Zappa On 200 Motels

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By Barry Miles, Changes, March 1971
Interview with Frank Zappa – recorded at Rattner's on 2nd Ave. New York City November 14th 1970.
Interview continued in an empty dressing room, backstage at the Fillmore East, same date.
© Miles, 1971
[discussing the film of 200 Motels, a two-hour musical which United Artists agreed to back on a budget of $630,000.00]

Zappa: Considering the ease with which the deal was made, it was unbelievable – we sent them a tape and a 10-page treatment, and a few days later we had a meeting. We walked in and the guy says: "You've got a deal," just like that.

Everything you asked for?
Well, I would like to have more money for the budget but considering the amount that it is, we'll be able to do it. It's going to be tight.

Is that why you're shooting in England?
Yes. Well, that's one of the reasons. I figured it would be fun to do it over there. The main enticement was the cost of the orchestra. We got the Royal Philharmonic for a thousand pounds a session.

which is cheap ...
For a hundred men! You ain't kidding. ... We'll be shooting at Pinewood, we have two stages there. ... Tony Palmer is going to be the video-director. We're doing a video thing which is transferred to 35 mil – that's for the orchestra section. ... Have you seen the film that Tony made of Juicy Lucy and Coliseum? ... They staged a concert someplace, brought in an audience, set up four cameras and shot video tape synchronized with a four track machine – in color – and then transferred to 35 mil. With all the opticals and all the editing done with the push-buttons – it was great! The color was very true. The resolution was good: the only time the line-scanning broke up was in the medium long shots but all the close-ups and ECU's were just fantastic. It really had a lot of intimacy to it. ... When we decided to do this in England, Tony was the only person I knew who could possibly co-ordinate this particular thing because he had previously done that film with video transferred to 35 and I liked the cutting that he did on this rock film – he did a thing with a drum solo with John Hiseman. Really good cutting – he had three cameras set up. One on his face, one on a medium shot of the set and another looking down on the drums. And in time with the solo he was intercutting those things: he was holding a master shot of the drums and punching-in between the drum that he was hitting and his face. It was very effective. ...You see, the way that this thing is set up, all the shots that you see are indicated in the score. Bar by bar it tells what's supposed to be seen, so it's just a matter of someone executing the score. So I've got as much control as I could possibly want over it.

What kind of dramatic things are going to happen?
Well, we haven't signed him yet, but we're negotiating with Theodore Bikel to be the heavy in the film. He's really good and he's going to be good for this part if he does it. That's the narrator in the ‘Fleeted Gazelle’ and also the part of ainterrogator in this other sequence. ... Certain things have been added to it [the script], for instance, the original concept for the orchestra environment was going to be a mountain made out of foam. We got a cost estimate on making that – it was just too much. You can make the foam cheap but you can't reinforce it strong enough to hold 100 people cheap – the scaffolding and the manhours is what run up the cost. So we canned that and now the orchestra lives in a concentration camp. It's "Camp Untermunchen" and it's a music camp sponsored by the United States government – we're going to build a stylized one inside the sound stage – the concentration camp is at the end of the main street of Centreville. ...There's a main stage in the camp, a Busby Berkeley-type stage which laps into the concentration camp, and there's a barbed-wire fence which is continued across our stage by a set of iron bars. There is a sliding door and we can go in and out of the camp at will because we can buy off the guards. Then on Main Street there is a newt-ranch for Motorhead and his girlfriend, and a bank, and, the Rantz Mahamet's Colonics Parlour, the meat market and a motel: an endless motel with fraudulant perspective which goes just streaming down to infinity. And at the end of the street is this airport with huge, out-of-proportion 747's lurking...just painted on the wall in back. And then there's a psychedelic night-club called the "Electric Circus Factory" and there's a bar called "REDNECK EATS" and there's a neon sign in the window that blinks on and off that says: "Eat Beer!" ... The narration is stylized: at one point when I'm doing some narration and some action, I'm sitting in a motel room with an open window and I'm writing and I'm talking about how I'm doing this thing called 'Fleeting Gazelle' and then the camera pans over my shoulder and you can see through the window, the action that I'm describing: which is this girl coming out of the Colonic Parlour wearing the overcoat with the weinies on the shoulder and all that stuff... Cal [Schenkel] has designed this great environment, most of it stylized stuff, like the front wall of a house would be scrim on a framework, painted so that if you front-light it you can see what's painted on it and if you back-light it, it transparentizes and you can see the characters behind in sort of a dream-land type thing. And just a vague outline of what was on the front. There's a lot of things done that way. ... The special effects we'll be using consist mostly of wire-work: flying people in and out of situations. ... United Artists gets the soundtrack album, and they said that no-matter how much music there is in the film, they'll put it all out, even if it's four records. They said that at the first meeting. The deal itself – the distribution splits etc. is an excellent deal, at least 10% better than the average deal, which is a lot in the movie business. I couldn't believe it! It only took about two weeks.

