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Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, A Listening Report & Appreciation (Part 2)

Mark Smotroff gets his head around six discs of Zappa brilliance and mayhem…

In part one of my listening report about the new 200 Motels Soundtrack 50th Anniversary boxed set we explored the genesis of the music and its relation to other albums Frank Zappa issued in 1970 and ’71.  If you missed it, please click here to read as it provides much needed background and perspective for appreciating this period of Zappa’s career.

Beyond the fine sounding restored version of the original album — made off of a painstakingly restored first generation safety master tape — there are many amazing bonuses in this set which are as fun to listen to as they are revelatory.

Vaultmeister Joe Travers from zappa.com offers more insights into what he found in the vault when creating this collection:  “During this search and seizure mission, I was able to unearth a multitude of audio treasures from a very large number of tapes. Original demos, session outtakes, alternate mixes and versions, and even dialog reels that captured an edit of the film that predates the final assembly which eventually made it to theaters everywhere in 1971. Amongst the gems discovered include a number of ¼-inch reel-to-reel tapes that were made at Trident Studios during February of ’71, which  contain rough mixes of nearly everything that was recorded on multi-track…  Over the years, even Frank himself forgot the sheer amount of music that actually did get recorded. All of the archiving for this 50th Anniversary set has produced incredible amounts of content that we would never had known existed otherwise.”

Going back to the concept of shared DNA (if you will), if you are a fan of Zappa’s June 1971 Fillmore East album —  a staple of many a college dormitory in the 1970s and into the 80s — your ears might perk up to know that the new 200 Motels Soundtrack 50th Anniversary boxed set includes original studio demos of recordings that didn’t make the final cut in the movie but which were performed on that concert recording. Again for you newcomers this is significant because June 1971 Fillmore East was an important transitional album for Zappa, arguably catering to and capturing a larger audience of comedy loving rock ’n roll fans.

It is fascinating  hearing how completely scripted those sketches on the live album really were. Of course, we knew they had to have rehearsed all that “schtick” for the show but somehow I never considered that Frank might have fully “demo’d” those sketches. The differences are fascinating. They are no doubt demos and the performances sometimes feel a little bit stilted while the live counterparts are loose and fluid. 

Still, hearing tracks like “Do You Like My New Car” and “Bwana Dik” (aka “Duodenum,” a theme from Lumpy Gravy with added vocals) are fascinating puzzle pieces in understanding how Zappa orchestrated that particular group’s sound.  And as we listen to these demos we can hear clearly the intersection of the 200 Motels with the other albums of the era. So for example a song like “Tell Me You Love Me” which appeared on the 1970 album Chungas Revenge sits in perfectly in sync with the vibe of the other 200 Motels material. In some ways, it makes more sense in this context. The great live in-the-studio blues work out “Road ladies” was also born out of these sessions.

Disc 2 offers a fascinating discovery from Zappa’s vault: “Dialog Protection Reels.”  These safety tapes feature mono mixes-in-progress before Zappa added overdubs and other studio sweetening.  Some of the tracks here didn’t make it to the final edit, so in effect what you are hearing is the soundtrack to an early version of the film!

Some of the “Bonus Swill” on Disc 4 is especially fun including an interview with Ringo Starr reminiscing about his experience filming 200 Motels. I got a kick out of the unedited outtakes from the 200 Motels commercials recording sessions — yes, outtakes from the commercials!  Of course you get to hear all the radio ads Zappa created to promote the film.  

You’ll also get to hear (on Disc 5 and 6)  about 50 — count ‘em, fifty! — outtakes and alternates from the sessions. Some of these tracks are particularly important as they represent sequences which were cut from the film such as “The Pleated Gazette” but were in Zappa’s original score.

The remastered original album contained on the first two CDs in this set sounds quite good, terrific even. I enjoyed it more than my original vinyl (but that isn’t saying a whole lot as I never have liked the fidelity on the original album!). The corresponding high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit streams of the new 200 Motels Soundtrack 50th Anniversary boxed set on Qobuz Hi Res (click here) and Tidal MQA (click here) both sound excellent. I am very much looking forward to hearing and reviewing the new vinyl edition which was mastered by Bernie Grundman of Bernie Grundman Mastering (hoping to get a copy of this soon!).

The packaging for the new 200 Motels Soundtrack 50th Anniversary boxed set is exemplary. The 64-page hardcover book reproduces and expands upon the booklet included in the original LP, adding new essays from no less than Pamela Des Barres, Ruth Underwood and Vaultmeister Joe Travers. You’ll also get a full size reproduction of the original poster (also included in the 1971 album) and  a super nifty 200 Motels metal keychain and Do-Not-Disturb door hanger (in stylish Barking Pumpkin purple). 

All in all this 200 Motels Soundtrack 50th Anniversary boxed set is an outstanding collection, a true labor of love from all involved and a gift for the fans. If you love Zappa’s music and this period of his work, you need to add this to your collection.

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