Zappa 200 Motels: File Under Popular

By Miles

International Times, January 28 - February 10, 1971


(Interview recorded at Rattner's on 2nd Ave, New York City, 14 November 1970. Interview continued in an empty dressing room backstage at the Fillmore East, same date).

( discussing the film of "200 Motels", a two-hour musical which United Artists have agreed to back on a budget of $630,000).

F: Considering the ease with which the deal was made, it was unbelievable — we sent them a tape and a 10-page treatment, and a few days later we had a meeting. We walked in & the guy says: "You've got a deal", just like that.

M: Everything you asked for?

F: Well, I would like to have more money for the budget, but considering the amount that it is, we'll be able to do it. It's going to be tight

M: Is that why you're shooting in England?

F: Yes. Well, that's one of the reasons. I figured it would be fun to do it over there. The main enticement was the cost of the orchestra. We got the Royal Philharmonic for a thousand pounds a session.

M: Which is cheap ...

F: For a hundred men! You ain't kidding ... We'll be shooting at Pinewood, we have two stages there ... Tony Palmer is going to be the video-director. We're doing a video thing which is transferred to 35 mil — that's for the orchestra section ...

M: What kind of dramatic things are going to happen?

F: Well, we haven't signed him yet, but we're negotiating for Theodore Bikel to be the heavy in the film ... he's really good and he's going to be good for this part if he does it. That's the narrator in the Fleeting Gazelle and also the part of interrogator in this other sequence...

Certain things have been added to the script. For instance, the original concept for the orchestral environment was going to be a mountain made out of urethane foam. We got a cost estimate on making that — it was just too much. You can make the foam cheap but you can't reinforce it strong enough to hold 100 people cheap — the scaffolding and the man hours is what runs up the cost. So we canned that and now the orchestra lives in a concentration camp. It's Camp Untermunchen and it's a music camp sponsored by the United States government — we're going to build a stylized one inside the sound stage.

The concentration camp is at the end of the main street of Centreville ... there's a main stage in the camp, a Busby-Berkeley type stage which laps into the concentration camp, and there's a barbed wire fence which is continued across our stage by a set of iron bars. There is a sliding door and we can go in and out of the camp at will because we can buy-off the guards. Then on Main Street, there is a newt ranch; for Motorhead and his girlfriend, and a bank, and the Rantz Mahamet's Colonic Parlour, and the meat market and a motel: an endless motel which just goes streaming down to infinity with fraudulent perspective. And at the end of the street is this airport with huge, out of proportion 747's lurking ... just painted on the wall in back. And then there's a psychedelic night-club called the Electric Circus Factory and there's a bar called RED NECK EATS and there's a neon sign in the windows that blinks on and off that says: "Eat Beer!" ...

The narration is stylized. At one point, when I'm doing some narration and some action, I'm sitting in a motel room with an open window and I'm writing and I'm talking about how I'm doing this thing called Fleeting Gazelle and then the camera pans over my shoulder and you can see through the window the action that I'm describing: which is this girl coming out of the Colonic Parlour wearing the overcoat with the weanies on the shoulder and all that stuff ...

Cal (Schenkel) has designed this great environment, most of it stylized stuff, like the front wall of a house would be scrim on a framework, painted so that if you front-light it you can see what's painted on it and if you back-light it, it transparentizes and you can see the characters behind in sort of a dreamland type tiling. And just a vague outline of what was on the front. There's a lot of things done that way ... the special effects we'll be using consist mostly of wire-work: flying people in and out of situations ...

United Artists gets the soundtrack album, and they said that no matter how much music there is in the film, they'll put it out, even if it's four records. They said that at the first meeting. The deal itself — the distribution splits, etc., is an excellent deal, at least 10% better than the average deal, which is a lot in the movie business. I couldn't believe it! It only took about two weeks.

M: How many of the original Mothers will you be taking with you ?

F: Don Preston, Motorhead and we may take Roy and Lowell — I'm not sure as I haven't spoken with them yet. I have parts for them to play but then it's a question of the budget because each person that we bring over is like $ 1,500 worth of airfare and lodging for the duration of the stay, plus you have it to pay 'em. We have a certain amount of money in the budget for contingencies, but I'm afraid that extra mixing on the soundtrack is probably going to eat that up. And there's half an hour of the film's going to be animated: The Red Throbber, that whole sequence.

