200 Motels – The Film – The Album

By Michael Overton & Steve Peacock

Sounds, October 23, 1971


UNTIL NOW pop films have been limited basically to straightforward documentary coverage like Woodstock, Altamont, the Joe Cocker Tour or to old style showbiz success stories such as Tommy Steele, Terry Dean and Rock Around The Clock. There have been small budget exceptions like John Austin Marshall's Incredible String Band but what has been lacking is any attempt to use the media of rock music to explore new approaches in its own right.

    With "200 Motels" Frank Zappa has rectified this. On the one hand it's an entertaining humorous film about a group on the road on another level it mirrors the exploitations and fantasies of the modern consumer world.

Beatle humour

    Zappa himself hardly appears. For the most part he is played by Ringo Starr looking uncannily like the real thing – Machiavellian moustache and all. Ringo seems to have recaptured some of that natural early Beatle Liverpudlian humour which was apparent in a Hard Days Night but disappeared with same. Sample remark: "That Frank Zappa is 30 years old: you can never trust old people."

    The film is stream of consciousness in that it has no set story progression, it flits from one fantasy to another. Keith Moon suddenly appears as a nun. Cynthia plaster-caster licks her lips and wriggles her tits and the whole thing is driven on song after song by Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who were of course the Turtles in their old hit days. Their performance, it could appropriately be said, reaches its climax in the fully orchestrated treatment of "Penis Dimension" which Zappa and the Mothers performed at the London Coliseum but were barred from doing at the Albert Hall. Such are the odd ways of London's architectural censorship.


    Yet the highlight for me was nothing to do with actors or the Mothers or even the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, but a chunk of animation in the middle of the film directed by Charles Swenson. Here was a completely new use of that Walt Disney medium in delicate pastel colours and spikey drawings which the equally spikey figure of Zappa must have been created for. When the film switches to the cartoon section the Zappa-like person is in search of the magic elixir – a total send up perhaps of the drug situation and the earnestness of it all, particularly in America. As usual Zappa dissolves it all into laughter as the frenetic creature gives up all his worldly goods for a sip from a bottle that looks suspiciously like beer.

    As usual these days there are plenty of credits at the end of the film. Among them "Characterisations Directed by Frank Zappa. Visuals By Tony Palmer." Unfortunately Palmer yet again returns to his Cream Farewell Concert treatment of pop music which is surely dated these days. However, that is a small criticism of a splendid film.




"THIS MUSIC is not in the same order as in the movie. Some of this music is not in the movie. Some of the music that's in the movie is not in the album. Some of the music that was written for the movie or the album. All of this music was written for the movie over a period of four years."

    So Frank Zappa explains in the sleeve note to the soundtrack album of "200 Motels" (released by United Artists on November 5). And presumably as he intended, it is quite easy to forget when you're listening through this double album that it is a soundtrack, so complete is the picture you get from the music and the lyrics. The movie may be very different – like seeing the film of a book – but each will doubtless have different things to offer.


Lyrically, it is often extremely funny and invariably absurd, but musically the album can often be breathtaking in its inventiveness and power of expression. Often in the past I've got off on Zappa's music, and been impressed by the technicalities, but never so much as on this album. He can take the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and use it like he used the Mothers on "Hot Rats". (listen to "Dance of the Just Plain Folks") or he can take the whole lot – Mothers, orchestra chorus and everything – and put them through a range of ideas that sounds like a history of music from Vaudeville to the "avant garde". He's a musical collector who, by the way he arranges the fragments he's picked up, becomes a true innovator.

    The opening track "Semi Fraudulent/Direct From Hollywood Overture" is just what the title says – a brilliantly extravagant piece of film music that owes everything and nothing to the sludgy tradition of Hollywood film themes. The same applies to the choir on the reprise of "This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich".


"Touring Can Make You Crazy" is an orchestral nightmare, with violins predominating over ominous noises from percussion and bass instruments, that perfectly gets the feel of the title, and the way the orchestra is used in the background on "Centreville" adds weight to the menacing and sinister undercurrent to the words, "a real nice place to raise your kids up" which is right on target.

    Then again, the whole thing can lift up and rock out, like on 'Daddy Daddy, Daddy", or a better example, "Magic Fingers", featuring a great guitar solo – stop time even. But however disparate the ingredients, the whole thing is held together by a thread of absurdity, manifested mainly in the lyrics. On "A Nun Suit Painted On Some Old Boxes" it takes a while before you realise that the straight soprano is actually singing lines like "hot, hot get me hot", and more obviously. there's the episode where Jeff Simmons freaks out, the marvelous description of the town that's like a sealed tuna sandwich – "a rancid little snack in a plastic pack" – or the

     Soundtrack it may be, but the "200 Motels" album stands quite well enough on its own as – to quote the "Hot Rats" sleeve – a movie for your ears.


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