Necessity and Invention

By Tony Palmer

The Spectator, February 13, 1971

Strange goings-on at London's Royal Albert Hall raise some sharp questions about the role of private censorship in the public domain. The good Lord Eccles has already told us that the State, in the disguise of the Arts Council, is not going to give any more money to those naughty sinful plays. Of course, you can have nudes in opera, because that's Art. Opera, that is. And the Arts Council, always manages to find the odd extra £100,000 for opera, especially when Peter Hall is likely to provide a few more nudes in a few more operas. But nudes not in Covent Garden is a different matter and, according to Lord Eccles, very naughty indeed and not the kind of thing the taxpayer is going to put up with. No indeed, I'm sure, therefore, that Lord Eccles would have approved of the Albert Hall Management's firm stand against the proposed concert of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the American rock group, the Mothers of Invention, which was scheduled to have taken place last Monday night.

It was widely reported that a sinister and devious filth film was to be made during the concert. In fact, the music for the concert was to have consisted of excerpts from the soundtrack of a gigantic musical called 200 Motels which has just been filmed at Pinewood-Studios for United Artists. Contrary to the impression given by the Albert Hall, much of the music had already received one public performance last year with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra when it was ecstatically received by Time magazine and was the only concert in the Orchestra's season which was totally sold out. United Artists have invested nearly a million dollars in the film – a sort of Fantasia 1971 – which tells the story of what happens during one night in a Mid-West town in the United States called Centerville when a rock group comes to town. This situation is slightly complicated by the existence at one end of the town of a concentration camp in which live a crashed Spitfire, the 2001 slab, sundry members of the Ku Klux Klan and a collection of redundant and retired old musicians – played in the film by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. (Ironies of ironies, the hot tip from the Arts Council front is that if, through shortage of cash and a lack of nudes, one of London's major orchestras has to get the chop, then the likelihood is that it will be the Royal Philharmonic.) The erotic and sexual element in the movie is provided by a love affair between a hair-lipped guru and an industrial vacuum cleaner. Presumably this constitutes the filth to which the Albert Hall objected.

The satirical and highly serious intent of the film would be clear to anyone who studied the script, devised and written by the leader of the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa. Here is a further example of the obscenity contained in the score; note the preponderance of four-letter words: 'A musician, if you consider the normal pattern of modern civilised life, is on the outside of it all . . . he doesn't build things . . . he doesn't work regular hours like a decent God-fearing citizen . . . the, life he leads might, in many ways, seem useless and irrelevant to those of us who prefer a quiet evening in front of the television and a bottle of beer. Amazing as it might seem to some of us, musicians have basic physical needs, just like real people. Many of them study for years . . . learning to play a violin, for instance . . . 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 a modern world . . . a chance for a happier, more productive, life. Some will enter the military. Some will learn shorthand. 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.'

When this section of the script was read to the Royal Philharmonic at one of the first rehearsals by way of explanation of the film, they cheered loudly and many said individually how pleased they were to be associated with the project. They did not all 'walk out' as was widely reported in the press and by the BBC. Two players out of 100 made minor objections which were immediately accommodated. The full symphonic score provides for a huge orchestra including classical guitars (one of which was played by the distinguished soloist, John Williams), accordion, three grand pianos, celeste, harpsichord and six percussion ensembles.

It was thought that after the hard slog of rehearsal and filming, a public performance of some of the music might arouse some interest. The Albert Hall accepted the booking and then asked to see the script. As the script was in the usual constant state of flux during filming, its delivery to the Albert Hall was delayed. When it was finally received, the management's reply was swift. The concert was cancelled.

The Mothers' boss, Herb Cohen, assured the Albert Hall management that he would remove any words objected to, but after some initial discussion, Mr Mundy admitted that although various lines did give offence, it was the nature and attitude of the whole piece that had determined him against it. (The last time, incidentally, an opera or an opera-oratorio was barred and censored in this way was in the thirties when Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin bit the dust.) No doubt he feels that he is protecting the regular patrons from the dangerous and sinister (probably Communist-inspired) elements which lurk within the Royal Philharmonic. Curiously, the public seemed unconcerned. But who is Mr Mundy to use his authority in this way to prevent the Royal Philharmonic, the Mothers of Invention, not to mention 5,000 members of the public from hearing music from a film that is to go on general release anyway. United Artists hope that the film will get an R rating in the States, the equivalent of a U Certificate here. Meanwhile, his high-minded, high-handed action deprived London audiences of what would have been one of the more interesting concert events of the year.