200 Motels: The Programme Notes that Never Happened!

Editor ‘Frank Zappa and the And’

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For those that are interested, here are the programme notes that never happened!

Guitarist, satirist, political activist, music technologist film maker and composer, Frank Zappa (1940-1993) has to be objectively considered one of the most creative and prolific musicians of his, or any other generation. During the years that he was in the public eye between 1966 and 1993, he was to release over 60 albums, between the inaugural Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out (1966) and his pioneering synclavier based masterpiece –  Civilization Phaze III (1993). Born in Baltimore, Maryland on December 21, 1940, Zappa can be considered part of the 60s generation that celebrated sexual liberation to the soundtrack of the emerging Rock genre. However, it is important to emphasise that Zappa’s musical interests reached far beyond the Rhythm & Blues bands of his youth, almost developing an alter ego compulsion for twentieth-century avant-garde music, especially the work of Edgard Varèse – who was described as ‘the idol of his youth’. Particularly interested in Varèse’s concept of music as ‘organised noise’, the influence remained consistent throughout his entire career, and appears to provide the foundation toward his approach to live and studio work, as well as the numerous styles he was to merge and juxtaposition. When examining his catalog, it is immediately apparent that his influences are not only eclectic and numerous, but also often contradictory – questioning the listener to ask: is his music Rock, Jazz or Classical? High or low art? Controlled or open? Improvisatory or notated? Serious or frivolous? Complex or simple? Elitist or vernacular? A true postmodernist, Zappa’s compositions would often include many of these factors –  both simultaneously and/or consecutively, reflecting his long standing and often quoted creative maxim – “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere – for no reason at all”.

Although primarily known as a ‘Rock musician’, Zappa very much considered himself, and needs to be considered today as, a ‘serious’ composer, whose engagement with Rock music was essentially used to finance his more orchestral art music ambitions. In a 1966 interview for the New York Times at the start of his professional career, he stated

“Stravinsky in rock is like a get-acquainted offer, a loss-leader. It’s a gradual progression to bring in my own ‘serious’ music”

When examining Zappa’s recorded output, it is apparent that he explicitly, subtly and progressively integrated classical avant-garde gestures into his early portfolio, gradually increasing the propensity of the statements in individual compositions, and eventually albums as time progressed. Examples of his early practice prior to 200 Motels include puns that allude to ‘high art’ titles (such as “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask” from Weasels Ripped My Flesh, 1970), direct borrowings/quotations of avant-garde composers he admired (For example “Status Back Baby” (Absolutely Free, 1967) quotes segments of Stravinsky’s  Petrushka); musical allusions (Zappa considered his doo-wop influenced Crusing with Ruben and the Jets (1967) to be heavily influenced by Stravinsky’s neo-classical period); written acknowledgement of relevant influences (Freak Out includes a substantial list of his major influences, including Boulez, Kagel, Schoenberg, Varèse, and Stravinsky amongst many others ) and compositional intent (Absolutely Free was considered by Zappa to be two oratorios, and included a ‘mini Rock opera’: “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”). As we move toward the release of both the film and double album of 200 Motels in 1971 (which is cited as his thirteenth release), the inclusion of avant-garde influences and techniques can also be witnessed via recordings such as the Musique Concrète influenced We’re Only in it for the Money (1968), his first solo album Lumpy Gravy (1967), which made extensive use of an orchestra, and Uncle Meat (1969), which was also influenced by avant-garde composers such as Stravinsky in places, and was actually the sound track to a movie which was not released until 1987.

Described at the time as both a ‘Fantasy Opera’ and ‘Surrealistic Documentary’, 200 Motels can be considered a postmodern mix of 20th Century avant-garde, Rock music and Country music, combined with humour, subversion, sex and horror – to name but a few descriptors. It was to be the first of eight full length movies Zappa produced between the years 1971 to 1988 and the first movie ever to be shot using video tape technology. A partially autobiographical piece, the film is essentially a depiction of life on the road, including its banality, inter-band relationships, dope smoking (which Zappa never partook in) and sexual liberation – humorously encapsulating the zeitgeist ‘groupie phenomena’ of its time. Directed by Zappa and Tony Palmer, the movie was originally released by United Artists and features Ringo Starr as Larry the Dwarf (an alter ego of Zappa), Theodore Bikel as Rance Muhammitz, in addition to numerous members of his 1971 touring band and ex Mothers of Invention members. Zappa claimed to write much of the orchestral music for the film in motel rooms over a five year period while touring – with the ‘200’ label representing an estimate of the actual number of motels the work was conceived in.

