2021 began with the issuing of Zappa!, the soundtrack to the critically-acclaimed Frank Zappa documentary. The year ends with a 50th Anniversary, six-CD super deluxe set featuring the newly remastered soundtrack to Zappa’s own surreal, pseudo-documentary, 200 Motels. Together, like so much of the avant-garde artist’s output, these two reach the same conclusion: the vast and unpredictable genius of Frank Zappa, and the catalog he left behind, remain a staggering and ever-revealing phenomenon.
Zappa! is judicious and comprehensive in matching its bio-doc counterpart, accomplishing nicely the difficult, if impossible, task of condensing the late composer, performer, and auteur’s three decades of exceptionally prolific work into a digestible form. 200 Motels is digestible, too, but it’s going to take several seatings. With nearly 175 tracks- a kaleidoscopic array of music, dialogue, and interviews from the movie, not from the movie, written and not written in motels for the movie, and so on- on a half-dozen discs housed within a 64-page hardcover, the assemblage (presumably) empties the mythical Zappa Vault of everything known to be related to Frank’s landmark ’71 film.
Even film is misleading; 200 Motels was the among the earliest movies ever shot entirely on videotape. It was also produced during one of Zappa’s pivotal and more prominent periods: a stretch of cache and zeitgeist for Frank that availed him the services of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Ringo Starr (not to mention Keith Moon and Pamela Des Barres, in her acting debut), plus his own band, The Mothers, that embodied Zappa’s ‘60s satire (and nostalgia) and was loaded with talent- including Ian Underwood, Aynsley Dunbar, George Duke, Martin Lickert, Jimmy Carl Black, and Ruth Underwood. Plus, as importantly, the vocal and comedic talents of Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (Flo & Eddie).
As such, 200 Motels is now a de facto time capsule, ideal for an era that was open-minded and curious of the then-innovative techniques Zappa deployed as a director and a musician. Frank composed most of its music on the road in those aforementioned motor inns, sliding between worlds. 200 Motels became an oasis of irreverence and comment via live action, animation, and absurdity, allowing for the audience of the revolution to revel in the ridiculousness of this parallel universe of rock-and-roll (the genre, itself, volleying between party time and change agent), equally as bewildering as actual reality.
200 Motels left his heirs, especially the current Zappa Vaultmeister, Joe Travers, quite an archival project for the taking. Compiling this much audio material (plus a replica poster, motel keyring, and Do Not Disturb sign), now available for the insatiable Zappa fan, is a monumental task. If there is anything left to hear, see, or say about 200 Motels after this punctiliously exhaustive collection, it would surprise us all.
Admittedly, It’s a whole lot to sift through. It’s also a superlative, though challenging, indoctrination to quintessential, late ‘60s-early ‘70s Zappa. Those looking for a smaller, balanced, less intimidating plate should choose the Zappa! soundtrack. Otherwise, check-in and dig in.