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Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, A Listening Report & Appreciation (Part 1)

Mark Smotroff pauses to think about an overlooked soundtrack…

Before one can fully appreciate the soundtrack to Frank Zappa’s 1971-released film 200 Motels — and especially the new  200 Motels Soundtrack 50th Anniversary boxed set — it really helps to read the liner notes to the original album. Here is part of the opening paragraph:

“This music is not in the same order as in the movie. Some of this music is in the movie. Some of this music is not in the movie. Some of the music that’s in the movie is not in the album. Some of the music that was written for the movie is not in the movie or the album. All of this music was written for the movie, over a period of 4 years. Most of it (60%) was written in motels while touring. The rest of it was either done at home or in our rented flat in London, just prior to shooting… Some of the situations described in the song texts are real. Some of them are not real. You decide.”

Those insights were easy to overlook back in the ‘70s if you weren’t paying particularly close attention. Additionally, unless you happened to see it in a theater back in the day, many Zappa fans didn’t really get to see 200 Motels until it came out on home video tape cassettes in the mid 1980s. The soundtrack was around in the stores but since it came out on United Artists Records I don’t remember it being featured much back in the day. Ultimately the album got sort of lost in the promotional sauce (if you will) as Zappa moved along into higher profile (bigger selling) releases on his own boutique labels (Bizarre, Discreet, Zappa and Barking Pumpkin Records).

Cover for the VHS version of the 200 Motels film

If you were an astute Zappa fan collecting all the records and who did study the liner notes and could connect some dots, you sort of figured out that some tracks from 1970s Chunga’s Revenge and the live albums Fillmore East – June 1971 as well as Just Another Band From L.A. were somehow conceptually connected. Zappa himself might have referred to this as part of what he termed “Conceptual Continuity” If you look closely at the detailed liner notes on Chunga’s Revenge, Zappa drops a pretty clear clue: “All the vocals in this album are a preview of the story from 200 Motels. Coming soon.” 

Now, with the new 200 Motels Soundtrack 50th Anniversary boxed set it has been made abundantly obvious that these tracks share a common DNA — many of the songs not necessarily in the film were recorded and even demo’d around the same time. All this connectivity combines here to create a fascinating six CD super-deluxe edition boxed set honoring the maestro’s epic 1970-71 venture into big budget moviemaking. 

A mock-documentary of the life of the touring rock musician and the people and places they encounter along the way, 200 Motels checks off many flavors of Zappa’s musical passion across this journey. It is one part staged theatrical spectacle and one part comic Opera (rock and otherwise). An opening theme which feels almost like a fine Broadway or movie musical? Got it!

Avant garde orchestral scoring inspired by Varese and Stravinsky? Done!  

And of course there are hard-rocking jams and catchy pop tunes that might have been hits in an alternate universe (“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” “Magic Fingers,” “What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning?”). You’ll even hear a scathing country-western send up (“Lonesome Cowboy Burt”)!

“Theater of the Absurd”? For sure.

200 Motels is notable on many different levels not the least of it being a production innovation as the first full length movie shot entirely on video and transferred to film. A then-emerging recordable media format, the video process no doubt saved a lot of money on expensive film stock and editing time.

Viewing 200 Motels objectively from an eight-mile high perspective, it is a rewarding taste of Zappa’s scope as a composer. Listening intently to 200 Motels with fresh ears after many years, the music really does hold up and even shines. It has aged well, actually…

Consider a song like “Strictly Genteel” — an important fixture in Zappa’s repertoire over the years appearing on numerous live albums and studio recordings — which made its debut here. Today,  it sounds timeless and — dare I say, almost — classic. And as awkward as the lyrics to the film version may feel at first, when you step back to reflect on them, this is one of those rare cases where Zappa bared his soul in a hopeful note supporting all the underdogs of society.

Vocalists Howard Kaylan & Mark Volman (aka Flo & Eddie) in 200 Motels

Many fans are divided about 200 Motels, some loving it while others snub it. Many just overlook it in general. I’ve always enjoyed the music but I’ve always felt the domestic U.S. vinyl pressings on United Artists Records lacked something in terms of vibrance (a production aesthetic not unique to this release, mind you — many other albums I own on UA from that period bear that sort of aural time stamp). Sonically, it was missing that sort of special sonic energy which Zappa’s rock-leaning records delivered on Verve and Bizarre/Reprise…  

Accordingly, a new modern remaster was was long overdue… And in general it is sounding wonderful, reconstructed by Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers from Zappa’s own safety master. 

There is very detailed information in the boxed set’s liner notes about what went into making this new edition but in short, Travers spent four years assembling and reconstructing this lone safety master.

“Reconstructing?,” you ask?

Apparently Zappa had used it for making multiple radio ads to promote the project, with segments literally spliced from the tape which had to be located on different reels and reassembled digitally. The result of Travers’ work is a beautiful sounding 96 kHz, 24-bit (effectively) first generation master to work from to create these new versions. Alas, the original tapes (including the 16-track multi-track masters) seem to have been lost over the years so there is no opportunity for a remix.  

So the new 200 Motels Soundtrack 50th Anniversary boxed set — and corresponding high resolution streams on Qobuz Hi Res (click here) and Tidal MQA (click here) — represent a significant moment for fans of this film and the music made at this time.

Now is an optimal time to revisit and reconsider this music.

Tune in tomorrow when I’ll get down into more nitty gritty about the boxed set and what to expect in there… 

Until then, here are several versions of “Strictly Genteel” for your listening (and viewing) entertainment… 

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