The Red Throbber is the thing about this guy who's a custom's inspector and has a cardboard dog named Babette that's been trained by the government to sniff out hash and marijuana at the airport. He just recently managed to shack up with his high school friend, Charlene, that he's been secretly beating-off over for ten years, and they've been going steady for three weeks, and he gets home from work one night with a lot of beer and he's ready to get it on, and Charlene has gone! So he goes into this frenzy, gets drunk, whips out his ouija board & asks it what's going on: the ouija board spells out: R.E.D.T.H.R.O.B.B.E.R. And he passes out in a coma and in this dream he imagines that this girl is at the Chateau Marmont, Bungalow B (Hollywood's hip hotel) being thrashed and eroticised by the Led Zeppelin. Then there is this elaborate dream sequence in which you see the guy that's doing it to her standing over the bed, (this is really not the Led Zeppelin you know — it's a figure of speech). The guy, all he's got on are these python boots and a black mask and this battery belt over his shoulder and this huge vibrator with wires hanging out. And he's holding it like a Krupp armament, standing over this chick on the bed. The thing goes off like a pneumatic drill on the street. And that's the kind of stuff that's going to be animated. Cal is doing all the designs all the characters, all the backgrounds, and then the stuff is executed, by this company.

M: How much do you think the soundtrack is going to vary from the stage version of the material?

F: Most of the stuff will be done just as you've seen in the show. A few of the things will have orchestral sweeteners but most of the stuff we'll be doing just exactly what the group plays. Then the orchestra has about an hour's worth of music on its own with chorus.

M: So you won't be doing much overdubbing?

F: The only overdubbing that will take place is on the track to The Red Throbber which we will pre-record and then the animators will work to the track. But that will also be done in England. We have made a deal for a mobile 16 track that'll come in with two NEW boards — two 24 input boards, for five hundred pounds a day and four engineers: Neati One of the engineers is the guy that recorded our Albert Hall shift.

M: What other work have you been doing?

F: I finished two new books of scores just before the tour. One is called What's the name of your group? and the other one is called Shove it right in.

What's the name of your group? is really funny because it is the melody line of the finale from the Festival Hall show which is going to be intercut with the bridge and the ostenato of Pound for A Brown all with lyrics. You know that bass line" Well, the bass singers are going to be singing: "Far out, far fuckin' out, far fuckin' out and, groovie!" because it is a scene with this chick who is doing her first rock and roll interview. I'm sitting on stage, handcuffed to a chair, and I don't answer any of her questions and she's really obnoxious. She has a polaroid camera with flashbulbs, all the dancers and the chorus have cameras with flashbulbs and they all shoot 'em on cue in their score. So that from time to time there's these constellation barrages of bulbs going off, and all of a sudden they'll all go "Yyyeeenntzzz!" and pull the tab on the camera, and it's all scored.

So one of her lines is "I bet your group name is real weird because you look weird yourself" and "I've got this lense here for my camera that'll make you look like some kind of depraved troll or something, because the kids who read our rock and roll magazine like to see famous musicians who look real far out and groovy". Then the chorus sings: "Far out, far fuckin' out ..." and she's got a few "Far fuckin' out"-s in there, and then the bridge to Pound for a Brown when it gets to the bit where it's like the Lone Ranger music, the chorus is singing: "How do they like your music over there?" because she just said, "How long have you been growing your hair and have you been to England and how do they like your music over there?" The chorus goes: "Over there, over there, how do they like your music over there ... " It builds up and then they shoot flash bulbs and then the soprano stops and says: "I just want to verify a rumour. Is it true that you did this show at the Festival Hall?" and then it cuts to the rehearsal at the Festival Hall which is pixilated footage that was shot out at this pub on Seven Sisters Road when we were rehearsing. It was great. We had 15 members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Mothers in the back room of this pub — it was the only place we could find to rehearse. We wheeled in a baby grand piano. Really great.

