This short essay was first published in Avant Magazine in the winter of 1997. It originally made up part of my third-year dissertation. The remaining parts comprised a rather long introduction and a wonderfully wrong interpretation of negative dialectics (Zappologist Ben Watson's tool of analysis). Clearly my markers weren’t much the wiser because I passed. The article below differs slightly from the original to take into account one or two factual errors and clumsy sentences but otherwise it’s the same.
Besides playing guitar, writing for the occasional symphony orchestra and programming his trusty Synclavier, Zappa also had a knack for habitual archiving. Underneath his Hollywood mansion three vaults were built to house his collection of touring and studio master tapes. He kept recordings dating back as far as 1958. During the late sixties Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention, frequently used sections of dialogue, sometimes recorded surreptitiously, to paint a picture of the scene they were part of. Some good examples of this appear on Lumpy Gravy (1967) and Uncle Meat (1968). Zappa took the idea of orchestrating the lives of his band members even further in his film 200 Motels (1971).
Hearing Zappa’s classical music performed at the Royal Albert Hall this year at the start of the ’97 BBC Proms it seems bizarre that in 1971 The Mothers were banned from playing the same venue on the grounds of an obscene libretto. The concert was to have been the stage version of 200 Motels. Anyone familiar with the film will know that at times things do get a little crude; however, the libretto offers a great deal more to the listener than the infamous “Penis Dimension”. More subtle themes emerge that pass comment on the lifestyle endured by the typical 1970s rock musician. Zappa sets out to prove his theory that “touring can drive you crazy” through an examination of themes such as food, groupies, sex, drugs and the frustrations of his musicians.
In 200 Motels, life on the road is considered an unnatural state of being which ultimately leads to bad mental health. Through repetition (another town, another concert, another groupie) the banalities of everyday life take on a magnified significance. Zappa makes a comparison between the kinds of convenience foods eaten by touring musicians and the standard of living whilst on the road. The band members (in particular Volman) view the cheeseburger as a heavenly food substance yet in reality it symbolises everything unhealthy about touring. The song “This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich” makes similar comparisons. The line “It’s just a rancid little snack, in a plastic pack” suggests that through repetition of touring, towns and cities lose their identity and become yet another place to search to get something to eat, drink and sleep. 200 Motels is set in an imaginary town called Centerville, consisting of churches and liquor stores; religious figures and drunken rednecks wander the streets. Larry the Dwarf, a character played by Ringo Starr, informs the viewer,
When you go on tour with a musical group it’s possible that any town can seem like this. Whether it’s large or small, or busy or if there’s nothing happening in it […]. A musician, if you consider the normal pattern of modern civilised life, is on the outside of it all – the life he leads seems useless and irrelevant […]. (Frank Zappa, 200 Motels)
The social structure of the band is also explored. Zappa clearly resides as the boss over a single-tiered hierarchy of band members. By employing two previously successful pop artists in his band (singers Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman had tasted chart success with The Turtles), Zappa was able to research the behavioural differences between them and his old band members who were used to mediocre success and always being poor. The Mothers are depicted as constantly conspiring against Zappa. They are paranoid of the power he has over them, commenting that he “always watches and listens to all the guys in the band” so that he can steal their ideas and get The Mothers to re-enact them for the film. Zappa manages to blur the boundaries of art and real life. This aspect is reinforced in a scene set in a cheap motel room. Larry the Dwarf (dressed as Zappa) is shown hunched over a desk transcribing a candid recording of The Mothers chatting. It becomes inspiration for his new symphony.
Many of the band members are depicted as having fantasies of fame and fortune, that by leaving Zappa’s band and the “comedy music” he makes them perform they stand a chance of having hit singles of their own. This theme is also picked up in the album Playground Psychotics (1992) which contains a lot of spoken word dialogue from the 1971 band. At one point, a secret recording reveals Kaylan plotting his very own band behind Zappa’s back. Other members are content under Zappa’s leadership, so long as they get paid.
Apart from food, dwarves and conspiracy, Zappa’s early 1970s social anthropology also stretched itself to sexual practice. 200 Motels offers groupies an ample amount of consideration. Zappa sets up a contrived scene to display the behaviour of two tribes, musicians and groupies, as they each get ready to confront each other at the local nightclub. The members of each tribe try to make him or herself attractive in some way. “I sprayed my pits”, “I undid my top-button”, and “I buffed my nails” remark The Mothers in turn. "Shove It Right In" follows the pattern of preparation conducted by a groupie.
Half a dozen provocative squats!
Out of the shower she squeezes her spots;
Brushes her teeth;
Shoots her deodorant spray up her twat […]
She chooses all the clothes
She’ll wear tonight to dance in!
The places that she goes
Are filled with guys from groups
Waiting for a chance to break her pants in.
(Frank Zappa, "Shove It Right In", 200 Motels, 1971)
This conjures up images of cultural rituals, human activities at the core of every civilisation. Decoration; the adornment of oneself with nice clothes and makeup, combined with dance in one step removed from tribal ceremony. Zappa is clearly trying to communicate the idea that primitive urges still control much of our lives. The attitude of the musicians in their hunt for groupies is summarised in “What Will This Morning Bring Me This Evening?”
What will this morning bring me this evening?
Some local hot action (I’m a young lonely guy)
Before we are leaving? (Maybe we can get some head?)
(Frank Zappa, “What Will This Morning Bring Me This Evening?”, 200 Motels, 1971)
The song continues to describe the problems involved in “scoring” girls in an unfamiliar town and the depression of having to return all alone to a plastic hotel room. In another scene, The Mothers burst into a night-club full of groupies (some of which are other members of the band in drag). “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy” begins with a groupie (in this case a falsetto man) offering the line “Do you like my new car?” A new car is considered a very attractive bonus to any girl, a theme that developed out of Zappa’s satire of being a teenager in 1950s America. The song concludes “All right, you’ve hot her screaming all night!”, presumably in an ecstatic state. The true mentality of the musicians is delivered by the line “What will I say the next day to whatever I drive to my hotel tonight – if things go all right?”
On Fillmore East, June 1971 (1971) Zappa continues to examine the various techniques used by his band members to seduce groupies back to the hotel. Band members try to score groupies by boasting about their chart success and the famous people they have met. The level of this bravado is incredibly immature. The song “What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are?” begins with the dreadful chat-up line, “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”, an approach that in reality would be destined for failure. The song is essentially a daydream belonging to Kaylan. He fantasises about a groupie played by Volman who is out looking for sex with a famous rock star. “Ever been to a Holiday Inn?” he enquires and attempts to lure the groupie back to his room by describing its obviously “plastic” luxuries including wall-mounted televisions and coffee machines.
Zappa’s main approach was to document the behaviour of his musicians by commenting upon the effects their libidos had on their social etiquette. Sex becomes of prime importance to musicians searching for material comforts among the uncomfortable experience of touring. Albums released with this as their sole topic reflect how much it was at the centre of the musicians’ lives. 200 Motels and Fillmore… both go some way to report real life events. They get their material from orchestrating the lives of band members; in-jokes, stories and behavioural patterns and acknowledged as entertaining and reinterpreted as music theatre. This highlights an important aspect of Zappa’s work. Social commentary is a different study to social anthropology as it stands up to the intended confused order of events characteristic of album continuity. Social anthropology must have a logical order within its study. Zappa attempted to write a get-out clause when he used the word “amateur” to explain his approach to anthropology, but with nearly thirty years worth of relevant material on the subject, his relationship to it is clearly more than a passing acquaintance.