Frank Zappa, The Royal Philharmonic And Me ...

By Tony Palmer

The Observer, March 28, 1973


Take the 90-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a rock group and corps de ballet, concentration camp, crashed Spitfire, groupie nun and Frank Zappa and you have just some of the ingredients of the first rock-opera filmed in Britain. '200 Motels' began what promises to be a notorious progress to the screen when a concert based on its songs was banned. TONY PALMER, Observer columnist who worked on the film, reports on 10 apocalyptic days in which it was made.

     It all started on the Italian Riviera. There was a man called Cohen who wanted to lose some weight and asked me how I had done it. I told him about some amazing pills which had helped me get rid of over four stone.

     I told him that he could get a supply in London, and gave him my telephone number. Three months later, at three o'clock in the morning, the phone rang. Cohen was speaking to me from Los Angeles. He had heard that I was in films and so was he, and would I be interested in a movie whose central erotic element was a love-affair between a hair-lipped guru and an industrial vacuum cleaner? Oh yes, and there was an orchestra who lived in a concentration camp at the bottom of Main Street. An associate producer was already flying in and maybe I could discuss it all with him.

    'My name is Raoul Pagel,' said the associate producer the following morning. 'I've come out of retirement to make this movie. The producer, Jerry Good, is flying in come Sunday and he'll be fixing up the creative talent.'

    What actually happened was that I had been invited by Italian Television to take part in a discussion in Rome about music today, its sociological and philosophical implications. Among the numerous distinguished guests were Anthony Burgess and Colin MacInnes. There were also Frank Zappa (the leader of the American rock group The Mothers of Invention) and his manager Herb Cohen.

     Zappa had written some symphonic music for a massive orchestra plus percussion, rock group and choir called '200 Motels'. Part of it had already received one public showing with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (not an unknown group). Time magazine had raved.

     The plan was to make a TV show out of the music and to do it in Holland with Dutch TV. Zappa gave me the synopses; there was this rock which arrived in a typical mid-West town of the United States called 'Centerville – a real nice place to raise your kids up in'. The action merely followed the various escapades of the group during one night spent in the town.

     There were, Zappa mentioned, one or two diversions. Like the Newt Farm and a Tuna Sandwich Ballet and a number entitled 'Penis Dimension'. The problem was raising enough money to put it all together. No one thought of making a film out of it for the cinema. The very idea seemed so absurd.

     'I want you to know,' said JG at the first big production meeting at Pinewood, 'that we're very proud to be among you British and your studios. And I just want you to know that I love your food. We feel that the creative talent that has been made available to us more than justifies our faith in the creative process in moviemaking here.'

     Zappa had got very interested when I told him about a new process I was working on, whereby it was possible to record film using electronic cameras rather than celluloid. It really was extraordinary that, although the cinema industry was over 70 years old, the basic clumsy mechanical action of dragging a piece of sprocketed negative through a shutter-gate by two metal claws had remained unchanged.

     Zappa – whose rock music is characterised by electronic happenings, was immediately fascinated by the prospect of these new technical excitements.

     Electronic film had many advantages. Its optical possibilities – mixes, wipes, colour freaking – were endless. Editing was instant; lighting simple; and total cost one quarter of the equivalent using film film. Colour videotape (the method by which colour TV is recorded) had been perfected for some years but no one had understood how to transfer the tape to film so that it could be subsequently projected in the cinema, for example.

     Such a possibility now existed and Cohen saw an obvious chance to market a film version of the Dutch TV show. He and Zappa would fly to England to view some demonstration film I had already made.

     At this stage, enter United Artists. 'I want you to know, Tony,' he said, 'that United Artists are going to back this project all the way.' It turned out that Zappa and Cohen had been so impressed by the quality of our test run using colour video-tape transferred to film that they had rushed back to Hollywood determined to raise the extra money necessary to expand the whole project into a cinema movie.