So there's that footage, then the orchestra starts up again and she stops them again and says:"Is it also true that you were in Vienna and you made this movie of your wife and an unidentified foot?" And then there is this sequence of my writing some of the music for the film dissolving into shots of my wife with my foot on her tit, like this ... strangling her tit, and she starts laughing. And that cuts in 'n out of a couple of scratches, my nose over the page, a bunch of people walking round the room. Then this percussion music comes back for a while and then she stops them again and says: "And you insisted on mounting your silly little production against the best judgement of Herbie Cohen! You had the audacity to perform it twice at the very Royal Festival Hall itself on one night whereupon it swiftly received a Chris Welch Melody Maker review pronouncing it totally rancid and devoid of minimum entertainment value and social blah blah ..." And then we go into the Festival Hall footage where Jimmy Carl Black comes out drunken on stage and he starts saying: "I'm quitting the Mothers ..." and shit like that.

M: How do you think people will react to all this?

F: Audience reaction to our music has been much better elsewhere than New York City. Such as Beloit, Wisconsin. I'll tell you, man, Wisconsin is the ultimate Mothers territory. I'm convinced we are a mid-West group. We play in the mid-West and people die for us, it's great because they really understand for some reason. I don't get it! We've played Appleton, Wise, Lake Geneva and Beloit and every time it's just "Where did these people come from? " They really know what you're doing. Minneapolis is also good.

M: Do you think American audiences are catching up with what you are doing?

F: Well, I'll tell you how cynical I am about American audiences ... if they are catching up it's only because we are slowing down.

M: I thought it could be because you're a lot looser as a group now and can do more of the theatrical stuff.

F: Well, we have the personalities for it now, like Mark and Howard (Turtles) are ready for Broadway any minute. You just send 'em out there on stage and it's all over. They sing on and off the stage which I like. If a person's gonna be a singer, really get into it ... That's something that Roy didn't do or any of the other people who were singing with the Mothers before. Lowell never got into that you know.

... When your working those really complicated arrangements you don't pay any attention to the audience, because if you do instead of what you're doing, then you're dead. Even though I've played those things a lot of times I still can't play it and forget about what I'm doing. I really have to concentrate on what I'm playing.

M: How's this new group when playing things like "King Kong" which is a tightly written number?

F: Different every night. It's simple, really easy. It's a D-minor vamp. In fact I would say that 80 per cent of the things that we have that have solos in them are in the same key. Reading the same changes. I just love D-minor vamps. D-Minor with a major forechord. Gives you a nice modal effect.

... The whole 40 minute sequence that we perform of 200 Motels was learned in about 50 hours, like 10 days, five hours a day, in a rehearsal hall. Scheduled from say 4 pm til 9 pm, just go down there and hit it. There's a liquor store next floor, get a bottle of brandy ...

Joni Mitchell sat in with us last night during the second show and we improvised a thing that was really good. And we ended it with her singing Duke of Earl. Really far out, she came on stage': "Now OK and we're going to improvise this thing ..." and we did a few chords for her and she started reciting this poem which began: "Penelope wants to fuck the sea ..." And the audience did a double-take "Yuuunk!" ... a little hush falls over the Fillmore, ... JONI MITCHELL ?!!

... This wino came up to me. I went into the store right down the street to buy a rain hat and this guy comes sticking his head in the door: "I've gotta picture of you on my wall -- sitting on the toilet!"

... I'm looking for a house in England so I'll probably be spending 6 months out of the year there. I would like to see what it feels like to live someplace else, the only time I got out of the country has been when I was working and I remember remember when I moved from Los Angeles, which I really feel is definitely home base, it changed me so much to live for a year and a half here in New York. Not all, of it for the better. It was weird to get another perspective. I think there might be another change if I go and live in the country in England for a while, see what that would be like.

M: It would certainly be very quiet ...

F: I could dig that -- the next year is dedicated mostly to film cutting. I'll be cutting from the middle of February til 1 November. Quite a chunk of time, only time off will be a ten day tour in May and a pop festival in Coln in August.

... If 200 Motels is successful the next work will be a large scale work with a large scale budget. In 200 Motels I want to make sure that the concept tracks from beginning to end. It's easy to say "It's a fantasy, you can stick any fuckin' thing you want in there". But I want somebody to be able to follow the course of the fantasy so that when they do get out there, they can look back and see what they meant and go: "What? What am I doing here?" without just going "Yaannttz!"and then this thing happened to them and them saying "I don't understand it." I want to get 'em out there and make 'em know that they went someplace and then get 'em back again. And that ain't easy to do.

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