In terms of the resonance of The Southbank as a venue of this UK premier of 200 Motels, it is fascinating that early sketches of pieces such as “This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich”,  “Dance of the Just Plain Folk” and “Redneck Eats” were actually premiered at a performance at the Royal Festival Hall on October 25th 1968 by members of  the BBC Orchestra – later released on the 1993 album Ahead of Their Time. To hear this, simply compare the opening motif of “This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich with the Clarinet theme of “Prologue” or “Like it Or Not” (from Ahead of Their Time), or the Stravinsky influenced opening bars of “Dance of the Just Plain Folk” with the earlier “The Rejected Mexican Pope Leaves the Stage”. It is important to note that the orchestral pieces of 200 Motels can also be perceived as clear signifiers which point toward Zappa’s avant-garde influences. For example, after the ‘safe sounding’ opening few bars of “Semi-Fraudulent/Direct-From-Hollywood Overture”, as Rance Muhammitz (Theodore Bikel) states “200 Motels – life on the road” , it is underpinned by a short segment which has clear textual, rhythmic and percussive elements not dissimilar to Varèse’s Intégrales (1925). One can also hear connotations such as Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) in “A Nun Suit Painted on Some Old Boxes”, the haunting dissonant strings of Penderecki’s Emanacje (1959) in “Touring Can Make You Crazy”, and Stravinsky in pieces such as “Dance of the Just Plain Folks”, “I’m Stealing the Towels” and the instrumental  section of “Centerville”.

Due to a quirk in the Musicians Union rule book of the time, in 1970, there was surprisingly no official rate which facilitated Zappa to rehearse the complex material of 200 Motels for a movie recording session. To quote Zappa from his autobiography “this means that a person hiring an orchestra, for example, either is prohibited from rehearsing all together, or has to pay full recording scale while the orchestra makes all the mistakes you’d never want to release on record”. To circumnavigate this problem, a concert at the Royal Albert Hall was organised – with initial rehearsals for 200 Motels labelled as ‘rehearsals for a live concert’ – all totally legal. However, days prior to the sold out concert, the venue decided to cancel the event, citing obscene song lyrics as the reason. This resulted in Zappa not only having to refund ticket prices, but also reclassified the union rate for ‘rehearsals’ for the concert to additional ‘recording costs’, causing what Zappa described as “substantial and demonstrable financial  damages”. In his autobiography, Zappa provides a partial transcription of the court case which followed a few years later, as he attempted to gain compensation for lost earnings. Although the final verdict found his music not to be ‘obscene’, Zappa lost his claim for damages, with a recent article in The Independent reporting he vowed not to return to Britain unless he received an apology from The Queen.

So, over 42 years since that fateful event, and 46 years after Zappa premiered some of these compositions at this very venue, tonight’s performance, as part of the ‘Rest is Noise’ Festival has great significance. The fact that this historical event is taking place at The Southbank complies with Zappa’s notion of ‘conceptual continuity’ – where creative elements such as lyrics, album artwork, compositional references, live performances etc were considered as part of a philosophical whole – integrated through time and space – so I imagine Zappa would have appreciated the fact that this work was back in London, where it all started. This evening’s performance will now become a part of what Zappa may have described as the 200 Motels ‘Object’. Clearly differentiating between the individual instance of a work of art (which he described as the ‘Project’) and the ongoing process of redefining it (the ‘Object’) – tonight’s concert adds an additional chapter to this important work.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasise that Zappa regarded the division between commercial Rock and Art Music to be a social construction – something which he was determined to challenge. It is proposed that 200 Motels achieves this objective. Unlike other classical/rock fusions at the time such as The Who’s Tommy (1969) or Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra (1969), Zappa’s interface with ‘classical music’ was not a isolated occurrence, but a lifelong process – that commenced well before he formed the Mothers of Invention through to his death. As I stated at the start of this short programme note, is 200 Motels Rock or Classical? High or low art? Controlled or open? Improvisatory or notated? Serious or frivolous? Complex or simple? Elitist or vernacular? A composer who merged not only musical styles but entire traditions, Zappa would have left it for you to decide. Enjoy!

Dr Paul Carr

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About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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3 Responses to 200 Motels: The Programme Notes that Never Happened!

  1. Chris Opperman says:

    Why didn’t they happen?

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  2. Paul Carr says:

    See an earlier post Chris. GZ decided she wanted to bring in her own team to do the programme notes. I don’t know if this is related to anything I have written previously – or she simply did not like what I documented. The Southbank have been great – still paying me and also giving me complementary tickets. So I have no complaints.

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  3. Pingback: Cencorship and Frank Zappa | Paul Carr Musings

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