     Cohen turns out to be a friend of a Mr Picker, head of United Artists. Zappa supplies a four page draft outlining the idea and Picker agrees – to half a million dollars. The outline consisted of an opening scene in which Larry the Dwarf descends from heaven to spin the big wheel because it is all part of the score of '200 Motels', a brief passage during which two fully-practical groupies get off at the thought of a drummer with rivets on his jacket looking at them through his binoculars, a section called 'The Pleated Gazelle' and a concluding sequence about a 'Red Throbber'.

     Clutching his half-million dollars, Cohen now searches for a production company to take on the beast.

     Meanwhile, he rings me to get a few estimates – an orchestra for a week, a few dancers, a couple of guard towers for scenery, a studio and the electronic equipment. By the time we had finished, these modest beginnings had expanded into a 90-piece symphony orchestra (hired for 20 sessions), including seven percussion players, three grand pianos, celeste, harpsichord, electric bass, three solo classical guitars (one of whom turned out to be John Williams), accordion, saxophones and rock 'n' roll drummer, a corps de ballet choreographed by Gillian Lynne, one of the biggest studios in England crammed full of expensive scenery, enough electronic equipment to film the Cup Final and the landing on the Moon (live in colour) simultaneously.

     There was an entire mobile 16 track recording studio lent to us by the Rolling Stones, a full range of costumes and make-up, special effects that were being kept for the remake of 'Ben Hur', and the odd actor including Theodore Bikel and Ringo Starr.

     Actually, what really happened was much more – well, I was going to say bizarre, but since Zappa's record label/publishing company is called Bizarre, that does seem a bit obvious. Frank Zappa. Thirty this year. He's got long black ringlet hair, a classic hooked nose, and very white complexion.

     'We're involved in a low key war against apathy. I don't know how you're doing on apathy over there but in America we got a lot of it, boys and girls. A lot of what we do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it.

     'As long as they don't feel their environment and they don't worry about it, they're not going to do anything to change it; and something has got to be done before America scarfs up the world. Pop music today is the only living music in America. Most of jazz is really in bad shape, and although there is a slight increase in the performance of contemporary classical works, it's hardly what you would call a flowering of the arts.

     'My aim is to kill Top 20 Radio. Top 20 Radio is unethical and unmusical. And all over the world there is what is called a culture boom – which means that more people are buying carefully packaged classical music at budget prices. "Get a little Mozart in your house" and make people think you know what is happening.' (Zappa has scored Rock versions of Mozart's 40th Symphony and Holst's Planets.) 'Pop music, bad as it is, is better than most of the rest of what's happening.'

     It was certainly better than what looked like happening during the filming. As the idea for the film expanded (in Zappa's mind) so, in direct proportion, the time available for shooting diminished (in Jerry Good's mind). Eventually, it was decided that five days' rehearsal and five days' filming would have' to suffice.

     A normal feature musical would take four months – at least. The script conferences should have warned me of things to come. Interspersed with Press interviews at the Royal Garden Hotel and sustained by an endless procession of peach melbas, the idea and its costly ramifications evolved from Zappa's mind and were organised into some sort of practical shape.

     The Art Director, brought along by me, listened with growing incredulity as Zappa listed off his requirements: a Newt Ranch complete with newts, a rancid boutique, a Cheesy Motel, a bank, a fake nightclub, a Redneck Eats Restaurant, a theatre groupies' room, a liquor store, four houses, Main Street, a concentration camp, a crashed Spitfire, the Ku Klux Klan, a Pan-Am Jumbo and something called a Tinsel Cock Car. All studio, no location and just six weeks to go before we were due to start. It was all 'absurd', Zappa assured us. Absurd.

     Enter the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Later, Zappa was to be accused by the Albert Hall of 'hiding his filth behind the facade of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra', but for the moment the engagement for the orchestra represented a good booking and, since they were to appear in vision dressed as redundant orchestral musicians as well as play, it represented a lot of money.

     In fact, Zappa saw the Royal Philharmonic as an integral part of the action. He had been composing his symphonic music for nearly four years. Inevitably, it varied in style and musical pretension. Some of it was overwritten and overscored but it had pretty tunes. More than that, it epitomised Zappa's ambivalent attitude towards classical music.

