There are two things you need to do before you listen to 200 Motels. First forget the dated, boring movie. Second dump any expectations you may have of revelling in Zappa the Guitarist. Other than a couple of memorable moments, there is nothing in this music remotely like, say Hot Rats. Zappa’s instrument here is the Orchestra and he plays it like a master.
200 Motels fits into the experimental category of Frank’s work. It is really an extended modern classical composition that uses the occasional rock track as an element to contrast with the more challenging material that surrounds it. If all you want from Frank is “Dina-Mo-Hum” or some admittedly numerous sniggers at Flo and Eddie’s sexual fantasies, then this is not the album for you. Instead, this is in a direct line from pieces like Lumpy Gravy and “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”, as well as being a precursor of The Perfect Stranger and The Yellow Shark.
The number of short tracks here can initially mask the fact that there are a number of quite distinct longer compositions going on, sometimes incorporating the rock numbers, sometimes separated by them. Tracks 3 to 8 on the first disc, for example, make up a classical sonata form. “The Dance of the Rock & Roll Interviewers”, a percussive piece which sounds to me to have a strong Varčse influence is the “first subject” and the mournful “This Town Is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich” the “second subject”. Tracks 5 and 6 are the “development” section of the sonata, track 7 the recapitulation and track 8 the coda. It’s worth programming those tracks separately to hear what I mean.
There are so many other highlights: the interplay between piano and percussion in “Redneck Eats”: (Ian Underwood really shining here), the menacing drone of “Mysterioso”, the avant-garde nightmare of tracks 9 to 17 on the second disc: a single extended composition, again, but one which avoids any classical structure, emphasising instead a gradual disintegration until the crazed resolution of “Strictly Genteel”.
The rock songs are no slouch either. “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” besides winding Zappa up in court on “obscenity” charges (God they were innocent days!) is truly funny, “Magic Fingers” features great guitar work and both “She Painted Up Her Face” and “What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning” feature some of Zappa’s most melodic vocal lines.
I think this is a brilliant piece of work: the most successful meeting of rock band and orchestra I have ever heard, because the rock composer, rather than trotting out staid cliches from the late Romantics, challenges the orchestral musicians on the unfamiliar ground of contemporary classical writing. Ben Watson’s great book “Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play” looks at the album in a lot of detail, and is well worth tracking down. It points out much that is going on beneath the surface and convincingly argues that 200 Motels is a serious surrealistic work (in the radical, dangerous sense of that over-used word). It’s not an easy read, but then again, this album isn’t an easy listen. Still, don’t let that stop you.
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