Thursday, December 15, 2011

Frank Zappa • 200 Motels


   Writing about historic works, music critics have the privilege to judge phenomena that have been sentenced before by most crude referees – the generations of listeners and the time. When addressing to contemporary work they try to determine its value and chances to remain in the history of music. Just like they don’t learn any lesson from the past. Reading contemporary opinions about Zappa’s works, sometimes it’s difficult to keep a straight face. He was so much creative composer, musician and personality, even professionals had lots of problems with denomination and qualifying his ideas. Crowning example of such critics’ mistake is the album 200 Motels, which was described as full of cheap humor, bombastic and worst Zappa’s record. Yet it sold very good reaching 59th position on Billboard 1971 pop albums chart. 
   After double album Uncle Meat which in fact was musical setting for unfinished movie project, 200 Motels still didn’t give a clear picture of composer’s aim. And in context of previous concept albums, Freak Out! or We’re In It Only For The Money these narrations still were too much open and loose. Both for movie and for rock opera the story of 200 Motels was not enough consequent and had no climax. Surprising by originality was major goal and even sharp characters are disappearing in unfinished sequences. Discontinuity and surreal associations in movie narration were completed by songs and these fragments with illustrative music bind together the story. Music occurred to be the main hero and the basic layer of 200 Motels. And just like in real life it is something what makes this low budget film works.

Frank Zappa  – 200 Motels (1971)

   In its core theme 200 Motels is the movie about music, about musicians and about touring with the group – sometimes not exact the touring because clue of the story is quitting the group by bassist Jeff Simmons. And the group is the key factor in this narration. Simmons has really quit the group during the session and he was replaced by Jim Pons who was playing bass in The Turtles. From the same band came also Howard Keylan and Mark Volman great duo appearing also as The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie or  Flo & Eddie. The line-up of 200 Motels band was premiered on Chunga’s Revenge and then published on Fillmore East – June 1971. One of many stars in 200 Motels crew was singer and the legendary Mothers of Invention personality Jimmy Carl Black. Together with Flo & Eddie they created characteristic sound of the vocal parts. Playing keyboard instruments George Duke and drummer Aynsley Dunbar also were members of the band who press clear sign on musical image of this movie.

   Featured actors of this movie are Theodore Bikel, Ringo Star and Keith Moon. Theodore Bikel in the role of demonic narrator is unrivaled. Of course it’s also worth to see Ringo Star acting Frank Zappa. Zappa himself has only few episodic presences, for example as a musician seen in the background, but in fact he is present almost constantly in Ringo Star role of Larry, who „likes to dress up funny. Tonight he's dressed up like Frank Zappa”. For finishing the work the co-directors Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer used some improvised scenes and incidental material. For example natural behavior of musicians surprised with acting actors, sometimes they were expressively shocked. During short period of time between members of Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and rock musicians came to disagreements, what Frank Zappa two decades later put into The Real Frank Zappa Book.
   Surrealistic documentary of the band disintegration and individual musician’s lost was perfectly brought in decadent mood of musical setup of this movie. In early seventies this can be seen as prophetic vision of the falling regime. Today is more or less precise diagnosis for decaying utopia of sixties movements. Maybe it was still in top condition but leading straightforward to paranoia. Like in opening B-Side pair of two pieces – orchestral Touring Can Make You Crazy and very next song Would You Like a Snack? make contrast of depressive gravity in orchestral chords and shockingly naïve text and melody – both giving strong esthetic and intellectual dissonance. For many artists satirical and critical attitude was the strategy to survive but Frank Zappa made it his own trademark.

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