     Like many another rock musician, he admires it and yet rejects it although, while rejecting it, casts an anxious eye over his shoulder at its developments. Occasionally, rock musicians imitate classical music lest they be thought musically illiterate. Thus, in the cynical turn of phrase of the script: 'The musician, if you consider the normal pattern of modern civilised life, is on the outside of it all ... the life he leads might in many ways seem useless and irrelevant. Amazing as it might seem to some of us, musicians have basic physical needs. Many of them study for years ... only to be rewarded with a humdrum job in the fourth row of a symphonic string section.

     'That's one of the reasons the Government has constructed, at great expense, this Experimental Re-Orientation Facility (the Concentration Camp), to find a way, perhaps, to retrain these useless old musicians with their brown fiddles and little horns ... give them a useful trade; a reason to exist in the modern world. Unfortunately, some will disappear in the middle of the night on a special train they're sending in ... it's the only way, really, to bring about a final solution to the Orchestra Question.

     'By comparison, the power of pop music to corrupt and putrefy the minds of world youth is virtually limitless.' This, I think, would pass for a satire. The Albert Hall, who refused to allow a concert devoted to extracts from the soundtrack of the film which, they said, was full of lavatorial expletives, thought otherwise.

     Moreover, it was rapidly becoming apparent that it was not only orchestra players who were being cast in redundant roles. Zappa pointed out that, since it was he who had written the words for actors whom he had known for years, there was no point in having me direct them.

     I indicated one or two disadvantages of this, saying that effectively it left me unemployed so I may as well quit altogether. 'Highly satirical,' thought Jerry Good.

     Maybe this was the role of the electronic director of the future, happy enough to point the electronic cameras in the right direction and push the buttons. I was persuaded that this was a sufficiently complicated job to warrant my staying with the picture and who was I to complain? The actors turned out to be mostly present and ex-members of The Mothers of Invention. Equity duly charged the production company nearly £1,300 to sign them all up and what they lacked in acting skill, they made up for in enthusiasm.

     The professionals came and went with a kind of bemused splendour. One of them came and went and never came back. He just didn't understand a word of what anybody was saying. Theodore Bikel, cast as Rance Muhammitz, an all-purpose narrator, compére and Government factotum who wore a postman's hat which said 'Fuck' in Russian, smiled benignly and said it all existed in Zappa's mind and maybe that's where it should have been left, and Ringo said he needed the work, but then Ringo always was very satirical.

     Zappa said he would give a vacated part to the first person who came into the room. It happened to be Ringo's chauffeur and so that was that. Some of the groupies turned out to be real and got upset when people treated them like groupies and everybody had a party.

     Pushing the buttons proved to be quite as hazardous as trying to direct the actors. Since United Artists hoped to produce three different soundtrack albums out of the film, the considerations for getting music properly recorded seemed at times to outweigh the considerations for getting respectable pictures, and since the action of the film necessitated that the sound be recorded 'live' as opposed to any studio pre-recording, the whole operation threatened to descend into chaos.

     Still, I needn't have worried nor underestimated the infinite talents of Zappa, because when we finally got to the editing stage, he decided to take over that too.

     With this new electronic process, it is possible to edit a two hour film in about a week, which, when compared with the normal schedule of maybe three months, represents an enormous saving in cost. The machinery involved to do this editing itself costs around half a million pounds so has to be treated with some respect. But Zappa had at last found the ultimate in gadgets.

     Dancers were replayed backwards, sideways, treble speed and upside down. The Apollo Moon Shot 14 was happening at the time of the editing, so part of that was put in. The optical effects, already dazzling and quite startlingly new, were revamped.

     Jerry Good thought it flowed, as well it did. His one disappointment was that he hadn't managed to get a photo of him and Ringo together to take back to his kids.

     Pagel went on a tour of Europe, and Bikel went off to do 'Fiddler on the Roof' and consult with Mrs Meir. Ringo got flu and his chauffeur became a bass player. Cohen never got his pills but went to Uganda for Christmas, Shortly afterwards Uganda had a coup.

     And Frank Zappa? Well, when last seen he was still editing. I took up needle-work. Now what really happened was that ... ~

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