psychotics. Confused yet?)
Without Simmons (he was replaced in the film by actor Martin Lickert), Zappa switched gears – he created “Dental Hygiene Dilemma,” a psychodrama about Simmons’ exit, accompanied in the film by animation. Flo and Eddie play Simmons and his conscience, arguing over whether Simmons is “too heavy” to remain in Zappa’s “comedy band.” The music is remarkably complex, and Volman and Kaylan attack their roles with relish. It’s one of the most striking pieces on the album, and only the start of Zappa’s obsession with secretly recording his band members.
After a set of shorter, more dissonant orchestral numbers, 200 Motels concludes with “Strictly Genteel,” an 11-minute summation of Zappa’s genre-crashing ambitions. The song is built on one of Zappa’s most straightforward and stately melodies – it is clearly the grand finale – and it gives equal weight to the London Philharmonic and the Mothers. It begins with strings and Theodore Bikel singing about terrible English food, and ends with cascading guitars and drums and Volman ranting about Zappa’s all-encompassing control. It’s the blending of low and high art, writ large.
200 Motels has only briefly been available since its release in 1971, and because of that, it’s seen as a curiosity in Zappa’s catalog. In reality, it’s a landmark, an experimental melding of Zappa’s most ambitious and most earthbound tendencies, soaring and complex music used to convey his most inconsequential and smut-filled lyrics. In later years, Zappa would tend to separate his sleazy rock from his orchestral scores – he would rarely combine them like this again. 200 Motels is not entirely successful, nor is it clear what it would sound like if it were entirely successful. It’s an entity unto itself, an island even in Zappa’s vast sea of music. It’s a one-of-a-kind work, and in some ways, that’s a good thing.
Which version to buy: Well, if you want a CD copy, there’s only one choice: MGM and Ryko teamed up to release this, finally, in 1997. It’s out of print now, of course, and it could use a thorough remastering. But since it’s the only option, buy it if you can find it.
Next week: Just Another Band From L.A.