What made UA so hip?
One of the things is that they're dumping Liberty Records and they're trying to build up United Artists Records with a different kind of image, and they saw the market potential of the musical end of the film so they just wanted to do it.

How many of the original Mothers will you be taking with you?
Don Preston, Motorhead, we may take Roy and Lowell, I'm not sure, I haven't spoken with them yet. I have parts for them to play but then it's a question of the budget because each person that we bring over is like $1500 worth of airfare and lodging for the duration of the stay, plus you have to pay 'em! We have a certain amount of money in the budget for contingencies, where you go over but I'm afraid that extra mixing on the sound track is probably going to eat that up. And there's half an hour of the film's going to be animated: The Red Throbber, that whole sequence. The Red Throbber is the thing about this guy who's a custom's inspector and has a cardboard dog named Babette that's been trained by the government to sniff out hash and marijuana at the airport. He just recently managed to shack up with his high school friend Charlene that he's been secretly beating off over for ten years, and they've been going steady for three weeks, and he gets home from work one night with a lot of beer and he's ready to get it on, and Charlene has gone! So he goes into this frenzy, gets drunk, whips out his ouija-board and asks it what's going on: the ouija-board speels out: RED THROBBER. And he passes out in a coma and in this dream he imagines that this girl is at the Chateau Marmont, Bungalow B, [Hollywood's hip hotel] being thrashed and eroticized by The Led Zepplin. Then there is this elaborate dream sequence in which you see the guy that's doing it to her standing over the bed, (this is really not the Led Zepplin, you know – it's a figure of speech). The guy, all he's got on are these python boots and a black mask and this battery belt over his shoulder and this huge vibrator with wires hanging out. And he's holding it like a Krupp armament, standing over this chick on the bed. The thing goes off like a pneumatic drill on the street. And that's the kind of stuff that's going to be animated. Cal is doing all the designs, all the characters all the backgrounds, and then the stuff is executed by this company.

How loose is the structure you're working within?
You mean, is there room for improvisation?

Bring in guest stars for instance ...
In the Red Neck Bar there's this one sequence where Jimmy Carl Black is Lonesome Cowboy Bert, he's shooting a real shotgun, it really blows up those things on this pinball machine. Simultaneously is this Western Band in the corner which consists of Ian's wife Ruth [Underwood], Motorhead playing this guitar which doesn't have a body – just this neck which comes out of his pants. Don Preston on piano, and it's a phoney cowboy band and they're lip-synching 'Lonesome Cowboy' while Jimmy Carl Black sings along with it. At the end of the song we walk into the place and Cowboy Bert looks around and says: "What the fuck is going on here, blah, blah ..." they laugh at us and say "Are you a boy or are you a girl or are you a turkey?" Then the dancers and the chorus who are sitting at the tables get up and start making a lunge towards the group, with stylized dancing and we dance back at 'em. Meanwhile Ian has seen Ruth sitting at the drum set and he falls in love with her. There is this old clunky drum set so he dreamily goes over there and sits down and there is this atonal elaborate duet for drums and piano which is played while we dance around with the Oakies in the bar. Meanwhile Aynsley is playing the exact thing that Ruth plays on the drumset, with his rings on the tables and bottles while we're jumping around. And when that's over there is an elaborate cadenza. The orchestra and piano hits this chord and Cowboy Bert turns around and says: "What the fuck was that?", "I wonder if these twerps can play anything that I might play?" So Ian reaches over and drops a dime into the jukebox and out comes ‘Would You Go All The Way For The USA?" [From Chunga's Revenge album]. Well, there's a line in there which says, "Whose this dude with his hair straight back and his new white sox and his pants all black," that'll be a lip thing, we're just doing action to the track. And I'd love to have Jagger walk through in his Performance costume with his hair all back. Just let him do that! ... There's another part which takes place in the motel room and Howard has got this chick in there and she can't come unless he sings his big hit record. And then even when he sings his big hit record it DOESN'T WORK. And he's got this reputation to uphold you see, he's already thrashing her and beating her and doing all these weird things to her and she says: "Why are you doing all this stuff?" And he goes into this Shakespearian soliloquy: "There's a lot of reasons why I would bend you over in a state of guitar-strap bondage and beat you with a pair of tennis shoes that once belonged to Jeff Beck ..." and at that point I want Jeff Beck to be lowered down on a wire into the motel room and go into this thing: start playing 'Rock Me Baby' while they sing the rest of this duet. It's a really funny dialogue about why she can't get off, because one of the things that she likes is being whipped with a baby octopus and spewed upon with dream corn but they're in this midwestern motel and you can't get it at 2 in the morning from room service. At the end of this she says, "The only thing that might do it is if you tell me that you love me," and he says, "Wait a minute, that's going too far!" She says: "No, no, acid has changed everything, this is the revolution. Now it's just the same as shaking hands." ...

