'200 Motels' – Zappa's most fulfilling

By Daniel Unsini

Vidette, October 26, 1971

"200 Motels" is the most complete, satisfying realization of Frank Zappa's music to date. It reveals the full thrust of his strange, brilliant mind in all its bizarre magnificance. It's excessive and surely boring once in awhile. Nonetheless, it contains some of the most sophisticated and entertaining rock music produced over the past few years.

The album is basically a summation of past themes and perspectives found in Zappa's work, but with everything done on a grand scale. Personnel used on this LP is a good indication of this. For, besides using his latest version of the Mothers of Invention, he also has at his command the Top Score Singers and nothing less than the Royal Philharmonic.

AS USUAL, the album has an awful lot of very funny comedy material. (Some of the best stuff is produced through the Philharmonic playing very ponderous music against the Mothers singing something like "this town is a sealed tuna fish sandwich"). One of the high points is a spot where a soprano soloist sings in a very dignified voice, "Munchkins make me hot," while the chorus chants "hot ... hot".

This kind of comedy has gotten a lot of criticism because it undercuts the music's seriousness. This is true in some cases. But more often, it's timed so that it complements the music and keeps things from getting too pretentious. In fact, it's ironic that the most serious, straight, advanced sections – the parts critics usually go for – are also the most boring portions to ears attuned to rock. Most of the music on the album is impossible to describe in real detail; there's just too much of too many kinds played too many ways too quickly. Zappa's often been praised as one of the most eclectic, open composers in rock.

Here, finally with all the musicians he could unreasonably want, he delivers a broad-sweeping onslaught of every popular American style as well as some very obscure, European ones. Evidently, not satisfied with allowing the listener to comprehend it all at once, he orchestrates it all so there's a constant shifting and cross-switching of styles and times with a steady pile up of textures and themes into a highly eclectic work that absolutely defies categorization.

WHETHER OR not this body of music is entirely or even primarily successful is tough to say. It's a rich complicated music made more complex by the fact that while he's laying on this bizarre spread of sounds, Zappa's also sticking in parodies and satires of the same styles. Consequently, you never know when he's being serious, pretentious, or funny. Or, for that matter, if he's dumping a lot of impressive sounding garbage on your mind. Probably, the only person around who really knows for sure is Zappa himself. And he's not telling.

The album is the sound track of a movie Zappa's making. Unlike films, as such, the music is unified in that it's all going into the same movie. And, with side-length digressions, it is about as coherent as anything Zappa is likely to produce.

The main lyrical themes are two old Mother stand-bys: "touring is lousy and a drag" and "America is lousy, banal and stupid." Both are logically expanded here to their absurd endings. For instance, there's a very funny digression on the third side about the sex mores of rock stars, politicians, groupies, world leaders, and how they all share an explicitly described sexual problem.

THE GRAND FINALE, "Strictly Genteel", is a chaotic, sarcastic prayer against Englishmen rednecks, hippies, rock stars, rednecks, groupies, nuns, politicians, the film and finally Zappa himself, as that song becomes an antiprayer, a giant comment of sorts on Zappa and another of the many ultimates achieved in this album.

Strictly speaking, "200 Motels" is very flawed. It's too long, too far out, too insulting, condescending, too serious, too funny. In his efforts to blow everything out beyond all proportion while steadily barraging the listener with every imaginable sound, Zappa somehow stretches things out too far and too thickly. Still, that's an achievement in itself and something perhaps only Zappa could pull off. Highly recommended for Zappa and Mother fans.