200 Motels

Frank Zappa / Mothers Of Invention

Rykodisc, 1971

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/07/2005

Anyone who followed Frank Zappa's career for any length of time knew not only to expect the unexpected, but to definitely not expect the normal. Maybe that's what scared me away from the soundtrack to 200 Motels, the "unofficial" second movie from Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention (the first movie, Uncle Meat, would not be finished for well over another decade), when I found a cassette copy in the cut-out bins of Sound Warehouse. I listened to it once, was thoroughly disgusted at what I heard, and filed it away in the Pierce Memorial Archives.

Finally released on CD only a few years ago, the soundtrack turns out to have more substance than one might have expected, and there is something to be said for the underlying story of life on what seems to be the never-ending road. But 200 Motels is no Uncle Meat in terms of music - nor is it the absolute disaster I thought it was when I first listened to it all those years ago.

Zappa and crew work the storyline of how life on the road can make you crazy in surprisingly well - the dilemma of Jeff Simmons on whether to leave the band (a storyline based somewhat in fact) during "Dental Hygiene Dilemma" and "Does This Kind Of Life Look Interesting To You?" does hint at the fact that touring life isn't all glitter, illicit sex and beer, but can be mentally draining. And, while I freely admit I'm a hypocrite for liking this set of tracks just one review after slamming Zappa's sophomoric sexual humor, I can't help but like "She Painted Up Her Face," "Half A Dozen Provocative Squats" and "Shove It Right In" (all merged into one as "Shove It Right In" on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 6), which takes on the groupie scene and how some would do anything to lay claim to sleeping with a rock star.

Yet there are many points during the soundtrack where things get tedious and far too repetitious. The whole selection of tracks based around "This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Fish Sandwich" may have been okay had it been limited to one or two tracks, but carrying it on and on (albeit for only four tracks, but I believe this took up 10 minutes) gets real old, real quick. It almost suggests that Zappa ran out of ideas to illustrate the tedium of road life. Likewise, many of the instrumental tracks that are scattered throughout the two discs sound tired and uninspired - nothing like the exciting jazz-rock combos that can be found on Uncle Meat.

Still, there are some gems on this one that beg to be found. Hearing original Mothers member Jimmy Carl Black handle the lead vocals on "Lonesome Cowboy Burt" makes this track a lot of fun, and rightfully became a legendary track during concerts. Likewise, while I could have lived without all of Lisa Popeil's operatic undulating, the finale "Strictly Genteel" does have a majestic feel to it, and despite being 11 minutes in length, proves to be quite enjoyable.

What is most disconcerting about 200 Motels is that, unlike many other Zappa or Mothers albums, this one tends to be a bit unapproachable, especially to someone not as familiar with Zappa's catalog. Likewise, if you go into this album expecting music similar to what the Mothers did on Uncle Meat - well, most everyone knows not to expect the same style from Zappa two albums in a row, but it still is a bit disappointing. Maybe if the overall feel wasn't somewhat funereal, this would have been a bit easier to listen to. As it is, it's just not - well, fun, dammit.

200 Motels truly is a disc that, like the movie itself (which I've never seen), is one that can easily be labeled "for diehard fans only". There is enough good material hidden throughout these discs that can almost justify spending 90 minutes listening to the whole thing... almost.

Rating: C

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