How much do you think the soundtrack is going to vary from the stage version of the material?
Most of the stuff will be done just as you've seen it in the show. A few of the things will have orchestral sweetners but most of the stuff we'll be doing just exactly what the group plays. Then the orchestra has about an hour's worth of music on its own with chorus.

So you won't be doing too much overdubbing?
The only overdubbing that will take place is on the track to the Red Throbber which we will pre-record and then the animators will work to the track. But that will also be done in England. We have made a deal for a mobile 16 [track] that'll come in with two NEVE boards – two 24 input boards, for five hundred pounds a day and four engineers. Neat! One of the engineers is the guy that recorded our Albert Hall shit.

What other work have you been doing?
I finished two new books of scores just before the tour. One is called What's the name of your group? and the other one is called Shove it right in. What's the name of your group? is really funny because it combines the melody line of the finale from the Festival Hall show which is going to be intercut with this footage: combines the bridge of 'Pound For A Brown' and the ostenato of 'Pound For A Brown' all with lyrics. You know that bass line? Well, the bass singers are going to be singing: "Far out, far fuckin' out, far fuckin' out and groovy!" because it is a scene with this chick who is doing her first rock and roll interview and I'm sitting on stage, handcuffed to a chair, and I don't answer any of her questions and she's really obnoxious. She has a polaroid camera with flashbulbs, all the dancers have cameras with flashbulbs and so does the chorus and they all shoot 'em on cue in their score. So that from time to time there's these constellation barrages of bulbs going off, and all of a sudden they'll all go "Yyyeeenntzzzz!" and pull the tab on the camera, and it's all scored. So one of her lines is "I bet your group name is real weird because you look weird yourself" and "I've got this lens here for my camera that'll make you look like some kind of depraved troll or something because the kids who read our rock and roll magazine like to see famous musicians who look real far out and groovy." Then the chorus sings: "Far out, far fuckin' out..." and she's got a few Far fuckin' out's in there. And then the bridge to 'Pound For A Brown' when it gets to the bit where, it's like the Lone Ranger music, the chorus is singing: "How do they like your music over there?" because she just said: "How long have you been growing your hair and have you been to England and how do they like your music over there?" The chorus goes: "Over the-re, over there, how do they like your music over there ..." It builds up and then they shoot flash bulbs and then the soprano stops and says: "I just want to verify a rumor. Is it true that you did this show at the Festival Hall?" and then it cuts to the rehearsal at the Festival Hall which is pixilated footage that was shot out at this pub on Seven Sisters Road when we were rehearsing. It was great! We had 15 members of the BBC symphony orchestra and the Mothers in the back room of this pub – it was the only place we could find to rehearse. We wheeled in a baby grand piano. Really great. So there's that footage, then the orchestra starts us again and she stops them again and says: "Is it also true that you were in Vienna and you made this movie of your wife and an unidentified foot?" And then there is this sequence of me writing some of the music for the film dissolving into shots of my wife with my foot on her tit like this...strangling her tit, and she starts laughing. And that cuts in and out of a couple of scratches, my nose over the page, a bunch of people walking round the room. Then this percussion music comes back for a while and then she stops them again and says: "And you insisted on mounting your silly little production against the best judgment of Herbie Cohen! You had the audacity to perform it twice at the very Royal Festival Hall itself on one night whereupon it swiftly received a Chris Welch Melody Maker review pronouncing it totally rancid and devoid of minimum entertainment value and social blah blah ..." And then we go into the Festival Hall footage where Jimmy Carl Black comes out drunken on stage and he starts saying: "I'm quitting the Mothers – " and shit like that.

