Establishment Versus The Underground

By Richard Green

New Musical Express, January 16, 1971

THE oversexed industrial vacuum cleaner, the voluptuous dance of the newts when they escape from the newt ranch and get into the concentration camp where the orchestra lives, the fake groupie house and the rancid boutique. Plus songs with titles like "This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich" and a 90-piece orchestra thrown in for good measure.

All of which adds up (as if you hadn’t guessed) to some of the incredible goings-on involved in Frank Zappa’s movie “200 Motels.” Pinewood Studios, where shooting begins in early February, are never likely to recover from the onslaught of the eccentric genius and his cohorts in the world of unpredictability.

After many years of suggesting, planning, hinting, stating, but never quite revealing, Zappa at last decided to hold a Press conference on Monday to calm puzzled minds for once and all.

Some bright soul chose the elegant Nash House in Carlton House Terrace, Westminster. Without comment, I will point out that Nash House is extremely close to George Brown’s former official residence and just up the road from Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s home. United Artists laid on a sumptuous spread of cashew nuts and crisps and a few bottles of alcohol for journalists, PR people, photographers and the inevitable freeloaders to consume before the conference began.

For a reason which was never explained, the proceedings began some twenty minutes late and soon turned into a series of embarrassing exchanges between Zappa and ageing national newspapermen. Zappa, as cool and helpful as usual – this is his manner despite the popular image of the man who spends half his time posing on the lavatory – apologised to the assembled multitude for a feature which had appeared prematurely in a Sunday paper. He had, he explained, been duped into doing it.

“Why didn’t you check it with United Artists?” cried a stung national man. – “Because it was ten o’clock in the morning and at that time I didn’t even know their phone number.” Zappa replied reasonably – “ Well, it’s a pity, you didn’t check,” came a pedantic cry from the back of the room.

There then followed a somewas acrimonious three-cornered discussion between Zappa and two national men as to whether of not he trusts his PR people, During this exchange, those of us who couldn’t have cared less whether a story had appeared in Pig Swill Weekly, the Sunday Mirror or Beano, but merely wanted to get on with the conference, began at first to listen with amusement, secondly to fidget and at last to groan at the pathetic “points” being raised by the self-appointed interrogators and protectors of personal freedom.

When the hubbub died down. Zappa clarified a couple of inaccuracies in the handout we’d been given. Donovan and Ginger Baker would not be appearing in the film, he said for starters.

“In one sequence, Jeff Simons is supposed to be under the influence of a mystic substance and is visited by his good conscience and his bad conscience. I supposed them to be Donovan and Ginger, but they were never called to appear.” he said

He also pointed out that there were two directors, not Just Tony Palmer “I have the fascinating job of telling the people how to say the funny lines,” he laughed with a touch of cynicism.

There was another exchange when a national man called Zappa “love ” and Zappa called back: “Don’t call me ‘love . . . Buddy Boy.’ Come down here and talk to me, don’t stand at the back like that.”

When we were kindly allowed to put some questions about the film and not other trifling matters, Zappa revealed that the film would include some of the footage he had in his basement at home, that he had been working on the plan for four years and that the idea had been offered to several companies before UA accepted.

Asked about censorship problems, Zappa replied: “At the beginning, there were all kinds of potential problems we thought we may face but they haven’t timed up yet.” After a time he added: “Censorship may be okay for other people but I don’t like it. I don’t like working under someone else’s watchful eye.”

He was asked about the storyline and detailed: “It’s more like a fantasy event than a plot line. It’s based on repeated images that keep recurring during the film. It’s devised from situations that occurred on the road. For example, in one sequence we go into a restaurant and encounter harassment from rednecks This is contrasted with fantasy events that are a by product of being out on the road because the places you visit are all the same and any town could be any other town.”

