[Review] Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (1971)

This probably should have come with a free bar of soap and shampoo, since you’ll need a shower after listening to it.

Kronomyth 12.0: Musica con cretini.

The members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were apparently less than thrilled (in the back of my car) that they had to play this music. Just going out on a limb here, but maybe those guys know a thing or two about good music. Of course, there are other people who will tell you that 200 Motels is a work of genius, but they’re presumably the same people who say nice things about Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

In defense of the orchestra, I doubt your average concert violinist wakes up in the morning and says to themselves: “Gee, I hope I can put my years of training to use playing a song called ‘Penis Dimension’ for some greasy rock and roll band today.” And in defense of the composer, “Strictly Genteel,” “Tuna Fish Promenade” and “What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning” are brilliant in their own unorthodox way. Unfortunately, a lot of 200 Motels sounds like a low-budget soundtrack to a horror movie fell into a taffy machine with some early Mothers tapes.

Frank Zappa clearly had modern classical composers in mind when he wrote the instrumental sections, employing a linear style that elevated dischord and tension, moving ever-forward without achieving any resolution. What he had in mind while writing the lyrics was, apparently, to capture the road life of a traveling rock band in all of its appalling ugliness, from bad food to sexually frustrated groupies, culturally insensitive cowboys and the temptation of stealing towels from the motel room. As you might expect from such a strange pairing, the result is indigestion. There are isolated moments that are funny, freaky and fitfully inspired, but do you really want to chew through two hours of avant-garde film music and sexually explicit dialogue for a few tasty morsels when you could be cutting into the filet mignon of Hot Rats or The Grand Wazoo?

At the time, Frank’s classical scratchings may have sounded like the future of music. Forty years later, that apocalypse has thankfully been averted. I don’t think anyone makes music like “Lucy’s Seduction of a Bored Violinist & Postlude” or “A Nun Suit Painted On Some Old Boxes” these days except for shock value. You could argue that shock was Zappa’s intent from the beginning for 200 Motels, but the man had too much respect for music to peddle it as a novelty. It’s better to view 200 Motels as a big, messy experiment that failed to match its high-budget ambitions with execution. Also, Zappa has a tendency to grind his axe sometimes (e.g., picking on Jeff Simmons’ defection during the existential crisis of “Dental Hygiene Dilemma”) rather than play it.

Apparently, the music from the film doesn’t align exactly with the double-elpee soundtrack. I was too young to catch this cult film during its midnight showings and, frankly, feel like I’ve already served my sentence by listening to this soundtrack more than a few times. The fact that few people seem to have sat through both works, let alone enjoyed them, speaks volumes to the windmill-tilting nature of the film and subsequent soundtrack.

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Original 2LP Version

A1. Semi-Fraudulent/Direct-From-Hollywood Overture (1:59)
A2. Mystery Roach (2:33)
A3. Dance of the Rock & Roll Interviewers (0:48)
A4. This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich (Prologue) (0:56)
A5. Tuna Fish Promenade (2:30)
A6. Dance of the Just Plain Folks (4:39)
A7. This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich (Reprise) (0:59)
A8. The Sealed Tuna Bolero (1:40)
A9. Lonesome Cowboy Burt (3:51)
B1. Touring Can Make You Crazy (2:53)
B2. Would You Like A Snack? (1:23)
B3. Redneck Eats (3:03)
B4. Centerville (2:31)
B5. She Painted Up Her Face (1:42)
B6. Janet’s Big Dance Number (1:18)
B7. Half A Dozen Provocative Squats (1:57)
B8. Mysterioso (0:48)
B9. Shove It Right In (2:32)
B10. Lucy’s Seduction of a Bored Violinist & Postlude (4:00)
C1. I’m Stealing The Towels (2:14)
C2. Dental Hygiene Dilemma (5:12)
C3. Does This Kind of Life Look Interesting To You? (3:00)
C4. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy (3:11)
C5. Penis Dimension (4:35)
C6. What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning (3:27)
D1. A Nun Suit Painted On Some Old Boxes (1:09)
D2. Magic Fingers (3:55)
D3. Motorhead’s Midnight Ranch (1:30)
D4. Dew On The Newts We Got (1:10)
D5. The Lad Searches The Night For His Newts (0:49)
D6. The Girl Wants To Fix Him Some Broth (1:10)
D7. The Little Girl’s Dream (0:55)
D8. Little Green Scratchy Sweaters & Courduroy Ponce (1:01)
D9. Strictly Genteel (The Finale) (11:09)

Music composed and arranged by Frank Zappa.

The Players

Frank Zappa (guitar & bass), George Duke (keyboards & trombone), Aynsley Dunbar (drums), Howard Kaylan (vocals & special material), Martin Lickert (bass), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Elgar Howarth, conductor), Ian Underwood (keyboards & winds), Ruth Underwood (orchestra drum set), Mark Volman (vocals & special material) with Theodore Bikel (narrator), Jimmy Carl Black (vocal on A9), Classical Guitar Ensemble (John Williams, supervisor), Jim Pons (voice of the “bad conscience”), Top Score Singers (David Van Asch, conductor). Produced by Frank Zappa; engineered by Bob Auger; over-dub and remix engineered by Barry Keene.

The Pictures

Album package & back design by Cal Schenkel. Cover/poster design & illustration by The Institute, Inc./Dave McMacken. Photography by Ian Stock & Mark Volman.

The Plastic

Released on 2LP in October 1971 in the US (United Artists, UAS-9956), the UK (United Artists, UDF 50001/2), France and Germany (United Artists, UAS 29.218/9) and India (United Artists, UAS.9956) with gatefold cover, booklet and poster; reached #59 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on 2LP in 1981 in France (Liberty, UAS 29.218/9) and Sweden (Liberty, 7C 138-92854) with gatefold cover.
  2. Re-issued on 2LP and cassette in 1986 in the US (MCA Classics, MCA2/MCAC2-4183)
  3. Re-issued on 2CD on October 14, 1997 in the US (Rykodisc, RCD 10513/4).

2 thoughts on “[Review] Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (1971)

  1. I always felt that this album was generally considered the black sheep of the Zappa discography. If Zappa albums were the equivalent of James Bond films, this would definitely by the Casino Royale. Some of it had to do with the fact that he had to sign away the rights to the master recordings to MGM in order to finance the movie. You are right, there are some enjoyable passages, but for the most part, it’s an overblown bore.

  2. Comment – Unsurprisingly, this commentator is a fan of the 200 Motels project;
    Detail – Phyllis Bryn-Julson was the soprano vocalist in the side 4 song sequence.

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