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Listening Report: Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels 180 Gram Vinyl Reissue

Mark Smotroff reconnects with an oft-overlooked masterwork…

Long ago, in a galaxy far away called New Jersey, a young teenager named Mark Smotroff was disappointed with a mid-70s reissue of Frank Zappa’s We’re Only In It For The Money he’d bought brand new at the Sam Goody’s record store. 

The album sounded ok but it didn’t have the original inserts and the pressing was flimsy. Even to his novice teenaged ears, the album felt like something was missing from the experience. Young Mark, who had discovered the notion of “original pressings” with his first Zappa record purchase — a used Mono copy of Freak Out for $2.50 in perfect condition (which he still owns) — soon set out to find an original edition of We’re Only In It For The Money

Mark soon realized that his disappointment with mid-70s record pressings was not limited to Frank Zappa’s catalog and soon he sought out original LP pressings of older (often used, and cheaper) albums he was interested in adding to his budding collection.   

That said, while he liked his original editions just fine — and still does! — Mark often thought (and said to friends) that if he could get a good quality reissue he would probably be very happy with that. Unfortunately, that kind of satisfaction was a long way off and thus Mark became a fairly deep collector of early editions of many recordings across all sorts of genres, from bubblegum to the avant garde.

Fast forward to the now times and, yes kiddies, that moment indeed has arrived at least partially given many of the great restorations of recordings by The Beatles, The Band, Bruce Springsteen and The Grateful Dead. There are many fantastic new editions available of vintage rare jazz titles from the Verve Records Acoustic Sounds and Blue Note Tone Poet series reissues. 

For Zappa fans, the sonic salvation ship started arriving some years back as Universal Music began a vigorous reissue series which have proven to be generally excellent. These have filled a much needed void for high quality vinyl reissues which for the most part honor Frank’s original intentions and in many ways vastly improve upon the original editions. I have reviewed many of these reissues here at Audiophile Review (just use the search feature here for “Zappa” to find my past listening reports).

All that said, the new 50th Anniversary editions celebrating Zappa’s 1971 film soundtrack 200 Motels are a particular revelation.  If you missed my recent series on the massive compact disc boxed set and high resolution streams, please click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2 to catch up. 

So, why do I like this new 21st century reissue of 200 Motels so much, you ask?  

Well, this album was something of an anomaly in the Zappa cannon appearing on United Artists Records and to my ear never sounding very good. I’m not sure why: perhaps it was the vinyl quality or perhaps it was the disc mastering, but the recording always felt a bit lifeless to me. This was notable especially when compared to Zappa’s other albums on his Reprise Records subsidiary label, Bizarre Records. 

The new edition of 200 Motels pops, rocks, rolls, swings, sways and swaggers too! 

The orchestral segments sound rich and round, with that sense of dynamic I was missing previously. The rock performances are delivered with punch at which the original only hinted. Even the dialogue portions are more engaging and appealing while the choral and vocal portions sound fabulous — I get a much stronger connection to the operatic portions of this soundtrack now. 

There is admittedly a lot going on across 200 Motels and my guess is that the powers that be doing the disc mastering at the time just reigned everything in to be on the safe side. This new edition, remastered by the legendary Bernie Grundman and pressed on 180-gram dead-quiet, well centered black vinyl at Optimal Media in Germany reveals many once hidden glories. 

This may sound odd, but in many ways 200 Motels plays more like a rocking Zappa album now than simply a movie soundtrack. Now the album sounds more in keeping with the other albums from the period, especially Chunga’s Revenge

Another plus with this new 200 Motels pressing is that it is designed for play on manual turntables (which most people use these days). So Side 1 is backed with Side 2.  The originals were designed for then-popular automatic record changers — where people “stacked” their records for continuous play — so Side 1 was backed with Side 4 and Side 2 backed with Side 3. Its a little detail but significant if you want to listen to the whole album in its proper order.  

The new label design features the full color 200 Motels logo and Frank’s comic book image from the cover so it all feel more tightly integrated as a complete listening and viewing experience. You get a nice reproduction of the original booklet and the full-size fold-out poster which came with the first pressings back in the day. 

Even if you have the original, you’ll probably want to pick this up. I’m going to trade in one of my originals for now (I’ll still hold on to the obscure Record Club edition). But until something better comes along — a surround sound remix of the original film, perhaps? — this will be my go to “play” version of 200 Motels

Whether you get the red or black vinyl versions, you should check in to this new 200 Motels. You won’t want to leave…

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