How to complete the subbing and layout of a very long Frank Zappa Lookin' Back (III)

(An atonal extravagonzo by CHARLES SHAAR MURRAY involving two photographs by JOE STEVENS)

New Musical Express, 30 November 1974

THE ALBUM and movie of "200 Motels" erupted late in 1971. Both received near unanimous critical meat-axe jobs and both were ignominious commercial failures. United Artists, who released the movie, also issued the sound-track album, which they have now deleted for no doubt very sound commercial reasons.

Nevertheless, it was a shame, because "200 Motels" is one of Zappa's key works, and represents the purest and most sophisticated expression of many of his recurring obsessions.

It was also the last significant record that he made.

The album is a hodge podge of songs, dialogue and hefty slabs of orchestral music, heavily based on the works of Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It wasn't Zappa's first exercise in moviemaking or movie music. Both "Uncle Meat" and "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" were originally conceived as movie soundtrack's, though only the latter ever actually made it onto celluloid. For most of the movie, Zappa is portrayed by Ringo Starr, only actually appearing in person to play guitar on the songs that are dotted through the film.

"Larry The Dwarf" (the Starr caricature-Zappa) appears spying on the band and taping their jokes so that he can incorporate them into his albums something that Zappa had been accused of doing by Jimmy Carl Black and other members of the original Mothers. The rest of the Mothers (Duke, Underwood, Kaylan, Volman and Dunbar) play themselves, with the exception of Jeff Simmons, who is played by Martin Lickert, at that time Ringo Starr's chauffeur. Simmons had walked out when he saw the lines that he was supposed to deliver (he was pretty pissed off anyway) and an exasperated Zappa had decided that Simmons would be played by the very next person to enter the room. It happened to be Lickert.

The lines that Zappa had written for Simmons verged on character assassination, anyway. In the "Dental Hygiene Dilemma" cartoon sequence, Simmons is depicted stealing ashtrays and towels and suffering from "drug induced nocturnal emissions" while his bad conscience (a part which Zappa intended originally to be played by Ginger Baker) tells him that he's too heavy a musician to be stuck in the Mothers. "In this group all I ever get to do is play Zappa's comedy music. He eats. The stuff he makes me do is always off the wall!" The bad conscience replies, "That's why it would be best to leave his stern employ and quit the group. Get your own group together like Grand Funk and Black Sabbath!"

The stoned Simmons then steals the entire contents of the room before Flo and Eddie crash in to try and rescue him. "Jeff is flipping out – road fatigue! We've got to get him back to normal before Zappa finds out and makes him do it in the movie ..."

Zappa was always fond of depicting himself as the grand manipulator. He swears blind that when engineer Gary Kellgren whispered: "He's making me do it ... he's up there in the control room listening to everything I say," he did it entirely of his own accord, and also that the Simmons incident in the movie is substantially accurate. Since Simmons rejoined the group for their last American tour earlier this year presumably there's no bad blood between the two of them ... but how about those cryptic lines on the sleeve: "This album is dedicated to anybody who was ever in the Mothers. Special thanks to Jeff Simmons from all members of the group."

The two main satirical targets of "200 Motels" (apart from the parody of Zappa himself and the public and critical attitudes towards his image) are the hypocrisies of small town life ("Centreville ... a really nice place to raise your kids up") and the behaviour of sex-and-dope-starved rock musicians on the road. The groupies are played by Misses Janet Ferguson and Lucy Offerall from the auxiliary GTO's, and Jimmy Carl Black has one of, the best moments of both movie and album as "Lonesome Cowboy", the ultimate redneck; "When I get off I get plastered, drink till I fall onna floor / find me some Communist bastard 'n stomp on his face till he don't move no more ..."

The groupie/musician relationship is presented as some kind of cruel joyless joke. "What will I say the next day to whatever, I drag to my hotel tonight?" wail Kaylan and Volman. The long sequence on side two that includes "She Painted Up Her Face", "Half A Dozen Provocative Squats'' and "Shove It Right In" is quite staggering in, its contempt for the protagonists, all of whom are depicted as alternately pathetic and predatory. In "Shove It Right In" Kaylan and Volman muse against a musical setting reminiscent of a particularly glossy airline commercial: "Well at least there's a sort of a choice there, twenty or thirty at times there have been / Somewhat desirable boys there, dressed really spiffy with long hair, looking for girls they can shove it right in.''

There's no answer to that.

The album's most appealing piece of straightforward hard rock is "Magic Fingers", which boasts a whirlpool of a riff, a fine guitar solo by Zappa and a thoroughly demented monologue in the "Fillmore East" tradition by Kaylan.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of "200 Motels" when considered in the wider general context of Zappa's work is that it represents a peculiarly self-conscious attempt to return to the editorialising of "We're Only In It For The Money". This time, Zappa's message to the world is peace 'n love through affectionately strenuous carnality and a refusal to get hung up on supposed sexual inadequacies. "Penis Dimensions" is, on one level, a supposedly amusing musical joke – imagine a real live respectable and culturally valid orchestra and chorus ploughing their way through lyrics like "Do you worry and moan that the size of your cock is not monstrous enough?" – and on another a semi serious attempt at Forum style reassurance therapy "There is no reason," trumpets Volman, "why you or your loved ones should suffer. Things are bad enough without the size of your organ adding even more misery to the troubles of the world!"

