This Is Intolerable! 200 Motels Too Far

Frank Zappa’s notoriously self-indulgent film and the long-banned stage show version of it.

Some years ago, when I first met the object of my ‘its complicated’ status on Facebook I had, as it happened, also just started seeing a rather lovely, though seriously bonkers pornstar. My ego being what it is, I thought, very foolishly as it turned out, that I could carry on with both these extraordinary women at the same time, with their agreement of course, and that all would be rosy in the garden…

As part of the romantic process I had also hit upon the idea of taking my incredibly posh, though foul-mouthed, ‘complicated’ partner to see (and I have no idea why) Drowning Pool at the Astoria and the pornstar, who really looked like a pornstar should look, to the opera. I can’t remember what the opera was called, but it was very contemporary and set in the last days of the Weimar Republic, so I was hoping that it would have a touch of Cabaret about it.

It did, but it was also an incredibly long and very experimental piece of work, and while the first half had gone quite quickly, the second half seemed to be going on and on and my pornstar companion was getting increasingly agitated and wanted to leave. It was also a very intense opera and you could literally have heard a pin drop so I quietly reassured the pornstar that it would be finishing in a few minutes. Indeed that seemed to be the case, but then, just as we were about to rush for the exits, it would start up again.

This game of cat and mouse went on for ages and was having a very detrimental effect on the pornstar’s emotions, and after a particularly momentous moment which really seemed to herald the end, the pornstar had stood up only to have to sit down again and exclaimed, very, very loudly to the audience and the surrounding populace, “this is intolerable!!”, and flounced out.

During the first forty minutes or so of the live theatrical version of Frank Zappa‘s 200 Motels, I felt what my pornstar friend had felt all those years ago and longed to shout out that this is intolerable or words to that effect. Indeed Zappa’s experimental, often discordant and unharmonious musical work is both clever and maddening, at moments infuriating and at other times really beautiful –  as if Zappa’a unconventionality was, if not so much contrived, a staged rebellion, here using chords and notes rather than words and theatrics.

For those unfamiliar with 200 Motels, it was originally a film based on Zappa’s life on the road, subsequently released as a soundtrack album. You probably wouldn’t expect much in the way of conventional cinema from Frank Zappa circa 1971, so to criticise 200 Motels as excessively weird and incoherent might be foolish. But given that even hardened Zappa fans have been known to walk out on it, I think it’s fair to say that the film is an exercise in self-indulgence matched only by the 1974 Son of Dracula in terms of out-of-control rock star ego wanking. That both films feature Ringo Starr and Keith Moon in the cast may or may not be coincidental.

There’s little plot to 200 Motels – it’s essentially about how “touring makes you crazy”, set in the fictional town of Centerville, where The Mothers of Invention fall apart, bassist Jeff (Martin Lickert) leaving the band to form his own group – something “heavy like Grand Funk Railroad or Black Sabbath” – just as real-life Mothers bassist Jeff Simmons had just before the film was shot. Beyond that, it’s just adventures with groupies, misadventures with drugs and live music by the band intercut with the ‘action’. Zappa himself is barely present, seen only in a few glimpses during the live footage (which is great, by the way). Instead, we have Starr playing Larry the Dwarf, a Zappa lookalike who narrates the story – such as it is – and more or less explains the themes as we go along.

There are some smart ideas here – the madness of being in a different town every night, the cultural clash between the ‘serious’ musicians of the orchestra (in this case the London Philharmonic Orchestra) and the ‘trivial’ musicians of the rock band (The Mothers, led here by ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, aka Flo and Eddie) and so on. There are post-modernist touches as the film is constantly referenced by the characters – at one point the band complain that Zappa sees and hears everything they do, writes it down and then makes them do those same things on film – how very meta.

Unfortunately, any interesting ideas that the film might have had tend to be buried amongst the visual chaos. The film was shot on videotape and then transferred to 35mm – an innovative technique at the time and one that allowed the use of all sorts of video effects. In many ways, Zappa and co-director Tony Palmer were years ahead of the curve here – watch this and you’ll see exactly the same visual trickery used by video artists and experimental filmmakers in the early 1980s. However, seen now it just looks horrible – a collection of garish video phasing and low rent effects that have stood the test of time even less well than the fashions and hairstyles of the band. It’s headache-inducing (and probably lethal to epileptics). If you were thinking of taking illicit substances before watching, think again – Zappa was anti-drugs and the trips featured here are decidedly bad ones.

Yet 200 Motels can’t quite be written off as entirely awful. The music – a mix of heavy rock, country and western and Zappa’s trademark avant-garde classical work – is generally brilliant and despite the messy video effects, every few minutes there is something odd going on visually. Dig through the nonsense and there are interesting ideas at play here, and as a time capsule, it’s fascinating – not only for the rare footage of the Mothers in action but also because of appearances from real-life groupies Pamela Des Barres, Lucy Offerall and Janet Ferguson and the animated sequence that appears in the middle of the film prefigures Volman and Kaylan’s 1974 adult cartoon Down and Dirty Duck.

Back in 1971, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had been booked to play a concert of the film’s musical score at the Royal Albert Hall, but due to the number of expletives and sexual references within the score’s accompanying lyrics, the sellout performance had been cancelled and as a result had never been performed in the UK until the 2013 show, performed at the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank – not quite the Albert Hall, but still Royal – to a select audience of Zappa fans, many of whom looked as if they had had tickets for the original show. That in a way was what this performance and the subsequent adulation for Zappa was all about. It was as if time, culturally at least, had stood still.

200 Motels is very much of its time, full of schoolboyish naughtiness and trite offence – for example, “Far Out!”, becomes “Fucking Far Out”, which is of course terribly shocking, and then there are songs like Penis Dimension in which the word ‘penis’ is used a lot and the choir wave luminous vibrators at the audience. 1971 was also the year that Oz magazine‘s publishers and editors were on trial for obscenity for publishing cartoons of Rupert the Bear having sex with his grandmother, while other Underground publications demanded the right to “fuck in the streets”. Offending was easy and usually got results from a society that was equally easily provoked into moral outrage.

Frank Zappa, the provoker in this instance, was incredibly prolific, producing some 62 albums in his relatively short life and he continues to have a major influence. He was also politically active and remained opposed to censorship all his life. Yet watching and listening to 200 Motels with its reliance on trite swearing and vibrators to ‘shock’, I could not help but think: is that all the Sixties achieved? That a choir in 2013 can wave luminous vibrators at the audience, while we can laugh and titter at our joyous freedom?

I hope not, but turn on virtually any TV programme or pick up the traces of conversation in the street and the use of the F word is everywhere. Now vibrators and sex toys are sold in Boots alongside aspirin and plasters; now nothing in 200 Motels shocks, it just seems like the antics of a generation that wanted to be naughty and to be noticed. A generation, in fact, that wanted everything and sulked until they got it, even 200 Motels performed at the Royal Festival Hall. Far Out!


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