Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels came out in 1971 to universal acclaim from hippies, groupies, and the select members of the Establishment alike. It was one of the earliest rock operas, a motion picture and a double album released simultaneously. It landed in the mass market somewhere between Help! and Tommy, was less successful than either, and to this date has never been given its due.
Now its soundtrack gets re-released in pristine compact disc glory with a thoughtfully constructed book by the folks at Rykodisc, who have done nice work with reissues of the Bowie catalogue.
To say that Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were the quintessential self-referential rock band in history is no exaggeration. They lampooned themselves as viciously and hilariously as they lampooned their subculture, and turned the same bloodshot but sharp eye to modern civilization at large. (Pardon the mutually exclusive terminology).
The Mothers performed on-stage in their mid-‘70s Zoot Allures tour (remember the hit “Disco Boy”?) with a backdrop featuring a hugely enlarged projected photograph of drummer Aynsley Dunbar’s asshole, and allusions of antics to be done thereto. They teased groupies with song lyrics such as “his dick is a monster.” The group dripped mystique.
We seek honesty, in entertainment, in politics, everywhere. To the point of pain, sometimes. Yet we seek it. And here it is. Far from forbidding, 200 Motels oozes true American schlock from its 34 audio tracks on two CDs. It invites us in for a beer and a smoke.
From its opening with “Semi-Fraudulent/Direct-from-Hollywood Overture” to the two versions of “This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich,” Zappa celebrates the semen-stained look-alike roomettes found in every Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson’s in the land and the bedroom communities surrounding them around this time. “All the people in this sandwich town, Think the place is fine,” sings Zappa, but they cannot see the decay seeping out from within their Saran-Wrapped lives.
The orchestrations, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, sound impeccable, accenting the fact that as an arranger and multi-instrumentalist, Zappa had few peers. Casting the Royal Phil next to members of the Mothers proves an inspired choice. Chaos and irreverent humor slide alongside ace musicianship from all involved.
Notable sections include the song where we learn about couture, “Little Green Scratchy Sweaters and Corduroy Ponce,” a lesson in double entendre. Then there’s “The Sealed Tuna Bolero,” proving no song is so singular that it can’t become a dance tune or a sex theme.
And of course, no one should go without hearing “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” exclaim, “You hot little bitch!”
Throughout, the mastering is clean, hiss-free from original tapes. It’s a wild ride through a celestial sounding paean to the seamiest of life on the front lines of rock ‘n’ roll.
The CD features a bonus of five radio spots made by FZ for the movie/album release. Plus there’s an enhanced CD track for Macintosh and PC featuring the original theatrical trailer. A button’s included for transport directly to the MGM/Rykodisc web site.
This one’s the tangible remnant of the artistic sensibility that was the great Frank Zappa. Worth the admission charge.