How is U.A. going to like the film?
They want a PG on it, they said "No fucking" but anything up to that – there's a lot of things you can do besides fucking to make a movie interesting ...
Audience reaction to our music has been much better elsewhere [than in New York City]. Such as Beloit, Wisconsin. I'll tell you man, Wisconsin is the ultimate Mothers territory. I'm convinced we are a Midwest group. We play in the Midwest and people die for us, it's great because they really understand for some reason. I don't get it! We've played Appleton, Wisc., Lake Geneva and Beloit and everytime it's just "Where did these people come from?" They really know what you're doing, Minneapolis is also good.

Do you think American audiences are catching up with what you are doing?
Well, I'll tell you how cynical I am about American audiences ... if they are catching up, it's only because we are slowing down.

You were sold out tonight, that must mean something, the Mothers don't usually sell out the Fillmore ...
We're working with Sha-Na-Na, they're a draw, they have a strong Brooklyn-type following. Have you watched the reaction to them when they go on stage. They really eat it up.

I thought it could be because you're a lot looser as a group now and can do more of the theatrical stuff.
Well, we have the personalities for it now, like Mark and Howard [Turtles] are ready for Broadway any minute. You just send 'em out there on stage and it's all over. They sing on and off the stage which I like. If a person's gonna be a singer, really get into it ... That's something that Roy didn't do or any of the other people who were singing with the Mothers before. Lowell never got into that you know. ... When you're working those really complicated arrangements you don't pay any attention to the audience, because if you do, instead of what you're doing, then you're dead. Even though I've played those things a lot of times I still can't play it and forget about what I'm doing. I really have to concentrate on what I'm playing.

How's this new group when playing things like 'King Kong' which is a tightly written number?
Different every night. It's simple, really easy. It's a D-minor vamp. In fact I would say that 80% of the things that we have that have solos in them are in the same key. Reading the same changes. I just love D-minor vamps. D-Minor with a major forechord. Gives you a nice modal effect.
... The whole 40 minute sequence that we perform of 200 Motels was learned in about 50 hours, like 10 days, five hours a day, in a rehearsal hall. Scheduled from say 4pm till 9pm, just go down there and hit it. There's a liquor store next door, get a bottle of brandy.
... Joni Mitchell sat in with us last night during the second show, and we improvised a thing that was really good. And we ended it with her singing 'Duke Of Earle'. Really far out, she came on stage: "Now OK and we're going to improvise this thing ..." and we did a few chords for her and she started reciting this poem which began: "Penelope wants to fuck the sea ..." and the audience went "Yuuunk!" little hush falls over the Fillmore, Joni Mitchell!
... This wino came up to me. I went into the store right down the street [2nd Ave.] to buy a rain hat and this guy comes sticking his head in the door: "I've gotta picture of you on my wall – sitting on the toilet!"
... I'm looking for a house in England so I'll probably be spending 6 months out of the year there. I would like to see what it feels like to live someplace else, the only time I got out of the country was when I was working and I remember when I moved from Los Angeles, which I really feel is definitely home base, it changed me so much to live in the country in England for a while, see what that would be like.

Certainly be quiet.
I could dig that – the next year is dedicated mostly to film cutting. I'll be cutting from the middle of February till 1st Nov. Quite a chunk of time, only time off will be a ten-day tour in May and a pop festival in Cologne in August. ...If 200 Motels is successful the next work will be a large-scale work with a large-scale budget. In 200 Motels I want to make sure that the concept tracks from beginning to end. It's easy to say: "It's a fantasy, you can stick any fuckin' thing you want, in there". But I want somebody to be able to follow the course of the fantasy, so that when they do get out there, they can look back and see what they meant and go,: "What? What am I doing out here?" without just going "Yaanttz!" and then this thing happening to them and them saying: "I don't understand it". I want to get 'em out there and make 'em know that they went someplace and then get 'em back again. And that ain't easy to do.