The track is also tarted up with a genuinely hilarious parody of popular paperback porn.

It is, however, on "Strictly Genteel (the finale)", that Zappa deliberately impales himself on the horns of his dilemma. In the context of a parody of the kind of mass sing-ins that used to clodhop their way into the finales of old Hollywood movies, the entire cast assembles to troll through a mock prayer which establishes its credentials as outright farce, unexpectedly gets serious and then dives back into sexual gross-out humour and more parody in an attempt to cover its tracks. It's as if Zappa was unable to bring himself to commit himself to anything recognisable as a Serious Message, and therefore attempted to bury his Statement in a welter of parodies and sex, jokes so as to cover his tracks.

How else can you interpret juxtapositions like: "Lord have mercy on the hippies and faggots and the dykes and the weird little children they grow ... help the black man, help the poor man, help the milk man, help the door man, help the lonely neglected old farts that I know", and the recurring refrain: "Help everybody so they all get some action / some love on the weekend, some real satisfaction".

It's extremely regrettable that ever since "We're Only In It For The Money", Zappa has only been able to address his audience in the most oblique and camouflaged ways.


"200 MOTELS" was a complete bombarella. It met with either derision or incomprehension. Its immediate successor, "Just Another Band From LA" incorporated material from yet another of Zappa's abortive movie projects, the story of "Billy The Mountain". "Just Another Band" was, like "Fillmore", recorded live, and represented the total triumph of style and technique over content.

The incredibly precise musicianship of the Mothers and the virtuoso vocal abilities of Kaylan and Volman made it possible for Zappa to create a very fair approximation of the jumpcut editing of "We're Only In For The Money" in a concert situation, with the result that "Billy The Mountain", a 25-minute epic that takes up the album's first side, is composed entirely of musical verbal and vocal one-liners. Technically, it's extraordinary, and it contains some staggeringly funny moments, but it has no real content – presumably because Zappa has absolutely nothing to say and was therefore content to experiment with style.

The further possibilities of Mothers Phase II were abruptly aborted in late 1971 when some dingbat threw Zappa off the stage at the Rainbow in London and did such a thorough job of breaking his leg that the unfortunate Mother Superior was stuck in a leg brace for nearly a year afterwards. Bringing in ex-Love guitarist Gary Rowles, the rest of the band broke away under the leadership of Kaylan and Vo!man and became Flo and Eddie. Only the faithful Ian Underwood and George Duke remained.

As he always tends to do when ruminating over his eventual future direction, Zappa retreated into mainly instrumental music, producing a small-group solo album ("Waka/Jawaka - Hot Rats") and a big-band Mothers album ("The Grand Wazoo"). The latter unit toured Europe and America, meeting with a warm if not entirely gut-level reaction at an Oval concert co-starring Man, Hawkwind and Beck, Bogert and Appice, whose audiences weren't exactly accustomed to music more attuned to the musical environs of Ronnie Scott's than a one day festival. It wasn't until autumn of 1973 that Zappa unveiled his new master plan.

"Overnite Sensation" sounded like a jazz-rock Dr. Hook. Against super-professional "Hot Rats" type back-ups, Zappa intoned genially absurdist durty songs which were mildly diverting if nothing else. "Montana", the stirring tale of a dental-floss farmer, was the best of the bunch. The album was pleasant enough, coming after two rather limp instrumental efforts and a long period of injury, but it didn't seem like the first step of a Phase III.

Only it was. "Apostrophe", a solo album in a very similar vein, actually reached Top Ten in the States, making it Zappa's most successful album, easily eclipsing "Hot Rats", his previous commercial high point. The trouble was that, apart from the magnificent title track and the highly appealing "Cosmik Debris", it was lame, trivial nonsense.

His current live double album, "Roxy And Elsewhere" represents the lowest point in Zappa's career. He has a fine band, and in Napoleon Murphy Brock an excellent lead singer, yet the album's four sides only contain one good song, an amusing ditty about low-budget horror movies entitled "Cheepnis". Like many a gigantic talent before him, he's found a winning formula and he obviously intends to stay with it.

In a recent interview, he said something to the effect that he's made his weird noises and said what he wants to say and now he's gonna do just what he damn well wants. After a decade of Motherhood, he is, of course, entitled to do just that.

I just wish that he'd somehow rediscover the incentive to say something. He is never more impressive than when he's using his unique skills for some purpose; using them instead of demonstrating them, or worst of all (as he's doing now) simply neglecting them. After all, too many people in rock and roll are simply farting around instead of getting down and producing work of real importance or merit; to see Frank Zappa joining the legions of rock and roll suicides and producing dull, trivial work is nothing less than offensive.

Still, Dylan woke up and Neil Young woke up. Frank Zappa has proved his courage and his abilities too conclusively in the past to allow anyone to write him off now. That he can still do it is undeniable; that he is currently unwilling to do it is also undeniable. But when Frank Zappa decides that the time has come for him to stop jerking off and get his fingers back into the meat, then the crapola is really gonna hit the electric ventilating device. But for now, the waiting game that he's currently playing is tedious in the extreme.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: a loud public thankyou to Ian MacDonald for his contributions to this article. Though he had no part in writing it and very probably disagrees very strongly with some or all of the conclusions reached, if it hadn't been for a discussion of Zappa that we had a couple of months back, it would have been next to impossible to write this piece at all. Thank you, Ian – and may your forehead never rust.