From the back of the room A National Man (the “Sketch’s” Dougie Marlboroutiongh if we are going to fearlessly name names) asked: “Will there be nudity?” Zappa took that one, considered it and replied: “Nudes? Oh, nudity. Well, in one scene, Miss Lucy GTO’s costume will consist entirely of a pair of men’s boxer briefs Does that get you hot?”

Unperturbed, A National Man wanted more details of the carnal pleasures in store and Zappa told him: “Well, I don’t know if you’ll be turned on by any of the actual hairs between the legs. I don’t know what you like.”

Laughter greeted that remark and, when it died down, Zappa returned to his earlier description with: “We’re working to a basic 180-page script. Improvisation will be limited basically because all the musical material and dialogue is going to be rehearsed in advance so that when the cameras are pointed at the artists, they are going to perform it just like it was a concert.

“At any moment during a concert you have an opportunity for improvisation and, in that respect it will be used in the movie but people will work to the script most of the time.”

A budget of 630,000 dollars has been allocated for the film which will be shot on videotape and then transferred to 35 mm film. The completed work will be ready by November at the latest, though only a week has been set aside for shooting.

“My first interest in making movie was ‘Captain Beefheart and the Grunt People’ in I964,” Zappa commented. “But that was never done and there are only forty minutes of ‘Uncle Meat’ shot.

“We’re shooting here because the technology to produce on videotape exists here. I saw Tony Palmer’s Juicy Lucy and Colloseum films and was very impressed Also, production costs are less here than in the United States.”

Later, Zappa volunteered. “There is approximately one and a half hours of orchestra music that has never been unleashed on human ears before. We have three grand pianos, three classical guitars with John Williams playing lead classical guitar, an orchestra, bass guitar, seven percussionists, an accordion, eight French horns, four trumpets, four trombones, four clarinets, four flutes, four oboes, a piccolo and three saxes. There are 90 pieces in all.” No partridge in a pear tree?

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is to be used and this prompted another national man to ask: “Why didn’t you choose another orchestra, why did you choose them?” To which Zappa retorted: “We didn’t ask them, we just rung round and asked who was available.”

“Will you be perturbed if the film is a failure?” the same Fleet Street pundit asked somewhat ungraciously.

“I’m prepared for the film to flop just the same as I’m prepared to have an album flop, that’s the game,” Zappa told him.

“Who do you think is going to see the film? Who would go to see it?” prodded the insistent pest. “What type of person would go and see a film like that?”

By this time, most of us had had about enough of attacking questions from unseemingly antagonistic scribes and a representative of the underground press called out: “Hands up all those people here who will see the movie.”

Over two thirds of the people raised their hands, which proved a satisfactory response and pretty well silenced the critics who seemed to be under the impression that the whole shebang was a big yoke anyway.

Zappa continued: “I’ve got a rough idea who buys the records and goes to the concerts but I have no idea who would go to the movie. There are a lot of people who may go and see the movie who don’t buy our records. I’ll take what I can get.”

“Is it going to be a ‘B ’ film or an ‘A’ film?” demanded No. 2 national man. – “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know. It’s going to be a movie, a real movie.”

Asked what kind of films he liked watching, Zappa said: “I don’t go to movies, I don’t watch TV either. I’ll go to see this movie because there are some things that are gonna happen on the screen that are pretty weird.”

Obviously a bit cheesed off with the continuous barrage from national men Nos. 1 and 2, Zappa learned forward in his chair behind a desk and told us all: “There’s one sequence in the movie where a girl journalist in a stereotyped reporter’s outfit, I don’t know if I can say that, comes on to the stage and sits in a chair and begins asking me a series of really banal questions.

“At one point, I get up and from behind an amplifier place a rubber dummy of myself in the chair. Without looking up, she continues to interview the dummy. After a time, I pick up the dummy and cast it into the screaming mass of dancers who proceed to kick it to death until the stuffing comes out of its head. The reporter, jumps down off the stage and begins to play with the rubber hand, still asking questions.”

And with that, Zappa stood up, put down his drink and left the room. The conference was over. It’s a wonder he stuck it that long.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)